Home National Politics Hillary a Superhawk? Maybe Less than Some Think

Hillary a Superhawk? Maybe Less than Some Think


One of the themes in the critiques of Hillary Clinton that one hears from progressives of an anti-Hillary bent is that she’s a superhawk. The assertion is that, as president, she will pursue the kind of “neo-con” foreign policy that, in our times, has embroiled this country in ugly and unsuccessful military ventures abroad.

My purpose here in addressing that reading of Hillary’s record is modest. It is not my intention, for example, to pass any overall judgment of Hillary’s hawkishness. That would require more detailed knowledge than I possess

But I do have a couple of observations to offer that, in my view, should lessen the weight of evidence for this characterization of Hillary as a superhawk.

One key piece of evidence for that characterization has been Hillary’s vote, in 2002, in support of the authorization for the use of force in Iraq. We’ve heard a lot about that vote: Barack Obama wielded it against her in 2008, and Bernie Sanders has done so again this time around.

But the chances are that Hillary’s Iraq vote tells us little about her hawkishness. That vote, tather, was probably about something else.

To understand that vote, we need to understand the political context within which it was cast. It is in that context that we can understand this striking fact: every Democrat in the Senate who was a potential serious contender for the presidency voted for the resolution. That includes not only Hillary Clinton (who was not actually to run until 2008) but also John Kerry (the eventual 2004 nominee), John Edwards (who ended up on the 2004 ticket), and Joe Lieberman (the VP candidate with Gore in the 2000 election).

Not a single Democrat, then in the Senate, who voted against the resolution ever ran for president.

(Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator at the time. Bernie Sanders was in the House, as an Independent, and did actually vote against the resolution. But I doubt that even Bernie had any idea that he’d ever make a serious run for the presidency.)

And it’s not hard to understand why someone with presidential ambitions would feel strong pressure to vote yes.

At this point, in the wake of the trauma of 9/11, President Bush was riding high in the polls. American nationalism – not to say jingoism and militarism – dominated the national mood. Cheney and Rumsfeld still enjoyed a reputation of competence in military affairs. And there was a long history, dating back to Vietnam, of Republicans successfully beating Democrats over the head for being “soft on national security.”

The Bush forces were already pounding the Democrats, in this post-9-11 circumstance, with being “soft on terrorism.” The Republicans were in the process of unseating Georgia’s Democratic Senator, Max Cleland, who left three of his limbs in Vietnam, by running ads against him connecting him with Osama bin Ladin.

In that context, the most reasonable presumption would be that a vote against the coming Iraq war would prove considerably more risky for a Democrat seeking the presidency than a “yes” vote. It would not have been unreasonable for a seasoned political advisor to have told a Democratic Senator, “If you ever want to be elected president, you’d better support this resolution.”

That advice, though reasonable at the time, has worked out badly because the war proved unexpectedly disastrous (in part because Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld proved unexpectedly incompetent), and thus the politics played out in unexpected ways.

From the outside, there’s no way of knowing whether any of the ambitious Democrats of 2002 voted yes out of conviction. (We might assume that Joe Lieberman was glad to vote yes; with John Kerry it is more doubtful.) But I would bet that what Hillary chose was what seemed to her the politically prudent course.

That vote likely says less about her hawkishness than about her ambition. It could be argued that this would be just as damning. Maybe. But politics is not always morally simple.

Hillary may have figured that she could not stop Bush’s march to war anyway, and that — by not creating the political vulnerability that voting against the measure would have brought upon her – she might someday have a chance to do more than enough good to make up for such a compromise of principle.

Politicians are forced to make such judgments, and such compromises, all the time. Lucky is the elected official who has climbed the political ladder by standing by all that they believe in all the time. One finds such compromises in the biographies of all of America’s greatest leaders.

But, in our public arena, no one is allowed to admit to having bowed to that political reality. We want to believe that there’s no conflict between purity and power. We do not want to confront the regrettable implications of the fact that elected officials are by definition people who have done what is necessary to get elected in a flawed society.

So Hillary is left looking like a hawk, looking like she had bad “judgment,” but we don’t really know whether either of those judgments is valid.

One more thing.

Ever since Vietnam, Democrats have felt vulnerable to Republican attacks that they are not tough enough to protect America. Mostly, those attacks have been bogus, but they’ve been effective. (Perhaps now, with all the military failures, that line of attack will not work as well.) But for Hillary, the need to prove toughness has been doubly imposed on her. She’s not only a Democrat, but she is also a woman.

Old stereotypes put an additional burden on women to prove that they are tough enough to be “commander-in-chief.” (This extra burden on women remains a factor in American politics – as Donald Trump will doubtless seek to exploit – despite the modern record of Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir all winning wars as leaders of their nations.) Whether, once she became president, such pressures to prove her toughness would push President Hillary Clinton to go further in a hawkish direction than she might naturally wish to go, I don’t know.

But if the question is how hawkish are her own proclivities in dealing with the world’s problems, these two factors – that a vote against the Iraq war seemed to every Democrat with presidential ambitions a dangerous vote, and that as a woman she has an especial need to prove her toughness — should lighten the weight of apparent evidence for the super-hawkishness of which her critics accuse her.

  • GBrandon

    Oh, she’s a “bred in the bone” hawk alright. See NY Times Sunday magazine article from April 24:
    “As Hillary Clinton makes another run for president, it can be tempting to view her hard-edged rhetoric about the world less as deeply felt core principle than as calculated political maneuver. But Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts are bred in the bone — grounded in cold realism about human nature and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” It set her apart from her rival-turned-boss, Barack Obama, who avoided military entanglements and tried to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. And it will likely set her apart from the Republican candidate she meets in the general election. For all their bluster about bombing the Islamic State into oblivion, neither Donald J. Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has.”

    • Quizzical

      I guess if the goal is to calibrate Hillary Clinton’s willingness to use military action by comparison to President Obama, it is first necessary to get Obama right. The U.S. military forces have been in action continuously throughout both terms of Obama’s Presidency. Iraq. Afghanistan. Thousands killed in drone strikes. The raid to kill Bin Laden, inside Pakistan. Strikes in Yemen, Somalia. Libya. The huge air war against ISIL, which is now escalating into ground combat involving US forces. And B-52s are now dropping bombs. Much of this was after Clinton was no longer Secretary of State.

  • If Hillary Clinton’s a “superhawk,” then I’d hate to think what our past presidents have been — carpetbombing, firebombing, A-bombing, napalm bombing, supporting coups all over the world, you name it. This whole discussion about Hillary is utterly ahistorical, among other problems.

    • GBrandon

      Are you suggesting that it is only because Hillary is a woman that this issue has been raised?

      I think her record is a legitimate question regardless of her gender but also because of Bernie’s doubts about the need for America to intervene all over the world. (I hesitate to bring the Republicans into this post because I don’t want to waste any binary “0’s” and “1’s” on them.)

      After reading the NYT’s article, the Navy part of me had great respect for Hillary’s muscular foreign policy. But, I also want her to exhaust diplomatic solutions in foreign affairs before calling in the aircraft carriers.

      • Huh? Where did I mention anything about her gender being relevant to this discussion? No idea where that one came from.

        • GBrandon

          I was reacting to “utterly ahistorical.”

          • Now I’m even more confused — what conceivable relationship is there between “ahistorical” (referring to the long history of hawkish presidents in our history) and gender? No clue what you’re getting at.

          • GBrandon

            Okay, sorry I got it wrong. I deleted the gender thing from my original post, above.

  • Andy Schmookler

    There’s a better way of asking the question about a potential president than “Is he/she a hawk or a dove?”

    Our recent history gives us reason to be wary of people for whom the military option comes to mind quickly. We’ve seen big costs and few benefits from the wars we’ve fought recently. So one question I would ask Hillary if I could would be, “What have you learned from our experiences is Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya?” And I would be wary of some — like John McCain and Lindsey Graham — who, if they’ve learned anything, haven’t given any sign of it as they’ve seemed to call for aggressive responses to every situation even after the military disasters they’ve supported.

    But I also would not want an isolationist, as I think American leadership in the world remains necessary, if things are to move forward toward a decent planetary order.

    Nor would I want someone with a record of opposing every American use of force over the decades, as some on the left seem to have done.

    Perhaps above all, I would want a president with the diplomatic skill and understanding necessary to check the imperial advance of Putin’s Russia (e.g. against Ukraine) and of the rising power of China (e.g. in the South China sea, without the need for war to do it. Any such war could be catastrophic, but at the same time we don’t want American weakness to create a vacuum that can destabilize the international order.

    In a great president, we need a virtual aviary: the virtues of the hawk, the virtues of the dove, and perhaps above all, the virtues of the owl (to use Joseph Nye’s taxonomy). I don’t know how well Hillary embodies all those virtues, but I feel pretty certain that Donald Trump is severely deficient in at least most of them.