If one Googles Hillary Clinton along with the words “hawk,” “war,” “intervention,” and other such words, one is treated to a litany of articles, listicles, blogs, Twitter debates, and Youtube videos declaring that she’s a legendary warmonger who’s always out for blood. We are led to believe that Hillary is a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type, who never saw a country she didn’t want to bomb and never saw a people she didn’t want to annihilate. We’re told that the entirety of her global outlook rests on flexing America’s hardened-steel, Mach 2 muscles at every occasion. Or, like some kind of Mossad sleeper agent on a forty-year-long mission, some believe her sole purpose in life is to create the best conditions possible for Israeli belligerence.
This is just from the left. From the right, we’re told that she hates Israel or, alternatively, loves it too much, depending on the author’s placement on the John Bircher–End Times spectrum of American conservativism. It’s also taken as read that Hillary loves Muslims, especially their female body coverings, and that she wants to prop up all the dictators in the world or, alternatively, topple them all. For the right, she’s a scheming mastermind of the devolution of American power or, alternatively, she’s just an ignorant fool with no plan at all.
All of this seems to me to be based on just repeating things rather than actually looking at the evidence, which is in fact pretty weak. My focus here is on Hillary’s critics on the left, as it is their prioritization of feeling and belief over the evidence—as well as a more holistic view of international politics—that most concerns me. One expects anti-empirical thinking from Hillary’s right-wing enemies (who are content to imprint any and all grievances, no matter their real provenance, on her), but the facts-based nature of American liberalism makes the unexamined quality of progressive claims about Hillary’s purported militaristic character troubling to me.
Generally the most prevalent examples of Hillary’s alleged militarism are her vote to authorize use of force against Iraq in 2002, her support for Israel during her time as a Senator, her call for intervention in Libya in 2011, and her attempt to escalate US involvement in the Syrian Civil War in 2011-2012. Those who know a little more about recent history will cite her call for more troops in Afghanistan in 2009, her urging of President Obama to carry out the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011, her aggressive rhetoric on Iran early in her time as Secretary of State, and her reluctance to withdraw American troops too quickly from Iraq. Add in a few realist statements on American power here and there, which I’ll grant to some degree because of their ideologically fraught quality, and that’s about it. There’s not much more to go on.
Look, frankly, these don’t provide great evidence of an overall warmongering character. Her vote to authorize military force against Iraq was extremely reluctant, and of course she did it alongside a whole troop of other Democrats who aren’t regularly pilloried as hawks (many of whom voted yes with much less reluctance than she did). Supporting Israel is basically what everyone in Congress has ever done, and she’s just been in a more public position to talk about it. Sanders certainly ranks as a clear defender of Israel’s right to do whatever it wants without interference. As for Libya: in my opinion as an international historian, the 2011 intervention was essentially the only US intervention made in the last 50 years that was clearly for the purpose of genocide prevention. And it did that, despite anything that has happened in the ensuing years. On Syria, Hillary’s position was one of action over inaction, which involved another potential US use of force in theory. But consider this: a legitimate criticism of Obama’s response to Syria is that nothing much was done about the situation until it was too late. Hillary’s role in this inaction requires just as much criticism if we’re supposed to believe that she’s also somehow responsible for a fictional into-the-breech US response that never materialized.
What about all of these other, less-talked-about examples of Hillary’s alleged thirst for blood? Well, I’m not sure most of them are even really examples of war-mindedness at all. If urging Obama to strike against Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan is now considered the height of hawkishness, apparently all of our liberal denunciations of the Bush administration’s disinterest in catching Bin Laden were just crass attempts at political point-winning. We never really meant it, I guess, nor should we see it as Obama’s accomplishment. The word hawkish is thus broadened to include an operation against a man deemed US Enemy No. 1. Were we to wait until he was in US territory to do something? Were we to, like Bush, just not bother, so as to avoid annoying Pakistani and Saudi supporters of Bin Laden? Talk about cynical isolationist priorities!
Further, recommending against troop drawdowns in Iraq was considered by many to be the responsible approach to an irresponsibly commenced set of conflicts in the War on Terror. It was in no way about ramping up the war again. Likewise, the increase in troops in Afghanistan had to do with responsibilities that the US incurred after having invaded the country, to wide and broad fanfare, in 2001. I guess anti-Hillaryites, including the bulk of Sanders supporters it seems, just want us to “get out of there,” because we “always just make everything worse.” Well, like Samuel Johnson, I refute it thus: we leave, the government collapses, and we’re even more irresponsible than everyone already thought we were. This doesn’t matter, though, to many Americans on the left, who hone to positive stereotypes in which every person “over there” is automatically kind, generous, warm, thoughtful, passionate, spiritual, proud, reasonable, friendly, tolerant, and noble. This view of non-Americans is about the same measure of degrading and ignorant as the conservative version in which all foreigners are scary. They both depend on belief over reality, and they both express a lack of interest in learning anything substantive about the actual shape of the resources, priorities, and challenges other countries have. These ways of thinking are exceptionally America-centric; foreigners are just adjuncts to the conversation.
What about Iran? Well, does the country have some reasonable grievances against Israel? Certainly. Is it promoting its interests in the most peaceful way possible? Certainly not. Just because Israel’s increasingly reactionary right wing presents their argument about the Iranian threat immoderately doesn’t mean that an Iranian threat doesn’t exist. Look, Americans who think themselves enlightened because they know of the US’s role in the provenance of Iran’s problems fail to realize that this doesn’t mean that, somehow, Iran is filled with happy people yearning to just hear an apology from the West and from Israel—that Iran will somehow immediately become a progressive, reasonable regional and global actor, dismantling overnight a foreign policy predicated in its first instance almost entirely on hatred of the US and Israel. Just like with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, this is ignorance masquerading as savoir faire. Again, it also appears to be weirdly America-centric, in which all it would take is an apology from the US for all of Iran to, now vindicated, smile broadly and rush to embrace us. Selling short much of Iranian society’s fundamental distrust of the US is to sell short the value of their society, period.
I said earlier that I will grant Hillary’s realist leanings pointing to potential hawkdom. She’s infamously talked about her respect of and friendship with arch-realist Henry Kissinger, to whom I think the label of hawk pretty justly applies. This is terroritory where possibilities based on ideological leanings matter, and on this we just don’t know how much she would or would not follow a Kissingerian line as president. I think she’d be more like a Zbigniew Brzezinski realist than a Kissinger realist, but we don’t know for sure. But, again, this concern is about the future and not about the past; her past actions are not nearly as hawkish as we constantly say they are.
One might further question how clearheaded the Hillary-as-hawk formula is on any level. As my earlier discussion of Middle Eastern politics and society hopefully alludes to, there’s certainly an argument that many on the left don’t have much true interest in learning about the places that they say, often rightfully, that we take advantage and/or harm. There’s clearly not much interest on the left in differentiating between American influence and intervention. Indeed, for the anti-Hillary crowd it seems the bar is very low for what warmongering even means, while for many Bernie supporters Hillary has been held responsible for every aggressive act of the Bush era (even the Sanders campaign itself implies that she bears a chief responsibility for Iraq). As Secretary of State, the story goes, she carried out intervention after intervention—all by her self or with the aid of shadowy conservative interests for which she faithfully stooges. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is true. What matters is that one says it often and ardently.
So Hillary Clinton doesn’t have much of a record as an aggressive military adventurer, and yet we’re led to believe by her critics that she rattles her sabre at every opportunity. How did this happen, and how does the “Hillary’s a warmonger” crowd sustain its anger with so little basis for its claims? Well, it strikes me that the Hillary-as-hawk position is mostly tautological. That is, it depends on continuous recapitulation and reaffirmations between like minds. We just say and say again that she’s a hawk. It is an a priori condition. This recursive tendency among Hillary’s critics on the left is key. The infinite variety of ways one can invoke the hawkish-Hillary formula has produced a kind of thought-tenement: a monstrosity built by repetition to a looming height that, in its very vastness, disguises a flimsy evidentiary structure that’s barely able to hold the thing aloft—a credulous incredulity. Somehow I doubt, though, that it will ever collapse completely, because those who dwell within it will continue to resist the reality for fear that any deviation from the idea that Hillary’s out for blood will cause the walls of their world to crumble.