Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hillary Clinton is wrong about the lessons of the Cold War (updated)

Jeffrey Goldberg has published a fascinating interview with Hillary Clinton about her views on foreign policy. Its disappointing that the headline: "Hillary Clinton: 'Failure to help Syrian Rebels led to the Rise of ISIS" is so misleading. In the actual interview, she states that she supported a policy to arm the rebels early on - in disagreement with President Obama. But when pushed to say whether or not it would have led to a different outcome, she declined (three times) to do so.
I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended...that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.
There are several places where I disagree with Clinton - such as her unequivocating support of Israel's recent actions in Gaza and her suggestion that disagreement with that position is fueled by anti-Semitism. For many liberals like me - we have a much more nuanced view of that situation. But my tendency is always to look for the big picture. It was in her recounting of what we should learn from the Cold War that I saw where many of my issues with her approach to foreign policy lie.

One of the themes Clinton espouses was captured in the article's tag line: "Great nations need organizing principles." Citing an example for what that would mean in responding to current "jihadist" threats (her words) in the Middle East, she takes a lesson from our victory in the Cold War.
I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
I'll leave it for those with more knowledge than I have to discuss what actually led to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. But she's right, along the way "we made a lot of mistakes and supported really nasty guys." Clinton wants to excuse all that because "we won." And therefore our "organizing principle" of seeing every global situation through the lens of anti-communism was justified.

I would suggest that it was the myopic vision of seeing struggles for democracy as nothing more than communist threats that led us to make some of the biggest mistakes in our country's history. It was the unholy alliance between US corporate interests and fear mongering about the communist threat that led us to support murderous dictators all over the globe.

None of that is meant to justify the actions of the Soviet Union during that era. They were willing to exploit every opening we provided. But in the post-WWII era, as one country after another attempted to break away from colonial rule, the voice of the people was silenced via kidnappings, torture, "disappearances" and coups as they were used as pawns and proxies in our Cold War with the Soviet Union. That's exactly why President Obama's policy of "its up to the people to decide" is such a dramatic and necessary change.

Its was our inability during the Cold War to respond to each country individually in support of democracy that led to horrific policies. That's what happens with an "organizing principle" wedded to ideology and corporate interests. Of course the alternative leads to a tremendous amount of complexity. And I suppose that Hillary Clinton isn't the only one that would prefer a simple organizing principle like the anti-communism of the cold war (i.e., Global War on Terror). But that's not how the world works. We shouldn't be fooled into thinking otherwise.

P.S. Its interesting to compare and contrast this Goldberg interview with Clinton to the one he did with President Obama about Iran and Israel back in March 2012. Both are noteworthy for their depth.

UPDATE: A question for Clinton: Did your need for an "organizing principle" lead you to buy George W. Bush's rational to invade Iraq? Global War on Terrorism? With us or against us? Fight them there so we don't have to fight them here?

If so, that's another indication of how it can be dangerous.


  1. folks from that era, cold warriors, are pretty much all the same, alas.

  2. Hillary started in politics as an anti-war McGovernite and has evolved into a Scoop Jackson democrat. From all accounts, she also sided with Gen. Petraeus many times, which fortunately, PBO chose to ignore.

  3. A question for Clinton: Did your need for an "organizing principle" lead you to buy George W. Bush's rational to invade Iraq? Global War on Terrorism? With us or against us? Fight them there so we don't have to fight them here?

    No, it was, as for many Democrats who voted for it, a hedge against the success of the mission and accusations of anti-Americanism. Don't forget how many "serious" Democrats in '91 refused to aid Kuwait and ended up looking foolish as the "mighty" Iraqi army got obliterated in a fortnight. What if the neocons installed a successful junta to replace Saddam and the global economy took off like a shot as all that Iraqi oil came back online?

    It was asinine thinking and political and moral cowardice. But that's why even more credit should go to those (like Obama) who articulated not just the basic moral case as to why the war was unjustified and unlawful, but the practical case as to why the reconstruction of post-Baath Iraq would be an utter fiasco and humanitarian catastrophe. There was near-zero opportunity for success. It really is inexcusable to have believed otherwise.

    1. I doubt it was either/or. I suspect there were elements of both an "organizing principle" and a political calculus.

  4. PBO's FP is the antithesis of the cookie cutter approach dominant in US FP for the past century. Treating any deviation from US interests during the Cold War led to us supporting murderous dictatorships in the name of "freedom". He sees that most situations are unique, and must be addressed as such. Iraq is not Libya is not Syria is not Ukraine. To treat them all the same is to show a lack of understanding.