The Greek playwright Aeschylus – who fought at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle that defeated the first Persian invasion of Greece – had few illusions about the consequences of war. No wonder, in the tragedy Oresteia, he gave his character Agamemnon these verses:
They sent forth men to battle.
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome
Comes ashes in an urn.
His ode is one the candidates for the U.S. presidency might consider, though one doubts that many of them would think to find wisdom in a 2,500 year-old Greek play.
And that, in itself, is a tragedy.
Historical blindness has been much on display in the primary season. On the Republican side, candidates promised to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. While the Democratic aspirants were a little more measured, they generally share the pervasive ideology that binds together all but “cranks” like Ron Paul: America has the right, indeed the duty, to order the world’s affairs.
This peculiar view of the role of the US takes on a certain messianic quality in candidates like Hillary Clinton, who routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensable nation” whose job is to lead the world.
A Failure of Imagination
At a recent rally in Indianola, Iowa, Clinton said that “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”
The former secretary of state was certainly correct. Foreign policy for Sanders is pretty much an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system.
But the implication of her comment is that she has thought things through. If she has, it isn’t evident in her memoir, Hard Choices, or in her campaign speeches.
Hard Choices covers her years as secretary of state and seemingly unconsciously tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that’s dangerously increased tensions with China.
At the heart of Hard Choices is the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” which for Clinton means the right of the US to intervene in other countries at will. As historian Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, puts it, Clinton’s memoir “tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as Secretary of State. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing.”
Clinton is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but her book is remarkably shallow and quite the opposite of “thoughtful.” The one act on her part for which she shows any regret is her vote to invade Iraq. But even here she quickly moves on, never really examining how it is that the US had the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.
She also demonstrates an inability to see other people’s point of view. Thus the Russians are portrayed as aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. The fact that the US violated promises by the first Bush administration not to move NATO “one inch east” if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe is treated as irrelevant.
Along with much of the Washington establishment, Clinton doesn’t seem to get that a country that’s been invaded three times since 1815 – and lost tens of millions of people – might be a tad paranoid about its borders. There’s no mention of the roles US intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and openly fascist Ukrainian groups played in the coup against the elected (if corrupt) government of Ukraine.
Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot,” which she boasted “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia.” But she doesn’t consider how this might be interpreted in Beijing.
The United States, after all, never left Asia – the Pacific basin has long been home to major US trading partners, and there’s a huge US military presence in Japan, Korea, and the Pacific. So to the Chinese, the “pivot” means that the US plans to beef up its military presence in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. It’s done both.
The Butcher Bill
Clinton often costumes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P.” But her application is selective.
She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, for example. But in her campaign speeches she’s not said a word about the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites R2P for why the US should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to crush demands for democracy by its majority Shiite population.
Clinton, along with Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s national security advisor, has pushed for muscular interventions without thinking – or caring – about the consequences.
And those consequences have been dire.
Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 US invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The US and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded, and the war is far from over. The cost to the treasury alone runs close to $700 billion, not counting long-term medical bill that could run as high as $2 trillion.
Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees. The cost to Washington was cheap at a cool $1.1 billion, but the war and subsequent instability created a tsunami of weapons and refugees – and the fighting continues. It also produced one of Clinton’s more tasteless remarks. Referring to Gaddafi, she said, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum.
Ukraine: The death toll now exceeds 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off, although tensions remain high.
Yemen: Over 6,000 Yemenis have been killed and another 27,000 wounded. According to the UN, most of them are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.
Iraq: Anywhere from 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost: close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war grinds on its latest incarnation: a bloody turf war with the Islamic State, which emerged from the Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-installed government.
Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and half the country’s population has been displaced – including four million Syrian refugees abroad. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war, like the others, is ongoing.
There are other countries – like Somalia – that one could add to the butcher bill. Then there are the countries that reaped the fallout from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.
And how does one calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot – not only for the United States, but for the allies we’re recruiting to confront China? Since the “Pivot” got underway prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression, or US provocation?
Death and Destruction
Hillary Clinton is hardly the only Democrat who thinks American exceptionalism gives the US the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view it is pretty much bipartisan. And while Sanders wisely voted against the Iraq War and has criticized Clinton’s eagerness to intervene elsewhere, the Vermont senator did back the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War, and the latter is playing out like a Rudyard Kipling novel.
In all fairness, Sanders did say, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”
Would Hillary be more inclined toward an aggressive foreign policy?
Certainly more than Obama – Clinton pressed the White House to intervene more deeply in Syria, and was far more hardline on Iran. On virtually every foreign policy issue, in fact, Clinton is said to have led the charge inside the administration for a more belligerent US response.
More than the Republicans? It’s hard to say, because most of them sound like they’ve gone off their meds. For instance, a number of GOP candidates pledge to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran. While Clinton wanted to drive a harder bargain than the White House did, in the end she supported it.
However, she did say she’s proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his entirely sensible remark that the US might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders then backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Tehran in the near future.
The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that of old-fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of R2P. It’s more polite than the “make the sands glow” atavism of the Republicans. But in the end, it’s death and destruction in a different packaging.
Aeschylus got that: “For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.”
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy In Focus.