Hillary Clinton is considered a hawk in the Democratic field, yet her time as Secretary of State is characterized by somewhat dovish policies including the failed reset with Russia, the removal of troops from Iraq and the rise of ISIS, and the opening of talks with Iran. At the same time, Hillary was a strong advocate of NATO involvement in Libya and the U.S. raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Though the latter was a definitive success, the former created a power vacuum that has allowed al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups to take root. During the presidential campaign, her foreign policy positions have been somewhat vague, but she has distanced herself from Obama on recent foreign policy conflicts and taken more aggressive stances than her rival Bernie Sanders. The question is, which Clinton would characterize a Clinton presidency, and which Clinton would be better?
Clinton has sided with President Obama in declining the potential use of ground forces. She also has been associated with and blamed for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which was permitted by the administration’s decision to remove troops from Iraq by 2011 based on the previous administration’s Status of Forces Agreement. At the same time, she has gone beyond President Obama and advocated for a no-fly zone over Syria, the increased deployment of special forces, and increased air strikes – a plan that matches that of many Republican candidates. A no-fly zone, especially in the context of Russian air strikes, would be a bold but effective next step against the Assad regime to protect the Syrian people and allow for the establishment of Syrian refugee camps within the country. While protecting the Syrian people and putting continued pressure on Assad, something important to Middle Eastern allies like Turkey, the move would fall short of directly removing Assad and creating an even greater vacuum for ISIS like that created in Libya.
During the campaign, Clinton has advocated for cooperation with the Russians in fighting the Islamic State in Syria. This is despite the United States’ official stance against Bashar al-Assad and the red line on chemical weapons the administration drew in August 2012 that was violated shortly after. Clinton’s State Department did not take action against Assad beyond arming and training moderate rebel forces, even after the violation of the red line. Beginning in September, Russia has engaged in airstrikes and has reportedly sent grounds troops to help Iran prop up Assad. This is not the first time Clinton has attempted to cooperate with Russia under precarious circumstances. In 2009, Clinton led U.S. efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, only to be rebuffed by the Russian sale of UN-banned arms to Iran and the invasion of Crimea and southeastern Ukraine.
Recent history calls into question Clinton’s continued desire to cooperate with Russia, especially when it comes to Syria. Russia showed no respect for the United States’ wishes with regards to Iran and Ukraine, and their involvement in Syria effectively constitutes a proxy war against the United States’ efforts in Syria. Russia has not proven to be effective against ISIS and a State Department report showed that 90% of Russian airstrikes in Syria have not targeted ISIS, and other reports show Russian air strikes even hit U.S.-supported rebel groups. There is little evidence Russia is serious about fighting ISIS beyond the extent to which it protects their and the Assad regime’s interests.
Clinton seems weak when it comes to geopolitical adversaries like Russia, trigger happy when it came to Libya, and strong when confronting terrorism when compared to her fellow Democrats. Clinton’s campaign has relied heavily on her experience as Secretary of State, yet her inconsistent tenure and inconclusive positions make it difficult to discern how a Clinton presidency would address the crisis in Syria and Iraq.