Varieties of Hawk: Clinton v. Trump on Foreign Policy
Reminder: The Consistent Life Network’s blog is for the airing of a wide variety of views connected to the consistent life ethic. Therefore, the views are those of the author and not necessarily of the organization. Political elections are especially likely to elicit sharply differing perspectives from consistent-lifers.
by John Whitehead
For an American peace advocate, the two major political parties rarely offer appealing candidates in a presidential election. The 2016 election is no exception to this rule. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominees for the Democratic and Republican Parties, respectively, seem dedicated to the continued use of American military force around the world. However they might differ in other respects, on foreign policy both take a hawkish stance.
Hillary Clinton’s many years in public office have given her a substantial record of hawkish decisions. During her eight years in the Senate, Clinton voted in favor of the broadly worded authorization to use military force in response to the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks. This vote led to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. She also voted to authorize military force in Iraq, leading to the invasion of that country in 2003. As Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton was the leading foreign policy official during the administration’s escalation of American involvement in Afghanistan, the targeted killing campaign against alleged terrorists, and the Libyan war.
In the case of the Libyan intervention, media reports indicate that Clinton played a prominent role in shaping the administration’s policy: a dubious distinction in light of how the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi led to civil war and chaos in the country. Clinton’s foreign policy aide Jake Sullivan described her as being “a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings—as well as the public face of the U.S. effort in Libya. She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi [sic] and his regime.”
Other statements from former colleagues about Clinton are similarly worrying. Dennis Ross, who served on the National Security Council during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, commented, “It’s not that she’s quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served under Clinton as director of State Department Policy Planning, commented “when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, [Clinton would] rather be caught trying.” While some might consider Slaughter’s statement a testimonial to decisiveness, those who wish to see an end to American wars should be concerned by the prospect of a commander-in-chief whose default preference is for “action,” even in the face of risk.
In contrast to Clinton’s substantial public record, Donald Trump’s lack of prior service in public office leaves no guide to his foreign policy stance apart from his public statements—a poor basis for judgment, even when a presidential candidate less mercurial than Trump is concerned. For whatever they are worth, however, Trump’s statements indicate a hawkishness comparable to Clinton’s.
Despite recent claims to have opposed the Iraq War, Trump’s statements on that conflict in 2002-2003 show his position to have been simply a muddle: he once expressed vague support for the war that gave way to equally vague criticisms. Trump’s position on the Libyan war has been similarly confused, moving from support to opposition to support again. His attitude toward the Afghan war is not much clearer. Whatever else these shifting positions demonstrate, they do not show a firm commitment to peace.
Moreover, during his presidential campaign, Trump has infamously made bizarre, bellicose threats that should alarm peace advocates. He has endorsed torturing members of ISIS through techniques such as waterboarding. Trump has also repeatedly called for killing terrorists’ families. The overall impression left by Trump’s public utterances is of a candidate willing to use military force ruthlessly and recklessly.
The choice between Trump and Clinton is a demoralizing one for someone committed to peace and an end to hawkish foreign policies. This choice becomes even more dismaying, however, when viewed in the context of recent electoral history.
Barack Obama has hardly been a dovish president, but peace advocates could at least take some satisfaction in his opposition, while still an Illinois state senator, to the Iraq War. In 2008, this opposition made him more appealing, for many Democratic voters, than Hillary Clinton and contributed to Obama winning the Democratic nomination that year. Obama appeared to be, if not a genuine “peace candidate,” at least less hawkish than Clinton—and of course he appeared considerably less hawkish than George W. Bush. A kind of incrementalism in foreign policy seemed plausible in this context: the Democratic president elected in 2008 was less hawkish than the alternatives and perhaps his successor would be less hawkish still and so American foreign policy could be nudged along in the direction favored by peace advocates.
Yet after eight years of Barack Obama, peace advocates find themselves presented with major party candidates who are both more hawkish than Obama. The apparent incremental progress toward peace under Obama seems to be slipping away in light of the current choices. This should make peace advocates, including those who support a consistent ethic of life, wary of an incrementalism that accepts hawkish candidates because they are somewhat less hawkish than the alternative. Such a strategy might not lead to net improvements in American foreign policy in the long term.
Consistent life ethic advocates, and others who care about peace, should consider more radical approaches than choosing the less hawkish major party option. One alternative is to put far less emphasis on precisely who occupies the office of president and instead advocate for reducing the overall power and importance of the presidency as an institution. The tremendous concentration of power, particularly the power of the national security establishment, in a single person’s hands may be far more decisive in shaping foreign policy than the political party to which that excessively powerful person belongs.
Another, non-exclusive, alternative is to renew the peace movement at the grassroots, building an energetic, vocal lobby against war and the national security establishment. If such a lobby constantly challenged hawkish policies when pursued by politicians of either major party, this might serve to change the larger political context in which those politicians operate. A more dovish foreign policy consensus shaped by such a lobby could create better electoral options than “hawkish” and “slightly less hawkish.” Such a cross-partisan goal would also fit in well with the larger cross-partisan philosophy and mission of he consistent life ethic.