Hillary Clinton in Winnipeg: An Exercise in Cognitive Dissonance

Hillary Clinton, cognitive dissonance(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On January 21, almost 2,000 people filled the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg to see former US senator, first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. At $300 per ticket, the event attracted plenty of affluent Manitobans – lawyer-philanthropist Gail Asper, University of Manitoba president David Bernard, hospitality mogul Doug Stephen – members of the media and other spectators.

Clinton was in the city as part of the Global Perspectives series sponsored by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). The afternoon event was the first in a two-stop tour also including an evening date in Saskatoon.

It’s part of an embryonic presidential campaign, her second, expected to be announced officially in the spring. She previously lost the nomination to Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, but became his secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. During that period, she presided over a tumultuous office, at its lowest point accepting responsibility for the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, during an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi during the Libyan civil war in 2012.

In Winnipeg, the former secretary of state spoke on foreign policy, Canada-US relations, human rights and terrorism. She expectedly avoided the topic of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a project she said is “in our process, where it belongs,” but discussed at length the recent assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and what she described as a growing atmosphere of global insecurity spurred by rising extremism in the global south.

“The values of tolerance and openness, those were the same values under assault in Paris,” Clinton said, invoking the perceived moral dictums of Western civilization. “It is not just a matter of law enforcement or military action. We are in a contest of ideas and values.

“We can’t close our eyes to the fact that this time in our world history there is a distorted and dangerous strain of extremism within the Muslim world that continues to spread . . . it has the capacity to cause profound damage, most especially to their own communities.”

Clinton prefaced her statements by clarifying that most Muslims are non-violent and disinterested in the radical political manifestations of their religion, but her comments are nonetheless revealing.

As Jeffry Halverson wrote at Salon, claiming Islam has a violence problem implies the West does not:

The modern nation-state claims a monopoly on violence . . . The difference now is the developed world believes violence is “legitimate” only when performed by the official armies (or drones) of nation-states . . . Within this framework, violence in the name of a deity is outrageous, but violence in the name of a flag, freedom, democracy and (let’s face it) capitalism is a sacred duty (with its own martyrs), or at the very least a pragmatic necessity in a dog-eat-dog world.

To simply condemn radical Islamism as a barbarous scourge in need of eradication therefore ignores the very people, institutions and policies that helped create it.

Clinton offered no such context. Throughout her speech (which received two standing ovations) she continually resorted to the platitudes of American exceptionalism, the nationalistic belief that the historical development of the United States is qualitatively unique when compared to other nations. Human rights, the rule of law and international diplomacy, she repeated, are “written into [the] democratic DNA” that “unites our two countries and Europe in a transatlantic partnership.” Clinton made sure to exclude Russia from this equation, as she joined in the chorus of Western leaders denouncing Vladimir Putin’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. No mention was made, however, of the $19 million earmarked by the United States to assist the Ukrainian National Guard, or the additional $1 billion loan pledged to Ukraine’s government by Washington earlier this year.

Clinton did a disservice to her audience by manipulating the language of populism and diplomacy to conceal a political record that tells a much different story. It is in this discrepancy of representation where her policies must be analyzed and critically assessed.

Clinton’s Foreign Policy

Following her speech, the Winnipeg media was awash with stories about Clinton’s visit. Winnipeg Free Press columnists praised her efforts to break gender barriers in politics, lead the Democratic Party and separate her legacy from that of her husband.

“Wouldn’t it be something to see her smash [that] glass ceiling” asked Jen Zoratti, “and have her policy, and not her pantsuits, assessed and discussed?”

A valid point, to be sure – it’s vital that all leaders be assessed by the same criteria, regardless of gender – but what of Clinton’s policies?

It is of no small consequence that her rabid support of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – most notably her affirmative vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 – contributed to their escalation. Only after 2008, when her political position became untenable during a first quest for the presidency, did Clinton soften her rhetoric and step away from troop escalation strategies such as the “surge” of 30,000 additional US personnel in Iraq in 2007.

To date, the conflicts have inflicted massive civilian casualties, now exceeding 200,000, the destruction of infrastructure and destabilization throughout the Arab world. From the chaos, too, emerged ISIS, a grotesque mutation of Islam, but now identified by Clinton as a “common enemy.”

In the words of Robert Parry, Clinton is a “pedestrian foreign policy thinker who is easily duped and leans toward military solutions.” In 2011, when the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya of Muammar el-Qaddafi – a regime that boasted high standards of living, life expectancy and literacy – faced an uprising led by the National Transitional Council (NTC), Clinton was among the first to call for NATO intervention. Invoking the trumped-up (and later discredited) reports of war crimes committed by Qaddafi’s forces, Clinton staunchly backed armed force as a sole directive.

“Qaddafi must go,” she said in March 2011. “[He is] a ruthless dictator that has no conscience and will destroy anyone or anything in his way. If Qaddafi does not go, he will just make trouble. That is just his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.”

The subsequent NATO bombing, dubbed a “humanitarian intervention” by Western governments, marked a ruinous “rebirth” of Libya’s standard of living. By the time Qaddafi was hunted down and brutally killed in Sirte on October 20, 2011, the country was destroyed. More than 9,000 sorties targeting civilian and urban areas destroyed government buildings, residential neighborhoods, electricity generation facilities and water supply infrastructure. Today, the nation is still reeling from its failed revolution, a battleground of warring rebel and extremists groups with competing stakes in Libya’s formerly nationalized oil industry.

Clinton’s gleeful reaction to Qaddafi’s murder was even captured on film in a pre-interview screening with CBS News: “We came; we saw; he died!” she proclaimed.

NATO’s dirtiest war of the 21st century was a mockery of international law. It was approved by no intercontinental body, sanctioned by no parliament, nor justified by any imminent threat to the West. Yet, only two years later, when the blowback from the air campaign resulted in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Clinton’s testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs displayed a hubris without limit or reflexivity:

Let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, in North Africa, and around the world . . . When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root; our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened . . . the United States is the most extraordinary force for peace and progress the world has ever known.

The unpleasant experience of having one’s core beliefs challenged by contrary evidence (read: cognitive dissonance) was on full display then as it was before a Winnipeg audience in January. If Canadian “values” are indeed consistent with and so deeply tied to those of the United States, we must ask ourselves some important questions.

Do we support the sanctioning of Iran for a non-existent nuclear weapons program? Do we approve of spying on the private communications of top UN officials? Do we endorse the continued nepotism and patronage of the United States’ richest families in the halls of power? Are we willing to accept the rhetoric of populism and equality from a presidential hopeful who collects Wall Street money in exchange for its protection?

Discerning audiences must ask these difficult questions and hold power to account. Anything else is a detriment to our civic duty, a tacit admission of an inborn dissonance – one that, if left unchecked, is far more dangerous.