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Hillary Clinton’s Legacy as Secretary of State

Clinton’s legacy has been one of continuing the policies of her predecessors in the Bush administration of opposing international law and human rights.

Zunes challenges what he calls “the myth that Hillary Clinton is a figure who deserves support or admiration for her role of Secretary of State, or that she deserves another opportunity for influencing US foreign policy.”

Hillary Clinton leaves her position as Secretary of State with a legacy of supporting autocratic regimes and occupation armies, opposing enforcement of international humanitarian law, undermining arms control and defending military solutions to complex political problems. She was appointed to her position following eight years in the US Senate, during which she became an outspoken supporter of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, lied about Iraq’s military capabilities to frighten the public into supporting the illegal war, unleashed repeated attacks against the United Nations, opposed restrictions on land mines and cluster bombs, defended war crimes by allied right-wing governments and largely embraced Bush’s unilateralist agenda.

Despite this, Clinton is receiving largely unconditional praise from liberal pundits and others for her leadership, some even claiming that she is some kind of role model for young women!

Part of this unlikely defense of the dishonest and hawkish outgoing Secretary of State may be in reaction to the onslaught of misleading, petty, and sexist attacks from the right, such as her recent grilling on Capitol Hill about last summer’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Such spurious criticisms, particularly those motivated by sexism, certainly deserve to be challenged. However, this should not in any way be used as an excuse to fail to acknowledge the damage Clinton has done, or her embrace of much of the dangerous neo-conservative doctrines of the previous administration.

It is not unusual for a president to want to be his own secretary of state, but rarely has a secretary so badly wanted to be her own president. In assuming her position in 2009, she insisted on being able to effectively appoint most of the key political positions in the State Department, which she stacked with some of the more hawkish veterans of her husband’s administration. Obama, by contrast, appointed members of the White House-based National Security Council who – while still very much part of the foreign policy establishment – tended to be younger, more innovative, and politically liberal. As a result, unlike most administrations – in which the State Department would sometimes challenge the hawks in the National Security Council – it has been the other way around under Obama, as the NSC was forced to play the moderating voice to the hawkish Secretary of State Clinton and her appointees.

During the Arab Spring, Clinton pushed for stronger US support for pro-Western dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, as well as the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. She successfully convinced the initially critical White House to support the right-wing golpistas in Honduras, who ousted that country’s democratically-elected government in 2009. She was a major proponent of NATO’s military intervention in Libya’s civil war and has encouraged a more active US role in the Syrian conflict.

Even when she was right – such as opposing the egregious human rights abuses by the Assad regime in Syria – her defense of human rights abuses by US allies and other brazen double-standards significantly weakened her ability to make a credible case. For example, she insisted that a Russian and Chinese veto of a UN Security Council resolution critical of Syria had “neutered” the Security Council’s ability to defend basic human rights, yet she has defended repeated US vetoes of resolutions critical of Israeli violations of human rights. Similarly, she has criticized the Russians for supplying Syria with attack helicopters which have been used against civilian targets, but has defended the US supplying Israel, Turkey and Colombia with attack helicopters despite their use against civilian targets.

Under her leadership in the State Department, the United States has become even less popular than it was under the Bush administration. Clinton, however, has insisted that it simply because of a failure to explain US polices better rather than the policies themselves.

Support for Women’s and LGBT Rights

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has been more outspoken than any previous Secretary of State regarding the rights of women and sexual minorities. This appears to be more rhetoric than reality, however.

One illustrative case comes in her support for the autocratic monarchy in Morocco, which she has praised for having “women’s rights protected and expanded.” The reality for women in Morocco and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, however, is very different. For example, Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code absolves the rapist if he consents to marrying his rape victim. Just weeks after Clinton praised the Moroccan regime for its record on women’s rights, Amina Filali, a 16-year old Moroccan girl – who had been raped at the age of 15 and forced to marry her rapist, who subsequently battered and abused her – burned herself to death. Similarly, it was not long after a previous visit to Morocco, where she praised that autocratic monarchy’s human rights record, that the regime illegally expelled Aminatou Haidar, known as the Saharan Gandhi, for her leadership in the nonviolent resistance struggle to the illegal Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Haidar – a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and other honors for her nonviolent activism, and who had previously spent years in Moroccan prisons, where she was repeatedly tortured – went on a month-long hunger strike that almost killed her before Morocco relented to international pressure and allowed her to return to her country.

Given Clinton’s backing of neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as being within an imperialist context, may have actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda was a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy. Just as US support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East gave little credibility to President George W. Bush’s pro-democracy rhetoric, Hillary Clinton’s call for greater respect for women’s rights in Muslim countries never had much credibility while US-manufactured ordinance is blowing up women in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clinton’s Support for Arab Dictatorships

In the often contentious debates within the administration on how to respond to the civil insurrections in the Arab world challenging US-backed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, Clinton was among the most reluctant to support the pro-democracy struggles.

Her first statement on Tunisia was nearly four weeks after the outbreak of the uprising, in which she expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the United States was “not taking sides” between the repressive dictatorship and the pro-democracy struggle. She went on to note that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region is the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis was that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.” Ironically, Tunisia under the US-backed Ben Ali dictatorship – more than almost any country in the region – had been following the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs,” privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.”

Another example of her failure to recognize the pro-democracy yearning in the Arab world, Clinton insisted during the early days of the Egyptian revolution that the country was stable. She further insisted that US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the miserable failure of the regime in its nearly 30 years in power to do so. As the protests grew, Clinton called for the regime to reform from within rather than supporting pro-democracy protesters’ demand that the dictator step down, saying, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” As the repression increased, Clinton pressed for restraint by security forces and called for an “orderly, peaceful transition” to a “real democracy” in Egypt, but still refused to call for Mubarak to step down, insisting that “it’s not a question of who retains power. That should not be the issue. It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path.”

On the one hand, she recognized that whether Mubarak would remain in power “is going to be up to the Egyptian people.” On the other hand, she continued to speak in terms of reforms coming from the regime, stating that US policy was to “help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to … plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.”

Despite nearly 800 Egyptians being killed over the 18-day period by the US-supplied military and police, Clinton insisted, “There is no discussion of cutting off aid.” Up until the final days of the uprising, Clinton was publicly advocating a leadership role for General Suleiman, the notorious “torturer-in-chief” of the Egyptian regime, whom Mubarak had named as his vice-president.

Similarly, that March, when Saudi-backed forces of the repressive Bahraini monarchy brutally crushed nonviolent pro-democracy demonstrators in that Persian Gulf kingdom and the killings, torture and repression were being condemned throughout the world, the Wall Street Journal reported that Clinton had emerged as one of the “leading voices inside the administration urging greater US support for the Bahraini king.” While insisting that the United States back right-wing Israeli governments because Israel is “the sole democracy in the Middle East,” Clinton has done her best to make sure other Middle Eastern countries remain undemocratic.

Clinton’s fondness for autocratic allies includes those in Central Asia. For example, despite evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State Clinton has claimed that the Karimov dictatorship – which has massacred demonstrators by the hundreds, boiled opponents in oil and forced hundreds of thousands of children into forced labor – was “showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms.” Similarly, when asked about the dictator’s claim that he was committed to leave a legacy of freedom and democracy for his grandchildren, one of Clinton’s top aides responded, “Yeah. I do believe him. I mean, he’s said several times that he’s committed to this. He’s made a speech last November where he talked about this.” In response to some skeptical follow-up questions by journalists, the official replied that “we think that there is really quite an important opening now to work on that stuff, also work on developing civil society, which again President Karimov has expressed support for. So, yeah, I do take him at his word.”

During her first year as Secretary of State, Clinton visited Morocco during an unprecedented crackdown on human rights activists. Instead of joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied Western Sahara, Clinton instead chose to offer unconditional praise for the Moroccan government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, Moroccan authorities arrested seven nonviolent activists from Western Sahara on trumped-up charges of high treason, who were immediately recognized by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. Amnesty called for their unconditional release. Clinton decided to ignore the plight of these and other political prisoners held in Moroccan jails.

These activists were demanding implantation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, endorsed by previous US administrations, for a referendum on the fate of the occupied territory. Clinton, however, has endorsed Morocco’s plans for annexing the territory under a dubious “autonomy” plan and simply called for “mediation” between the Moroccan kingdom and the exiled nationalist Polisario Front, a process that would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future.

Support for the Israeli Occupation

Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara was not the only foreign military occupation backed by Secretary of State Clinton.

As a Senator, Clinton was an outspoken defender of Israel’s colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and highly critical of the United Nations for its efforts to uphold international humanitarian law, even taking the time to visit a major Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank in a show of support. She moderated that stance somewhat as Secretary of State in expressing concerns over how the right-wing Israeli government’s settlements policies harms the overall climate of the peace process, but she has refused to demand that Israel abide by international demands to stop building additional illegal settlements. An outspoken critic of Palestinian efforts for UN recognition, Clinton has even equated Palestine’s legal right to have its state recognized by the United Nations with Israel’s illegal settlements policy.

When the Netanyahu government reneged on an earlier promise of a temporary and limited freeze and announced massive subsidies for the construction of new settlements on the eve of a recent Clinton visit to Israel, she spoke only of the need for peace talks to resume. Indeed, Clinton refused to travel to nearby Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders and focused the discussions with Israeli officials on Egypt and Iran, not Palestine.

In 2011, Clinton successfully pushed for a US veto of a UN Security Council resolution reiterating the illegality of the settlement drive and calling for a settlement freeze, saying, “We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council – and resolutions that would come before the Security Council – is not the right vehicle to advance the goal.” She has never explained why the UN Security Council, which has traditionally been the vehicle for enforcing international law in territories under foreign belligerent occupation, should not continue to play such a role, particularly given the US failure to stop this right-wing colonization drive on its own.

Clinton has even opposed humanitarian efforts supportive of the Palestinians, criticizing an unarmed flotilla scheduled to bring relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip, claiming it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” Clinton did not explain why a country had “the right to defend themselves” against unarmed ships carrying relief supplies that were clearly no threat to Israel. Not only did the organizers of the flotilla go to great steps to ensure there were no weapons on board, the only cargo bound for Gaza on the US ship were letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade golpistas and a right-wing Islamist government. Nor did Clinton explain why she considered the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters,” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route.

Clinton’s State Department issued a public statement designed to discourage Americans from taking part in the flotilla to Gaza because they might be attacked by Israeli forces, yet they never issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. Indeed, Clinton spokesperson Victoria Nuland tried to position the United States to blame those taking part in the flotilla rather than the rightist Israeli government should anything happen to them. Like those in the early 1960s who claimed civil rights protesters were responsible for the attacks by white racist mobs because they had “provoked them,” Nuland stated, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.” Not only did Clinton never encourage caution or restraint by the Israeli government nor mention that the International Red Cross and other advocates of international humanitarian law recognize that the Israeli blockade is illegal, it appears she successfully convinced the Greek government to deny them the right to sail from Greek ports.

In short, Clinton’s legacy at the State Department has been one of continuing the policies of her predecessors in the Bush administration of opposing international law and human rights. It remains to be seen whether John Kerry, who joined Clinton as one of the right-wing minority of Congressional Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq, will do much better. In any case, it is important to challenge the myth that Hillary Clinton is a figure who deserves support or admiration for her role of Secretary of State, or that she deserves another opportunity for influencing US foreign policy.

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