Right before the November 7 Democratic Presidential Forum, Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul went on MSNBC and said Hillary Clinton was a “neocon.” The host, Chris Matthews, responded by erupting into laughter, as if the comment had no merit. But is Rand Paul’s comment really so laughable?
For more than a decade, Clinton has been trying to explain away her vote for the war in Iraq – the quintessential example of neoconservative hubris. The war is commonly described as a “strategic blunder,” but a more accurate description would be to call it a war crime responsible for incalculable human suffering. Further, Secretary of State Clinton was reportedly among the most hawkish on President Obama’s foreign policy team when it came to military intervention in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. During the recent MSNBC forum’s broadcast, Rachel Maddow twice used the word “hawkish” to describe Clinton, once as host of the forum during the Clinton interview, and again during a panel discussion after the event.
Whether Clinton fits under the “neocon” label is not what is important. But it is important for voters to understand the reality of Hillary Clinton’s hawkish record, which goes well beyond her support for the Iraq war. Ideally, this discussion should take place during the primary, while Clinton still has to answer to progressive voters. The conversation could also serve to educate the public about the sinister nature of US policy abroad and the Democratic Party’s complicity in these policies.
The History of Democrats and Neoconservatism
Many voters associate the word “neocon” with members of the George W. Bush administration, like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. But the Democrats played a major role in the emergence and growth of neoconservatism. Irving Kristol – the godfather of the movement – was a Democratic voter as recently as 1968 when he cast his vote for Hubert Humphrey (Clinton was a college Republican in those days). “But a mere two years later Kristol was dining at the White House with Nixon,” writes Andrew Hartmann at Jacobin, “the two men brought together by their shared hatred of the New Left.”
Irving Kristol and his neoconservative allies largely abandoned the Democratic Party because, as Jacobin describes it, “The McGovern nomination had captured the Democratic Party.” Incidentally, Clinton was a key leader for the Democratic Leadership Council, when in 2004 it attacked Howard Dean for running a campaign from the “McGovern-Mondale wing” of the Democratic Party, “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.” So aversion to the dovish elements of the Democratic Party is one thing Hillary Clinton has in common with the icons of the neoconservative movement.
But it is not the only similarity. Clinton’s frequent support for military force has been observed across the ideological spectrum: The Nation, The American Conservative and the National Interest have all published articles with the exact term “Hillary the Hawk” in the headline.
Clinton as Secretary of State
In a Nation article from May 2014, Barbara and Bob Dreyfuss criticized Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. They described her as a “hawk,” a “militarist” and a diplomat who “almost always came down on the side of using force.”
“[Clinton] consistently came down on the hawkish side of debates inside the administration, from Afghanistan to Libya and Syria,” the article said. “She’s also taken a more hawkish line than Obama on Ukraine and the confrontation with Russia.”
Dreyfuss also quotes excerpts from Duty, the memoir of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (appointed by Bush, retained by Obama). Gates portrays Clinton as one of his key, pro-interventionist allies, when Obama’s advisors “splintered” over issues like Afghanistan.
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow for the Institute for Policy Studies, was also critical of Clinton’s approach when she was appointed as secretary of state. Bennis argued that Clinton’s stated goal of making “diplomacy the vanguard of foreign policy” was “undermined” when she refused to engage with Hamas in 2009 in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
“At a moment of crisis, you need to talk to both sides. She said that we are not giving up on peace in the Middle East,” Bennis said. “But it seems to me that you are giving up on peace if you refuse to talk to both sides. It means you’re even giving up on a cease-fire.”
In a separate Nation article from March, 2011 Dreyfuss reported on Clinton’s strong advocacy of the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, which was done without congressional approval and has basically turned Libya into a failed state.
“In the Obama administration at least it appears that the bellicosity is worst among Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power,” he wrote. “All three are liberal interventionists, and all three seem to believe that when the United States exercises military force it has some profound, moral, life-saving character to it.”
The idea that US military force has “some profound, moral, life-saving character to it” is frequently invoked by neoconservative advocates of war. Consider the Project for a New American Century’s statement of principles, which calls for “military strength and moral clarity,” that would promote “political and economic freedom.” It is US interventionism hidden under the veil of benevolent intentions. Clinton has demonstrated through her actions that she shares these “principles” with conservatives.
Clinton’s Iraq Legacy
One of Hillary Clinton’s most controversial acts was her vote on October 11, 2002, authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq at his discretion, effectively ceding power to declare war to the executive branch. This (and the speech she gave in support of the vote) has long been the foreign policy issue she has had to defend the most – from President Obama in the 2008 campaign and Bernie Sanders in 2016. This vote will forever taint Clinton’s reputation among anti-war voters.
It is easy to forget that before the economic disaster in the fall of 2008, electoral politics were dominated by foreign policy. The Democrats’ massive gains in Congress in both 2006 and 2008 were largely attributed to public discontent over President Bush’s war. This extent of this anger can be seen in the political writing during that time, when death and violence in Iraq had reached a peak.
“Hillary Clinton is not a peace candidate. She is an unrepentant hawk, à la Joe Lieberman. She believed invading Iraq was a good idea, all available evidence to the contrary, and she has, once again, made it clear that she still does,” wrote The Nation’s Robert Scheer in February, 2007. This was just weeks after President Bush announced his plans to increase troop levels, known as “the surge.”
CODEPINK, which describes itself as a “women-led grassroots organization working to end US wars,” was especially active in protesting Clinton for her support for the war in her 2008 campaign for president. The group appeared at numerous Clinton events across the country that year, sometimes chanting anti-war slogans as the candidate spoke.
“The anti-war left continues to be a thorn in the side of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, protesting at most of her events,” reported The Hill in March 2007. “Most recently, a protester from the Code Pink group interrupted her $2.7 million fundraiser in Washington Tuesday night before being removed by security.”
After Clinton lost the 2008 primary, CODEPINK’s national campaign director, Dana Balicki, said the organization deserved some credit for her defeat. “It was the success of the anti-war [movement] that pushed the issue,” she said. “We take some credit for [Clinton] not being the nominee.”
Years later, much of this anger this persists. Peter Hitchens wrote in the Daily Mail in August, 2014: “In my view, any politician and columnist who backed the Iraq war should have that fact displayed, in large red letters next to everything they write, should be forced to admit it before they make any policy statement or call to action.”
In fact, some argue that Clinton’s association with the war has grown over the years as other supporters of the war have left the political arena.
“Hillary should now be known as the most important Iraq war enabler still active in presidential politics,” wrote the isolationist magazine, The American Conservative in August 2014. “George W. Bush has retired to portrait painting. Cheney is not running, nor Tony Blair. Of the political pillars of that era, major figures whose collaboration with the neocons helped shut down a meaningful national debate about whether to go to war, Hillary is the most substantial still standing.”
The American Conservative’s isolationist tendencies are rooted in the same paleo-conservative philosophy that guides Rand Paul’s views. Further, his father, Ron Paul, was a harsh critic of the war (and voted against it) from the House of Representatives. So it makes sense why Paul might view Clinton as a neocon; of all the candidates running for President in both parties, she is the only candidate with significant success in the polls who actually voted for it. (The only two Republican candidates who were in Congress in 2002 are Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, but they have virtually no support in the polls.)
Clinton and the “Mainstream Democratic Party Consensus”
Clearly, some progressives are skeptical of Clinton, in large part due to her foreign policy record. Marjorie Cohn, former president of the National Lawyers’ Guild, recently questioned in an essay on Truthout, whether the “Democrats offers a progressive candidate” in 2015 and decried Clinton as “a straight hawk.”
But not everyone accepts the notion of Hillary as being uniquely hawkish compared to her Democratic colleagues. When Maddow asked about her “hawkish” record compared to the other Democratic candidates, Clinton said she was an advocate of diplomacy as the first choice. “I think it’s irresponsible to rule out force,” she added, “but it should always be the last resort, not the first choice.” When her communications director was asked by Matthews to respond to Paul’s comments, she refused to identify Clinton as either a dove or a hawk.
Further, many Clinton supporters feel she is being unfairly singled out and that her foreign policy views are not much different than other Democrats. In a February 2014 article in the National Interest (titled “Hillary the Hawk?”) Usha Suhay argues that “widespread perception on the left that Clinton is hawkish, militaristic, and willing to play hardball politics to hide this from dovish liberals,” reflects “a misreading not only of Clinton, but also of the place that Clinton occupies on the Democratic spectrum when it comes to foreign policy.”
Clinton’s foreign policy record, she argues, simply reflects the Democratic Party consensus on foreign policy. In supporting the war, she continues, “Clinton was joined in that ‘yes’ vote by Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Harry Reid, Tom Harkin, Dianne Feinstein, and many others who are not today considered paragons of hawkishness or militarism.”
The author is absolutely right that these and other Democrats were complicit in enabling the Iraq war travesty. But one key difference between Clinton and the other Democrats she lists is that none of them are currently running a campaign to become Commander in Chief of the military. Moreover, the three politicians she listed that have previously run for president – Biden, Edwards and Kerry – were criticized greatly for their role in war during their campaigns.
Charles Pierce has argued in Esquire that Clinton’s support for the war is reason enough to vote against her. But those who reject Clinton for her foreign policy record, Suhay writes, “are effectively rejecting a worldview that is mainstream among Democrats.”
Suhay is attempting to defend Clinton, but her point is prescient in a larger way: Clinton’s interventionist worldview is indeed “mainstream among Democrats.” This includes President Obama, who, according to former Bush Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith, has adopted almost all of the major tenets of Bush’s foreign policy, including drones, surveillance, military detention and even targeted killings. What is meant to be a defense of Clinton is actually a harsh and accurate condemnation of Democratic Party’s foreign policy agenda more broadly. The problem isn’t just Clinton’s militaristic foreign policy; the problem is how mainstream her foreign policy is within the Democratic Party.
Rand Paul has more than a few terrible ideas, and in a reasonable world he should get nowhere near the Oval Office. But he does have a point when he critiques Clinton’s disturbing record on foreign policy. Clinton ought to be accountable for this record. It is, however, naïve to think that the Democrats’ militant support for “America’s Imperial Ambitions” can be significantly changed by voting for the right candidate. The votes we cast as Americans, unfortunately, don’t wield that kind of power.