Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 April 2008

Why Hillary is Dangerous I: Foreign and Military Policy



Several readers have posted comments asking whether I, a lifelong Democrat, would really vote for John McCain if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. The answer is yes, under most foreseeable circumstances. (I would sit out the election if McCain picked Romney as his running mate, but that’s unlikely.)

In my first post on the coming election, I was skeptical of both Hillary’s and McCain’s candidacies, but I had drawn no firm conclusions. Now I have. I believe that Hillary as president would be dangerous and unpredictable for the country, disastrous for the Democratic party, and catastrophic for women’s chances to keep the glass ceiling permanently broken.

Explaining why takes a lot of ink. So I’ve broken my analysis into three parts. In this essay I discuss Hillary’s errors of judgment and lack of political courage in foreign and military policy. Future posts will discuss her errors of judgment in domestic policy and her lack of consistency and poor sense of perspective and history.

As I’ve noted in several posts (1, 2, and 3), Hillary’s judgment on foreign policy has been consistently poor, especially when compared to Barack Obama’s. She was wrong in voting to invade Iraq without reading the NIE. She was wrong to vote to declare Iran’s Quds Force a terrorist organization and give Dubya an excuse for war against Iran. And she was wrong to blindly follow Dubya’s credulous support for President Musharraf at a critical time in Pakistani history.

Today almost everyone recognizes these decisions as errors of judgment. But not everyone understands their importance. So I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing just how vital these errors of Hillary’s judgment were and what they say about her claim to leadership of the free world.


Let’s go back to fall 2002. Howard Dean and John Kerry were not yet Democratic party leaders. Al Gore was reclusive, licking his wounds from the Supreme Court’s theft of his presidency. Any serious criticism of Dubya on his part would have smacked of sour grapes and reopened all the wounds of the 2000 election. Bill couldn’t speak out; he was bound by the unwritten rule that past presidents don’t criticize current ones. And any criticism on his part would have looked like an attempt to relitigate his impeachment.

Hillary was the only Democratic leader free to speak out. Everyone knew she would run for president, and everyone was looking to her for leadership. She was, at that time, the de facto leader of the Democratic party.

Could she have stopped the rush to war? I don’t know. Maybe not. But she didn’t even try.

As a future national leader, she had nation’s respect and attention. She even had the benefit of novelty: she was the first woman in our nation’s history presumed to be a serious presidential candidate.

At the least, Hillary’s opposition to our rush to war would have gotten everyone’s attention. Her mere questioning might have emboldened our cowed intelligence services and given them more time to leak doubts and motivate a robust debate. Yet she didn’t even vote for the Levin Amendment, which would have required Dubya to exhaust diplomatic alternatives before going to war.

Instead, Hillary took the safe course for her political career and the dangerous course of our nation. In the absence of any support from the “loyal opposition” (us Democrats), even the cooler heads in our intelligence bureaucracy knuckled under to Cheney and buckled down for war.


The question of Iran turned out differently. The Quds Force was and is a regular part of Iran’s armed forces. In our entire national history, we had never before declared a sovereign nation’s regular armed forces to be a terrorist organization. Everyone in Washington understood that doing so was a first step toward war. Yet Hillary voted with the Republicans to take that step.

This time our own intelligence services showed the spine that Hillary lacked. Just over two months after the Senate’s Quds Force resolution, they began an extraordinary palace revolt. They published a National Intelligence Estimate revealing our secret conclusion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

In a separate post, I analyzed how extraordinary was this palace revolt. Our own intelligence services didn’t want to be blamed for starting—or even acquiescing in—a second premature and unnecessary war.

Yet Hillary didn’t seem to mind. Again, she did the safe thing for her own political ambitions and the dangerous thing for our country and for history. She voted to give Dubya and Cheney what they wanted. Only our intelligence bureaucrats’ courage saved us (and her) from the possible consequences of that error.


Hillary’s third major error of judgment involved Pakistan. In August 2007, Barack Obama questioned Dubya’s policy of credulous and uncritical support for Pakistani President Musharraf. He suggested that we support democracy in Pakistan and, if necessary, go after bin Laden and Zawahiri in the border areas.

Obama’s speech on terrorism was an important act of political judgment and courage. It highlighted our distraction in Iraq from our worst enemy—Al Qaeda Central. It also suggested the political, social and strategic dangers of failing to support Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

After Obama’s speech, Hillary had a decision to make. She could join with Obama and present a united Democratic front against Dubya’s failing and ultimately disastrous Pakistan policy. But endorsing Obama’s courage and insight wouldn’t give her any political advantage in the upcoming presidential contest. Manufacturing a dispute with Obama would.

In the end, Hillary based her decision entirely on domestic politics. The thrust of her campaign had been the proposition that her eight years as First Lady and her seven years as junior Senator from New York had given her massive “experience” in foreign policy and military affairs. So instead of joining Obama to nudge our failing Pakistan policy back on track, Hillary chose to belittle his political courage and aggrandize her “experience.” Later, in the Cleveland debate, she grossly distorted his suggestions, accusing him of “threatent[ing] to bomb Pakistan.”

Just a little less than five months after Obama’s courageous speech on terrorism and Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

Benazir Bhutto had far more courage than Hillary. Unlike Hillary, she didn’t have to make up stories of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire. When history called, Bhutto answered. She returned to her native Pakistan knowing full well that doing so might cause her death. She died with her head high and her country’s future foremost in her mind.

The tragedy of Bhutto’s loss is incalculable, not only for Pakistan, but for the world. Had she lived, she very likely would be Pakistan’s prime minister today. The bare symbolism of having a woman leading a populous Islamic democracy— the only Islamic nation with nuclear weapons—would have had incalculable exemplary value.

But Bhutto was far more than a symbol. She was a resilient, clever and highly articulate politician. With her fluent, idiomatic British English (better than our own president’s American English!), she would have made a powerful ambassador for democracy and women’s rights throughout the world. Now, after her death, we can only imagine the difference her leadership in Pakistan would have made.

In her life as in her death, Bhutto showed the world what a real female leader looks like and how far below that standard Hillary falls.

Am I hinting that Hillary’s poor judgment led to Butto’s death? No. But I am suggesting that Hillary’s poor decision contributed to a political climate that made Butto’s assassination more likely. More important, I’m suggesting that Hillary’s decision to ridicule Obama and tout her “experience” arose entirely out of domestic politics, in complete disregard of possible consequences in the real world. The consequences of failing to challenge Dubya’s lame Pakistan policy may have been disastrous.


All three of Hillary’s key errors of judgment in foreign policy share the same characteristics. In each case, she thought only of her own political future, i.e., her strategy for becoming president. She ignored her decisions’ consequences in the real world, apart from domestic presidential politics. While we cannot confidently attribute the disasters that followed to Hillary’s decisions, we can say that those consequences were consistent with her decisions and that she did nothing to prevent them. Only her Quds Force error failed to precede disaster, which the courage of nameless bureaucrats inside our intelligence services may have spared us.

That is why Hillary as president would be so dangerous. Not only have her errors in foreign and military policy sprung entirely from purely domestic political thinking. They also demonstrate her inability to predict the consequences of her actions in the real world. At a minimum, they show she hasn’t cared enough about those consequences to analyze and consider them.

International diplomacy and war are like gigantic chess games. Succeeding at them requires thorough understanding of the positions, views, histories, intentions and capabilities of all the players—foreign nations, foreign political leaders and parties and, yes, foreign terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda. Then it requires minds capable of holding and analyzing all the multiple variables simultaneously and making accurate predictions of contingencies without error, bias or distortion. In short, it requires minds of the caliber of Henry Kissinger’s and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s in their primes.

It’s no answer to say that a president can hire such minds. A president must have the judgment and perseverance to find and appoint such people, the wisdom to listen to and learn from them, the brains to understand their conclusions, and the judgment to sense when they are right. Hillary has never given us the slightest indication that she possesses any of these qualities.

Nor are checks and balances an answer. Congress checks and balances a president’s power here at home. It has virtually no power to check a president’s acts in the fields of foreign and military policy. Especially in times of war (like the present), our president is a virtual dictator outside our borders. The War in Iraq, Guanánamo, our secret foreign prisons, and our rendering both civilians and foreign fighters for torture in foreign countries testify to these points.

So far we know four things about Hillary. First, her decisions on three vital matters of foreign policy have been wrong. Second, disasters followed two of them, which Hillary did nothing to prevent. Third, all three decisions derived from domestic political considerations. Fourth, none provides any indication that Hillary or any of her advisors is capable of predicting the consequences of American action in the real world. None even provides any indication of concern about those consequences.

In a separate post, I have analyzed how precisely the same circumstances led to our two greatest blunders in foreign policy: Vietnam and Iraq. Both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush (in different ways) made horrible errors in war and international strategy by treating the big, wide world as a mere extension of domestic American politics. Electing another president who has given every indication of taking the same approach to foreign affairs would be the most dangerous thing “we the people” could do.

P.S. A few months ago, I published a post with the title “Is Hillary Dangerous?” Inspired by a column of Maureen Dowd’s, it tried to make a serious point about what was essentially a minor piece of campaign gossip.

I’m not very proud of that post, and I regret writing it. But I have a policy of not removing any post from this blog, although I correct typos and factual errors when I find them and sometimes improve previous posts’ language.

Readers have right to see my full written record and understand that I am human and make mistakes of judgment, too. Nonetheless, readers who wish to know why a Hillary presidency would pose extraordinary risk to them and their children should look to this series of posts, not to the one I now regret writing.

P.P.S. Mistakes seems to come in groups. I had meant to withhold this post for a few days, to give my essay on Prejudice and Pride time to air. But so be it; I don't retract posts. Yet I hope readers will not give short shrift to that essay, or to the postscript on Bill Moyers’ extraordinary interview with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright that follows it.


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