“They sent forth men to battle.
But no such men return;
And home, to claim their welcome.
Comes ashes in an urn.”
— Ode from “Agamemnon,” Aeschylus
Aeschylus—who had actually fought at Marathon in 490 BC, the battle that defeated the first Persian invasion of Greece—had few illusions about the consequences of war. His ode is one that the candidates for the U.S. presidency might consider, though one doubts that many of them would think to find wisdom in a 2,500 year-old Greek play.
And that, in itself, is a tragedy.
Historical blindness has been much on display in the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. On the Republican side candidates were going to “kick ass” in Iraq, make the “sand glow” in Syria, and face down the Russians in Europe. But while the Democratic aspirants were more measured, there is a pervasive ideology than binds together all but cranks like Ron Paul: America has the right, indeed, the duty to order the world’s affairs.
This peculiar view of the role of the U.S. takes on a certain messianic quality in candidates like Hillary Clinton, who routinely quotes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s line about America as “the indispensible nation” whose job is to lead the world.
At a recent rally in Indianola, Iowa, Clinton said that “Senator [Bernie] Sanders doesn’t talk much about foreign policy, and, when he does, it raises concerns because sometimes it can sound like he really hasn’t thought things through.”
The former Secretary of State was certainly correct. Foreign policy for Sanders is pretty much an afterthought to his signature issues of economic inequality and a national health care system. But the implication of her comment is that she has thought things through. If she has, it is not evident in her biography, Hard Choices, or in her campaign speeches.
Hard Choices covers her years as Secretary of State and seemingly unconsciously tracks a litany of American foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, and the “Asia pivot” that has dangerously increased tensions with China. At the heart of Hard Choices is the ideology of “American exceptionalism,” which for Clinton means the right of the U.S. to intervene in other countries. As historian Jackson Lears, in the London Review of Books, puts it, Hard Choices “tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as Secretary of State. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing.”
Clinton is undoubtedly an intelligent person, but her book is remarkably shallow and quite the opposite of “thoughtful.” The one act on her part for which she shows any regret is her vote to invade Iraq. But even here she quickly moves on, never really examining how it is that the U.S. has the right to invade and overthrow a sovereign government. For Clinton, Iraq was only a “mistake” because it came out badly.
She also demonstrates an inability to see other people’s point of view. Thus the Russians are aggressively attempting to re-establish their old Soviet sphere of influence rather than reacting to the steady march of NATO eastwards. The fact that the U.S. violated promises by the first Bush administration not to move NATO “one inch east” if the Soviets withdrew their forces from Eastern Europe is irrelevant.
She doesn’t seem to get that a country that has been invaded three times since 1815 and lost tens of millions of people might be a tad paranoid about its borders. There is no mention of the roles of U.S. intelligence agencies, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and of openly fascist Ukranian groups played in the coup against the elected government of Ukraine.
Clinton takes credit for the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” that “sent a message to Asia and the world that America was back in its traditional leadership role in Asia,” but she doesn’t consider how this might be interpreted in Beijing. The U.S. never left Asia—the Pacific basin has long been our major trading partner—so, to the Chinese, “back” and “pivot” means that the U.S. plans to beef up its military in the region and construct an anti-China alliance system. It has done both.
Clinton costumes military intervention in the philosophy of “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” but her application is selective. She takes credit for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, but in her campaign speeches she has not said a word about the horrendous bombing campaign being waged by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. She cites R2P for why the U.S. should overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain to crush demands for democracy by its majority Shiite population.
Clinton, along with Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s National Security Advisor, has pushed for muscular interventions without thinking—or caring—about the consequences
And those consequences have been dire..
Afghanistan: Somewhere around 220,000 Afghans have died since the 2001 U.S. invasion, and millions of others are refugees. The U.S. and its allies have suffered close to 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded, and the war is far from over. The cost: close to $700 billion, not counting the long-term medical bill that could run as high as $2 trillion.
Libya: Some 30,000 people died and another 50,000 were wounded in the intervention and civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been turned into refugees. The cost was cheap: $1.1 billion, but it has created a tsunami of refugees and the war continues. It also produced one of Clinton’s more tasteless remarks. Referring to Gaddafi, she said, “We came, we saw, he died.” The Libyan leader was executed by having a bayonet rammed up his rectum.
Ukraine: The death toll is above 8,000, some 18,000 have been wounded, and several cities in the eastern part of the country have been heavily damaged. The fighting has tapered off although tensions remain high.
Yemen: Over 6,000 people have been killed, another 27,000 wounded, and, according to the UN, most of them are civilians. Ten million Yeminis don’t have enough to eat, and 13 million have no access to clean water. Yemen is highly dependent on imported food, but a U.S.-Saudi blockade has choked off most imports. The war is ongoing.
Iraq: Somewhere between 400,000 to over 1 million people have died from war-related causes since the 2003 invasion. Over 2 million have fled the country and another 2 million are internally displaced. The cost: close to $1 trillion, but it may rise to $4 trillion once all the long-term medical costs are added in. The war is ongoing.
Syria: Over 250,000 have died in the war, and four million Syrians are refugees. The country’s major cities have been ravaged. The war is ongoing.
There are other countries—like Somalia—that one could add to the butcher bill. Then there are the countries that reaped the fallout from the collapse of Libya. Weapons looted after the fall of Gaddafi largely fuel the wars in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic.
And how does one calculate the cost of the Asia Pivot, not only for the U.S., but for the allies we are recruiting to confront China? Since the “Pivot” took place prior to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, is the current climate of tension in the Pacific basin a result of Chinese aggression, or U.S. provocation?
Hillary Clinton is not the only Democrat who thinks American exceptionalism gives the U.S. the right to intervene in other countries. That point of view it is pretty much bi-partisan. And while Sanders voted against the Iraq war and criticizes Clinton as too willing to intervene, the Vermont senator backed the Yugoslavia and Afghan interventions. The former re-ignited the Cold War, and the latter is playing out like a Rudyard Kipling novel.
In all fairness, Sanders did say, “I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences may be.”
Would Hillary be more inclined toward an aggressive foreign policy? Certainly more than Obama’s—Clinton pressed the White House to directly intervene in Syria and was far more hard line on Iran. More than the Republicans? It’s hard to say, because most of them sound like they have gone off their meds. For instance, a number of GOP candidates pledge to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran, and, while Clinton wanted to drive a harder bargain than the White House did, in the end she supported it.
However, she did say she is proud to call Iranians “enemies,” and attacked Sanders for his remark that the U.S. might find common ground with Iran on defeating the Islamic State. Sanders then backed off and said he didn’t think it was possible to improve relations with Teheran in the near future.
The danger of Clinton’s view of America’s role in the world is that it is old fashioned imperial behavior wrapped in the humanitarian rationale of R2P and thus more acceptable than the “make the sands glow” atavism of most the Republicans. In the end, however, R2P is just death and destruction in a different packaging.
Aeschylus got that: “For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.”