While much has been made in the media of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience, and the other Democratic candidates are faulted for having less of it, not enough consideration is given to what Clinton actually says about foreign policy. If foreign policy as a topic deserves attention, then the policies themselves should be of even greater significance. What do Clinton’s words and stances indicate about the future of American relations with the rest of the world? The purpose here is not a thorough analysis, but rather to make a specific point for voters’ consideration.
What rings out from the Clinton campaign is the language of the last thirty years. It is starker because her opponents for Democratic nomination use it minimally. The former Secretary of State easily uses familiar phrases about the Middle East, the United States’ allies and enemies in that region, and about 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. “Foreign policy” is a series of clichés that simultaneously lulls and agitates Americans habituated to politicians using frightening language about terrorism. Little else is required to mark Clinton as a candidate of the establishment—the Liberal wing, but the establishment, nonetheless. Like America’s other establishment politicians, Clinton’s version of foreign affairs assumes Muslim terrorism.
In the Democratic Town Hall discussions in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, 25 January, a Muslim voter asked Clinton how she would protect American Muslims from discrimination, how Clinton would make sure that the United States was the best place for her (the voter’s) family to live. Islamophobia, as we know, is frighteningly present today in the Republican presidential race. Contesting this (and every) form of bigotry and fear-mongering is crucial. However, Clinton’s answer fell short of contestation. She called the language of Republicans “shameful” and “dangerous,” but went on to talk about American Muslims as the first line of defense against terrorism. Clinton made the argument (for at least the second time) that Muslim American parents are important in preventing their children from turning to violent extremism. This should be uncomfortable logic for Americans. Was Clinton’s best response that she would work to make sure that the woman’s children did not become terrorists?
Now, Clinton did not say that there is an innate or latent terrorism in Muslim children. However, in saying that Muslim parents protect their children from “radicalization,” she did come very close to tropes about Muslims and extremism and terrorism that are easily accessible to Americans buffeted daily and for decades by Islamophobic ideas and now confronted by the circus racism of Donald Trump and others. Calling Islamophobia “shameful” and in the next breath characterizing American Muslims as potentially valuable agents against anti-American, Muslim terrorism made an ugly and incongruous argument. As Clinton demonstrated, moralizing about racism does not equate to a political commitment to breaking it. Her answer to the Muslim voter revealed prejudices or played upon prejudices that are indeed shameful.
Clinton extended the “parent” argument to foreign policy. When she argued that Muslim leaders should take the lead in defeating ISIS, she made ISIS a problem of Islam rather than a problem of politics. The important point here is that Clinton’s talk of terrorism and seemingly sincere comments about American Muslims are consistent with policy that in both its Democratic and Republican modes has cast Muslims as enemies, or at best as strategic partners.
Clinton is absolutely correct to say that Islamophobia is “dangerous.” Islamophobia and the threat of terrorism have justified a period of United States foreign policy that has directly increased violence and terrorism. It has been exceedingly more dangerous to Muslims around the world than to Americans. This has been a foreign policy that serves the fossil fuel and defense industries. It is a policy that perceives containment of or use of force against millions of Muslims (and other people) around the world as permissible or necessary. This has been true of both Republicans and Democrats, with varying degrees of dissembling and regret. Consider the last four presidencies: George H. W. Bush presided over America’s first war in Iraq. Bill Clinton bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan and raised the specter of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of illegal weapons. George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to hunt terrorists and Iraq to hunt weapons of mass destruction. Barack Obama bombed Libya and has permitted a drone war that kills many Muslim civilians. The American government’s support for the Israeli state is an enduring and cogent example of policy that promotes violence. The United States’ implication in creating the conditions for the emergence of ISIS with the second war in Iraq is another example. The full record is far more extensive. These policies have been represented to Americans as necessary, and the justification has been fighting Muslim terrorists or despots. These policies have also been instrumental in inciting terrorism. This is the foreign policy in which Hillary Clinton has experience.
Clinton does not represent any fundamental changes to this foreign policy. She offers continuity. We should expect Clinton to propose more than “diplomacy first” and force as a “last resort.” (Diplomacy in Iran has revealed again the United States’ spectacular hypocrisy on nuclear weapons. And even George W. Bush invoked “last resorts.”) Diplomacy as a policy is common sense. What is needed is a political shift. Clinton’s familiar talk of being tough on terrorism—her firm “yesses” last Monday night to deploying American bombers, special forces, and military advisors—coupled with her questionable statements about American Muslims, does not promise such a shift. Clinton reassures Americans that Muslim terrorists are still the enemy.
And her foreign policy suggests other policies, as well. Americans cannot expect urgent and systematic efforts to address climate change if our foreign policy and military are designed for and committed to the fossil fuel industry. Americans cannot expect real commitment to contesting racism at home if our foreign policy is premised on Islamophobia, be it veiled, habitual, or overt. The focus that the two other Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, place on domestic policy over foreign policy does not represent a failure on their part. O’Malley’s plan for urgently developing a clean energy industry and ending American dependence on fossil fuels is foreign policy in its own right. Sanders’s career-long fight to get big money out of politics speaks to a different foreign policy than that which big industries have won from both the Right and Left of the political establishment for a long time.
Change is needed as certainly in America’s foreign policy as in its domestic policy, and Hillary Clinton does not represent such change.