Hillary: Ordinarily Awful or Uncommonly Awful?

Throughout her far too long public life, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly how clueless and inept she is; her tenure as Secretary of State is riddled with examples from around the world.

Libya, Syria and Iraq are the jewels in the crown of the Queen of Chaos, as Diana Johnstone has aptly described her. But nearly everything that the Madam Secretary did at State went awry. She is the Empress of Ineptitude too.

And yet, conventional wisdom has it that she is a foreign policy whiz.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but this is extreme. How did it come about that the conventional wisdom and the truth got to be so wildly out of line?

When Hillary and Bill move back into the White House, Hillary’s purported expertise will find new avenues for expression, causing even her liberal supporters to turn against her as she leads the United States into more quagmires – or worse — than all her predecessors, including Lyndon Johnson, combined. Then that question will receive the attention it deserves, and insightful answers will come to light. Der Hass sieht Scharf, hatred sees sharply.

But is she really worse than the others?

Compared to Barack Obama, the answer is surely Yes. Obama is a foreign policy dunce, but Hillary will make him look downright statesman-like in comparison.   No wonder he is so eager to get her elected; she is his best, perhaps his only, chance actually to be appreciated and missed.

But, from the perspective of the past half-century, the answer is less clear.

That thought is bound to occur to readers of Andrew Bacevich’s new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House: 2016).

A friend recommended that book, and I would like to pass the recommendation on – not only for its accessible and compelling accounts of recent American military interventions throughout the Muslim world, but also because the story Bacevich tells sheds light on the part that President Hillary Clinton is likely to play in the on-going tragedy of American diplomacy in the Middle East.

It should be born in mind, though, that her role in the war for –and also against — the Greater Middle East is only part of the larger picture. The scarier part lies with her designs on lands farther to the north, in Russia and the other former Soviet republics, and in China. Russia and China are far less likely to start wars than, say, Israel or Pakistan, but they have many more nuclear weapons, and they don’t take well to being bullied.

Fortunately, their leaders – including the incessantly villainized Vladimir Putin — are wise enough to do all they can to keep their nuclear and conventional weapons from being used. But when the Queen of Chaos gets going, anything can – and often does – happen.


The chronicle Bacevich presents recounts how, from the late seventies on, American policies towards Muslim lands in the Greater Middle East, and in peripheral regions like Somalia and Yugoslavia, have been monumentally clueless and inept.

In this respect, Hillary is not much of an outlier after all; she is only the latest in a long line.

Needless to say, the underlying cause of the perpetual war regime that the United States has inflicted upon that part of the world, and upon itself, is and has always been oil: its availability to the United States and its allies. But that is not the whole story. The United States does want to control as much of the world’s oil supply as it can, but this plain fact explains very little about the fix we are presently in.

On Bacevich’s telling, the key to understanding that is the realization that even when the road to hell was paved with benign intentions (as, rightly or wrongly, he thinks it often was), events went awry because Western, especially American, politicians, diplomats and military leaders were in way over their heads.

I would venture that he gives those bumblers too much credit; that their motives were less benign than he makes them out to be. But I won’t press that point here. It hardly matters, in the end, because, as the saying goes, the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, just as surely as with bad.

However, for putting Hillary’s place in the larger scheme of things in perspective, it does matter a little.

As Bacevich sees it, Jimmy Carter got the process going, more or less inadvertently. The presidents who followed then kept on blundering, much as he did –only worse.

I would venture, though, that, in key respects, Carter was not so much the prototype of what was to come, but the exception to the rule. Unlike his successors, Carter was a sheep, not a wolf, in sheep’s clothing.

To be sure, he served economic elites, and he was swayed by powerful and nefarious lobbies. He was a President, after all; that’s what Presidents do. But, in his heart, he was a guileless and earnest man, a Sunday School teacher, who only wanted to bring peace to the world.

Too bad that he listened as much as he did to his guileful National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and therefore signed off on providing arms and diplomatic support to political Islamists in Afghanistan and anywhere else where they could harm the interests of the USSR.

This made Cold War sense; it was a way to force the Soviets into a situation similar to the one America got itself into in Vietnam. That Machiavellian démarche was not exactly Carter’s idea; Brzezinski and the people around him came up with it. But the buck stops in the Oval Office.

It is therefore fair to blame poor Jimmy Carter for setting a process in motion that made political Islam a significant factor not just in the Greater Middle East, but, in one way or another, in all the four corners of the world.

Carter stumbled into what would soon become the norm: clumsy interventions into complicated situations that ignorant leaders, too clever for their own good, barely understood, and invariably got wrong.

Through force of arms, those hapless leaders would sometimes “win” — at first. But, after the dust cleared, it would turn out that the consequences of the murder and mayhem they unleashed were counterproductive at best. Even when they won, they lost.

America “lost” in Vietnam too, but it was never defeated in the way that Germany and Japan were in World War II. Those countries had no choice but to set their imperial ambitions aside, and to tune down their adherence to cultural norms that inclined them towards war. Their peoples, and the peoples of the world, have been better off ever since.

So far, America has always emerged unscathed from its failed military adventures. Its elites and their media flacks have therefore learned nothing salutary from any of them. If anything, America’s addiction to war has gotten worse.

And so, to the detriment of all affected parties, the idea of America as “the indispensable nation,” as Hillary calls it, has never been corrected or revised. In elite economic and political circles, in major media outlets, and in Hillary Clinton’s mind, it has been embraced instead.

This is why we Americans now live in a state of perpetual war that counts many of our rights and liberties among its casualties. And it is why, in large swathes of the Greater Middle East, people live amidst death and destruction, and in constant fear of coming to a violent end – whether from bullets or bombs or, most terrifying of all, from Barack Obama’s drones.

It is also why humanitarian and refugee crises abound – not only in the Greater Middle East, but now also in Europe as well.

This is the world that the Clintons helped make, and that Hillary Clinton will dedicate her presidency to advancing.

Clinton has long been reviled, for all the wrong reasons, by rightwing ideologues and by their marks, the mindless denizens of the Fox News demographic. As she ratchets up America’s clueless bumbling without changing the thinking behind it one iota, she will come to be even more profoundly reviled by everyone to her left – which is to say, by nearly everyone.   Their reasons will be impeccably compelling too. But, for now, too many liberals don’t see it. What they see instead, or think they do, is that Hillary and Bill are good social liberals; and that is enough for them.

Some of them even think that she is a “pragmatic progressive.” Perhaps those who sincerely believe that mean well, but they are in serious denial. There is therefore no arguing them out of that transparently false idea. Not now, anyway; events will bring them around soon enough.

Even on cultural matters, the Clintons, like Obama, go whichever way the wind blows. In some respects, the United States in the twenty-first century is more “inclusive” than twentieth century America was, and so the Clintons now are too. They never took the lead, but they are happy to take the credit.

Of course, for Muslims and others who could be mistaken for Muslims, and for Hispanic immigrants, America is a good deal less welcoming than it used to be. For this, we have mainly America’s “dumb wars” (candidate Obama’s term) and NAFTA and other Clinton trade policies to thank.

So the Clintons’ record is mixed. But at least, they have been generally loath to tap into voters’ baser prejudices and instincts, the way that Donald Trump does. Even so, they are not beyond encouraging Islamophobia and nativism indirectly, by supporting political and economic policies that call it forth.

Still, it must be said that when they have public opinion on their side and, in the case of Hispanics, when it makes political sense, they will do the right thing. Give credit where credit is due. Hooray for them.

And Hooray for Hillary more than Bill.   Our “first black President” would, after all, spew out racially coded messages when electoral exigencies seemed to call for it. Bubba knew just how to do it. Hillary, the Goldwater Girl from Chicago’s lily-white western ‘burbs was brought up better than that.

But the hypocrisy around her is just as mind-boggling. When pressed to find something about her to praise, her apologists tell us that children are and always have been her first concern.   Well, sure – unless those children are Palestinian or live in countries that the American empire is, for one reason or another, putting down.

As the War for the Greater Middle East has proceeded, and especially after 9/11, the Land of the Free is no longer as free as it used to be. The Clintons are fine with that too — as long as voters don’t mind too much. And even if they do, that only gives them a reason to seem to care.

In this case too, the Clintons are basically of the same mind as others in the political class. If they differ, it is in degree, not in kind.   Obama, for example, is no friend of due process rights or transparency.   But Hillary is worse. Maybe the reason is that she has more to be embarrassed about.


Carter stumbled into launching a war with the Muslim world, but because his heart wasn’t really in it, that war never quite took off.

That didn’t happen until Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush decided that what Carter got going could be useful for burying “the Vietnam Syndrome,” the idea that, after Vietnam, the American public would never support open-ended commitments of American troops dispatched to far away places solely for the sake of securing America’s position as a global hegemon.

But even they never quite achieved a state of permanent war. That required the active participation of the Clintons, doing what they do best – implementing Republican programs and ideas by neutralizing opposition within Democratic ranks and, whenever possible, bringing willing Democrats along.

Thus it was Bill Clinton and his close advisors, including Hillary’s mentor, Madeleine Albright, who fully brought the War for the Greater Middle East to fruition.

Hillary’s apologists could say that it was her husband, not she, who did this; technically they would be correct.   But if Hillary wants to credit her years as First Lady as evidence of her foreign policy expertise, the sins of her husband and his administration are on her too.

By the time the Clintons came along, the Soviet Union was gone, and the Vietnam Syndrome was already history. But the military industrial complex was still there, calling for ways to maintain the war economy on which American prosperity had depended for more than forty years.

NATO was a particular problem. By the nineties, it had become integral to America’s imperial project, but with the Warsaw Pact gone, and the Cold War over, it was hard to make a case that would appeal to anyone outside the war machine’s ambit for needing it at all.

However, the empire’s stewards did need NATO because they couldn’t or didn’t want to police the empire on their own, and because the UN could not be counted on to bend to America’s will – not with all those pesky little countries with different ideas in the General Assembly, and not with Russia and China having veto rights in the Security Council.

NATO, on the other hand, was a serviceable international organization that the United States could dominate and also, not incidentally, use to keep European powers under its thumb – in the unlikely event that any of them might decide to get uppity.

On Bacevich’s telling, this is what American machinations in the former Yugoslavia were about – once it became clear that the US could not remain aloof from the disintegration of that formerly socialist and multi-cultural country without ceding power to the Germans and other European upstarts.

For Clinton – or, rather, for the Clintons and their co-thinkers — dropping bombs on Serbians was a way to make NATO relevant, and also to insure that the United States would continue to call the shots in the so-called Free World.

Also, from the Clintons’ vantage point, supporting Bosnians and later Kosovars seemed like a quick and dirty way to win over Muslim hearts and minds.   While inflicting murderous sanctions on Iraqis, supporting reactionary Arab governments throughout the region, and writing Israeli governments blank checks to advance the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, a get-out-of-jail-free card like they thought they could get by siding with Muslims in the Balkans was just what the doctor ordered.

However, what they actually got was a fresh supply of zealous jihadis. Had they been better informed about the consequences of their machinations, they would have realized that they were playing with fire. But, when you have many times more weapons than the rest of the world, and an economy that dwarfed Yugoslavia’s many times over, why bother becoming informed?

Reagan’s efforts and the first Bush’s to break down the Vietnam Syndrome were sporadic and inconsistent – indeed, incoherent – but, with the passage of time, the Vietnam Syndrome did fall into America’s capacious memory hole.

Also, by the time that Saddam Hussein moved into Kuwait, Bush and his foreign policy team had become more competent, at least at a tactical level.   They hadn’t become much better informed, however; and their strategic acumen was as flawed as ever. They were able to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but then, true to form, they had no idea what to do next.

The Clintons did – sort of. Their idea was to bomb the smithereens out of Iraq and enforce a sanctions regime that, by some accounts, led to the premature deaths of more than half a million men, women and children. Because they did their killing without committing American ground troops, they largely escaped public opprobrium.

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In Kosovo, Clinton-style bombing actually seemed (for a while) to have brought on regime change. This gave the stewards of the empire a newfound faith in the efficacy of air power alone.

The Clinton way of war, fine-tuned in Yugoslavia, came down to this: keep the bombs falling, and Americans out of harm’s way.

However, air power alone was plainly not enough to accomplish the “missions” that Dick Cheney and Bush the Younger had in mind for Afghanistan and Iraq. They didn’t change course, however; they just grafted troops on the ground onto the Clinton scheme.

The several “surges” undertaken on the watch of our Nobel laureate President were also cut from the same cloth.   No surprise there: for four long years, Hillary was his Secretary of State and, even after she was gone, her epigones remained.

It was on Obama’s watch too that the generation of Pentagon brass that had just missed Vietnam set out to get “counter-insurgency” right – pouring new wine into the old bottles. The result was predictable: they got it dead wrong, making everything they touched worse.

The outcome would have been worse still, had not Obama been a tad wary of letting the generals have their way. When it comes to waging war, Hillary Clinton is never wary.

Like Jimmy Carter, or Woodrow Wilson, she doesn’t send others off to fight to “make the world safe for democracy” or to end war forever. Her idea, like Madeleine Albright’s, is that war or the threat of war is a tool in the diplomat’s arsenal – useful, more often than not, for assuring that political and economic elites get their way.

In other words, if you’ve got it, use it – flaunt it even; the indispensible nation must remain on top, come what may.

Mistakes will be made, of course; that is inevitable. But, alone among the nations of the earth, America is “exceptional” in the sense that whatever it aims to do is ipso facto good — and beneficial not just for money-grubbing capitalists, but for everyone the world over.

As much as she believes anything, Hillary believes that. Seriously.

We cannot blame the sorry trajectory – from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton– on moral and intellectual decline alone, or on the malign intentions of the two Clintons. If Bacevich is right, as I think he is, the main villains are the cluelessness and ineptitude of our politicians, diplomats and military leaders – every single one of them from Carter on.

With the passage of time, America’s ability to escape the consequences of its leaders’ follies has diminished, just as the cluelessness and ineptitude of those leaders has generally gotten worse.   But with Hillary about to take over, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.


Hillary is more bellicose than most; and, like Madeleine Albright, more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. She also has less inclination than most of the others – with the possible exception of some of the neoconservatives that Dick Cheney empowered in the Bush the Younger years – to steer clear of nuclear powers that could and probably would fight back if sufficiently provoked.

These differences could mean life or death, but they are differences of degree, not of kind.

Should we therefore conclude that Hillary is awful in the way that all the others have been – more extreme, perhaps, but not awful in ways that the others were not?

There is no simple answer — because, when conditions are right, a straw can break a camel’s back, and because there is less tolerance nowadays of politicians of the familiar kind than there used to be.

Thanks to forty some years of the same old same old, people around the world are rising up in opposition. The center is holding — in the United States and everywhere else – but only barely. Economic elites may not yet have cause to worry, but the politicians who serve their interests do.

And Hillary does more than most because, more than anyone else of comparable prominence, she embodies all that people are in revolt against.

This is why, on many issues, Donald Trump’s views, as best they can be ascertained, are actually more progressive than hers. Even running against him, she is not unequivocally the lesser evil.

If Trump had any chance at all of winning in November, it might be worthwhile to reflect on that situation and to ponder its implications. But no matter what Hillary wants voters to believe, and no matter what media pundits claim, his chances of beating her – even her! — are practically nil.

Do the math! He has destroyed the Republican Party and alienated prominent rightwing bloviators. And as if that weren’t enough, he is constitutionally incapable of not undermining his own position, just by being the narcissistic buffoon that he is.

Hillary and her people are counting on voters not realizing this until the election is over.   With so many talking heads playing along, they will likely get their way.

Lucky for them too that the consensus view among those who shape public opinion is that the Brexit vote in the UK is a reason for closing ranks behind the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. The argument seems to be that if “it” could happen there, “it” could also happen here. The first “it” refers, of course, to the vote to leave the EU; the second refers to Trump.

It should go without saying that the premises of this argument are flawed. Of course, there were racists and nativists in Britain who voted “leave,” but that was not what the leave vote was mainly about. It was about the EU and therefore about neoliberal globalization and the withering away of what little democracy Britain once enjoyed.

And although Trump plainly has the power to bring out the inner fascist in many elderly white voters, most of his support in the primaries came from people who were justifiably fed up with much the same things as their UK counterparts, not from racists and nativists or fascists.

Most Trump voters used Trump to express their frustrations with politics as usual, just as surely as he used them to bolster his own standing with himself.

Those frustrations are not going to go away any time soon – especially not with Hillary leading the Democratic ticket. But, by the time November comes, it will be painfully clear to all but the most damaged Trump admirers that the alternative he offers is too ludicrous to be taken seriously.

And even if many of the people who voted for the Donald in the primaries remain recalcitrant, no one else will. All those independent “swing” voters we used to hear so much about will fall into line to make sure that he never sees the inside of the Oval Office – unless, of course, his once and future friends, Hillary and Bill, invite him in.

The lesson that ought to be drawn from the Brexit vote is therefore the opposite of the one that has been drawn.   It is not that now is the time to form a united front against a fascist on the rise – a Mussolini wannabe. It is that politicians who promote neoliberal nostrums just don’t cut it anymore.

Hillary will run an awful campaign – she is not even good at that – but she will nevertheless win in November because she will be running against a sure loser.

But then, when voters’ remorse sets in, as it surely will right away, she will find herself reviled.

At that point, the shades of difference that distinguish her from Obama and other like-minded bumblers will be of critical importance. Where they would be inclined to stay away from situations that are bound to turn sour, her inclination, as always, will be to jump in and lash out.

There is probably not a whole lot more harm that she and her co-thinkers – people like Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Michele Flournoy, Elliot Abrams, Robert Zoellick, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross — could do to the Greater Middle East, though maybe Benjamin Netanyahu will think of something.

The greater danger will come, though, when Hillary Clinton’s America “pivots” more towards Russia and China.

Obama wanted to turn the bull in the china shop loose there too, but he never got very far. Count on Hillary to do her level best to get farther – in ways that could lead to outcomes too horrible to contemplate.

Therefore, while Hillary may differ only in degree, not in kind, from the devils we know, the ones that have been leading us to ruination since the Jimmy Carter days, those differences can have momentous consequences.

Is our next Commander-in-Chief just garden variety awful or is her awfulness qualitatively worse than anyone else’s? The short answer, for now, is: probably not. But either way, the lesson is plain: worry! And then organize — post-haste!

After 2008, the idea was that Obama would do the right thing, if “the people” made him. It is hard to imagine, in retrospect, that anyone could have taken such nonsense seriously with Obama at the helm.

Now, at least, everybody knows, or ought to know, that there is no chance at all of our next President doing the right thing or indeed much of anything worth doing. Therefore, the task now is more modest, but also more achievable and more urgent: it is to disable the Queen of Chaos, as best we can – before she breaks the whole world, just as surely as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, standing on the shoulders of their clueless and inept predecessors, broke the Greater Middle East.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).