Hillary Clinton and the Dangers of Hubris

Are the Democrats set to give us another imperial president?


During the Democratic debate in South Carolina, I heard something I never expected to hear: Hillary Clinton coming out against U.S. military intervention.

At least I think she was coming out against U.S. military intervention. Asked if U.S. troops should be sent to Darfur, the New York senator made a valiant effort to dodge the question by declaiming about sanctions, divestment and UN peacekeepers. But when pressed, "How about American troops on the ground?" she finally said, a bit awkwardly, "American ground troops I don't think belong in Darfur at this time."

But don't bet that she'll stick to that position if she's elected. It goes against type. Clinton favored intervention in Haiti in 1994. She favored intervention in Bosnia in 1995. She favored intervention in Kosovo in 1999. As first lady, Clinton said, "I am very pleased that this president and administration have made democracy one of the centerpieces of our foreign policy." Before the Kosovo war, she phoned Bill from Africa and, she recalled later, "I urged him to bomb."

Among her critics, Clinton is known for a mother-knows-best domestic policy that relies on overbearing interference from Washington to remake the landscape to her specifications. The flip side is a mother-knows-best foreign policy that relies on overbearing interference from Washington to remake the landscape to her specifications.

Democrats hope that when it comes to international affairs, Clinton would represent a big change from George W. Bush. Republicans harbor that fear. In truth, this is one realm where the two are more alike than different. It's no accident that she voted for the resolution authorizing the president to invade Iraq. And it's no mystery that she was slow to admit the war was failing.

She didn't support the war because she was hoodwinked by Bush. She didn't do it for strictly political reasons. She supported it because of her conception of America's proper role in the world—which combines a thirst for altruistic missions with a faith in the value of military force to get what you want. Those same impulses, of course, motivated the neoconservatives who urged Bush to go into Iraq.

On the morning after the South Carolina debate, the Clinton campaign trotted out former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to gush about the senator's declaration that she would not meet with various dictators "until we know better what the way forward would be." Said Albright, "She gave a very sophisticated answer that showed her understanding of the diplomatic process."

Being praised for your diplomatic sophistication by Madeleine Albright is like being complimented on your sense of humor by John Kerry. Albright is the renowned diplomat who helped the Clinton administration blunder its way into an 11-week aerial war in Kosovo. Albright was confident that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would cave at the first whiff of gunpowder, and was shocked when he didn't.

That misjudgment had disastrous consequences. The Serbs responded not by capitulating but by greatly escalating their war on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. Some 10,000 of them died, and more than a million were forced from their homes. If the war was a success, it was a very mixed one. The same could be said about Bosnia and Haiti, where the results fell far short of our intentions.
Like Iraq, the Kosovo war demonstrated the folly of taking military action without preparing for the worst. Both also showed the dangers of unchecked hubris.

But those are not lessons Clinton has necessarily absorbed. When she ran for the Senate in 2000, she mocked Republicans (such as Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell) who think "we should intervene with force only when we face splendid little wars that we surely can win, preferably by overwhelming force in a relatively short period of time." On the contrary, she said, we "should not ever shy away from the hard task if it is the right one."

As Michael Crowley of The New Republic has noted, she had another reason for supporting Bush on Iraq. "I'm a strong believer in executive authority," she said in 2003. "I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority."

There you have it. A Hillary Clinton presidency promises to unite Madeleine Albright's zeal for using bombs in pursuit of liberal ideals with Dick Cheney's vision of the president as emperor. Won't that be fun?