Monday, August 15, 2016

Stupid stuff and other accidents of empire

Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the twilight struggle over American Power by New York Times journalist Mark Landler attempts a provocative inquiry into the foreign policies and occasional conflicts between our current president and his likely successor. I just wish it was more insightful.

Instead, there's lots of the sort of narrative of events that filled Landler's days as the State Department beat reporter following Secretary of State Clinton about, but not much meaning drawn from this episodic material.

An excursion into the different upbringings of the two protagonists is both a rehash of well-plowed terrain -- and unconvincing as explanatory of their quite minor policy differences.

Landler, while flying along on one of Obama's foreign trips, seems to have been on the receiving end of an Obama complaint about foreign policy journalism which probably led to his most trenchant statement of his policy premises:
The impromptu visit [to the rear of the plane] was meant to set the press straight about our coverage ... Obama viewed it as shallow, mistaking prudence for fecklessness, pragmatism for lack of ambition.

... "I can sum up my foreign policy in one phrase," Obama said, pausing a beat for his punch line. "Don't do stupid shit."

American's problems, he said stemmed not from doing too little but too much, from overreach rather than inaction. a world of unending strife and unreliable despotic leaders, hope for more than that was simply not realistic. In such a world, Obama was content to hit singles and doubles, hewing to his foreign policy version of the Hippocratic oath.
For the sake of Landler's premise, Clinton must have thought differently, and so he reports her later retort:
"Great nations need organizing principles," she said when she was asked in the summer of 2014 if Obama's phrase held any lessons for her. "'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
Yet if the book consistently suggests anything, it is that both Obama and Clinton were more driven by accidents and events they did not control, rather than being masters of world affairs. Most of Obama's voters had elected him to be a manager of strategic retreat -- to extricate them from confusions and conflicts in which they saw only costs, not necessity. So it is not surprising that during most of his early tenure, coinciding with Clinton's stint at State, Obama looks in retrospect like articulate flotsam in the world ocean. Friends and enemies, domestic and foreign, drove his actions. Fearful of domestic reaction to any successful terrorist incident, he adopted much of the Bush program of "covert wars," drones, Navy SEALS and all that. Clinton bobbed along with him.
Clinton and Obama, it must be said, agreed more than they disagreed. Both shunned the unilateralism of the Bush years. ... [Perennial foreign policy honcho] Dennis Ross ... said "It's not that she's quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power."
They shared the fiasco, and fall out, from their incursion into Libya. Landler makes the suggestion that Clinton's enthusiasm for bombing and invading may be a product of watching Bill Clinton's relatively successful adventures in Serbia and Kosovo -- imperial exploits which barely penetrated the U.S. national consciousness. Vietnam and Iraq remained the enduring, searing, reference points.

After reelection and Clinton's departure in 2013, Obama has carried through some bold initiatives, re-setting relations with Cuba and Iran while ignoring Israeli tantrums, but still being careful and cautious as much as domestic politics would allow. She may have set the stage for these Obama policies, but they were not her show.

Landler's book is downright offensive in omitting any discussion of Hillary Clinton's airy approval of the coup in Honduras which deposed President Manuel Zelaya in favor of pro-U.S. oligarchs and generals. These paragons have returned that country to its status as a murderous narco-state. In Landler's telling, the deposed Zelaya is a figure of fun, whose overthrow is dismissed as sending him packing "wearing only his pajamas." If Landler is echoing the attitudes of Clinton's State Department, and he probably is, a President Clinton will find she has trouble ahead from Latin American states that have come to demand more respect than they got in Bill's day. She needs to devote some of her legendarily diligent study time to getting up to speed about our southern neighbors.

Commentary on this book has focused on Landler's chapter on Clinton's enthusiasm for generals. She apparently likes a man in uniform, especially if they can share a stiff drink after work. The U.S. military is currently both gun-shy after being handing their asses by Afghan peasants and Iraqi insurgents, yet also driven to expand and enlarge its mission to justify its existence. If Hillary chooses to go with their flow, and they take U.S. casualties, look for her to have a one term presidency. On the other hand, the experience of both Obama and Clinton suggests that we exaggerate when we think of U.S. presidents as completely free actors.

The struggle of people in this country who care about the lives of people all over the world will be to stimulate Clinton's caution. Since the limits of U.S. power are real, she too will experience limits. Stupid stuff has a way of remaining stupid.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Wow! You have outdone yourself here. Brilliant!

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