To Tame a Hawk

Hillary Clinton is not seeking attention for her views on Syria. And she has her reasons for not doing so.

We can safely say that the 2016 US election campaign has been one of a kind. There is nothing new about the use of harsh rhetoric in pursuit of votes. The candidates and their supporters will freely attack each other and opposing policies and proposals. Things may become heated, but usually the arguments are about substance. This year, focusing on issues of substance has proved to be more than usually difficult, primarily because one of the candidates has conducted a campaign dominated by form rather than substance. One area that has been more or less devoid of attention is foreign policy. Foreign policy is deemed one of the more complex areas of policy-making. Accordingly, it is difficult in any election campaign for candidates to present their detailed views about foreign policy issues or challenges. In addition, research shows that American voters traditionally put foreign policy low on the list of issues that will determine how they cast their votes. In other words, few voters will scrutinize each candidate’s manifesto in order to establish what kind of foreign policy he or she will pursue. Rather it seems to be the case that voters decide which candidate they prefer and then adopt that candidate’s ideas about foreign policy as their own.

Nevertheless, one might have expected foreign policy issues to have played more of a part in this campaign. The United States faces some very big decisions that will fundamentally affect its global role – and the best way of securing that role. In addition, Hillary Clinton is a presidential candidate with extremely extensive experience of foreign policy. As a result of the various civilian positions she has held – as first lady, as a senator and as Secretary of State – she has gained a great deal of experience of foreign policy, including its military aspects. It is precisely her long-standing presence in American politics that makes many analysts seem confident as to the type of foreign policy that a President Clinton would conduct: she would continue many of Obama’s policies, but would be far more willing to use American military force. In brief, Hillary is expected to be more hawkish in her foreign policy. Taking into account her support for the Iraq War, for boosting troop numbers in Afghanistan, and for American intervention after 2011, many analysts conclude that Clinton will conduct a much more aggressive policy in Syria than Obama.

These expectations have to be based on her past, because the reality is that Clinton herself has done little in the election campaign to draw attention to her foreign policy vision. With regard to Syria, she has repeatedly said that she will do more than Obama, in that she will attempt to establish a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria and a safe humanitarian zone that people can flee to. In addition, she plans to arm allied Kurdish militias. But she is vaguer as to precisely how she will do this. Hillary doesn’t seek to draw attention to her views on Syria, rather she skirts around the issue. And she has her reasons for doing so. Firstly, Obama is a useful source of votes in groups among whom Clinton struggles to achieve trust. Secondly, most Americans have little appetite for a new round of military engagement in the Middle East. It is primarily members of the American foreign policy elite in Washington D.C. who are behind the increasing pressure for the United States to “do something” in Syria. It is not difficult to understand why. But if this instinctive tendency to take action is not closely linked to clear-cut ideas about how this “something” should be followed up, there is a significant risk that things will get worse, not better, in the longer term. And the Syria crisis, as it appears today, is not well-suited to simplistic analyses, where the actors can simply be categorized as “hawks” or “doves”. What Syria represents is a bucketful of difficult dilemmas. This is the reality for the incumbent administration, as it will be for the next. A no-fly zone in Syria, for example, will not simply appear magically of its own accord. If such a zone is to have any effect, it will have to be enforced by the United States. This will mean shooting down planes that encroach on the relevant airspace. The United States would probably not hesitate to shoot down a Syrian plane, but what if the plane was not Syrian, but Russian?

It does not seem totally unreasonable to suggest that Putin would use such an opportunity to put the United States’ resolve to the test. And on the day that happened, that US president would confront a choice that was not only about Syria, but that was also about a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia. At no time since the end of the Cold War have the global superpowers been closer to collision than they are today. And such a scenario must also form part of the analysis for those who believe (and hope) that Hillary will increase US military engagement in Syria. Will the United States’ involvement contribute to ending the war? Scarcely. Will it make it even longer, even bloodier, and possibly even more geographically extensive than it is today? Very likely. The thought of these consequences may be enough to tame a hawk.

  • This text was published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen 1 Nov 2016: “Å temme en hauk
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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