The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.
The hollowing out culminated in the Obama administration, which represents ‘the triumph of identity as content’, as Adolph Reed wrote last year in Harper’s. According to Reed, Obama embodies race as ‘an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from history and social relations’. And few on the left or centre-left want to spoil those good feelings by making the sharp criticisms that Obama deserves. So we are reduced, in Reed’s words, to ‘a desiccated leftism’ preoccupied with ‘making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity’. The chief electoral alternative to the Republicans’ free market fundamentalism and imperial grandiosity is the Democratic Party’s mixture of technocratic slogans and gestures to identity-based interest groups (gay marriage, abortion rights, immigration reform), topped off by the Democrats’ own version of imperial grandiosity.
The intellectual bankruptcy of the Democratic Party is nowhere more evident than in the looming presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Assumptions of the inevitability of her candidacy tend to ignore policy matters, focusing instead on her gender and her twenty years as a Washington insider. Many usually thoughtful people can find nothing more substantial to say in her favour than ‘it’s her turn.’ This points to the problem with identity politics: it suggests that this woman deserves the presidency because she has paid her dues, first by enduring public humiliation at the hands of her philandering husband, then by losing the 2008 primaries to the messianic Obama. However empty his promises proved to be, Americans can congratulate themselves on having elected a black man; now, in the feel-good world of identity politics, it’s time to elect a woman. Who else but Hillary Clinton?
Clinton’s Hard Choices is the quintessential candidate’s memoir, a 600-page doorstopper detailing her four years as secretary of state during the first Obama administration. It’s designed to show that she’s a tireless public servant, a serious person who likes a good laugh, a world citizen at home with ‘my old friend President Shimon Peres’, ‘our old friend Tony Blair’ and a host of other world leaders, but that she’s also a Midwestern Methodist and a dewy-eyed patriot. It puts the final polish on the new Hillary brand that she and her handlers have been fashioning since the debacle of the 2008 primaries, or so Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes argue in HRC, their inside-dopester account of Clinton’s ‘rebirth’. Allen and Parnes serve as a chorus, commenting portentously on the events described in Hard Choices. Together the two books constitute a vast vanilla pudding of official prose.
In slogging through it, one is reminded of why the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency is so dreary. The dreariness begins with the real possibility that Jeb Bush will be her opponent, setting up another contest between two dynasties, one of which ‘exploited its vast wealth to obtain political power, while the other exploited its political power to obtain vast wealth’, as Glenn Greenwald recently put it. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the merger of economic and political power in the oligarchy that dominates American public life. Were Clinton to win, her victory would ensure the continuation of business as usual in Washington. The only change would be the return to power of the Clinton machine, an army of loyalists who have been milling about the capital for two decades but whose command has now shifted from Bill to Hillary. Despite their differing styles, the intent is the same: rewarding friends and punishing enemies, the latter with such precision that one of her staffers fears Hillary will come to seem little different from ‘Nixon in a pantsuit’.
The sense of continuity is reinforced by the blizzard of worn buzzwords and market-researched phrases regurgitated by Clinton as she races round the globe, visiting 112 countries and logging nearly a million miles (as she repeatedly tells us). Energised by ‘a bias for action’, she pursues a frenetic agenda: promoting international economic agreements that will allow nations to ‘play by the rules’ on ‘a level playing field’, ‘creating jobs and exciting new industries’; forging alliances with social media entrepreneurs in the service of ‘21st-century statecraft’; imposing no-fly zones and sanctions that will isolate ‘extremists’ in Arab states; ‘empowering the moderates’ in ‘civil society’ who will bring those states into line with US policy.
These conventional formulas stress Clinton’s exceptionalist faith in America’s unique responsibility for ‘global leadership’. There was a time when this meant leading by example, but since the Second World War, the phrase ‘global leadership’ has served as a euphemism for military intervention – multilateral if possible, unilateral if necessary. Indeed, exceptionalism has proved a durable justification for unilateralism. Presidential candidates from both parties have long felt obliged to pay homage to the exceptionalist creed, but Clinton’s attachment to it is obsessive. She says she wrote Hard Choices ‘for anyone anywhere who wonders whether the US still has what it takes to lead’. She recalls Madeleine Albright’s threadbare interventionist slogan: the US, Clinton insists, remains ‘the indispensable nation’. As secretary of state, she acted on her faith by sponsoring the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and advocating US intervention in Syria, not to mention engineering the Asia Pivot towards increased US involvement in the Far East.
Since leaving government she has become an aggressive critic of Obama’s allegedly timid reluctance to arm ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria (she has backed off since he announced in August that there would be an armed response to Isis). No wonder she’s begun attracting admiring glances from Robert Kagan, Max Boot and other neoconservative ideologues. Like them, she’s given to soaring abstractions about the inevitable spread of democracy but is also careful to point out that it’s sometimes necessary to use force in the service of global good.
Clinton is often described as ‘more hawkish’ than most Democrats, and indeed, like other ambitious women in the self-parodically masculine world of Washington, she may well have concluded that bellicose posturing is the only way a woman can prove her mettle in the contest for commander-in-chief. Certainly as secretary of state, Clinton allied herself with women who embodied conventionally masculine traits, at least in the descriptions given by Allen and Parnes: Ellen Tauscher, formerly a senior Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, is ‘tall and warm – and as tough as a Trident missile’; Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s top State Department aide, is a ‘ball-buster’ and a ‘pit bull’. But Clinton’s hawkishness is a matter of moral and intellectual conviction. In Hard Choices, she tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as secretary of state. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing. Recent history becomes a series of rescue missions, staged opportunities for heroism worthy of Hollywood: mobs of brown-skinned extras look up to see helicopters – we are saved! The Americans have arrived! Such are the dreams that hover unarticulated in our political unconscious, allowing our leaders to redefine war as humanitarian intervention.
The triumph of fantasy entails the failure of imagination. Exceptionalists like Clinton are unable to conceive of a multipolar world where some nations might prefer to go their own way. Clinton and other advocates of ‘smart power’ don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of other nations’ interests – a notion they view as a relic of outmoded diplomatic realism – unless those interests merge with the exceptionalist worldview. But they also refuse the label of idealism, claiming to have transcended the idealist-realist debate by asserting that ‘America’s values are the greatest source of strength and security.’ Moral imperatives and military power are intertwined.
It’s easy to see why anyone would want to get beyond the stale categories of idealism and realism. Idealistic talk of promoting democracy, however sincere, has often served to legitimate the familiar imperial aims of creating markets and investment opportunities; realistic definitions of national interest have been inflated to justify dubious imperial adventures, from carpet-bombing Hanoi to assassinating Salvador Allende – as the self-proclaimed realist Henry Kissinger made clear. But realism is a richer tradition than Kissinger’s example suggests. Stretching from Randolph Bourne and William James to George Kennan and William Fulbright, the pragmatic realist tradition in American diplomatic thought held that it was necessary to consider the consequences of ideas and had an outlook characterised by a humane, cosmopolitan restraint in foreign and military policy. It’s still the best alternative to Clinton’s exceptionalist faith.
Clinton’s outlook epitomises the bipartisan wisdom of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which claims to offer a pragmatic centrist alternative to the extremes of right and left. Yet the centrists turn out to be at least as ideologically driven as the zealots they deplore. The core of their ideology is the belief that the US has a uniquely necessary role to play in leading the world towards an inevitably democratic (and implicitly capitalist) future. The process is foreordained but can be helped along through neoliberal policy choices. This muddle of determinism and freedom is a secular residue of providentialist teleology, held with as much religious fervour and as little regard for contrary evidence as other dogmatic faiths derided by self-styled liberal pragmatists.
Only a secular providentialist could ask what it means ‘to be on the right side of history’. Clinton poses this question as if it were a guide to policy. The notion that history has a discernible direction, and that nations must align themselves with it, is a relic of the grand historical narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries. Such views are no longer held by serious historians but continue to animate the pundits and politicians in Washington. Clinton often appeals to teleology in Hard Choices: she repeatedly recalls a speech she gave in Qatar, just before the uprising in Tahrir Square, when she told the assembled Arab leaders that they must adopt political and economic reforms or their entire region would continue ‘sinking into the sand’ – the Ozymandian fate of autocrats in an irresistibly democratic age.
Inevitability can be hurried along by partnering with business to promote what Clinton calls ‘a global economy of free and fair, open and transparent trade and investment, with clear rules of the road that would benefit everyone’. Everything depends on how you define ‘everyone’. For Clinton, the business-government partnership means promoting General Electric in Algeria and Boeing in Moscow as well as enabling direct communication between ambassadors and American businessmen who want to break into emerging markets. Amazon, she notes, has already opened a customer care centre in Cape Town with five hundred employees. If conditions at other Amazon facilities are any guide, these lucky few can look forward to being worked to death, or near it. These are the jobs on offer in the emerging neoliberal utopia.
Clinton’s utopian faith depends on fantasies of a reified technology, unmoored from class and power relations and operating autonomously as a global force for good. Early in her tenure at the State Department, she decided to ‘take a page from Steve Jobs and “think different” about the role of the State Department in the 21st century’. This led to the birth of 21st-century statecraft, which aimed to address what Richard Holbrooke, then Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, identified as a fundamental anomaly in the struggle against terrorism: the most powerful nation on earth was ‘losing the communications battle to extremists who are living in caves’. As part of Clinton’s ‘smart power’ agenda, the US would reclaim online space by creating alliances with high-tech entrepreneurs.
The crucial figure in this project was Jared Cohen, a Condoleezza Rice protégé who served as a senior adviser in both the Rice and Clinton State Departments. Cohen’s chief achievement was to promote the power of social media in the Iranian elections of June 2009. Cohen privately ‘reached out’, in Clinton’s words, to Jack Dorsey of Twitter, persuading him to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown in order to keep the Twittersphere open for the dissidents protesting against government electoral fraud. Clinton and Allen and Parnes all treat Cohen’s intervention as a mischievous caper – going outside normal channels, secretly enlisting business in the service of government – that turned out brilliantly. A few months later, Cohen and Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs that promoted the idea of ‘coalitions of the connected’ to fight alongside the military in the struggle against jihadism. In late 2010, Schmidt hired Cohen to head Google Ideas, a ‘think/do tank’ in New York. His career trajectory reflected the new intimacy of Washington and Silicon Valley.
Still the question remained: how to put the undisciplined geniuses of the tech world at the service of the sclerotic State Department (and vice versa)? According to Allen and Parnes, Clinton created an ‘innovation team’ charged with projects ‘as benign as setting up social media accounts for State in various countries and as insidious as providing tech tools and training for rebels in Middle Eastern countries’. Indeed, these journalists claim, ‘innovation … tied together her ambitions as a diplomat, her chances of running a successful campaign for the presidency, and her religion-inspired commitment to social justice.’ Once thought a Luddite, she fell in love with her iPad. ‘Use me like an app!’ she told an audience of high-tech company executives, ‘eliciting a round of laughter’. She believed that tech CEOs could collaborate with State Department officials in offering carrots and sticks to Bashar Assad: when he refused to co-operate, the State Department waived sanctions for Skype, allowing the company to operate in Syria in the hope that it could help bring the regime down.
The futility of that hope epitomised the general failure of 21st-century statecraft, at least when its practitioners tried to use technology to get round inequalities of power. The magic of social media did nothing to change the outcome of the Iranian elections; Skype didn’t bring down Assad. Technological panaceas proved inadequate elsewhere as well. In Congo, Cohen and Alec Ross, who headed Clinton’s ‘innovation team’, brought high-tech solutions to intractable bureaucratic problems: a mobile app for the military’s muddled pay system, a text-message warning system for refugee camps threatened by militias. In both cases, as in Syria and Iran, fantasies about the power of technology proved unable to overcome existing structures of political, military and legal power. This would be a pattern in the Clinton State Department: rhetoric would outstrip results.
Despite her supposed pragmatism, Clinton shows little concern for the actual consequences of ideas. Her indifference is most apparent in her attachment to the failed military policies of the recent past. While she admits she ‘got it wrong’ in voting for the invasion of Iraq, she shows no sign of having learned from her mistake. On her arrival at the State Department, she began courting General David Petraeus, the ‘architect of the successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq’ according to Allen and Parnes, whom she had offended in 2007 by questioning his rosy assessments of American military prospects. In early 2009, Petraeus was head of Centcom, US high command in the region including Afghanistan and Pakistan. By the end of her charm offensive, Petraeus was gallantly offering her sole occupancy of his bed on the flight back from Riyadh. ‘She had won him back,’ Allen and Parnes conclude.
Clinton’s courtship of Petraeus reveals a deeper amnesia. Like most other Washington policymakers, she has forgotten the failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. She praises Petraeus’s strategy for its focus on ‘winning Iraqis’ “hearts and minds”’, but she does not seem to remember the history of that phrase. It entered American public discourse in Lyndon Johnson’s admonition that ‘the ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there,’ which he repeated many times. The phrase was soon appropriated by the antiwar movement as an ironic shorthand for the futility and mendacity of US policy. Eventually the filmmaker Peter Davis used the phrase as the title for his 1974 documentary which exposed the American invaders’ casual brutality and indifference towards Asian lives. Clinton was involved, however tangentially, in the antiwar counterculture. Yet, like everyone else in Washington, she uses ‘hearts and minds’ to refer to the latest version of counterinsurgency. She assumes Petraeus’s ‘clear, hold and build’ operation was a success in Iraq and the model for a further success in Afghanistan. She cites no evidence.
Clinton’s admiration for Petraeus demonstrates the irrelevance of actual military achievements in the world of the Washington consensus. Petraeus was a powerful man still on the way up and Clinton needed his support. If that meant ignoring the facts, judging his counterinsurgency strategy ‘successful’, so much the worse for the facts. Indeed, Clinton’s aims at the State Department, as Allen and Parnes describe them, were more a matter of public relations than of public policy: to rebuild morale at the department, to rebrand the US in the world and to ‘fortify her own brand’ so she could run for president.
Clinton’s exceptionalism promotes an implicit double standard that separates the US from the rest of the world. Consider the Asia Pivot: according to Clinton, ‘we needed to send a message to Asia and the world that America was back’ in its ‘traditional leadership role in Asia’ – managing competition, fostering co-operation, maintaining stability. This was ‘forward-deployed diplomacy … borrowing a term from our military colleagues’. The Chinese perception, naturally enough, was that the US was determined to block its rise. Why China shouldn’t claim a ‘leadership role’ in its own part of the world, and the US should, is one of the mysteries of the exceptionalist faith.
Nothing could be more appropriate to an emerging multipolar world (the world we actually inhabit) than the idea that nations have a more legitimate interest in what happens near their borders than in events occurring half a world away. Yet exceptionalists dismiss the concept of spheres of influence as an obstacle to the global march of democracy. This is a residue of the Cold War, when American policymakers insisted on seeing everything the Russians did as ideologically motivated. George Kennan spent years trying to convince various presidents that Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe was motivated less by ideology than by the desire to block invasion from the west, which had occurred three times over the previous century and a half. It didn’t excuse the Soviet occupation but did help explain it. Cold Warriors, rejecting the very idea of a Soviet sphere of influence, insisted that Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe was the beginning of a drive for world domination.
Clinton makes a similar mistake when she characterises Nato’s expansion as a bulwark against Putin’s aggression, rather than a provocation and a betrayal of a previous American pledge. The first Bush administration promised Gorbachev that Nato would not move ‘one inch to the east’, in the words of the then secretary of state, James Baker. But Bill Clinton ignored the Russians’ wish to keep a cordon sanitaire and his predecessor’s promise by pushing Nato expansion to the east – betraying a trust, in Russia’s view. The eastward march of Nato continues. One can only imagine the American response if the roles were reversed.
Hillary Clinton is just as intent as her husband (or her Republican rivals) on demonising Putin as a modern tsar who wants to reassert Russia’s imperial claims. Putin’s ambition is for her the only way to explain why he put pressure on Yanukovych not to form closer ties with the European Union and why, after Yanukovych’s government collapsed, he annexed Crimea. You can deplore that invasion without ignoring (as Clinton does) the complexity of the history behind it: the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, the long-standing Russian desire to keep the region in friendly hands. She also ignores the US role in undermining the corrupt but democratically elected Yanukovych government, treating its disintegration as the work of ordinary Ukrainians who ‘dreamed of living in a prosperous European democracy’ – a formula that overlooks the right-wing nationalists among the rebels and the draconian austerity programme demanded by the EU. Putin’s Eurasian Union, she believes, was an attempt to ‘re-Sovietise’ Russia’s periphery, rather than a means of bailing out the sputtering Ukrainian economy. Ultimately, she concludes, ‘strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.’
Not everyone accepts the casting of Putin as ‘bad guy’, in the adolescent male idiom favoured by American journalists. Among the dissenters is Henry Kissinger, whose realism is more reliable in a European setting than in Latin American or Asian ones. ‘For the West, the demonisation of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one,’ he wrote last year. ‘Putin is a serious strategist – on the premises of Russian history. Understanding US values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point among US policymakers.’ Clinton seems likely to continue that tradition.
Putin fills the bad guy role vacated by Osama bin Laden, whose assassination by American Special Forces occupies an honoured place in Hard Choices. To State Department colleagues worried about offending Pakistan’s national honour by circumventing its law-enforcement procedures, Clinton replied ‘in exasperation’: ‘What about our national honour?’ Once Bin Laden has been killed and the euphoria has dissipated, she reflects that ‘violent extremism is bound up with nearly all of today’s complex global problems …That is an argument for America to be engaged in the hardest places with the toughest challenges around the world.’ The war on terror may be officially over but the pursuit of ‘violent extremism’ provides an open-ended excuse for global military intervention.
The tendency to view the Middle East through the lens of ‘violent extremism’ has predictable consequences with respect to Israel, Palestine and Iran. Careful to acknowledge that Palestinians deserve ‘the self-determination that Americans take for granted’, Clinton nevertheless blithely defends the Israeli air war on Gaza: ‘Every country has the right to defend itself.’ You cannot negotiate with Hamas or other terrorists ‘because you will never be pure enough’. So force is the only option. Clinton’s ‘staunchly pro-Israel’ stance apparently also means being anti-Iran – ‘Israel’s mortal enemy’, as Allen and Parnes call it, giving the consensus view. Despite Obama’s stated intention to initiate diplomacy with Iran, Clinton continued to fuel the fears that an Iranian nuclear weapons programme would ‘threaten Israel, their neighbours and the world’, and warned the Iranians that if they launched a nuclear strike on Israel, ‘we would be able to totally obliterate them’. Lacking an excuse to obliterate Iran, she settled for ‘crippling sanctions’ against the country. Netanyahu ‘told me he liked the phrase so much that he had adopted it as his own,’ she writes. The key aim of the sanctions, according to her aide Jim Steinberg, was to make Iran ‘feel that it had no champions, no place to turn, no out’. In this view, sanctions are a means of solitary confinement for rogue nations, which undercuts the claim that they are a humane alternative to violence. Sickness, starvation and social disintegration are their legitimate offspring. Even Clinton acknowledges the suffering sanctions inflicted, though she blames the Iranian ‘leaders’ choice to continue defying the international community’. To placate ‘pro-Israel voters’, Allen and Parnes write, she would have liked the sanctions to be even tougher.
When it comes to opportunities to demonstrate toughness, nothing sets Clinton’s pulse racing like a good humanitarian intervention. She supported US involvement in Nato operations in Libya, sharing the enthusiasm of Sarkozy, who was eager to reassert French imperial prerogatives in North Africa. The Franco-American friendship began with a mishap. Walking up the stairs of the Elysée palace, Clinton stepped out of her shoe; Sarkozy ‘gracefully took my hand and helped me regain my footing’. She sent him a photo of the incident inscribed, ‘I may not be Cinderella but you’ll always be my Prince Charming.’ Like this event, the intervention in Libya had a fairy-tale quality – the troll-like dictator Gaddafi; the West, once more into the breach, led by fantastic figures like the action intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who rode into Libya from the Egyptian border on a vegetable truck. Clinton describes this ubiquitous poseur as ‘a dramatic and stylish figure, with long wavy hair and his shirt open practically down to his navel’. Here was a man who embodied the Hollywood fantasies of heroism that so often energise military intervention. It was all very exciting, but not everyone was convinced that American military involvement was a good idea. The secretary of defense Robert Gates, the vice president Joseph Biden and the former Nato commander Wesley Clark were all opposed, while Clinton, the UN ambassador Susan Rice and national security council aide Samantha Power urged action. Obama was typically reluctant to commit either way.
There were good reasons for caution. The biggest problem was the ambiguity of the mission: was it the maintenance of a no-fly zone to protect civilians, as its proponents initially claimed? Or was it the toppling of Gaddafi, which is what actually happened? Clinton slides from the first rationale to the second without explaining or justifying the transition. But she does raise the unavoidable question for advocates of ‘regime change’: ‘who were these rebels we would be aiding, and were they prepared to lead Libya if Gaddafi fell?’ The question soon became more urgent. By the late summer of 2011, the rebels had captured Tripoli, and Gaddafi and his family had fled. When Gaddafi was killed, Clinton was jubilant. ‘“We came, we saw, he died,” she crowed, laughing as she clapped her hands,’ Allen and Parnes report. ‘Libya’s liberation, for better and worse, was Hillary’s War.’
Clinton is more circumspect, in retrospect, than her journalist courtiers – there are no unseemly celebrations over Gaddafi’s death in Hard Choices. ‘The revolution had succeeded, and the hard work of building a new country could begin,’ she writes, acknowledging that ‘law and order remained a real problem.’ This may be the blandest understatement in a relentlessly bland book. Libya quickly descended into civil war; the country’s infrastructure collapsed; thousands of noncombatants were left homeless, maimed or dead. The chaos was the precondition for the burning of the American compound in Benghazi when four American diplomats were killed. The upheaval in Libya made the entire Middle East more unstable. The freeing of Gaddafi’s stockpiled munitions fostered a flourishing arms trade south to Mali, west to Algeria, and east to Egypt and Syria, intensifying tensions between Islamist and secular groups throughout the region. As early as October 2013, international observers had officially dubbed Libya a ‘failed state’.
Clinton has nothing to say about this. Her reflections on Benghazi are some of the strangest passages in her book. She says she appointed Chris Stevens as ambassador to the Libyan rebels’ new government because he knew that the most dangerous places in the world were ‘the places where American interests and values were most at stake’ and seasoned diplomats were most needed. This assertion deserves some attention. Are the most dangerous places really the most crucial to US national interests merely by virtue of the danger? ‘When America is absent, extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened,’ she writes. It would be possible to rewrite the same sentence, substituting ‘present’ for ‘absent’.
Syria was the next testing ground for Clinton’s creed. She makes clear that she was behind the rebellion against Assad from the beginning, trying to unite the ‘international community, including Russia and China … behind a political transition that would go to a democratic future’. Unlike Gaddafi, Assad wasn’t a pushover. He was more deeply entrenched, and had more powerful allies. But how could the Syrian people go back to dictatorship after ‘a taste of freedom’, Clinton wonders. The exceptionalist teleology was starting to click into place: democracy was inevitable; we needed to be on the right side of history. But the situation was complicated: many of Assad’s opponents were jihadists – democrats maybe, but not the sort we wanted to take power.
So the question was how to keep the wrong rebels from winning. In 2012, Clinton started exploring ‘what it would take to stand up a carefully vetted and trained force of moderate Syrian rebels who could be trusted with American weapons’. She enlisted Petraeus, by then head of the CIA, in her campaign: encouraging the right sort of rebels, they argued, would get us in the game so we could be more effective in isolating the militants and empowering the moderates. The moderates were (or would be) mainly a creation of the CIA. The plan to arm them resembled the search for a mythic Third Force between communism and capitalism, the dream that animated Graham Greene’s Quiet American in Vietnam in the 1950s, and that has inspired counterinsurgency fantasists ever since. Obama was unpersuaded. He asked for ‘examples of instances when the US had backed an insurgency that could be considered a success’, Clinton recalls. She didn’t have an answer and Obama stood firm. It was one of the high points of his presidency: for once a pragmatic concern for consequences shaped policy. But last August Obama finally yielded to interventionist demands amid the hysteria over Isis, leaving us with the incoherent policy of opposing both the Assad regime and its main challengers (though the administration now seems to be inching towards tacit tolerance of Assad). Clinton can claim that she was urging this muddle on Obama long before he finally and reluctantly accepted it. That is cold comfort for anyone envisioning her in the White House.
The exceptionalist faith transcends evidence. We can be sure that during the run-up to the 2016 election, democracy will continue its inexorable forward march, in the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans if not in the world at large. Among the current crop of candidates, the only challenges to exceptionalism come from Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, and Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia. Paul has defended civil liberties more outspokenly than any other congressman in either party; he is a consistent libertarian, as opposed to the warfare state as to the welfare state. He is a loose cannon, with many repellent views on domestic policy. Still, it would be good for democratic debate to see him take on Clinton’s foreign policy.
It will be even better to see Webb, who has already announced his candidacy, take her on. Webb is a Vietnam veteran and was secretary of the navy under Reagan; no one can tag him with the ‘isolationist’ label so often used to dismiss anti-imperialists. He was also an architect of the Asia Pivot. But he has been a forceful and consistent critic of reckless military intervention abroad. Unlike Clinton, he warned that the Iraq War was unwinnable, a ‘strategic blunder’ unmatched in recent military history. ‘There is no such thing,’ he said more recently, as ‘humanitarian war’ – the vague and self-contradictory concept promoted by Clinton, Rice, and Power. If terrorists are a direct threat, we should fight them, but only on carefully chosen terrain, never by occupying foreign territory and never by entering ‘a five-sided argument’ like the one currently raging in Syria.
Webb’s scepticism is a refreshing alternative to the sanitised abstractions of the Washington consensus. He has troubling idiosyncrasies, among them a tendency to defend Reagan and an Arlington apartment packed with military artefacts. Still, he remains a rare contemporary example of the pragmatic realist tradition, a worthy successor to Fulbright and Kennan (who also had troubling idiosyncrasies). But Webb is also a white male, with no capital to invest in the identities market. The most likely nominee remains Hillary Clinton, whose success would embody the failure of the American political imagination and the tragedy of identity politics. But after all, it’s her turn.