Several members of the Republican foreign policy elite recently announced they’ll refuse to vote for Donald Trump if he’s the Republican nominee – with some going so far as to say they’d rather vote for Hillary Clinton.
And while you may be shocked to see ideology so easily trump party affiliation, you shouldn’t be. Take a look, for instance, at this New York Times article from 2014.
Back then, much of the GOP establishment was filled with trepidation about a frontrunner in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign. Mark Salter, John McCain’s former chief of staff, said that if this particular candidate won the nomination, “Republican voters seriously concerned with national security would have no responsible recourse” other than to vote for Clinton.
They weren’t worried about Donald Trump, though.
The Republican candidate they were planning to spurn in favor of Clinton was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The Republican mandarins’ preemptive rejection of Paul clarifies the real reason they’re excommunicating Trump today.
Unlike Trump, Paul wasn’t promising to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” or to get Mexico to pay for a 30-foot-high wall on its border with the United States.
Instead, Paul’s sin was questioning if our many ongoing wars are such a super idea, and whether we needed to add some more to the list.
As Paul said last year, “There’s a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now — maybe more. … This is something, if you watch closely, that will separate me from many other Republicans.”
This is Trump’s real transgression, too: not his frequent mindless belligerence, but his failure to be belligerent enough, particularly about the Iraq war, Libya, Israel-Palestine, and Russia.
That’s why the GOP foreign policy elite see Hillary Clinton as preferable to either Trump or Paul. Her belligerence has never been in doubt. For her entire public life, she’s been an enthusiastic exponent of a deeply bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, one that says the U.S. can and should run the world. This has been evident in her personal lobbying as first lady for the Kosovo war in 1999; her push as secretary of state for escalation in Afghanistan; her support for regime change in Libya; and her call now as a presidential candidate for the deployment of more U.S. special operations troops in Syria. But it’s perhaps clearest in her and Bill Clinton’s decadeslong embrace of regime change in Iraq.
“No Difference Between Our Policies”
Consider the not too distant history. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. enjoyed a close relationship with Saddam Hussein, even though it was by far the most vicious period of his rule. The Reagan administration provided Iraq with financial, military, and diplomatic support in its brutal war with Iran, stymieing any international attempts to hold Hussein to account for his use of mustard and nerve gas on Iranians and his own citizens. And the admiration was definitely mutual: When Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq as Reagan’s envoy in 1983, Iraq’s foreign minster went “out of his way to praise Rumsfeld as a person.” Hussein himself, while in U.S. custody years later, called Reagan “a great man” and “honorable leader” whom he wished he could have met in person.
But by the time Bill Clinton was elected in November 1992, Hussein had been transformed into our greatest enemy because he had defied (or misunderstood) the U.S. and invaded Kuwait. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, led the war that pushed Iraq out, and while he overruled generals who wanted to push on to Baghdad, he subsequently announced that U.S. policy was that Saddam absolutely must be forced from power.
Just before his inauguration, Clinton sounded a more equivocal note: “The people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different ruler,” he told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. “But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody I am a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversions. If he wants a different relationship with the United States and the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.”
These would be the least warlike remarks on Iraq by either Clinton for the next 23 years (and counting).
And the day after his New York Times interview, Clinton – stung by Republican criticism — forcefully walked it back, telling a press conference that there was “no difference between my policy and the policy of the present administration” on Iraq. By June 1993, Clinton was himself bombing Baghdad in retaliation for a purported Iraqi plot to assassinate Bush Sr.
So now Clinton’s policy was the same as Bush Sr.’s: Saddam must go. And there was far more to the U.S. strategy than just intermittent bombing. The U.N. had imposed harsh sanctions on Iraq, and the Bush administration had explained frankly that it would use them as the world’s cruelest bank shot: The sanctions would kill Iraqis, which would motivate surviving Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, so that the killing could end.
“Iraqis will pay the price,” said Robert Gates, then Bush Sr.’s national security adviser. “All possible sanctions will be maintained until [Hussein] is gone.”
Iraqis did pay the price. Under Bush and then Clinton, hundreds of thousands died due to cholera, typhoid, malnutrition, and other causes. One top U.N. official responsible for administering the sanctions quit, calling it “genocide” because “this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq.”
In June 1997, former Reagan official Robert Kagan co-founded the Project for a New American Century with the support of many future members of the George W. Bush administration, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Partly by encouraging forces already in motion, and partly by nurturing new forces, PNAC nudged the U.S. political system toward a formal confrontation with Iraq.
In early 1998, PNAC released an open letter calling on Clinton to adopt a new policy of “removing Saddam Hussein from power.” By that October, Congress had approved the Iraq Liberation Act with a huge 360-38 bipartisan majority in the House (including then-Rep. Bernie Sanders) and by unanimous consent in the Senate. Like the open letter, the act declared, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
Bill Clinton’s statement on signing the bill — all about the need “to eliminate Iraq’s prohibited weapons” and for “an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home” — could have come out of George W. Bush’s mouth five years later. So, too, could Clinton’s words in December 1998 about “Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs” as he launched Operation Desert Fox, his largest bombing campaign yet against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Clinton’s ongoing attacks on Iraq eventually became the longest air operation by the U.S. since Vietnam, with a gruesome tally of civilian victims.
By the time Clinton handed the White House keys over to Bush in January 2001, he’d set the table for his successor to take the next logical step: a full-scale invasion.
“More Willing to Use Force Than Her Husband”
Is it fair to say Hillary Clinton agreed with her husband and the Republican Party on Iraq during the 1990s? Here’s what we know:
When asked in 2002 about the Iraq Liberation Act, Hillary declared, “I agreed with it in 1998. I agree with it [now].” In her 2003 book, Living History, she quotes her own remarks to the press “as bombs fell on Iraq” during Desert Fox: “I think the vast majority of Americans share my approval and pride in the job that the president’s been doing for our country.”
Those close to her have long made the case that she is more militaristic than Bill Clinton. The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke once said, “She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband.”
“We Agreed on Almost Every Important Issue”
In October 2002, Clinton joined 28 other Democratic senators in voting for war with Iraq. In her speech explaining her decision, she reiterated her support for the Iraq Liberation Act four years before.
It was “undisputed,” according to Clinton, that Iraq possessed “chemical and biological weapons,” and had an ongoing nuclear weapons program. Moreover, she said, even if Iraq disarmed, the U.S. should continue a policy of regime change short of direct invasion.
Clinton would later acknowledge in her book Hard Choices that she “got it wrong,” but had “acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had.” In fact, she had not even bothered to read the classified version of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. She had also refused to meet before her vote with Scott Ritter, a top U.N. weapons inspector in the 1990s – and, as a New York state resident, her constituent — to talk about the meager evidence that Iraq had banned weapons.
Almost three years into the war, Clinton was still telling unhappy New York voters that she did not “believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately.” She did publicly oppose the Iraq “surge,” but Robert Gates, then-secretary of defense, claims he witnessed her say that this was all politics to please Democratic voters as she ran for president. (Gates, a longtime GOP functionary, also says he and Clinton developed “a very strong partnership” because they “agreed on almost every important issue.”)
Today, as a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton is back on familiar terrain, calling for “more allied planes, more strikes, and a broader target set” to bomb Iraq (and Syria). While she does “not believe that we should again have a hundred thousand American troops in combat,” she says we do need to maintain a U.S. ground presence in Iraq and allow them “greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.”
“What She Espouses Is a Pretty Mainstream View”
When it comes to domestic policies, there are genuine differences between Republican and Democratic elites. The Republicans’ most dearly held dream is to smash the New Deal and return the U.S. to circa 1900, complete with catastrophic financial panics and mass public poisonings. By contrast, Democratic elites understand that letting the 99 percent eat most days actually enhances corporate profitability.
But on foreign policy, the two parties are now like-minded enough that when the candidate for one strays from party orthodoxy, the candidate for the other may be a more than adequate substitute. As Max Boot, a prominent neoconservative writer, adviser to Marco Rubio, and (if necessary) Clinton voter, says: “What she basically espouses is a pretty mainstream view.” Even Dick Cheney has praised her competence and mused that “it would be interesting to speculate about how she might perform were she to be president.”
The people at the top of both political parties largely agree on what U.S. foreign policy should be. They normally just fight over who should get to order the bombings. But this year, it looks like they won’t even disagree on that.