Today's article has two separate and unrelated parts, I should begin by saying. The first looks at the Republican presidential nomination race, and the second concerns Hillary Clinton and foreign policy. It's impossible to provide any smooth linkage or segue between the two (as the strange headline to this article pretty much proves), so I thought I'd point this out before I begin.
First, let's take a look at the Republicans. The big news today was that Senator Lindsey Graham has decided to drop out of the presidential nomination race. This leaves only (!) thirteen candidates remaining (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore).
It's hard to understand why Lindsey Graham hasn't gotten at least a minimal bounce in the polling in the past few weeks, since his entire political persona is to be the most belligerent advocate for the use of American military force around. What with all the attention on the Republican side on terrorism and the Islamic State, it's somewhat surprising that Graham didn't pick up at least a few supporters, but this has not actually happened. Graham still regularly polls at zero percent (or one percent, on a really good day), and he continued to do so even after the focus shifted.
Graham has always been a rather strange breed of cat in the Republican universe. He's always been one of the two go-to media interviews on Republican foreign policy (John McCain, who echoes the same "bomb everywhere first, ask any questions later" hair-trigger militaristic stance, is the other). But Graham also has a more reasonable side on subjects like immigration, torture, and getting the Senate back to functional status again. This year, obviously, Republican voters weren't interested in any such thing, which has now forced Graham out of the race.
So far, this election cycle, I've been doing a dismal job of predicting which Republicans will be the next to leave the race. I wrote two articles devoted to that subject, one in August, and one in September. In the first, I predicted the first five candidates to leave the race would be: Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. Instead, Rick Perry and Scott Walker bowed out. I tried to better my 0-for-2 performance in the second column, where I picked the next three Republicans to throw in the towel would be: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio. I got one of these right (if in the wrong order) when Bobby Jindal was the next to go. Still, after offering up seven names for "first dropouts" I only managed to get one of the first three right. That's not much in the way of successful prognostication, I realize. Not exactly the clearest crystal ball around, I fully admit. But I've now improved somewhat with Graham leaving, meaning that of the seven men I predicted would leave first, I've gotten two names right out of the first four.
Since then, some of the candidates' fortunes have changed for the better. Chris Christie is doing well enough in New Hampshire to hang in there until the state votes. Marco Rubio is now in third place overall in the GOP race. Obviously, I'm going to continue to be wrong about those picks. Jim Gilmore and George Pataki really should have dropped out by now, and the fact that they haven't likely means they'll continue to be officially in the race while having zero chance of winning. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum will probably soldier on until Iowa votes, and then drop out immediately afterwards. This leaves me with three possible picks for who will drop out next: Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and John Kasich. Today, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Rand Paul will be the next to go. I think this will happen immediately after Paul doesn't make the cut for the next Republican debate, after which he will announce the system is rigged against him (as he bows out). Rand Paul has another race to run next year, to hold onto his Senate seat (he specifically rigged the rules in Kentucky to allow this, in fact). So Paul will decide to focus on the one race he has a chance of winning rather than continuing to tilt at the White House windmill.
We now come to that impossible segue I warned you about earlier. Republicans weren't the only ones on television last week, as the Democratic National Committee scheduled a Democratic candidate debate at 3:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning. Well, not really (but it's not that much of an exaggeration, is it?). Many subjects were covered, including sexist questions that never would have been asked if there were three men on the stage (Will Bill Clinton be in charge of flower arrangements? Really? Who freakin' cares, ABC...).
There were some quotable soundbites from the candidates, of course. But what surprised me is that one Hillary Clinton quote in particular didn't get any media attention, because it reveals a very fundamental understanding of the Middle East that rarely (if ever) gets admitted by national politicians. Here is the whole exchange (to provide context) -- Clinton's full answer after being asked about America's past fondness for regime change in the Middle East:
Wait a minute. I think it's only fair to put on the record, Senator Sanders voted in the Senate for a resolution calling for ending the Ghaddafi regime and asking that the U.N. be brought in, either a congressional vote or a U.N. Security Council vote. We got a U.N. Security council vote. Now, I understand that this is very difficult. And I'm not standing here today and saying that Libya is as far along as Tunisia. We saw what happened in Egypt. I cautioned about a quick overthrow of Mubarak, and we now are back with basically an army dictatorship. This is a part of the world where the United States has tried to play two different approaches. One, work with the tough men, the dictators, for our own benefit and promote democracy. That's a hard road to walk. But I think it's the right road for us to try to travel.
The last three sentences are truly amazing to hear an American politician utter. America has two approaches in the Middle East: "work with the tough men, the dictators," and, as an afterthought, "promote democracy." Hillary proclaims this a "hard road to walk," but "the right road for us to try to travel."
This is extraordinary on multiple levels, really. Will the new Hillary Doctrine be to partner up with dictators when America sees it to our benefit to do so? That's an awfully realpolitik viewpoint, although some would call it merely a reflection of the reality in many countries (especially those sitting on oceans of oil). It is reminiscent of another person who held the same office Hillary did, in fact: Henry Kissinger.
The really eyebrow-raising part of Clinton's answer was: "I think it's the right road for us to travel." Again, this might be construed as just a hard-boiled view of the world from any other presidential candidate, but Clinton actually has a record in this area, and her record is much different than what she said Saturday night.
From most accounts, President Obama didn't really want to get involved in Libya. Clinton did, and pushed the president to adopt her view. She was, to be blunt, for regime change there. Likewise in Syria, Clinton was much more in favor of taking down Assad than Obama. And, famously, she voted for war in Iraq. She chose not to "work with the tough men, the dictators," and instead advocated a military solution in each of these cases.
I'm not making a judgment call on which is the more beneficial policy for America, mind you. Different situations sometimes require different responses. The reason why I was astonished by this new Hillary Doctrine, though, was that while it could perhaps be described as a pragmatic outlook to an impossible situation, it runs counter to Clinton's past record in a dramatic way.
If the moderators had noticed this contradiction (for that matter, if anyone else in the world of political journalism had noticed it), they might have asked Clinton to explain the difference between what she now seems to be advocating and most of her record at the State Department and in the Senate. She may be right about urging caution in Egypt, and Tunisia certainly turned out better than the rest of the Arab Spring, but there are many other examples of Clinton not exactly urging restraint towards dictators.
Clinton seems to want to have it both ways. "Sometimes you deal with the dictators, and sometimes you use the military to overthrow them" might sum this up, in fact. Or perhaps you could add: "And sometimes you get to promote democracy" to round it out.
To be charitable to Clinton, dealing with America's policy towards the Middle East is a very hard road no matter what policies you favor. It's hard to know the right thing for America to do, because anything we do attempt usually backfires on us, sometimes in spectacular ways. Sometimes we coddle dictators who are ruthless towards large segments of their own population (see: Saudi Arabia, beheadings, women's rights, etc.). Sometimes we create dictators either by directly installing them (the Shah of Iran), or by bungling things so badly that religious dictators arise (the Iranian revolution). There are lots of such lose-lose examples in the region, in fact.
Even so, American political diplomacy shouldn't be to just throw up our hands and say: "Eh... whatever." Clinton acknowledged that America's history in the region is not just complicated but at times downright schizophrenic. But her full endorsement of continuing a policy of supporting the dictators we wish to, for our own benefit when convenient, seems a little short of where America's aspirational goals should be. Or even where a Democratic presidential candidate's aspirational goals should be. Clinton has no real excuse for not offering up a much more diplomatic answer to what our future policy towards the region should be. She used to be our chief diplomat, after all.
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