War Stories

Hillary Clinton’s Small Ideas

In the Bush era, clichés represent much-needed wisdom.

Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered what they call a “major policy address” at the Council on Foreign Relations this afternoon, and it proved that, against an administration of misplaced conviction and shallow ideology, clichés are wisdom and conventional thinking can be profound.

Few of Sen. Clinton’s pronouncements would stun a classroom of freshman poli-sci majors. That U.S. foreign policy needs “bipartisan consensus” and “nonpartisan competence”; that, in an “increasingly interdependent world,” we must remain “internationalists” and “realists”; that “patient diplomacy, backed up by American strength, informed by American values,” is just the ticket. Who could dispute such truisms?

The stunning thing is that the president of the United States and his top advisers do dispute them in their rhetoric and their policies. Hence their blithe disregard of expertise (military, economic, and otherwise), their harrumphing unilateralism, their exaggerated assumptions about American power, their dismissal of negotiations as a game for weaklings (and negotiations with bad guys as appeasement).

The world is awash in the consequences, not least in the regions around the “axes of evil,” where the administration has tried most intensely to hoist its ideas onto reality.

When President Bush reduces the sectarian complexities of Iraq to a struggle between the forces of terror and the ordinary people who just want a decent life, he seems utterly incurious about the composition of those people or what they might consider a decent life—and genuinely unaware of the connection between their society’s upheaval and the war that he brought on.

Sen. Clinton today put forth her three-point proposal for dealing with Iraq. 1) Press the Iraqi government to get serious about internal reconciliation, and present real consequences for their failure to do so. One possible approach, she said, might be to establish an oil trust, the revenue of which would be equitably shared by all Iraqis, thus placating Sunni discontent and demonstrating that America has no ambitions for their oil. 2) Convene an international conference of all parties in the region, including Iran and Syria. 3) Begin a “phased re-deployment” of U.S. troops, leaving behind only enough for support and training Iraq’s own military.

Nothing to raise eyebrows, but, by contrast, is the Bush administration doing anything? For all the fuss over the White House’s recent disavowal of “stay the course,” has actual policy changed in the slightest? And, by the way, what is that policy?

Sen. Clinton wants more troops in Afghanistan, noting that, per capita, the international community has 50 times as many troops in Bosnia. The case needs elaboration—for instance, what would the troops have the authority to do, and how can political corruption be cleaned up?—but the administration isn’t doing anything, one way or the other, in part because, owing to the Iraqi quagmire (I think we can use that word now), there are hardly any spare troops to send.

On Iran, she called for direct talks with Tehran, if just to find out who’s really running things over there. President Bush declines, leaving such things to the British, French, and Germans, saying that the Iranians know what we want if they want to strike up a conversation. Maybe, but does Bush—does anybody, really—know what they want?

On North Korea, she expressed delight that the North Koreans agreed this morning, after extensive diplomatic pressure from China, to return to the six-party talks in Beijing. But she complained that Bush administration has spent six years dangling neither sticks nor carrots in its dealings with the admittedly horrid Kim Jong-il.

She referred to the tension, which has challenged statesmen throughout American history, between our interests and our ideals—and the need to devise and manage a judicious mix of the two. President Bush has failed to do this because he pretends the tension doesn’t exist.

She also commented that the FBI should have more than 33 Arabic-speaking analysts (none of whom work in the counterterrorism division); that our fiscal indebtedness to China’s central bankers makes it hard to pressure the Chinese government on important matters of dispute; that torturing people, even horrible people who might deserve it, isn’t a good idea if we’re trying to present ourselves as paragons of democracy.

In certain Democratic circles, the cry has gone out for presidential candidates and party honchos to articulate grand ideas, especially in foreign policy—bright new strategies for the 21st century and the post-post-Cold War world. But if there’s one lesson of the George W. Bush era (and it is an era—has any six-year span ever seemed longer?), it’s that grand ideas are the ones that most often get you in trouble. There are plenty of good ideas—sound ideas out there in the realms of history, shrewd analysis, and common sense. It might be enough simply to call for candidates who are smart, skeptical, and rooted in reality.