Yesterday, Ross Douthat made the case against Hillary Clinton. As it happens, the case he made was not really very strong. He argued that Hillary is an establishment type and that with her we will have more of the same. Even if you believe that the same is not very good and that we are sorely in need of a course change, you must recognize that more of the same is at least familiar. Most people, given the choice, will choose the familiar over the strange.
One might say that the Hillary candidacy harkens back to the days of the first Clinton administration, but most people did not have it so bad during those times. It might be wrong to give Bill Clinton all the credit, but he—unlike the current POTUS-- worked effectively with Republicans in Congress and even signed a number of the laws that arose from the Contract with America.
True, Clinton was impeached for lying under oath and that much of America was disgusted by the way he treated women, but Republicans, dare I say, have recently lost all credibility on the question.
As it happens, Douthat believes that the American foreign policy establishment, in particular, made grievous errors over the past decades. In that he echoes an article penned by Angelo Codevilla in the Claremont Review of Books.
To read Codevilla you would think that everyone who has been in charge of American foreign policy has thought the same thoughts and implemented the same policies. And that they have all been wrong. One hesitates to embrace unthinkingly such a broad brush indictment.
To return to Douthat, here is his case against Hillary:
The dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency are more familiar than Trump’s authoritarian unknowns, because we live with them in our politics already. They’re the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals. They’re the dangers of a recklessness and radicalism that doesn’t recognize itself as either, because it’s convinced that if an idea is mainstream and commonplace among the great and good then it cannot possibly be folly.
Unlike Codevilla, Douthat limited his indictment to the last 15 years:
Almost every crisis that has come upon the West in the last 15 years has its roots in this establishmentarian type of folly. The Iraq War, which liberals prefer to remember as a conflict conjured by a neoconservative cabal, was actually the work of a bipartisan interventionist consensus, pushed hard by George W. Bush but embraced as well by a large slice of center-left opinion that included Tony Blair and more than half of Senate Democrats.
Likewise the financial crisis: Whether you blame financial-services deregulation or happy-go-lucky housing policy (or both), the policies that helped inflate and pop the bubble were embraced by both wings of the political establishment. Likewise with the euro, the European common currency, a terrible idea that only cranks and Little Englanders dared oppose until the Great Recession exposed it as a potentially economy-sinking folly. Likewise with Angela Merkel’s grand and reckless open-borders gesture just last year: She was the heroine of a thousand profiles even as she delivered her continent to polarization and violence.
And, of course, there are other problems:
This record of elite folly — which doesn’t even include lesser case studies like our splendid little war in Libya — is a big part of why the United States has a “let’s try crazy” candidate in this election, and why there are so many Trumpian parties thriving on European soil.
Indeed what is distinctive about Clinton, more even than Bush or Obama, is how few examples there are of her ever breaking with the elite consensus on matters of statecraft.
She was for the Iraq War when everyone was for it, against the surge when everyone had given up on Iraq, and then an unchastened liberal hawk again in Libya just a few short years later.
She was a Russia dove when the media mocked Mitt Romney for being a Russia hawk; now she’s a Russia hawk along with everyone else in Washington in a moment that might require de-escalation.
She cites Merkel as a model leader, she’s surrounded by a bipartisan foreign policy cadre that’s eager for a Details To Be Determine descalation in Syria, and she seems — like her Goldman Sachs audiences — intent on sailing serenely above the storm of nationalism rather than reconsidering any of the assumptions of her class.
Saying that Hillary Clinton has been hanging around with the wrong crowd does not feel very persuasive. Douthat might have noted the stench of corruption that surrounds her and that has infested the FBI and the Justice Department. And he might have asked whether she is competent. Surely, that is a more pertinent issue. Sinecures are one thing. Concrete achievements are quite another.
Douthat seems to believe that Hillary can be discredited for having the wrong ideas. I think it will take more. If it is even possible any more. If the election were being run as a battle between ideas, Trump would be winning. Unfortunately, it is a battle between two people. On that score Trump has not presented himself as the candidate of ideas or of competence.
The people in charge of American foreign policy have made significant errors—Codevilla lists them in excruciating detail—but it does not seem fair to lump them all together. Hasn’t there been a significant divide in the foreign policy establishment, between idealists and realists for a century at least?
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson did not see the world the same way. We saw how Wilson dealt with World War I and we can read what Roosevelt would have done in four volumes of contemporaneous newspaper columns. The difference was stark. Surely, we know that the American Senate rejected the call to join the Wilsonian (and Kantian) folly called the League of Nations.
In England Neville Chamberlin and Winston Churchill did not see the threat of Nazism the same way. In America, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy did not act in the same way when they were presented the chance to intervene in Vietnam.
Like it or not, the fall of Communism presented America with an enormous foreign policy challenge. As it happened G. H. W. Bush handled the crisis skillfully. No one really pays it much mind. Historians prefer chaos and drama to effective leadership.
Codevilla offered his indictment:
Since Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Democratic and Republican statesmen have confused America’s interest with mankind’s. In practice, they have taken upon themselves the role of mankind’s stewards (or sheriffs, leaders, pillars of order, or whatever) and acted as if, in Wilson’s words, America has “no reason for being” except to “stand for the right of men,” to be “champions of humanity.” Accordingly, a series of statesmen has forsaken war and diplomacy for strictly American ends and with means adequate to achieve them, and adopted foredoomed schemes pursued halfheartedly—Charles Evans Hughes (commitment to China’s integrity and renunciation of the means to uphold it), Franklin Roosevelt (seeking world co-domination with Stalin and the U.N. to banish “ancient evils, ancient ills”), Harry Truman (pursuing peace through no-win war in Korea), Nixon/Kissinger (scuttling Vietnam to help entice the Soviets into a grand detente), George W. Bush (democratizing the Middle East because America can’t be free unless and until the whole world is free).
True enough, George W. Bush got caught up in the ideological fervor when he announced that he would bring liberal democracy to the Middle East. But, Nixon and Kissinger drew down the Vietnam War because the American people were no longer willing to fight it. And, de-escalating Vietnam surely had something to do with the diplomatic opening with China. That must surely count for something.
Some presidents have pursued policies based on idealism, on the notion that we are all citizens of the world. Others have pursued balance-of-power realism and nationalism in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Yet, Codevilla throws it all into the same basket. He concludes that we should support Trump because he going to break things up and overthrow the establishment elites. One might ask with whom he is going to do this. One might ask which foreign policy experts will know enough to do it efficiently and effectively.
We can make the case against Hillary’s incompetence and corruption. We can make a case that she has done poorly in just about all of her undertakings. One can argue against her by looking at the horrors that have befallen the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, during the Arab Spring, since she and Obama—another rank amateur—took charge of American foreign policy. One can argue against her, not merely for pursuing ideals, but for implementing policies that signified, not American idealism, but American weakness around the world.
But, to argue for Trump on the grounds that he will be a bull in the china shop fails to see that no matter how incompetent Hillary is, she does seem familiar. A country has to be in miserably bad shape to take the risk that Trump would represent. And if it is in really bad shape, we would want to hire someone with demonstrated competence in foreign affairs. If the ship of state is sinking you want a captain who has navigated a ship before.
Codevilla supports Trump. He is right to say that Hillary will not cause the world to respect America. Not so much because of her ideas but because of who she is and how she got the job. World leaders might fear a Donald Trump more, because he is far less predictable, but if you believe that they would not relish the chance to take him down, you are simply wrong. He of the orange bouffant hairdo, he who is woefully underinformed about all foreign policy matters, will not restore respect for America.
Codevilla is quite right to say that we have lost the habit of winning wars. We no longer see conflict in terms of winning and losing. And yet, we did win the Cold War… even if crypto- Marxist ideas risk taking over the minds of America’s youth. We even won the first Gulf War. In fact, as Barack Obama himself said, the Iraq War had been concluded successfully… until he chose to surrender the victory.
Having created a monster, Codevilla suggests that anything is better:
The 2016 election is about whether that pattern should change. How much, if at all, it would change under Trump matters much less than the mere possibility it might change. Trump’s virtue in foreign policy lies in having voiced this simple, vital thought: U.S. foreign policy must put America first, and deliver victories rather than defeats. Whether Trump really believes that, whether he would act on it, or even whether he understands past mistakes, is secondary.
As of today, most Americans disagree.