Hillary the hawk

March 9, 2016

The Democrats are seen as the party that opposes war, but their history tells us something different, writes Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History.

IN THE days before the Super Tuesday primary elections earlier this month, Hillary Clinton got an endorsement that probably didn't help her much with Democratic voters. But it showed where official Washington's thinking is these days.

In a Washington Post op-ed article, Robert Kagan wrote of his disgust with his party's impending decision to nominate racist blowhard Donald Trump:

The Republicans' creation will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.

Who is Robert Kagan? He is one of the leading neoconservative "intellectuals" and founder of the notorious Project for a New American Century (PNAC).

That organization, formed in the late 1997 by Kagan and William Kristol, another leading "neocon," included among its signatories such future Bush administration hawks as Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior adviser Paul Wolfowitz. PNAC called for the U.S. to pursue a "Reaganite" policy of "benevolent global hegemony," including "regime change" of governments that didn't conform to "our interests and values."

Hillary Clinton

PNAC and its supporters were key actors in the Bush administration drive to war on Iraq in 2003. But more than that, they expected the defeat of Iraq to be the first step in a series of rolling "regime changes" across the region that would establish permanent American hegemony across the world.

Needless to say, things didn't work out that way. These neocon geniuses helped engineer the biggest disaster in U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War. The Iraq war became so politically unpopular that Barack Obama was able to ride his tepid opposition to the war to the White House, defeating two of the war's biggest proponents, Republican Sen. John McCain, and, of course, then-Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton herself.

To neoconservatives, Trump is a lout who will undermine the U.S. image in the world. But even worse, he's a heretic who dissented from neocon theology when, in a February debate, he characterized the Iraq war as "a big fat mistake," and said Bush and Co. lied about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

For these reasons, Politico noted that Republican hawks have "declared war" on Trump. "Hillary is the lesser evil, by a larger margin," said Elliott Cohen, a leading neocon ideologue and former Bush administration State Department official.

Salon characterized neoconservatives' willingness to countenance support for Clinton as their "a nightmare scenario." But is that really the case?

ONE REASON why neoconservative endorsement of a Democrat may not keep many of them awake at night is that many of them were Democrats.

In the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, it became fashionable in liberal circles to assert that a small "cabal" of Republican neoconservatives had hijacked an otherwise sound bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. Yet a brief account of the origins of these neoconservatives shows that they--and their project--did not emerge from the netherworld. In fact, a large number of the neocons emerged from a wing of the Democratic Party.

Their story begins in the late 1960s in the battle inside the foreign policy establishment over the fate of the Vietnam War. After the 1968 Tet Offensive made clear that the war was unwinnable, not only public opinion but also leading business executives and sectors of the military and intelligence establishments turned against it.

This growing "antiwar camp" concealed differences between those who opposed the war in principle and those who thought cutting U.S. losses in Vietnam would help the U.S. to advance its business and political interests elsewhere.

In 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, backed by a segment of business executives including cosmetics boss Max Factor III and the CEOs of Xerox and Continental Grain, pursued a conscious strategy of "co-opting the left" by recruiting antiwar activists into his campaign.

The bulk of U.S. business wasn't willing to follow the McGovern backers. Neither were powerful forces inside the Democratic Party that had become accustomed to playing their assigned roles in the setup of Cold War liberalism.

The State Department had long corrupted the AFL-CIO, funneling millions in government money to a cadre of trade union activists (many of them ex-leftists) who used it to build anticommunist unions and parties throughout the Third World. The mainstream labor movement refused to back McGovern.

Cold War liberal politicians, who combined liberal positions on social welfare issues with strong support for Cold War military spending, formed another piece of the Democratic establishment that rebelled against McGovern.

The most prominent among these was Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, who mounted presidential runs in 1972 and 1976 based on his "strong on defense" positions. Having abandoned McGovern, these sections of the Democratic establishment contributed to his landslide defeat in 1972--a defeat that solidified the image of the Democrats as being "soft on defense."

ALL THIS history is important for understanding the peculiar character of the architects of foreign policy during the Bush Junior administration. Nearly all the leading figures among 21st century neocons emerged from the "Scoop" Jackson wing of the Democratic Party. They found a home in the Reaganite Republican Party that made a huge military buildup against the USSR and Third World "communism" central to its project in the 1980s:

Richard Perle, a member of the Bush-appointed Defense Policy Board and leading advocate of the 2003 Iraq War, began his Washington career on "Scoop" Jackson's staff.

The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, co-author of The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission, is the son of Irving Kristol, the one-time Trotskyist and editor of the once-liberal Commentary, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, another former liberal turned "virtuecrat."

Defense Policy Board member R. James Woolsey III, a Washington lawyer who served in the Carter administration and spent two years as Bill Clinton's first CIA director, was a fanatical supporter of a theory that Iraq was behind the September 11 attacks.

Former Iran-contra criminal Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's director of Middle East policy, was a former staffer for Jackson and a former member of Social Democrats USA, the organization that supplied much of the cadre for the anticommunist trade-union activities in the Third World.

Paul Wolfowitz received his introduction to Washington as a graduate assistant to defense intellectual (and former Trotskyist) Albert Wohlstetter, who served as an adviser to Jackson.

The neocon hawks first roosted in the Committee for the Present Danger (CPD), a Washington lobby formed in the 1970s to urge an end to U.S. détente with the USSR in favor of a huge increase in military spending.

CPD founders Paul Nitze and Eugene V. Rostow were both Democrats who supported Reagan in 1980. Nitze, who later joined the Reagan administration, was hardly a fringe player. He was the chief author of National Security Council Report 68, the 1950 blueprint for U.S. Cold War policy produced for the Democratic Truman administration.

Another letterhead organization emerging from the "Scoop" Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), included among its members major figures in the Clinton-Gore administration: Les Aspin, Clinton's first defense secretary; Woolsey; current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Clinton's energy secretary and UN ambassador; Henry Cisneros, Clinton's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Lloyd Bentsen, Clinton's first Treasury Secretary.

The CDM joined these Clintonites with such Reaganites as former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and contra promoter Penn Kemble. The neocons found kindred spirits in longtime Republican hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld.

These labyrinthine, bipartisan interconnections indicate that there is nothing inherently "Republican" about the neoconservatives, who many argued had hijacked U.S. foreign policy after 2001. Building and expanding the U.S. empire is and has been a bipartisan project, with its ideological warriors accepted in both major parties.

WHICH BRINGS us to Hillary Clinton.

It's ironic that Clinton got her start in Democratic politics working, along with then-fiancé Bill Clinton, as Texas organizers for McGovern's ill-fated presidential campaign in 1972. Although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich years later assailed Bill and Hillary as "counter-culture McGoverniks," their records show something different.

That's especially true of Hillary Clinton. As a member of the Senate, she was one of the most hawkish members of the Democratic caucus, as Stephen Zunes points out in a must-read article.

Clinton voted for the Iraq war "with conviction" and brushed aside all contrary evidence of Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. She even endorsed the crackpot theory that Saddam gave aid and comfort to al-Qaeda, the author of the 9/11 attacks.

As Zunes shows, Clinton consistently supported the most militaristic options in the buildup to the war, voting against various congressional amendments that at least pretended to slow the rush to war.

And, as Zunes notes, "she continued to defend her vote even when the rationales behind it had been disproven." Even in 2004-06, when it was clear to the broad swathes of the American public and even to the political establishment that the Iraq war was a disaster, Clinton continued on as what Donald Rumsfeld might have called a "dead-ender." She supported the idea of a "troop surge" into Iraq even before the Bush administration began calling for it.

Like the neocons, Clinton has consistently talked of military engagement with Iran. Even as Obama's secretary of state, she was one of the main administration skeptics over the course of negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal announced last year. And like the neocons, Clinton defended nearly every atrocity and violation of international law that Israel committed.

Of President Obama's main foreign policy advisers, Clinton was the most likely to advocate military intervention in nearly every corner of the world. As Time magazine's Michael Crowley wrote in 2014, summing up her career at State:

As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama's expansion of lethal drone strikes.

In fact, Clinton may have been the administration's most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues--Afghanistan, Libya and the bin Laden raid--Clinton took a more aggressive line than [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican.

CLINTON ALSO led the Obama administration's coddling of dictators when it served U.S. interests.

When the Honduran military overthrew reformist Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the Obama administration made noises about the coup being "illegal," but then did nothing to support Zelaya or speak out on repression in the country. In the standard weasel words of diplomacy--uttered by Clinton, the administration's chief diplomat--it called for "a negotiated solution" and for "both sides" to agree.

By failing to stand firmly against the coup, the Obama administration sided with the coup-makers. International negotiations ultimately secured the return of Zelaya in 2011, but in the meantime, the U.S. won international recognition for the coup regime and the demobilization of the grassroots resistance.

In 2011, when movements for democracy erupted across the Middle East and North Africa, the administration stayed loyal to U.S.-allied dictators like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, almost to the bitter end.

Meanwhile, it supported Saudi Arabia's invasion of Bahrain to suppress a popular movement for democracy there. It subsequently dispatched Secretary of State Clinton to Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to offer an increase in arms sales to the kingdom.

The Obama administration's most audacious action during the Arab Spring was to support and bankroll a UN-sanctioned NATO intervention in the civil war in Libya. In so doing, Obama rehabilitated the concept of "humanitarian intervention" last embraced during Clinton's 1999 Kosovo adventure.

NATO intervention tipped the balance in favor of rebels who overthrew the Libyan dictator (and one-time U.S. ally) Muammar el-Qaddafi. Almost five years later, Libya is being carved up by local militias and may become another outpost for the ISIS in the region.

For their own cynical purposes, the Republicans have waved the bloody shirt of "Benghazi" against Clinton, trying to blame her for negligence in a 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate that killed the U.S. ambassador. While they pick over every sordid detail of the Benghazi affair, no one in the media or the political establishment questions Clinton's support for U.S. intervention in Libya.

DESPITE THEIR rhetorical differences, the "liberal interventionists" in Obama's administration behaved almost identically to the discredited neoconservatives of the Bush regime, foreign policy expert Stephen M. Walt argued:

So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised...Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

While Clinton's defenders may claim that her actions were just those of a loyal servant carrying out her boss's policies, there's no evidence that she disagreed with any of them. Her quest for the Black vote in the 2016 primaries may have led her to swear her allegiance to Obama now. But she had spent the year before criticizing her former boss for his alleged naiveté in conducting the affairs of state.

The neo-conservatives who are ditching Trump contend that the blowhard billionaire doesn't have the temperament or judgment to be entrusted with control over the world's largest military and its nuclear arsenal. Given Hillary Clinton's well-established record, we should be raising the same questions about her.

Further Reading

From the archives