Hillary Clinton's 'Mission Impossible' Doctrine

On foreign policy, the presumptive presidential candidate responds to hard choices by fake-punting.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

America's foreign-policy hawks are once again circling high over their maps of the Middle East. They see several countries where they would like America to strike. Some of the hawks are neoconservatives. Others are liberal internationalists. Hillary Clinton's hawkish shrieks are an unusual blend of their styles. Her book Hard Choices, her remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg include calls for the U.S. to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, weaken the government of Iran, and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni terrorist group being fought by both Assad and Iran. 

This puts her in an awkward position: If the U.S. is determined to weaken or destroy ISIS, the regimes in Syria and Iran, and the Shiite Islamist militant group Hezbollahif America is to pursue all these goals at once, as Clinton urges in her rhetoricwe're operating in such a way that our enemy's biggest enemies are our enemies. 

There are several ways a country could respond to this situation. Non-intervention is one of them. Perhaps the fight among ISIS, Assad, Iran, and other actors besides is so dynamic and complicated that there's no way to foresee the consequences of our intervention. Inaction guarantees that the U.S. won't spend blood and treasure in a way that does not help or inadvertently harms us–though inaction has costs and risks too. 

Another way forward would be to choose which enemy poses the biggest threat, focus on defeating it, and understand that in doing so we'd be compromising other goals. 

Then there's what we could call the "Mission Impossible" approach to geopolitics, where the seeming tradeoffs are so unappealing that one tries to avoid them. Hollywood screenwriters are the biggest proponents of this approach. Is the target too heavily armed to take by force and too well-guarded to sneak into? Don't call off the heist. Just devise a plan to steal a stealth helicopter during a lunar eclipse, rappel down a ventilation shaft mere inches wider than the thinnest member of your team, and rely on his acrobaticsplus the piece of cinnamon gum that is his trademark in outlaw circlesto bypass the lasers. 

That's the level of difficulty that comes to mind when I read Robert Ford, the career diplomat who resigned over the same objections to President Obama's Syria policy voiced by Clinton. "Some have argued that the easier course is to accept that Mr. Assad is entrenched in the capital and work with his regime to contain and eliminate the terrorist groups in Syria," he wrote in a June op-ed. "This would not benefit American security. ... [H]is record of relying on horrific brutality to maintain power is clear. Moreover, his regime has a history of implicit cooperation with Al Qaeda, as we saw in Iraq. This is not a man with whom the United States should align itself." Plus, "Mr. Assad now depends on Iran and Hezbollah for his survival, and Iran’s influence in Syria is likely to remain as long as Mr. Assad does." So what to do? "To be sure, there is no military solution, but it is possible to salvage something in Syria by preparing the conditions for a genuine negotiation toward a new government. And that requires empowering the moderate armed opposition. The Free Syrian Army needs far greater material support and training so that it can mount an effective guerrilla war."

This was presented as a realistic embrace of the least-bad option. 

It's basically the same advice Clinton gave: identify the subset of rebels battling Assad who aren't Islamist radicals; give them money and weapons; hope that they topple the Syrian regime; and then, when Assad is gone, wager that the power vacuum won't be filled by ISIS or some radical Islamist force like it. Though Assad's forces have done their best to kill ISIS fighters, Clinton spoke as if funding the opposition to Assad would have preempted the rise of ISIS, and as if post-Assad Syria wouldn't likely turn into a lawless place where terrorists could plot. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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