Hillary Clinton's 'Mission Impossible' Doctrine

But how was that a realistic plan?

Everything about Iraq, the scene of an earlier intervention that Clinton favored, ought to have given her pause. When that country's dictator fell, the resulting power vacuum empowered Islamist terrorist groups despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops. Weapons and equipment that the U.S. gave its allies in Iraq now make up a major part of the weaponry that ISIS stole to seize territory there. But ISIS wouldn't have been able to seize weapons funneled to moderate Syrians? And a Syria without Assad wouldn't have turned into a more heavily contested power vacuum? The folks beheading journalists and seizing vast swaths of territory would've let the moderates do their thing or been suppressed by them?

Those seem like risky wagers.

There's no way to prove the Ford/Clinton approach to Syria wouldn't have worked, just as there's no way to prove I wouldn't have won if I'd gone to a Las Vegas sports book last year and wagered that I could pick the winner of every Dallas Cowboys game. An embrace of plans with long odds of success is nevertheless a worrisome approach to foreign policy. It's as if Obama is a football coach with an injured quarterback and no ground game, the tough choice is whether to run or pass, and Clinton is on the sidelines emphatically agitating for an insanely complicated trick play that the team has never practiced before, even though trick plays attempted in previous games unfolded unpredictably and failed.

Clinton presents this posture as evidence of her capacity to make "Hard Choices," which for her means something like forcefully urging intervention even when I have no idea if it will work​. As she told Goldberg in their interview, "I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place."

She sees the long odds, yet never considers, or at least never refutes, the notion that our involvement could make things worse, as has happened before. ISIS could have more of our guns. Our now-successful effort to destroy many of Syria's chemical weapons could've been derailed. What voters should seek out, as they decide whether Clinton is capable of being a good president, is any recognition from her that attempts by American experts to steer events abroad do often make things worse–and that simple, plausible plans ought to be favored for that reason, not elaborate interventionist schemes that can only succeed if lots of contested assumptions hold true and lots of contingencies we don't control go right. 

Her inclination is to make risky bets on intervention "with conviction":

Every course poses its own risks. But as Vietnam provedand as Clinton ought to have learned in Iraqa hubristic, ill-planned, failed American military intervention is, when it goes wrong, the very most damaging thing a U.S. president can order. We should not elect any commander-in-chief who doesn't understand that.

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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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