Hillary Clinton's 'Mission Impossible' Doctrine

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

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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