On the defensive.

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Debating Clinton's Foreign Policy Won't Help Democrats

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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At tonight’s Democratic presidential debate, expect all of Hillary Clinton’s challengers to attack her foreign policy record and judgment on several national security issues. For Clinton, who was planning to run in large part on her record as secretary of state but now finds herself on the defensive over Iran, Russia, Syria and trade, it could be a long night.

For the Democratic Party though, her opponents’ strategy may do more harm than good: few of them have their own foreign-policy credentials to run on, and those that do have little chance of advancing to the general election. Their attacks may end  up doing little more than helping Republicans in their overall effort to undermine Clinton's national security credentials.

Republicans have ramped up their attacks on Clinton’s time as President Barack Obama's top diplomat. The Republican National Committee put out a memo Oct. 9 attacking Clinton’s record on Iraq, including, ironically, her vote for a war that most Republican candidates still defend. On Monday, Jeb Bush’s campaign put out an ad (featuring your humble columnist) criticizing Clinton for working against Congressional sanctions on Iran when she was in office.

The Democrat candidates opposing Clinton don’t need prodding. All of them have been focusing on her foreign policy in the run up to the debate, on issues ranging from Syria to the Trans Pacific Partnership. In many cases, they don’t agree with each other, but they all agree Clinton is wrong one way or another.

The most pressing issue now is the war against the Islamic State and the crisis in Syria, further complicated by Russian intervention. After Clinton announced Oct.1 that she now in favors of a no-fly zone to protect civilians and stem the flow of refugees, which Obama publicly rejected, her Democratic competitors pounced. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders released a statement saying Clinton’s plan “could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region.”

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said that Clinton too easily looks to employing the U.S. military abroad. “Secretary Clinton is always quick for the military intervention,” he told CNN Monday. “This could lead to an escalation of Cold War proportions.”

On Syria, Sanders and O’Malley are in sync with Obama, and the three of them represent the progressive wing of the Democratic Party on national security, with views largely shaped by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clinton comes from the liberal interventionist side of the Democratic establishment, which believes that there are times when military action is necessary. This camp places a higher premium on the responsibility to protect those facing atrocities abroad, as in 1999 when President Bill Clinton led the NATO military intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

Former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is also critical of Clinton’s interventionalist streak and is against a no fly zone in Syria. But Webb is not a progressive on foreign policy; he’s a strict realist who believes there are limits to American power and therefore there should be limits on its use. Webb’s favorite criticism of Clinton’s tenure at the State Department is her support for attacking Libya in 2011.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, has called the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya that toppled the Muammar Qaddafi regime “Hillary’s War,” and while he was in the Senate he opposed the Libya intervention and called for an authorization vote in Congress. Webb is also the debate participant who is most likely to bring up the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, which he sees as a consequence of that intervention.

"The attack in Benghazi was inevitable in some form or another, as was the continuing chaos and the dissemination of large numbers of weapons from Qaddafi’s armories to terrorist units throughout the region," Webb wrote in his July campaign announcement.

Sanders, O’Malley, Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee will all go after Clinton for voting to authorize President George W. Bush's use force in Iraq. In recent days, Sanders has been repeatedly pointing to the October 2002 vote as evidence that he was right and Clinton wrong on the most important foreign policy call so far this century. Sanders, in the House of Representatives at the time, spoke against the war.

While Clinton voted to authorize the use of military force, she later said she regretted that vote and said she was not have supported the invasion if she had known the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction was faulty. Chafee, then a Republican, was the only senator of his party to vote against it, and on the campaign trail he has repeatedly blamed the Iraq war for the rise of the Islamic State, saying Clinton’s vote should disqualify her from becoming commander in chief.

"I don't think anybody should be president of the United States that made that mistake," Chafee said in April. "I did not make that mistake.”

Webb also opposed invading Iraq in 2002, before he was in the Senate, warning that the invasion was poorly thought out and there was no clear exit strategy. His son, Jimmy Webb, served in Iraq. Clinton, Sanders and Webb all opposed President George W. Bush’s 2007 surge of troops to Iraq as senators; and all three also supported Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011. Secretary Clinton, however, did push hard to leave a residual troop presence in Iraq past 2011. And her staff was involved in intense negotiations for a new status of forces agreement with the Baghdad government that eventually broke down.

On Iran, all of the Democratic candidates except Webb support Obama’s nuclear deal, which Clinton can claim some credit for because her top aides helped begin the negotiations. But if Clinton tries to take credit for the sanctions that increased pressure on Iran, Webb and Chafee could point out that they both voted for some of the most crippling penalties above the objections of the Clinton State Department in 2010 and 2011.

Clinton could also have trouble trying to laud the Obama administration’s first term “pivot to Asia,” which she helped lead, because she has now disavowed a major plank of that strategy: the Trans Pacific Partnership.  Sanders and O’Malley are ready to call Clinton out for flip-flopping on that, given that she once called it “the gold standard” for international trade deals.

That doesn’t leave Clinton a lot to work with. In recent days, she has defended her “reset” policy with Russia as a success, but she won’t be eager to bring that up on her own. According to her top aides, Clinton is also running on her record on terrorism, including supporting the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. But that may only give her a primary advantage if Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the raid, joins the race.

Her likely strategy will be to point out that she has more actual experience dealing with foreign policy and national security than any other candidate in the race, in either party. She will also likely press her debate opponents to articulate detailed policies to solve what she will argue are complex, sometime unsolvable problems.

 “It’s easy to throw rocks and all of these guys are going to criticize Clinton for policies that didn’t turn out to be perfect,” said Mieke Eoyang, head of the national security program at Third Way, a moderate Democratic Party policy organization. “The challenge that the rest of the candidates have is that you have to talk about how you would engage the world.”If challenging her opponents' expertise fails, Clinton can revert to the defense that she was just one official in an administration that made mistakes and that she opposed some of them at the time, Eoyang said. “There’s only so much that somebody can do as secretary of State.”

Republican presidential candidates and the Democrats Clinton will face Tuesday night don’t agree on much, but they have one shared goal: To turn Clinton’s greatest strength, her record of public service and experience, into a political weakness. If the Democrats succeed and Clinton goes on to win the nomination, they will have done her general election opponent a huge favor.

(Corrects Jim Webb's stance on Iran deal in 15th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net