After months of debates, campaigning and interviews, the US Presidential elections are beginning to tail off. The ostensible incumbents for their respective party’s nomination – Hillary Clinton, the Democrat frontrunner, and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate – seem to have beaten off dozens of other hopefuls and look set to show off on 8th November, Election Day. But while the world they are entering is evident for all to see, what kind of world might they leave behind? More specifically, what would their foreign policy look like, particularly for Iraq, a country with a tumultuous history with the United States?
While addressing a group of female veterans in 1994, Hillary Clinton talked of her failed enlistment into the US military. Arriving at the Arkansas military office in 1975, a few years after graduating from Yale Law School, she claimed that once the Marine recruit saw her, he rejected her saying “you’re too old, you can’t see and you’re a woman”. Despite the veracity of her claims, Hillary Clinton is an American patriot, having served in multifarious roles in office, and who has been labelled as “hawkish” – one who advocates an aggressive foreign policy. Originally flirting between the Republican and Democrat Party in her early days, she has constantly been positioned politically on the right side of President Obama regarding foreign policy.
This has been evident during her time as Secretary of State, which has been evaluated with mixed reviews. Despite hitting the “reset” button with Russia, organising regional diplomatic channels to counterbalance the aggression in the South China Sea, and quietly opening talks with Iran that would form the origins of the nuclear deal signed last year, she has several stains on her foreign policy CV. Most notably among them are her decisions to back the war on Iraq in 2003, and intervene militarily in Libya under her Secretary of State stewardship, which has contributed to the complete failure of the Libyan state. But this forms part of her wider policy of interventionist politics by expanding the US’s influence in the world. She is very much “a member of the traditional American foreign policy establishment” said Vali Nasr, a foreign-policy strategist who advised Clinton on Afghanistan and Pakistan when she was Secretary of State. “She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military—in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence”.
Yet, arguably the biggest stain in Clinton’s interventionist history is the support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even before then, when asked in 2002 about her support for Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act – the US’s congressional statement policy saying that “it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq” – she said, “I agreed with it in 1998. I agree with it in 2002”. Determined and eager to expand America’s influence, Richard Holbrooke, the former envoy for Bill Clinton, argues that “she is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband”. And this culminated in her support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where she said: “I have concluded after careful and serious consideration that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation… to wage America’s war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction”. The support for this war continues to hold her back today as Bernie Sanders, her opponent for the Democrat nomination, continues to criticise her political foresight, particularly as he echoed caution in 1991 during the First Gulf War and vehemently opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003.
The failure to deviate slightly from this militarist framework has therefore undermined her first-hand foreign policy experience, which is vast and completely outweighs that of the other candidates. But Clinton is not helped by the fact that she did not go to Capitol Hill to read the secret report on Iraq before making her decision on the invasion, despite claiming in 2008 that she was “fully briefed by the people who wrote that [report]”. Yet, a further stain on her Iraq decision-making process was to rebuff Scott Ritter, the UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, who tried to see her before she made her decision. “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,” Hillary wrote in her book, Hard Choices, about her Iraq vote in 2002, a comment that inflames Ritter, who is still incensed that he didn’t have the chance to impart his expertise on Clinton about the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction issue.
The reality is that she shares little scepticism of military and foreign policy establishments believing that the US should continue to lead in the world. Her military thought, particularly concerning Iraq, is heavily influenced by retired General Jack Keane, one of the architects of the Iraq surge, and according to The New York Times’s Mark Landler, “the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues”. As a retired four-star General, Keane has consistently criticised Obama for not intensifying attacks in Iraq and Syria. It is something that ostensibly seeps into Clinton’s military strategy with Landler reporting that during the US administration’s internal deliberations about Iraq and Syria, she consistently supported the most interventionist option that was on the table.
Yet, despite these militarist claims, particularly concerning Iraq, Clinton retorts that she has a “much longer history than one vote, which I said was a mistake because of the way that it was done and how the Bush administration handled it”. But if Hillary Clinton becomes the next President of the United States, then the famous quagmire that Obama and Bush faced before taking over as President, namely, ‘what America’s role in the world will be in the twenty-first century’, will already have been answered; there will be greater American influence throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and Iraq.
In comparison to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s foreign policy is harder to work out. The political ontogenesis of the billionaire is remarkable, having been given a minor chance of attaining the republican nomination, let alone within a shot of becoming President. The politically dilettantish businessman is famous for his caustic rhetoric, but one that seems to compute with a sizeable swath of the American people.
His populist nature, however, makes it very difficult to understand what his true foreign policy colours would be. After the San Bernadino killings, he released a statement saying he would ban all Muslims from entering the country, a stance that he recently softened saying “it was only a suggestion”. During a Republican debate, Trump claimed that “he would bring back waterboarding” and “target terrorist families”, but recently said that he would not force the US army commanders to break international law. (It is illegal under the Geneva Convention to target civilians even if they are the family of terrorists.) And he suggested that Japan might have to get nuclear weapons to protect themselves if America reduced their influence in the East, despite his assertion that “it’s a very scary nuclear world”.
In addition to his populist nature, his lack of foreign policy experience adds another layer of confusion to his true global intentions. When questioned about his lack of foreign policy experience, specifically about his knowledge of Russia, he claimed that he “know[s] Russia very well” as he “had a major event in Russia two or three years ago, Miss Universe contest, which was a big, big, incredible event”. Trump also claims to have demonstrated visionary foresight by claiming in his book that Osama Bin Laden was a “nasty” guy who needed to be “taken out”, as well as predicting the destabilising nature the war on Iraq would have on the Middle East.
Yet, his views on Iraq leave much to be desired. During a Republican debate, Trump claimed to have “came out strongly against the war with Iraq”. In an interview on September 11th 2002, however, Howard Stern asked Trump if he supported an Iraq invasion to which Trump responded “yeah I guess so…I wish the first time it was done correctly”. When asked about this interview at the CNN town hall Republican debate, Trump backtracked saying, “I could have said that. I wasn’t a politician. It was probably the first time anyone has asked me that question. By the time the war started, I was against it, and shortly thereafter, I was really against”. But Trump’s backtracking and uncertainty reflects his general foreign policy stance – one that is mired in the unknown, manipulated and contorted as time goes on.
Trump’s wider views on Iraq furthermore demonstrate a lack of consideration towards the country. Trump’s main suggestion to countering ISIS by blowing up Iraq’s oil supplies “because they have the oil” demonstrates a lack of perspicacious thought and understanding into the strategic complexities inherent in the country (and neighbouring Syria). In the same speech, Trump continued by saying that “the so-called government in Iraq went to Iran to meet with Iran. Iran is going to take over Iraq…I don’t care about the government of Iraq. They’re totally corrupt. Who cares?” further highlighting his simplistic and nonchalant take on events in the Middle East.
Donald Trump’s lack of political experience will therefore see him rely heavily on his foreign policy experts. Yet, critics are confounded by the choice of some of his high profile advisors – Joseph E. Schmitz, General Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Walid Phares – particularly as they are, with the exception of the latter, relatively unknown. However, the most high profile of the five, Walid Phares, has been accused by Muslim civil rights groups as being Islamophobic after his comment that “jihadists within the West pose as civil rights advocates”. It is also surprising, given the negative narratives promulgated by Trump towards those who had supported the Iraq War, that he would hire Phares, a man who wrote an op-ed comparing people opposing the Iraq war to people in Constantinople in 1453 debating the threat posed to the city by the Ottomans.
With Hillary Clinton, foreign policy is likely to be driven by hegemonic desire and support for the US’s allies in the region. Trump’s ostentatious rhetoric that changes daily will likely see him continue to prop up America’s ally Israel, but highlights the unpredictable uncertainty concerning America’s relationship with her other allies. In any case, Trump seems less likely to intervene in Iraq’s affairs, with little concern for spending more money in a country that “has cost 2 trillion dollars” and from whom the United States should “take” $1.5 trillion worth of oil from Iraq to pay for the cost of the war”. In any case, as Tulsi Gabbard, who resigned as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee before committing her support for Bernie Sanders, said upon resigning that it is of paramount importance “to have a commander-in-chief who has foresight, who exercises good judgment…who looks at the consequences of the actions they are willing to take before they take those actions so that we don’t continue to find ourselves in these failures that have resulted in chaos in the Middle East and so much loss of life”. And on Election Day, there will either be a commander-in-chief who will need to analyse the failures of her past decisions, or one who will have to learn quickly to avoid making the same mistakes as past Presidents.