Alter Egos: A Look Back At The Woman Who Could (Should) Be President

President Obama joins former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail this week. After a contentious primary campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the president proffered his endorsement upon his erstwhile cabinet member and political rival once the Associated Press called the race in her favor. To this point in the campaign, “7-almond-a-night” Obama made his impact felt in this contest by challenging the surprise Republican nominee, Donald Trump, with bluster so powerful it almost blows the hair piece right off of his head.

Secretary Clinton, of course, needed no further motivation to start hammering on her new opponent. Her jab at Trump in early June appeared to reveal vulnerability in the boisterous enigma’s seemingly impervious mixture of bravado and incredulity. Speaking in San Diego on Thursday, June 3, 2016, Secretary Clinton returned to her bread-and-butter issue: foreign policy. She highlighted how Trump’s erratic behavior renders him unfit to provide the steady hand needed to steer the country. The speech riled her base and, in a twist, instilled fear within Trump’s camp.

Yet critics noted that Clinton’s rhetorical barbs lacked substance. The New York Times, which endorsed her in January, noted that the speech was more an attack on Trump than an outline of what she intends to do and why she will be a better foreign policy president than he.

Those dissatisfied by this dearth of specifics need not look far for the media attention devoted to telling Hillary Clinton’s story. Along with an excellent biography of her years as chief diplomat written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Secretary Clinton published her own memoirs, Hard Choices, from this period in 2014. Carl Bernstein’s 2008 biography, A Woman in Charge, stands out as well. In addition, James Traub published an insightful analytical piece, entitled “The Hillary Clinton Doctrine,” on Foreign Policy’s site in November 2015 that is well worth a read. While this speech did not address her positions, moreover, she hardly shied away from expounding on her views on the campaign trail thus far.

For those who remain unsatisfied still, New York Times reporter Mark Landler published an incisive book, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power, in late April. The stories are familiar from the pages of countless memoirs and biographies, tell-all narratives and insider reports, perhaps facelifted with new details gleaned from Landler’s coverage of both Secretary Clinton and President Obama. Yet those juicy anecdotes are not what make this story fresh: Landler provides a unique lens into the mind of the candidate who may take the oath of office as the first female President of the United States next January by juxtaposing it with that of President Obama, her newest and most powerful campaign surrogate, during their time together.

From the outset, Landler portrays Secretary Hillary Clinton as the hawkish liberal interventionist to Obama’s skepticism and disillusionment with the traditional use of American power. Landler traces her ideology from childhood, where she was raised into the ways of idealist Cold Warriors in the Chicago suburbs. There she was nurtured on the good-versus-evil struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the exceptionalism of the American example, and in the firm belief that American institutions, especially the military, were a force for good in the world. This perspective, he contends, shapes her engagement with virtually every foreign policy initiative she touched during her time at State. He connects her background and perspectives to those of her boss, explicitly drawing out sharp differences.

Throughout the first term, Landler argues that “Clinton played the house hawk in Obama’s war cabinet.” She held a decisive role in moving President Obama to accept the 30,000-strong surge in Afghanistan in 2009. She again moved the administration to conduct airstrikes in Libya.  She backed then-CIA Director David Petraeus’ bid for providing paramilitary support to “moderate” rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in April 2012. She expressed her disillusionment with the Russian “reset” before the president’s clannish inner circle was prepared to accept the facts. She supported the Iran nuclear deal, playing an instrumental role in establishing the sanctions regime many believe brought Tehran to the negotiating table. Clinton even sent Jake Sullivan, one of her top aids at State and a senior foreign policy advisor to her campaign, to secret talks in Oman that laid the ground work for what would become the most significant diplomacy of the Obama administration and Kerry’s tenure as her successor.

Clinton’s hawkishness was far from her only motivator, Landler shows. He gleans through the released emails from Clinton’s private servers to illuminate other factors in her judgement. They include her desire to remain an effective voice in policy discussions, exemplified in both her determination to cultivate allies in the increasingly influential Pentagon while challenging the CIA to give her and her ambassadors greater oversight in the drone strike campaign. It is clear from this telling that political concerns continued driving her. The author demonstrates how she tried to make sure that certain initiatives stood as personal achievements to brandish her own image, such as the initial branding of the Asia “pivot” – a mantle and mantra to be challenged by former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. For the different levers pulling within Secretary Clinton, Landler states that, above everything else, she fulfilled her role as President Obama’s chief diplomat with patriotic commitment. To that end, Landler says the two “respected each other without ever losing the undercurrent of competition that charged their clashes on the campaign trail.” In the end, Clinton dutifully pursued Obama’s policies around the world, playing the “loyal lieutenant” in Foggy Bottom.

For that loyalty, the 2016 candidate endorsed by President Obama tries to strike a balance between owning and disavowing the current commander in chief’s record. Clinton supports a more concerted challenge to Putin’s aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe, an abandonment of Obama’s measured approach for a return to Cold War analogies for sending arms and reviving containment. She chides the president’s restraint in Syria and counters with calls for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor for refugees. She continues to stand behind the Iran deal, but under the conditions that the international community holds Iran to the deal, intelligence resources remain dedicated to monitoring the program, and that efforts are made to restrain Iran’s conventional threat to the region. She vows to return to her husband’s more cooperative approach to working with Israel.

These critiques only seem to further the argument that Hillary Clinton’s White House will be a more hawkish one than Obama’s. The defining theme of her foreign policy appears to be greater trust in military institutions and faith in their ability to impact the world for the better. She will be driven by a more conventional desire to shore up allies and she will cast a more cautious eye towards rivals. When those rivals act out, she will be more likely to consider the last resort to force as a real option. Such perspective could restore American credibility and the U.S. military deterrent, but it could also result in greater conflict overall. From a historical perspective, we see that all foreign policy stances from Washington to Obama come with their virtues and risks.

But Landler’s argument for the sharp distinctions made here between these two titans of the Democratic establishment is somewhat hyperbolic. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post note in their reviews that Landler’s efforts to draw out differences between Secretary Clinton and President Obama, the very lens for which I praise Alter Egos, is overwrought. Landler’s account, they argue, does not support his thesis: for their divides, the two remain committed to a similar vision of America’s role in the world and Clinton’s future presidency may be noted for its similarities to Obama’s more than for what sets it apart. Even the author undermines the contrasts he draws by conceding that what separates Clinton from Obama is more “instinct” than orientation. Obama is still a believer in the United States’ indispensable role on the world stage. Clinton is a seasoned diplomat who understands the importance of exhausting non-violent options before resorting to war and whose record is defined by her championing of smart power and issues affecting women and children.

But instincts count for a great deal in the world of national security decision making. To the extent that Clinton’s instincts are different than Obama’s, foreign policy will shift to reflect them in grand policy initiatives and crisis management. How would a President Clinton respond to a chemical weapons violation in Syria? Would she be swayed against action by a close adviser who encouraged restraint? Clinton likely would not have such an adviser, and she probably would have followed through. Such a policy, many have argued, should have been pursued over President Obama’s sudden volte-face. Alter Egos demonstrates through Clinton’s efforts to shape and to conduct policy from the State Department that President Obama kept the primary locus of foreign policy in the East Wing and operationalized his National Security Council; Landler’s depiction of Clinton suggests that such a trend will continue. In that echo chamber, the instinct of the president can shape the orientation of foreign policy, its daily tactical actions and the strategic goals that, hopefully, guide them towards a defining vision.

It is important not to overstate these different viewpoints when predicting a Clinton presidency, as some accuse Landler of exaggerating in Alter Egos.  Considering, just for a moment, how radical of a departure a Trump presidency, led by a man whose complete inability to grasp the power of rhetoric and symbolism he uses to shockingly effect has led to alienating many at home and abroad, would be by comparison. Yet I defend Landler’s premise: it is important to consider what sets Clinton apart from Obama when imagining what the future may look like. Though Secretary Clinton may govern similarly to President Obama someday, perceptual shifts could lead to different outcomes and new implications however slight.

Image: 2009 Security Council meeting (credit: Pete Souza/White House/Wikimedia Commons)


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