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As primary season rolls on, it seems ever-more likely that the presidential election will see Donald Trump facing off against Hillary Clinton, barring brokered conventions or acts of the FBI. The conventional wisdom (as expressed by almost everyone who is not Piers Morgan) is that from a foreign policy perspective, Clinton is the clearly preferably candidate. This is, at best, a shaky contention.
In the past few days a number of fascinating longform pieces have been published on the foreign policy of the Obama administration, with a particular focus his first term in office, when Clinton was Secretary of State. In a two-part series the New York Times tackled how the decision to destroy the Gaddafi regime in Libya was eventually taken. In The Atlantic, The Obama Doctrine, based on a series of interviews with the President, discussed the Libya disaster in addition to other more successful events of the past few years, such as the nuclear deal with Iran.
A clear theme running through both is the dogmatism of Clinton and her immediate circle, such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice. Obama was enraged when Clinton publicly broke with his policy of "don't do stupid sh**", expressing her view that "great nations need organizing principles, and 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle". From Obama's perspective, nothing could be more deleterious to US interests than misguided organizing principles, such as Clinton's liberal interventionism, which seems to be have been forged in the fires of the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian War.
It seems as though a Clinton presidency promises to be the continuation of the first term of George W. Bush, with added feminism. This last is especially vital. Clinton appears to genuinely believe that women's rights are a guarantor of internal security (which I suggest is a classic instance of mistaking correlation for causation). It is noteworthy that the Libyan opposition were able to persuade Clinton to promote their cause partly by stressing their vision for a Libya where, in addition to multiparty democracy, women's rights would be respected. Whether Mahmoud Jibril ever had any intention of turning these noble intentions into reality is another question.
Clinton seems to have learned little from the disasters of Libya and Iraq, and has consistently promoted greater intervention in Syria over the years. It is interesting to speculate how, if Clinton, instead of Obama, had won the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections, she would have handled Syria. I think it not implausible that President Clinton would have overseen the invasion of 200,000 US troops, a military presence devoted to the maintenance of a regime of a tiny minority of Syrian liberals lacking much popular support.
The problem with such a strategy is that political compromises flow from an atmosphere of trust, and not the other way around. Hearts and minds are won through security guarantees. Western militaries cannot, however, provide security guarantees from the air. Even in the case of a ground invasion, such as Iraq, the modern high-tech army is well-equipped to fight a conventional war but undermanned from the standpoint of doing the everyday constabulary work necessary to prevent an insurgency from taking root.
Furthermore Western military norms that allow only very small quantities of collateral damage hamper our ability to fight insurgencies, whether from the air or on the ground. As a result the ability of the West to impose a peace in the face of fanatical resistance from even a very small minority of hostile actors is smaller than liberal interventionists think, and diminishes every year.
Over time the moral norms of Western publics have become increasingly pacifist and intolerant of anything more than the absolute minimum quantity of bloodshed, a trend reflected in the conduct of our military operations. The RAF's controversial bombing operations in Syria have been entirely trivial, partly because of these rules of engagement.
Another under-appreciated factor is the growing availability of the smartphone. It is now easier than ever for any excessively vigorous operations of Western troops to be broadcast out of context in almost real time to the ever-more sceptical public at home. Atrocities can now be faked wholesale or genuine footage can be easily edited for maximum propaganda effect. These limitations on Western power may be symptomatic of the decadence of our societies, but they are no less real for all that.
Clinton's approach to foreign policy couples fallacious thinking about "the right side of history", driven by authentic moral fervour, with unrealistic assessments of the power of Western militaries and the political sophistication of elites in nations with no history of civil society. Obama, at least, has come to acknowledge the limitations on Western power, and is now deeply sceptical of the leadership qualities of the main actors in Middle Eastern and North African polities.
Obama's views in 2016 seem to be, if anything, somewhat closer to Trump's than Clinton's. Like Obama, Trump seems sceptical of America's NATO allies; both are exasperated at what they – rightly – perceive as free-riding by European nations who profit from American security guarantees while barely contributing anything towards collective defence.
Almost alone among the Republican candidates, Trump has made scathing assessments of the war in Iraq and other unprofitable foreign entanglements. Both Obama and Trump have a far narrower conception of US interests than Clinton, although it's probably fair to say that Trump's is narrower still, and more openly mercantilist, than Obama's.
Whether or not the prospect of President Trump represents any improvement over that of President Clinton is open to debate, but Trump's clearly isolationist and non-ideological instincts are, I think, worthy of taking seriously as an alternative. Ideological interventionism has not served US interests well over the past 15 years.
Andrew Sabisky is an independent research worker and writer. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSabisky
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