A sure-footed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss everything from Social Security to Benghazi, Libya. The one statement that, at least behind closed doors, likely would get overwhelming bipartisan agreement was his take on the Obama administration’s foreign policy:
I think the foreign policy of this administration has been a failure, primarily because it was premised on a failed notion. And that is that somehow if the U.S. stepped back from the world, that other countries would fill that void in a positive way. And that’s not been the result. What we have learned from this experience is that while the rest of the world doesn’t like to be told what to do by America, they expect us to lead and they want America to lead. They understand that we’re uniquely positioned to create a coalition of free nations who will do things — like protect freedom of navigation in the seas or the respective territorial boundaries. And in the absence of that, you see the chaos you see all over the world when she was at the State Department, when all of this was happening.
The statement suggests that Hillary Clinton’s tenure was bound to wind up badly because the president’s underlying philosophy was just plain wrong. Lots of people on the far right and far left had it wrong. They wanted to leave the world to its own devices, but they underestimated the essential role of U.S. leadership and the potency of international threats. That is the fundamental mistake isolationists make in every generation, whether it is trying to avoid a European war in the 1930s or take “Islamic fundamentalism” out of our 21st-century lexicon (as if not saying the phrase would shield us from reality). Psychologists call this “magical thinking” — e.g.. if we leave wars they will “end.” It makes no more sense than saying a lucky rabbit’s foot in your pocket assures you’ll get an A on a test. Conflict avoidance is an untenable foreign policy.
It is fair to say that a broad swath of the foreign policy community, from the center-left through the mainstream conservative, would acknowledge this is the case, and have no problem recommending steps to turn this around (e.g. rebuild the military, sanction Russian economic sectors, resume economic pressure on Iran, promote greater cooperation with U.S. allies in Asia). It is much stickier, however, for Hillary Clinton, as it is for those on the right who mimicked the “nation build at home” rhetoric to acknowledge how flawed was Obama’s national security vision. The anti-interventionist right can try to blame Hillary Clinton for incompetently implementing the less-is-more foreign policy, but what’s her excuse?
Even if she was stuck with fewer resources and a president resistant to U.S. action, she plainly made her own errors of commission and omission. Put simply, she wasn’t a big-picture person (losing track of al-Qaeda’s spread in North Africa, failing to come up with an approach to the Arab Spring) and she wasn’t a small-picture person (failing to label Boko Haram a terrorist group, missing Ambassador Chris Stevens cries for security). And she had some serious mistakes in judgment (e.g. trying to engage Iran for two years, the Russian reset, condemning Israel for building in its capital). They were larger than “gaffes,” and revealed another serious shortcoming: She wasn’t very good at reading leaders and seeing where events were leading. If she understood Vladimir Putin she wouldn’t have pursued reset; if she understood the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic she wouldn’t have elevated settlements as the central issue (thereby creating a breach with Israel and raising unrealistic expectations on the Palestinian side).
Forgetting for a moment inconvenient questions about Benghazi, what would actually be edifying is to find out what if anything she learned. Did she come to appreciate the flaw in the Obama world vision? Did she learn to better assess the motives of friends and foes? When you never admit error, it’s hard to convince people you’ve grown. And if you did a lousy job in your last job, it’s even hard to justify giving you a bigger one. Instead of going into a defensive crouch, Clinton might actually help herself by showing some humility, self-awareness and candor. Wait a second — Hillary?! Nah, it’ll never happen.