Even without a formal declaration of her intent to run, Hillary Clinton is the presumed Democratic nominee for president in 2016. She has earned that status through two decades of hard work on the national stage — as first lady, as a senator from New York, and, especially, as a loyal and energetic secretary of state in the administration of her former rival, Barack Obama.
But Clinton’s presumed bid for the presidency — a historic run she’s unlikely to turn down — is threatened by the same unfortunate tendency that cost her in 2008: presumption. She seems oblivious to national trends that make some of her stances unpopular.
Nothing better illustrates that presumption than her continued hawkishness, a trait on full display in her interview earlier this month with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly. While Washington pundits focused on her curt dismissal of a few words the president allegedly spoke to reporters — “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said — the substance of her argument is much more troubling than that.
She insisted that if Obama had intervened in Syria, if he had just agreed to arm Syrian moderates, jihadists such as the bloodthirsty cohort of the Islamic State might have been halted in their tracks.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.
That sentiment drew huge cheers from the left-of-center interventionists, as well as the neo-cons, who still occupy positions of influence on the national stage. But it contrasts sharply with average voters, the regular Joes who recognize the limits of American power. Polls show that they want nothing to do with more foreign entanglements that don’t directly reflect U.S. interests.
They remember that even deploying military advisers often leads to more boots on the ground, more Americans dead. And those dead are unlikely to come from the ranks of powerful politicians or diplomats or journalists, but rather from the working classes. More to the point, mainstream voters want their politicians to concentrate on fixing a broken economy here at home, not on fixing broken nations halfway around the world.
Last fall, 52 percent of the public said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” according to the Pew Research Center. It was the first time since 1964 that more than half the country held that view, Pew said.
Given the half-hearted economic recovery, it’s no wonder that voters want their politicians to focus on rebuilding the broad American middle class. While Washington politicians and the scribes who cover them are doing just fine, much of the country has yet to mount a full comeback from the Great Recession.
Moreover, it turns out that voters’ skepticism toward foreign interventions is supported by research, which shows that arming “moderates” was likely to backfire.
Recently, political scientist Marc Lynch, writing in The Washington Post, summarized the data this way:
“In general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve. … Worse … Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective.”
To be fair, Clinton didn’t suggest sending U.S. troops into Syria. Still, her criticism of Obama’s approach shows a tone-deafness, a calculated disregard for the attitude most Americans now hold toward foreign interventions. Sometimes, that sort of brush-off of popular sentiment is a hallmark of genuine leadership. In this case, it’s just arrogance.
Clinton should know better. She was defeated for the Democratic nomination by a lesser-known senator largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, by then a clear disaster, contrasted with her support for it. While she won’t face Obama in 2016, she might find herself up against Republican Sen. Rand Paul in the general election. And his skepticism toward military interventions could prove more popular than her stubborn, ill-advised hawkishness.
Email Cynthia Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.