In 2011, the streets of Cairo were teeming with political, financial, and religious fervor—with Egyptian President Mubarak at the root of discontent. Young protesters led by the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-democratic groups such as the “Tamarod” movement, took to Tahrir Square to oust a dictator representingthree decades of Egyptian strife under secular autocracy, a militant ruling party, and economic strain. While uncertainty loomed in Tahrir Square, discord loomed in the White House Situation Room. Obama and his administration were bereft of time—with the choice of opting for “the right side of history” with young, pro-democracy protestors, or with a decades-old status quo embedded in the Mubarak regime. Answering the pleas of his advisors, President Obama chose to support the rebels. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the current 2016 Democratic Presidential frontrunner — unsuccessfully advocated siding with Mubarak based on the rationalization that supporting an unstructured, youthful revolutionary movement would not be any less than naïve. The rebels represented change and renewal, but Mubarak represented years of American investment, relative stability, and guarantee of U.S. access and provision.
Such a decision is congruent with Clinton’s so-called “hawkish” foreign policy agenda—yet scholars, critics, and constituents alike are still scratching heads in regards to Clinton’s strict theoretical framework. Many point to former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State as an oscillation between neo-conservatism and liberalism in international affairs. Clinton’s opponent, Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, staunchly falls within liberalism, yet is misunderstood in his policy projections. In the largest and arguably, most historic presidential election this country will witness, the media machine has detracted voters from dissecting Hilary’s ideological direction or Sander’s exact foreign policy agenda. In this piece, I seek to dissect Clinton’s and Sanders’ theoretical identities and visualize their policies in the most precarious geopolitical hotspot of the 21st century: the Levant region.
Neo-con, Realist, or both? Assessing Hillary’s Ideological Conundrum
Advisor Jeffrey Bader once remarked that Clinton is “not an ideological person, she’s a deal-maker.” The ambiguity that surrounds the exact identity of Clinton’s foreign policy has been the subject of widespread speculation in this election. Her extensive record appears to be a conjectural blend of realist, idealist, and neo-conservative policy selections. As a New York Senator, she voted yes for intervention in Iraq. In her “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, she sought a role for the United States in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. She has angered Jewish voters when she has remained neutral with Israeli-Iranian tensions, while acknowledging Israel’s pivotal role as an American ally in the Middle East, and even proposing support of Iranian democratic attempts at a 2016 appearance at AIPAC. Public perception has suggested that Clinton reflects all three ideological identities of realism, liberalism, and neo-conservatism. Yet, when we arrange her record comprehensively, we will discover that Clinton is unapologetically neo-con in every crease and corner of the fabric that is her foreign policy agenda. Clintonism will champion hard power over soft, politics of preconditions, shoe-leather diplomacy, and operating from a position of strength. Is Hillary the next Kissinger? No, but expect a hybridized version of Kissinger, Kagan, and Robert Gates. Hillary will exemplify her appreciation of using clout of diplomacy, but realizes militarized strength may be necessary to sit parties at the table in the first place.
To compare the Democratic candidates, one must comprehend Clinton’s appreciation for statecraft abroad, while Sanders focuses on the American state itself; external reformation runs divergent to internal reconstruction. Clinton and Sanders both exercise caution when flexing their foreign policy muscle, yet differ in nature. Clinton sees the military as a valuable mechanism, while Sanders sees it as a potential deterrent. Clinton practices caution in the calculation and execution of hard power initiatives, keeping her cards close to her chest. Yet in retrospect, she keeps a maximalist thirst for an American militarized footprint across the world. Secretary of Defense Gates recalls Clinton favored 40,000 boots on the ground when he advised 30. After all, Clinton’s education in the world of foreign policy began not in her tenure as Secretary of State or even as First Lady, but as a freshman New York Senator on the Committee on Armed Services, where she developed a great appreciation for American military capability. Sanders on the other hand, is more cautious in foreign policy. He voted against intervention in Iraq and champions that decision as representative of his strong anti-interventionism. Many have compared Clinton’s foreign policy as a continuation of the Obama Administration, such as non-intervention in Syria, but in fact it is Sanders that would replicate “skeptical restraint” best. While critics have pointed to Sanders as immature in foreign policy and avoidant of the topic altogether, they must explore Sander’s liberal logic of policies he has already presented on debate floors across the country. To understand Sander’s global strategy is to understand his domestic platform. His policies abroad are anchored to his economic strategy to alleviate collegiate debt, combat Wall Street, and improve social welfare programs; the United States cannot pour money into carpet-bombing the Islamic State that drains taxation at home, nor expend resources fighting for democracy in Iran or Egypt when democratic ideals are endangered at the expense of the corporate machine.
Visualizing the Levant
The Levantine region of the Middle East has become characterized by regenerative, endless conflicts, ruptures in the ethnic and religious foundations, and proxy interests intersecting in Iraq and Syria. Civil wars are incubated within civil wars—spurred initially by democratic fervor and devolving into foreign manipulation of rebel factions to install puppet leadership. These conflicts are consequential; it is fuddled, it is not simplistic enough to characterize with theory alone. A presidential candidate who claims to contextualize a policy strategy in all corners of this conflict is lying, but a candidate that can produce a doctrine America can commit to, is integral in the Democratic race. Senator Sanders has accomplished this, publicly advocating commitment to non-intervention in the Middle East. Clinton’s stance tethers its “globocop” approach to combatting the swath of violent non-state actors, bloodthirsty dictatorships, proxy interests battling from the Gulf, and militarized “aid” from China and Russia. To Clinton, Putin has no business fighting in Syria. To Bernie, neither does the United States.
Clinton mutually supports an Israeli state and Palestinian forces, yet shies away from the high dive board when pursuing the hunt for a two-state solution like presidential predecessors have done, believing the timing is not ripe in 2016. Senator Sanders additionally will pivot towards the acknowledgement of the right for a Palestinian solution, playing what he called an “even-handed role” in the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. While Sanders is Jewish, he has shied away from proclaiming himself a Zionist. Sanders has proven to be tactical when approaching the Palestinian question; he wholeheartedly supports the Israeli right to exist, but does visualize an emerging landscape of a new Middle East. Does this make Sanders a realist on Israel? Possibly. It is not clear whether Sanders will pursue a two-state solution, but it’s clear he will not isolate the Palestinians, as have previous administrations. With both candidates, the world will see an American presidency that will re-balance its allegiances in the Gaza Strip.
The question of Syria has deeply characterized the foreign policy agenda of the Obama Administration, and will quite possibly plague the remainder of the twenty-first century. The Syrian Civil War is a tumultuous blend of civil war, proxy interests, terrorism, and underlying cultural and religious tensions—remnants of colonialism and the 1917 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Both Sanders and Clinton understand that any future policy decision in Syria should represent the American people’s aversion to intervention, yet nips the humanitarian strife in the bud. Such a policy has posed presidential politics in a state of flux; Senator Ted Cruzadvocated carpet-bombing campaigns, Trump called for the elimination of local gas sources, and many other candidates have called for the eradication of ISIS before approaching the Syrian Civil War. To evaluate the stances of the two Democratic frontrunners, one must first question what beast the candidates will encounter first: Assad or ISIS? Clinton has chosen ISIS, opting to place a larger American presence in the region, surpassing Obama’s authorized 50 Special Operation Troops. The former Secretary of State has advocated the preparation and training of Syrian Sunni and Shiite rebels to fight in Syria, believing they would be a “psychological boost to the opposition” that would back American enemies into a dark corner. Mrs. Clinton sees it necessary to unite under a common international enemy, and then seek regime change with the dismantling of Assad in Damascus. Senator Sanders, on the other hand, has chosen to avoid what he calls a “never-ending quagmire” between American boots on the ground and ISIS fighters, and additionally has not supported a no-fly-zone in Syria. Clinton’s threaded short-term strategies starkly contrast with Sander’s isolationist long-term vision of the struggle with ISIS. While Clinton sees it necessary for the American struggle to incorporate international cooperation, Sanders finds it necessary for the fight to be a globalized one. Sanders has called for an international coalition to combat the Islamic State, emulating the Jordanian King Abdullah’s plan to build a coalition of Muslim nations on the ground, while remaining international powers carry airstrike campaigns and economic measures to cut off the blood-flow of the Islamic State.
Looking Towards The Future
The presidential strategies in Syria best reflect two very contrasting tones set in the Levant region. Clinton’s neo-conservative approach and foreign policy chops will utilize hard and soft power to promote democratic, American ideals in fluctuating political systems. Under a Clinton administration, Hawks will predominately fly over the Levant—a product of the former Secretary of State’s step-by-step strategizing, teaming diplomatic strength with military muscle to accomplish infrastructural stability and political peace in the Levant. Sanders will, by contrast, engage the global arena in coalition building and aversion to on-the-ground intervention. His foreign policy decisions will reflect that of his domestic platform, illustrating the Senator’s long-term vision of a cooperative and welcoming United States in the international community. As Levantine conflicts have begun to pour into the political, economic, and cultural borders of Turkey, the Balkans, and Europe, the world holds its breath as candidates assemble policy projections for such a delicate region. While running within the confines of the Democratic Party, this race is showcasing candidates that will envision two very different faces of the Levant Region in the next four years to come. Doves may fly, but under the shadow of hawks.
All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.