Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power

By Terrill, W. Andrew | Parameters, Autumn 2016 | Go to article overview

Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power


Terrill, W. Andrew, Parameters


Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power

By Mark Landler

New York, NY: Random

House, 2016

406 pages

$28.00

Mark Landler's Alter Egos examines the political and working relationship between President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama's Secretary of State. Landler states Obama and Clinton share a similar foreign policy outlook, but have very different views-based on their upbringings, experiences, and political worldviews--on the use of the military as an instrument of power.

According to Landler, Obama's childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, exposed him to a variety of opinions on the nature of US foreign policy, including the belief US leaders could bungle into conflicts they did not understand, thereby doing more harm than good. Obama came to believe many Americans habitually overestimated their country's ability to shape events in distant countries, and as a rising young politician he easily applied this critique to the George W. Bush administration. Later, as president, Obama came to believe the most important foreign policy decisions were about the careful calculation of risk and avoiding costly interventions in places where US core interests were not at stake.

Clinton, by contrast, sees the military as a useful tool to be deployed sometimes as a "force for good" when resolving tough foreign policy dilemmas. Landler fully accepts that Hillary Clinton is a liberal interventionist, and her hawkish approach to foreign policy is not simply the result of political expediency, though this factor can also play a role. While her husband was president, Clinton believed "the only way to stop genocide in Bosnia was through selective air strikes against Serbian targets" (43). She also pressed her husband's aides to help support President Bill Clinton on the decision to go forward with punishment air raids against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Operation Desert Fox (1998). Many of her closest aides over the years have shared this outlook, reinforcing and even prodding her to consider more interventionist ideas. Clinton's hard-edged views on the use of force have been noted by critics throughout her career, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

As Secretary of State, Clinton was a forceful advocate for the US intervention in Libya, although she was strongly opposed in this effort by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Many of her critics defined this position as a major blunder; however, at the time, Libya had a lot to recommend it, including a manageable population of 6.6 million, important oil resources, and no virulent religious or ethnic divisions. Obama, by contrast, was skeptical of the West's power to shape events in Libya, but was eventually persuaded by Clinton and others that the intervention would be easy and low cost. Later, as the post-Gaddafi Libyan order descended into chaos, Gates came to believe, "They made exactly the same mistake in Libya that they accused Bush of in Iraq, failure to plan for what comes after the bad guy is gone" (169). Clinton and especially Obama were both haunted by the unravelling of Libya, however, Obama also blamed himself for being talked into an intervention he had strongly doubted from the beginning.

Looking elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama was skeptical about deeper US involvement in the Syrian civil war and remained satisfied with sending a trickle of weapons to Syrian rebels. Obama's reluctance to get more involved was also reinforced by the CIA's "hard look" at the record of providing weapons to insurgent fighters in previous conflicts, which were mostly "miserable failures" (220). The notable short-term exception to this disastrous record was the supply of weapons to Afghan fighters during the Soviet-Afghan war. …

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