No ‘significant threat’ from al-Qaida
The Clinton administration did not see al-Qaida as a significant threat. It was another irritant, a terrorist group that could cause problems, but not change the direction of history. It also saw Russia as a closed issue. In spite of the catastrophic decade it had experienced, the Clinton administration did not believe Russia would emerge as a strategic challenger, but would rather settle into its role as a liberal democracy. As for China, increased global integration would simply increase its prosperity, and that prosperity would liberalise China.
Three beliefs were at work. The first was that we had entered an era in which nothing would disrupt economic growth. The second was that with economic growth, the world would be increasingly liberal. The third was that increased liberalism would lead to international harmony and no one would want to disrupt it. As a result, the rise of alQaida was not seen as the overriding issue, and extreme measures for destroying it were not used.
President George W. Bush accepted the core concepts behind this foreign policy. In an odd way, 9/11 did not change the foundations of American national strategy. As shocking as the 9/11 attacks were, the fight against al-Qaida, though central, did not change the fundamental assumptions about how the world worked. Economic growth and integration remained at the centre, the struggle was built around a coalition and waging war in some way coincided with the concept of humanitarian interventions. The coalition became strained, to say the least. The war intensified and the humanitarian dimension collided with the reality of warfighting, but the beliefs remained that there were no peer powers threatening the United States and that global economic integration was not incompatible with an expanding war in the Islamic world.
There was another dimension. Humanitarianism and the belief in coalitions caused the United States to take a strange stance toward allies. The commitment to liberal democracy was as deep among liberal humanitarians as neoconservatives. Both would wage war for it, and both would demand allies adhere to it. Therefore, the coalition shrank not only because of defections, but equally from expulsions of nations the United States needed as allies, but
that did not measure up to its standards. in other theaters, and this was no longer a luxury the U.S. could afford, not in competition with Russian and Chinese power and interests.
Hillary Clinton is an interventionist, but her interventionism was shaped by Bill Clinton’s time in office, when each intervention was separate, none were linked to regional crises, and none affected the global balance. Driven partly by the concept of humanitarian intervention and partly by a misreading of American power to reshape countries, Libya resulted. Hillary Clinton’s support of the Libya intervention belies a worldview of a strategic reality that no longer existed. In the same sense, her economic understanding of the world pre-dated 2008. It was based on the assumption that economics and American values were more important than political and military matters and on the assumption that prosperity and integration were part of the same process.
When we think of Hillary Clinton as speaking for the establishment, it is not wrong, but it is insufficient. The establishment, which did brilliantly from the early 1980s until 2008, has failed to adjust to the new reality. Its ideology, business models and expectations of how the world works have not adapted to the new reality it had created. This is not surprising. It is the way things work.
Hillary Clinton gives every indication that she still thinks the post-Cold War is tattered but can be redeemed. Some people believed in the League of Nations and the Congress of Vienna long after they had ceased to exist in any meaningful way. As a tactician she may understand this, doing things differently on a case-by-case basis. But as a strategist, she does not see a strategic shift having taken place. It is difficult to abandon a world you thought permanent, even when that world is gone. And this will be the difficult part of a Hillary Clinton presidency. She is disciplined and coherent, but that turns out to be her trap.
To understand her dilemma, imagine a die-hard Cold Warrior trying to function in the post-Cold War world or someone committed to Versailles dealing with Hitler and Stalin. They would have no point of reference. Hillary Clinton’s challenge will be to adjust, strategically and in her soul, to this world. The reality of the world has shifted. Donald Trump has failed to understand the key reality of politics. Your enemies are at least as tough and ruthless as you are. The test for Hillary Clinton, if she wins, is whether she will understand that on the broadest level possible.