"We want an organizing principle … that is humane, defensible and clearly stated"
This is one of a series of excerpts from a longer article which originally appeared in Salon under the byline Patrick L. Smith.
The author is a longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is also an essayist, critic and editor.
His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013)
Much mail arrived after the column published in this space, wherein I examined the likely character of a Clinton II foreign policy—dangerous to Americans and all others—and the flaccid logic common among those planning to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton come November. All but one of the letters were from women. They all said, one way or another, “I can’t vote for her, but now what? Where does this leave me?”
A novelist friend of discerning, historically informed judgment telephoned. “O.K., but what is it you propose we think about when we think about American foreign policy?” he asked. “What makes Hillary Clinton dangerous? What should we want as an alternative, what work toward, what support?”
All good questions. I thank those who took the trouble to pose them. And having made the case that Clinton’s record on the foreign side renders her undeserving even of critical support or the support of those who judge her the least evil offered by what we pretend is our political process, I owe these questions answers.
Where to begin?
This will do: “Great nations need organizing principles.” So Clinton asserted in her much-noted interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in the Atlantic a couple of years ago. Fine. What are Clinton’s thoughts on this matter?
She was quick on the draw in the exchange with Goldberg. After dismissing President Obama’s famous assertion— “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle”—Clinton came forth with, “Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time.”
Already we find problems. They tell us what we need an alternative to.
One, Clinton’s three simple words are so apple-pie anodyne as to have no meaning. Goldberg should have pressed her on this, for she told him nothing. We are left to wonder what her principles are and then wonder why she declines to discuss them in any serious fashion.
Two, these terms have a totemic significance that must not be missed. At least since the Wilson presidency a century ago they have functioned as wrapping paper within which we find none other than American imperial ambition. So does Clinton take her place in modern American history. Nothing she proposes bears even a whiff of departure from the tradition.
Three, anyone who surveys the decades since Wilson, especially the post-1945 period, and finds peace, progress and prosperity to be an adequate descriptive of the century we named after ourselves must love wrapping paper and fear looking at the contents within it. In truth, American foreign policy has not worked for a very long time. The magnitude of its failures grows larger as we speak.
The compelling reality here—and it is pressing that Americans face it—is that we will get nowhere in restoring ourselves to an orderly world until we accept these failures. Nobody ever advances in any context without first taking a clear-eyed look at where one stands and how one got there. In other words, subsisting on silliness such as “peace, progress and prosperity” is a serious impediment to all three.
Four, we find in Clinton’s condescension toward Obama one more case of the flippant defensiveness that we must take great care to read at this point. In this case it tells us that foreign policy has always been the business of sequestered cliques and this is as it should be. In my estimation, Obama’s “Don’t do stupid stuff,” while recessive rather than assertive, is vastly better as an organizing principle. At the very least it is a sound start toward one, given the paradox before us: So much of what we must do in the cause of constructive policies abroad rests upon all that we must stop doing.
With this deconstruction of a casual observation, we can begin our list of what right-thinking people ought to seek in an alternative to our standing foreign policies. We want an organizing principle, certainly, but we want one that is humane, defensible and clearly stated. We want honest language, devoid of obfuscation and scout-troop platitudes. And we want a policy process that is subject to what remains of our political process. All of these would breach tradition, and that is precisely what we want above all.