When Barack Obama chose rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state, he was praised for shrewdly uniting Democrats who had been divided by a bitter primary campaign. But he also picked a hawkish senator who had voted in favour of the use of force in Iraq. It was Clinton, after all, who ran campaign ads that implied Obama was not up to the task of handling foreign affairs: her infamous 3 a.m. telephone ad contrasted Clinton as more experienced, “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.”
Now that experience has left its mark. Yes, Clinton is denying reports that she persuaded Obama to enter into an unlikely intervention in Libya, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration and its military misadventures, resisted. But while many Americans are drawing foreign policy lessons from Bush’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Clinton is clearly drawing hers from having witnessed her husband’s administration deal with genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda, where the U.S. intervened late, or not at all.
In her 2003 autobiography, Living History, Clinton wrote of meeting Rwandan women who survived the 1994 massacre that killed an estimated 800,000 people, including one who had to hack off her own wounded arm after infection set in. “The women gave me a photo album filled with pictures of bones, skulls, dazed survivors and orphaned children. I could barely force myself to look,” wrote Clinton. “I regret deeply the failure of the world, including my husband’s administration, to act to end the genocide.”
Clinton was quick to rebuke critics who have said there is no principled distinction between intervening in Libya and in Yemen, Bahrain or Syria, where autocratic regimes have shot and killed anti-government protesters. “There’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities,” she told CBS’s Face the Nation, “than police actions, which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”
Other White House advocates of the Libyan intervention share Clinton’s perspective. Samantha Power, a National Security Council aide in charge of human rights and multilateralism, authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critical of the U.S. foreign policy response to genocide entitled A Problem from Hell. And Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN, had served the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” she told the Atlantic Monthly in 2001.
Only Obama knows for sure if he would have given the order to intervene in Libya if not for Clinton’s influence. But one thing is clear. Just as George W. Bush made up for his father’s failure to remove Saddam Hussein, the Clintonistas are taking care of some unfinished business of their own.