Hobbled at home, expect a president Clinton to be hawkish on foreign policy

Dan Steinbock says the Republican pushback against a Democrat winning the White House race would be fierce and Clinton could be expected to push for more assertive US engagement in trade and national security

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 6:08pm

If Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election, the conventional story will be that her victory was built on her egalitarian economic policy, gender concerns, international relations, strong defence policy and good ties with Europe and Japan.

But that’s just the facade – a carefully orchestrated result of millions in campaign funds, good ties with “super PACs” (political action committees), a skillfully manoeuvred electoral college, shrewd public relations and a long series of political miscalculations and gaffes by Donald Trump.

Americans will vote on November 8. However, the real battle will begin soon afterwards. The winner will face a split Congress, a divided Democratic Party and badly fragmented Republican Party. To defuse their meltdown, Republicans are likely to challenge Clinton every step of the way.

In July, FBI director James Comey closed a probe into Clinton’s private email server without pressing charges, which resulted in broad criticism. Last week, he reopened the case following a discovery of new emails. The debacle could undermine the Clinton campaign.

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The new emails are just the latest episode in the bizarre reality show that is the US presidential electoral campaign. A flood of lawsuits, congressional investigations and special prosecutors may well follow. In addition to the Benghazi and FBI debacles, there is the problem of the thousands of emails from WikiLeaks, particularly those of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager. The questions will centre on Clinton’s email server, her aide Huma Abedin, the pay-for-play allegations about her office and Bill Clinton’s speeches, the controversial Clinton Foundation and alleged coordination between the Democratic National Council, the Clinton campaign and various super PACs, involving mega financiers such as George Soros.

America needs structural reforms that Clinton may be neither willing nor able to execute

The Republicans want investigations about the role of the State Department, the Department of Justice and the FBI, due to a “cover-up to protect Hillary Clinton”, as Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus puts it. Speaker Paul Ryan has promised “aggressive oversight work” of an alleged “quid pro quo” deal between the FBI and the State Department over one of her emails. And House Republicans are demanding a special prosecutor to investigate the Clinton Foundation for possible conflicts of interest.

In the past three months, Republicans have issued some 20 subpoenas and over 50 letters of inquiry probing Clinton.

Meanwhile, America needs structural reforms that Clinton may be neither willing nor able to execute. In the 1980s, Congress legislated some 700 laws annually. After three decades of deepening political polarisation, that figure has plunged, to nearly 300.

Currently, the Senate and the House are under Republican control. The Democrats have a good chance of taking over the Senate. If Congress remains divided after the election, Clinton would have to rely on limited legislation and executive action. But if the Democrats take control of the Senate and the House, she could push for immigration reform and the expansion of social security.

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A Democratic Senate could make Chuck Schumer the majority leader; in the House, Nancy Pelosi could take over. The former is a trade hawk who favours retaliation; the latter, a human rights advocate who backs liberal social plans – and Clinton is the architect behind the US pivot to Asia. To Beijing, such political consolidation could mean triple pressures in defence, trade and human rights – unless Congress remains divided, or returns to the Republican fold after the 2018 mid-term elections.

Trade policy is the real test of Clinton’s international engagement. During her campaign, she has often said she would block the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “I oppose the TPP now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as president,” she said.

If she sticks to her stance, it would alienate TPP allies in Asia, particularly Japan and Vietnam. If she can rely on a united Congress, she is in a better position to flip-flop, again.

When the White House has failed to unite America through economic policy, defence has been the second-best option. Within Washington’s foreign policy establishment, President Barack Obama’s replacement with the more hawkish Clinton would be welcomed with relief. In contrast to Obama, she has called for stepped-up military action to deter President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russian forces in Syria. She wants new sanctions against Russia, despite the risk of increasing the nuclear threat.

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Moreover, recently, the Centre for American Progress, which was founded by Podesta, hosted a preview of Clinton’s Middle East policy, concluding that the next president should increase support for Saudi Arabia, but ramp up aggressive action and more sanctions against Iran, which would undermine the nuclear deal between Iran, Obama and the EU.

After years of military interventions, the last thing the Middle East and North Africa need is more destabilisation, which economist Jeffrey Sachs attributes in part to Clinton’s policies and which could endanger China-led economic development in the region, add to the migration crises and terrorism threats in the European Union and the US – and has already killed jobs and reduced remittance flows to South and Southeast Asia.

Recently, the bipartisan Centre for a New American Security, a think thank closely associated with the Clintons, published its report on “Extending American Power” as a kind of a transition memo for Clinton. It would rely increasingly on military force, which could result in an increase in Pentagon spending.

In Asia, Clinton would talk more about currency manipulation, but hold on to existing US alliances, push harder for the US pivot, cooperate more with India and exhibit greater military assertiveness in the contested South China and East Asia seas.

Dr Dan Steinbock is the founder of the Difference Group and has served as the research director at the India, China, and America Institute (US) and was a visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Centre (Singapore). See http://www.differencegroup.net/