Can you answer this hypothetical posed to Hillary Clinton?

Plus, where would you send the troops?

Hillary Clinton
(Image credit: AP Photo/CNN)

If Afghanistan's president asked the United States to keep a contingent of counter-terrorism forces in the country after 2016, what, Christiane Amanpour wanted to know, would Hillary Clinton do? Would she say yes? Would she say no?

Some of you might be able to answer the question without qualification. It's a gut call.

Not for Clinton.

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It would depend, she said, on what was happening in 2016: Whether the president of Afghanistan was doing as much as he could to build enduring political institutions and whether the government was effectively training and professionalizing Afghan's security forces. If those conditions were met, she said, it would be hard for America to say no to such a request.

Clinton's answer tells us quite a bit about her foreign policy doctrine, at least on the surface. Perhaps she has found a way to intellectually justify the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, since the current president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has antagonized the occupying force while secretly relying on it to build up his own power. But Clinton is also saying that she thinks Afghanistan will remain a haven for the poisonous meshing of Islamist ideology with the world-changing means of terrorism. She thinks al Qaeda, or its off-shoots, will be enough of a threat, still, in 2016, for her to carve out sufficient space to make the politically difficult decision to keep troops there, as president.

After I heard Clinton's response, I went home and looked at a survey sent to me by the Chicago Council on Public Affairs. It covered a wide range of foreign policy topics. I thought it would take a few minutes to fill out. After all, I know what I think. Some questions were easy: "Do you think the United States is respected more in the world than it was ten years ago, respected less, or is respected about as much now as it was ten years ago." Less.

But others were questions that I am glad I don't to have answer, because I'm not going to be the one making the decision. Here's an example:

There has been some discussion about some circumstances that might justify using U.S. troops in part of the world as part of a United Nations Security Council–authorized military mission. Please give your opinions about some situations. Would you oppose or favor the use of U.S. troops to:

** stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people

** to deal with humanitarian crises

** to ensure the world oil supply

** if China invaded Taiwan

** if Israel bombs Iranian nuclear facilities, and Iran retaliates

** If Russia invades the rest of the Ukraine

** If Russia invades a NATO ally

** To stop Iran from having nuclear weapons

** If North Korea invaded South Korea

** To be part of a peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement in Syria

** To be part of an international peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians

** If Israel were attacked by its neighbors. [Chicago Council on Public Affairs]

I see approximately two easy answers: No, I would not support troops to ensure the world's oil supply. Yes, I would support a U.N.-authorized use of troops to mitigate a humanitarian crisis. Many of the others require elaboration.

I'd love to say that, if I were president, I would follow the rules of the road, and so, I would put U.S. troops in harm's way to enforce our common defense treaties and implied obligations, especially if the United Nations gave its imprimatur, which, even as it might seem discredited on an international scale, lends a degree of domestic political legitimacy to the move. ("The world is behind us.")

But I would wager that many people in high political office really have no idea what they would do if China invaded Taiwan, or how one could judge whether a peace agreement was promising and potentially efficacious enough to obligate the stationing of U.S. troops in Syria, or how the U.S. would defend Israel from the attacks of its neighbors, whether or not the U.N. Security Council gave its approval. China and Russia, of course, would probably veto the resolution authorizing the use of force against Russia and China, so the question is kind of academic.

It is of course easiest to say that there would be, and should be, no such deployments, except in such cases where the U.S. territorial integrity was in jeopardy. But we don't live in that world.

So — I ask my readers: Answer the questions I can't. In the scenarios listed, where would you approve troop deployments? Where would you say no? And why?

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.