Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president of the United States.
Don't be distracted by the rubbernecking media, which continues to focus intently on the ways Donald Trump is riling up his base of voters, or the feuds he is having with the leading lawmakers of his own party. This election is all but over. Clinton is going to mop the floor with Trump.
So what will this second Clinton presidency look like? Well, in the weeks leading up to her inevitable coronation, Clinton has been giving us some hints about how she's thinking of foreign policy these days. They are not at all reassuring. Indeed, Clinton's recent statements about Syria and Russia hint at a potentially destabilizing escalation of America's conflict with Vladimir Putin and his cat's paw, Bashar al-Assad.
At the last debate, Clinton articulated a classically Clintonian foreign policy for Syria, disavowing the use of ground troops (except special forces) and praising the use of air power. But the way she defined the terms of the conflict were a little frightening. "There are children suffering in this catastrophic war, largely, I believe, because of Russian aggression," Clinton said, arguing for a no-fly zone.
This is an almost ridiculous idea at this point in the conflict, given that the Assad government and Russia rely on air power to keep the rebels penned in and on the defensive. The idea that America can conduct a no-fly zone over a civil war without taking responsibility for the outcome is an absurdity. It would lead almost immediately to calls for escalation to see the job through to the end.
Clinton also said she supports investigating war crimes committed "by the Syrians and the Russians." One has to hope this is merely rhetorical posturing. You have to actually inflict total defeat on an enemy to get them into war crimes tribunals. These threats are not likely to help Russia get over what amounts to incredible paranoia about Western intervention.
Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
[T]here is a pervasive belief in Russia's security community not only that Russia already is at war — an undeclared, largely covert one — with the West, but that it had been so long before Moscow even realized it. The Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions in other post-Soviet countries, the spread of Western ideas and influences, all come together in a lurid fantasy of a conflict that Moscow must scramble to resist on every front, from the geopolitical to the ideological. [ECFR]
In this state of affairs, Russia starts to see the Syrian civil war not as a discrete conflict, but as a continued campaign where the U.S. is undermining Russia's positions. The Russian view of the past decade of relations with the West may be paranoid and exaggerated, but the U.S. still has to calculate for exactly that worry.
From the Russian perspective, the United States keeps demanding that there be regime change in nations where Russia has vital security assets. To avoid the potential loss of access to a naval base, Putin violated the sovereignty of Ukraine and annexed Crimea. In Syria, Russia is also protecting the regime that grants it naval access to the Mediterranean Sea. Increasingly, Russia is signaling that it is willing to escalate in these minor conflicts faster than America because Moscow sees its most basic interests threatened.
That is exactly what Russia has done in Aleppo to halt the momentum of the rebels. Average Russians may not care a great deal about Donbass or Syria, but Russian policy makers care a lot, and they know that support in the U.S. for continued intervention in Syria has its limits. Although America had been covertly intervening in the Syrian civil war for some time, America's overt intervention in Syria did not get support from Congress in 2013, mostly because it was wildly unpopular with the public.
And that is what is so nerve-wracking about the way that Clinton has now begun redefining America's mission in Syria once again. At first, Obama went over the top of public opinion to avenge American honor against ISIS. Slowly, America's mission has crept to include some form of regime change with the ouster of Assad. Now Clinton is selling the American people on greater military interventions so that the U.S. can challenge Putin.
Clinton seems unable to distinguish between what is of vital interest to the Russians and peripheral interest to America. She combines this with her bias toward always taking action — of any sort, for good or ill. The combination is dangerous. And it makes the Republicans' inability to field someone capable of challenging her intelligently on these terms even more egregious.
My sincere hope is that she is just lying about her intentions with Russia and Syria.