Analysis: Position of strength

Hillary SOS seating

As the 2016 presidential race gets under way, threats loom large around the world. ISIS and a regional contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran dominate the Middle East. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its continued involvement in the civil war in Eastern Ukraine has drawn the United States back to Europe. And in Asia, China is increasing its dominant stature towards its neighbors. All these events ensure that national security will become an issue in one way or another in the 2016 race.

Written by Philip Chr. Ulrich.

The fact that Hillary Clinton is among the contenders will also ensure that another national security issue will continue to make its way into the headlines: Benghazi. And why will the terrorist attacks on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi again get into the headlines? Because with Hillary as a candidate, national security will not necessarily be a weakness for the Democrats.

In the 2014 mid-term election, national security once again became a weak point for the Democrats, after President Obama had made it a mute point during the 2012 election. In that election, the incumbent could point to a line of national security successes, and the traditional firm Republican dominance of this topic was annulled.

With Hillary Clinton as a candidate, the Democrats would again be able to present a tougher stance on national security. Therefore, the Republican must go for further inquiries into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012, in the hope of damaging the image of a prospective Commander-in-Chief.

A tougher Commander-in-Chief

Hillary Clinton has had a reputation of having a more hawkish approach to foreign policy compared to Barack Obama. She has supported bombing operations in Syria, she supported bombing operations in Libya, and in 2009 she was a supporter of a surge. On top of this reputation, Hillary Clinton can also present a good relationship with top ranking military personnel.

During the strategy review on Afghanistan that the Obama administration conducted in 2009, Hillary Clinton made allies within the Pentagon by supporting their recommendations for an increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan. A better relationship with the military leadership was, however, also sorely needed following her strong criticism of the war in Iraq. This criticism resulted in some resentment among military officers, who were sometimes caught in the crossfire in the debate.

An example of how Hillary Clinton has turned some prominent military commanders around, is the statement by former CIA Director, general David Petraeus, for the book HRC by Jonathan Allen and Aimee Parnes. In the book, general Petraeus states: “She’d make a tremendous president.” Many saw this as something of an endorsement of Ms. Clinton’s presidential bid, in that case a major surprise to the Republicans, since Petraeus is a declared Republican and a favorite of the GOP.

On top of this good relationship with the military leadership and reputation as a hawkish Democrat, we can add extensive undeniable foreign policy experience. Hillary Clinton has travelled the world in her capacity as Secretary of State, and has close personal relations with many heads of state.

Point of attack

For those reasons, the Clinton campaign will be very tough to attack when it comes to foreign policy, as long as the former Secretary of State manages to balance her disagreements with the incumbent between saying “I said it wouldn’t work” (in which case the reply would be, “well you must not have said it clearly enough”), and explaining why she supported certain foreign policy decisions which might be criticized.

Because the GOP will have a harder time arguing weakness on national security, than they had at the mid-term elections in 2014, the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012 become relevant again.

How much did the Secretary know and when? Did the administration deliberately lie about the attacks, and how big a part did the Secretary of State play in such a presumed cover-up? Those questions have been covered by various investigations, however, if the Republicans succeed in planting a seed of doubt, their tactics will have been a great success.

Hillary Clinton’s great strength on national security, therefore, is the reason why Benghazi will be a recurring topic in the 2016 presidential calendar.

Philip Chr. Ulrich holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. He analyzes American foreign and defense policy for the Danish website Kongressen.com. He has previously worked as head of section at the Royal Danish Defence College, where he published several briefs on U.S. defense and foreign policy. He has also completed an internship at the Lessons Learned / Development Section at the Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence. He also has his own website and Facebook page where he makes updates and comments on current events in U.S. foreign policy. Find his website: www.philipulrich.dk and follow him on facebook.com/philipulrich.dk or on Twitter: @pc_ulrich

Photo: United States Mission Geneva

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