Varieties of Hawk: Clinton v. Trump on Foreign Policy

​For an American peace advocate, the two major political parties rarely offer appealing candidates in a presidential election. The 2016 election is no exception to this rule. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the nominees for the Democratic and Republican Parties, respectively, seem dedicated to the continued use of American military force around the world. However they might differ in other respects, on foreign policy both take a hawkish stance. I will briefly review some of significant hawkish positions both candidates have taken and offer some tenative suggestions about how peace activists might respond to this situation.​

I should make some important qualifications at the outset. I will not offer any exhortations or recommendations about how to vote in this election or any assessment of which of the two major party candidates is better or worse overall. Further, I acknowledge that a presidential candidate should be evaluated according to many different criteria apart from her or his stance on the use of military force. This is not a comprehensive evaluation of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s records or what kind of president each might be. I am not even attempting a comprehensive evaluation of the two candidates’ foreign policy positions—for example, the complex question of US-Russian relations, and Trump’s controversial stance on this issue, is not covered here. I am merely reviewing some points that suggest how likely Clinton and Trump would be to fight wars or otherwise engage in military interventions abroad.  

Hillary Clinton’s many years in public office have given her a substantial record of decisions in favor of using force. During her eight years in the Senate, Clinton voted in favor of the broadly worded authorization to use military force in response to the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks.[1] This authorization of military force led to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and more recently has been invoked (by means of an elastic interpretation) to justify US military action against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.[2] Granted, in the immediate aftermath of massive terrorist attacks on American soil, approving the use of military force may well have seemed a just and prudent act of self defense. In hindsight, however, after 15 years of costly and inconclusive war in Afghanistan and the recent expansion of the anti-terrorist military operations to new countries, the wisdom of the 2001 authorization is far more questionable.  

As senator, Clinton also voted to authorize military force in Iraq, leading to the invasion of that country in 2003.[3] Later, as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton was the leading foreign policy official during the administration’s escalation of American involvement in Afghanistan, the targeted killing campaign against alleged terrorists, and the Libyan war.[4]

In the case of the Libyan intervention in particular, media reports indicate that Clinton played a prominent role in shaping the administration’s policy: a dubious distinction in light of how the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi led to civil war and chaos in the country.[5] Clinton’s foreign policy aide Jake Sullivan described her as being “a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at NATO, and in contact group meetings—as well as the public face of the US effort in Libya. She was instrumental in securing the authorization, building the coalition, and tightening the noose around Qadhafi [sic] and his regime.”[6]

Other statements from former colleagues about Clinton are similarly worrying. Dennis Ross, who served on the National Security Council during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, commented, “It’s not that she’s quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power.”[7] Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served under Clinton as director of State Department Policy Planning, commented “when the choice is between action and inaction, and you’ve got risks in either direction, which you often do, [Clinton would] rather be caught trying.”[8] While some might consider Slaughter’s statement a testimonial to decisiveness, those who wish to see an end to American wars should be concerned by the prospect of a commander-in-chief whose default preference is for “action,” even in the face of risk.

To give credit where due, Clinton has a more positive record on one policy area of concern to peace activists: nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. As senator, Clinton introduced the Dirty Bomb Prevention Act, to make radiological materials harder to obtain, and co-sponsored the Nuclear Facility and Material Security Act, which was meant to make national nuclear facilities safer and more secure. As secretary of state, she worked to bring about the reduction of American and Russian nuclear arsenals through the 2010 START Treaty.[9] 

In contrast to Clinton’s substantial public record, Donald Trump’s lack of prior service in public office leaves no guide to his foreign policy stances apart from his public statements—a poor basis for judgment, even when a presidential candidate less mercurial than Trump is concerned. For whatever they are worth, however, Trump’s statements indicate a hawkishness comparable to Clinton’s.

Despite recent claims to have opposed the Iraq War, Trump’s statements on that conflict in 2002-2003 show his position to have been simply a muddle: he once expressed vague support for the war that gave way to equally vague criticisms.[10] Trump’s position on the Libyan war has been similarly confused, moving from support to opposition to support again.[11] His attitude toward the Afghan war is not much clearer.[12] Whatever else these shifting positions demonstrate, they do not show a firm commitment to peace.

Moreover, during his presidential campaign, Trump has infamously made bizarre, bellicose threats that should alarm peace advocates.[13] He has made disturbing insinuations about whether he might use nuclear weapons, refusing to rule out the use of such weapons against ISIS or in other contexts.[14] Trump has endorsed torturing members of ISIS through techniques such as waterboarding.[15] Trump has also repeatedly called for killing terrorists’ families.[16] Last, he has made the imperialistic (and wildy impractical) proposal that the United States plunder Iraq’s oil wealth.[17] The overall impression left by Trump’s public utterances is of a candidate willing to use military force ruthlessly and recklessly.

The choice between Trump and Clinton is a demoralizing one for someone committed to peace and an end to American wars and military interventions. This choice becomes even more dismaying, however, when viewed in the context of recent electoral history.

Barack Obama has hardly been a dovish president, but peace advocates could at least take some satisfaction in his opposition, while still an Illinois state senator, to the Iraq War. In 2008, this opposition made him more appealing, for many Democratic voters, than Hillary Clinton and contributed to Obama winning the Democratic nomination that year. Obama appeared to be, if not a genuine “peace candidate,” at least less hawkish than Clinton—and of course he appeared considerably less hawkish than George W. Bush. A kind of incrementalism in foreign policy seemed plausible in this context: the Democratic president elected in 2008 was less hawkish than the alternatives and perhaps his successor would be less hawkish still and so American foreign policy could be nudged along in the direction favored by peace advocates.

Yet after eight years of Barack Obama, peace advocates find themselves presented with major party candidates who are both more hawkish than Obama. The apparent incremental progress toward peace under Obama seems to be slipping away in light of the current choices. This should make peace advocates, including those who support a consistent ethic of life, wary of an incrementalism that accepts hawkish candidates because they are somewhat less hawkish than the alternative. Such a strategy might not lead to net improvements in American foreign policy in the long term.

Consistent life ethic advocates, and others who care about peace, should consider more radical approaches than choosing the less hawkish major party option. One alternative is to put far less emphasis on precisely who occupies the office of president and instead advocate for reducing the overall power and importance of the presidency as an institution. The tremendous concentration of power, particularly the power of the national security establishment, in a single person’s hands may be far more decisive in shaping foreign policy than the political party to which that excessively powerful person belongs. Perhaps one recent illustration of how the office of the presidency moves its occupants in a more hawkish direction might be Obama’s embrace of an elastic interpretation of his warmaking powers under the 2001 authorization of military force mentioned above. Prior to being elected president, Obama took a narrower view of executive warmaking powers and emphasized the necessity of congressional approval.[18]

Another, non-exclusive, alternative is to renew the peace movement at the grassroots, building an energetic, vocal lobby against war and the national security establishment. If such a lobby constantly challenged hawkish policies when pursued by politicians of either major party, this might serve to change the larger political context in which those politicians operate. A more dovish foreign policy consensus shaped by such a lobby could create better electoral options than “hawkish” and “slightly less hawkish.” Such a cross-partisan goal would also fit in well with the larger cross-partisan philosophy and mission of the consistent life ethic. 

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.​


[1] “S J Res 23 – Military Force Authorization – Key Vote,” Vote Smart, accessed September 17, 2016,

[2] Helene Cooper, “U.S. Conducts Airstrikes Against ISIS in Libya,” New York Times, August 1, 2016,; US Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” August 1, 2016,; Stephen W. Preston, “The Legal Framework for the United States’ Use of Military Force Since 9/11,” US Department of Defense, April 10, 2015,; Charlie Savage, “White House Invites Congress to Approve ISIS Strikes, but Says It Isn’t Necessary,” New York Times, September 10, 2014,  

[3] “H J Res 114 – Use of Military Force Against Iraq – Key Vote,” Vote Smart, accessed September 17, 2016,

[4] Like so much related to the targeted killing policy, precisely how many people died as a result of targeted killings during the period Clinton was secretary of state remains unclear. Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Micah Zenko created a useful table of the various year-by-year estimates, compiled by different organizations, of how many people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. A conservative estimate based on Zenko’s table would be that roughly 2,000 people were killed in targeted killings during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. See Micah Zenko, “Obama’s Drone Warfare Legacy,” Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog, January 12, 2016,

[5] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power,’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” New York Times, February 27, 2016,; Joby Warrick, “Hillary’s War: How Conviction Replaced Skepticism in Libya Intervention,” Washington Post, October 30, 2011,

[6] Jake Sullivan email to Cheryl D. Mills, August 22, 2011, accessed September 17, 2016,

[7] Mark Landler and Amy Chozick, “Hillary Clinton Struggles to Define a Legacy in Progress,” New York Times, April 16, 2014,

[8] Becker and Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power,’ and a Dictator’s Fall.”

[9] Rachel Whitlark, “Where Will the Next President Stand on Nuclear Weapons?” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May 3, 2016,

[10] Eugene Kiely, “Donald Trump and the Iraq War,”, February 19, 2016,

[11] Eric Bradner, “Trump—again—Reverses Libya Position,” CNN, June 5, 2016,; Aaron Sharockman, “Donald Trump’s Pants on Fire Claim He Never Discussed Libya Intervention,” Politifact, February 25, 2016,

[12] Tom LoBianco, “Donald Trump Backtracks on Afghanistan War: Not a Mistake,” CNN, October 20, 2015,

[13] Mary Meehan, “Why Trump Cannot Make America Great Again,” The President We Need blog, December 14, 2015,

[14] Bloomberg Politics, “Trump Says He Won’t Rule Out Using Nukes against ISIS,” March 23, 2016,; Jeva Lange, “Donald Trump Says He ‘Wouldn’t Rule Out’ Using Nuclear Weapons against ISIS,” The Week, April 26, 2016,; David Sherfinski, “Donald Trump on Threat of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Europe’s a Big Place,’” Washington Times, April 1, 2016, Also, one of Trump’s spokespeople, Katrina Pierson, has made a cavalier reference to using nuclear weapons; see Josh Feldman, “Trump Spox Asks What the Purpose Is of Nuclear Triad ‘If You’re Afraid to Use It,’” Mediate, December 18, 2015,

[15] Tim Hains, “Trump: ‘You Bet Your Ass’ I’d Approve Waterboarding, ‘If It Doesn’t Work, They Deserve It Anyway,'” RealClearPolitics, November 24, 2015,

[16] CBS News, “Face the Nation Transcripts December 6, 2015: Trump, Christie, Sanders,” December 6, 2015,; Fox & Friends, “How Trump Would Stand Up to ISIS If He Was President,” December 2, 2015,

[17] Leigh Ann Caldwell, “Trump Said ‘Take the Oil’ From Iraq. Can He?” NBC News, September 8, 2016,; Steven Mufson, “Trump’s Illegal, Impossible, and ‘Beyond Goofy’ Idea of Seizing Iraq’s Oil,” Washington Post, September 9, 2016,

[18] Jack Goldsmith, “Obama’s Breathtaking Expansion of a President’s Power to Make War,” Time, September 11, 2014,; Eli Lake, “Obama’s New War on ISIS May Be Illegal,” The Daily Beast, September 10, 2014,; Charlie Savage, “Barack Obama’s Q&A,” Boston Globe, December 20, 2007,

© 2016 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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