There's a reason Bill Clinton's strategist didn't coin the phrase, "It's the foreign policy, stupid." In the 1992 election and virtually any in recent memory, it's the economy, not national security, that has decided the outcome. But this time could be different — and not just because terrorism and foreign policy rank now right below the economy as top issues for three out of four voters. Against a backdrop of barbaric violence executed by ISIS, a grinding war and refugee crisis spilling from Syria, a morphing threat radiating from Russia, and a nuclear-armed sadist running North Korea, the orange-haired, thin-skinned, wild-eyed bull elephant in the room is Donald Trump.
For former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the vast, bipartisan foreign policy and military collective that's decided to back her, making the case that Trump is dangerously unqualified and temperamentally unsound to hold the nuclear codes is easy. All she and her surrogates at the last week's Democratic National Convention had to do was cite Trump's own unfiltered spew of consciousness. Every day he upchucks a frightening new uninformed and cockamamie rant on foreign policy.
Last week he egged on Russia to hunt for his opponent's e-mails in a bizarrely reimagined Watergate cyber-burglary abetted by a foreign adversary. Before that, he threated to abandon NATO allies under attack. He's professed admiration for notorious anti-American autocrats including Saddam Hussein, wondering on Twitter if Vladimir Putin might be his new BFF. He's vowed to order our military to commit illegal torture and kill enemies' wives and children. He says he knows more about ISIS "than the generals," and he's "speaking with myself" on foreign policy, because he has "a very good brain."
It's that kind of crazy-talk, so far outside the most broadly-defined mainstream encompassing every foreign relations school of thought of the last half-century, that prompted 120 Republican foreign policy greybeards to denounce him "utterly unfit for office" in an open letter in March. Last Wednesday, billionaire Independent and ex-mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg suggested Trump is insane, and Vice President Joe Biden declared no nominee "has ever known less" about national security than Trump.
On Thursday, surrounded by a phalanx of star-studded military brass, retired Marine General John Allen, the usually understated ex-deputy chief of US Central Command, made an impassioned appeal for Clinton that was as much a rejection of Trump, to make sure "our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture" and "our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction."
After every unhinged assertion Trump has made about the world, it's easy to understand why so many national security thinkers across the political spectrum — probably more than any other group — have decided to support Clinton, or at least stay home. The more challenging case her campaign needs to make to the public is a positive appeal for her as a leader not just with a thick resume and time logged in the situation room, but with good judgment to match.
In the eyes of many Democrats, her original sin was supporting George W. Bush's Iraq War, a Senate vote that she called, as she cast it, "the hardest decision I've ever had to make" — and which she now calls a mistake. As the nation's top diplomat, she was a loyal lieutenant for the policies of President Barack Obama, who kept a famously tight grip over national security. Sure, she supported Obama's decision to launch the nail-biting raid that took out Osama bin Laden. And yes, she backed sanctions that forced Iran into nuclear negotiations and pushed Obama to boost US troops in Afghanistan and launch airstrikes in Libya. But those decisions were ultimately the president's, and no, we can't know precisely what Clinton's own foreign policy would be.
Her main job then was Obama's global ambassador, mending frayed alliances and a damaged US image following the Iraq War, and reaching out to adversaries where there might be openings. She didn't achieve Middle East peace, but neither has any president or secretary of state before her. She didn't clinch the Iran deal, but Iran wasn't yet ready yet to make concessions. She didn't end the Syria War, but she wasn't the one deciding how much or how little to do. I traveled in her press corps for the four years she was secretary and watched her focus on more achievable goals: global women's empowerment, youth civic engagement and Internet freedom, patient climate talks, and US trade and investment overseas. On those issues, she was pretty successful.
So how might her foreign policy differ from Obama's? I'd say more at the margins than in the main. She'd seek to smooth relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders clashed with Obama over Jewish settlements and the Iran deal. She'd probably favor more proactive military deterrence of Russian and Chinese regional aggressions. She might pursue a much-discussed no-fly zone in Syria, though that's still a concept absent any viable strategy.
The larger problem for Clinton is that the world faces a host of Humpty-Dumpty problems and long-term asymmetrical threats like terrorism, cyberwar, and sectarian conflict that can't be fixed by any US president. "The world today is divided into root canal operations and migraine headaches — you take your pick of which you want to take on," said Aaron David Miller, who worked with six secretaries of state. If Clinton's elected, whether it's ISIS, Russia, China, or something else, she'll confront problems that don't have solutions — only outcomes.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.