Presumptive Republican presidential nominee and party outsider Donald Trump may be having a hard time overcoming widespread suspicions about him among the GOP establishment.
But when it comes to foreign and national security policy, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in some ways seems almost as far from the mainstream of her own party as Mr. Trump is from his.
Indeed, as Secretary Clinton and Trump prepare to face each other in the November presidential election, some foreign policy experts wonder if the two candidates each align on some fronts more closely with the opposing party than their own.
The thinking is that an interventionist Clinton might find more like-mindedness among Republicans than among Democrats – just as a noninterventionist and international trade-basher like Trump might find that attraction to his ideas is stronger among some Democrats.
“Hillary Clinton is clearly closer to the liberal interventionist wing of the Democratic Party – a wing that has become so small now that I’d call it a branch,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“If you judge by intervention and a willingness to use it as a tool of American foreign policy, it would appear that Donald Trump is to the left of Hillary Clinton – and conceivably to the left of Barack Obama,” he adds.
Mr. Gerecht says that “where the rubber hits the road” in terms of the projection of American power – the Middle East – Clinton is clearly more interventionist than Trump. As secretary of State, she advocated both the anti-Qaddafi mission in Libya, which occurred, and an early plan for robust arming of Syrian rebels, which didn’t. As a candidate, she has suggested she’d implement a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.
Trump has called recent United States Middle East interventions like the Iraq war and the Libya air campaign “crazy” and “incredibly stupid,” though he does promise to unleash the full fury of the US military against the Islamic State.
That seeming contradiction points up a caveat in assessing Trump: So far as a candidate he’s projected inconsistency or lack of clarity.
Gerecht is one of more than 50 Republican and conservative foreign policy experts – including big names from the George W. Bush administration – who signed an open letter in March disavowing the foreign-policy positions espoused by Trump.
Trump’s “vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” the letter said in part. “He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.”
If anything, views of Trump within the Republican foreign-policy establishment have soured further, Gerecht says. “Most of these folks [who signed the letter] view Donald trump as a giant wrecking ball in that he’s a danger to American interests overseas,” he says.
That might sound like music to Clinton’s ears – except that she is facing interference of her own from the left wing of her party.
Democrats' shifting views
Some Bernie Sanders Democrats have tagged Clinton as a “neocon” – more Bush than Obama, more prone to resort to US military force than the president she served as secretary of State. These Clinton skeptics derisively cite what they see as a mutual admiration society that formed between Clinton and another former secretary of State, Nixon foreign policy adviser (and liberal peace activists’ bête noire) Henry Kissinger.
Others distrust what they see as Clinton’s willingness to pursue international trade deals to further American strategic goals – in Asia, for instance – at the expense of American workers.
What Clinton may have going for her is that she has a foreign-policy track record and vision that put her less outside the mainstream of her party than Trump appears to be for many Republicans.
“Hillary is incrementally more hawkish than President Obama and other recent Democrats, but it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind,” says Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public policy and international affairs at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a former State Department policy adviser under Obama. “She may be slightly right of center [compared with] the rest of the party on foreign policy,” he adds, “but basically she’s a centrist in the tradition of Democrats going back to Truman.”
Yes, the left wing of the party that fell in behind Senator Sanders has some qualms about Clinton’s national security views, Dr. Jentleson says – particularly over stepped-up involvement in Syria. “But for the Sanders voters, the differences with [Clinton] are much more focused on the domestic than the international,” he adds.
Others say Clinton represents the Democratic Party’s interventionist wing that lost out in 2008.
“I would argue that the less-interventionist wing really prevailed with the nomination of Barack Obama to be the candidate in 2008,” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Obama was the rejection not just of George W. Bush and his policies but also of the more hawkish wing of the party, which happened to be represented by Hillary Clinton,” he adds. “And now she’s back.”
Indeed Jentleson says Clinton’s openness to the use of force as a foreign policy tool is more in line with the party’s tradition than it is an anomaly. “If you cordon off the Vietnam era and go back to Kennedy and Truman, you don’t have the allergy to the use of force in the Democratic Party,” he says.
Some experts have likened Clinton to the late Washington senator and Democratic hawk Henry “Scoop” Jackson. But Jentleson calls it a false linkage. “Jackson was more hawkish on the Soviets than Kissinger, he didn’t believe diplomacy could work in those tough ideological confrontations,” he says. “That’s really not where Hillary is at all.”
Gerecht says he also believes that Clinton’s image as an interventionist is exaggerated. “She’s not a hawk, that’s overstated,” he says. “But she’s also not averse to exercising American power, and that puts her on the outs with many in her own party.”
Trump an old school Republican?
On the Republican side, Trump’s disconnect from the worldview of the Republican Party establishment was on full display Thursday when House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled what he said was his party’s national security agenda.
Mr. Ryan’s agenda includes reinforcing ties to NATO and America’s European allies – whereas Trump has questioned the usefulness of the Atlantic alliance and says he would demand that allies like Germany, Japan, and South Korea either pay for the US troops on their soil or risk seeing them decamp for home.
Ryan calls for “securing our borders” but makes no mention of a cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy – a wall on the US-Mexico border that the presumptive Republican nominee insists would be paid for by Mexico.
The House speaker’s agenda also calls for a robust pursuit of new international trade deals – even though Trump has capitalized on Americans’ sinking view of free-trade accords by ferociously condemning the trade agendas of recent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.
The National Interest’s Mr. Saunders says he would not be surprised if some aspects of Trump’s image – coming off as less interventionist than Clinton, a tough stance on trade deals – end up appealing to some who voted in the Democratic primaries, and in particular some Sanders voters.
“To the extent that the frustration on the Democratic side is about a party that some suspect could become more interventionist under Hillary Clinton,” he says, “then I suspect Donald Trump could be an appealing alternative.”
Unlike Gerecht, Saunders does not dismiss Trump as a disaster for American – and Republican – interests. Instead, he says Trump might actually fit into a long line of Republican presidents who believed in the Big Stick but were conservative about using it.
“Trump says he wants the US to be a strong country with a powerful military, but at the same time it seems he is likely to be more selective about how and when to use it,” he says. “He has no track record so it’s hard to know, but from what he has said he’s not as far outside the historical mainstream of the Republican Party as is sometimes presented.”
Reaching back well before the Iraq war of George W. Bush, Saunders says, “If you look at cold war presidents like Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower, those were not presidents who were launching major wars.”