Toughness triangulated: Hillary Clinton’s policy on the Middle East

What’s the most effective way for a presidential candidate to address Americans’ angst about upheaval in the Middle East and the fallout for the West in terms of terrorism and refugees? After this week’s news cycle, it may be tempting to conclude that divisive rhetoric, fear-mongering, and buffoonish bravado actually offer a path to the White House.

Not surprisingly, however, the leading Democratic contender in the 2016 race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is staking out a very different ground on the region’s urgent challenges. Her approach, articulated in stump speeches such as her address to the 2015 Saban Forum last week, co-opts ideas and rhetoric from both the left and right of the American political spectrum in an effort to fashion a cross-partisan alternative.

On the Middle East, which is emerging as the most contentious foreign policy issue in the campaign, Clinton does a masterful job of offering nearly all things to all prospective voters. She supports the Iran nuclear deal, but offers a strategy for countering Tehran’s ambitions that could be adopted in full by even her most hawkish rivals. She repeatedly invokes the phrase “radical jihadism,” just a hair away from the phrase “radical Islam” that some Republicans have criticized the president for failing to use. But this rhetoric has been coupled with an impassioned appeal against demonizing Muslims or Islam. Clinton described the Gulf as “a region of vital interest to America,” and has in the past proposed extending American security guarantees to the Gulf states, but her Saban Forum speech also repeatedly took these countries to task for their role in funding and fomenting extremism across the region.

On the Middle East…Clinton does a masterful job of offering nearly all things to all prospective voters.

On these issues, the contrast between Clinton and the leading Republican candidate, billionaire Donald Trump, is striking. While Trump pitches to the anxious extremes of the American electorate, Hillary Clinton tries to tack to the presumptive center. Where Trump plays the demagogue, Clinton triangulates. She offers the trademark Clinton mastery of minutia, whereas Trump promotes an agenda—in a campaign that lacks the traditional coterie of foreign policy advisors— and that seems to be almost devoid of detail or even facts.

Walking the wire

Clinton’s positioning is less a reaction to Trump or any of his Republicans rivals than an attempt to navigate the mixed foreign policy legacy of President Obama, her former rival and the president she served as secretary of state. Historically, public opinion surveys suggest that voters have higher confidence in Republican candidates than in Democrats on issues related to security and terrorism.

President Obama reversed that during his first term, particularly after the Bin Laden raid in May 2010. But in his second term, with the rise of the Islamic State and the general sense of mayhem in the Middle East, the gap has returned and indeed the disparity is even more acute today. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 57 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of terrorism and 71 percent believe the campaign against ISIS is going badly.

To insulate herself against that dissatisfaction, Clinton has revived her tough talk on the Middle East from the 2008 campaign, while also seeking to avoid alienating the Democratic base and the broader array of Americans who are reluctant to see U.S. blood or treasure spent in a quagmire-prone part of the world. Her Saban Forum address managed to straddle these dueling constituencies, declaring that “Our goal must not be to deter or contain ISIS. Our goal must be to defeat ISIS,” but adding in the next breath: “that does not mean deploying tens of thousands of American combat troops.”

Selling the strategy

This is a difficult balancing act, and put into practice, this ecumenical approach would surely be tested the trade-offs inherent in real-time decision-making. As electioneering, though, the approach may be effective as a preventative defense against the nearly certain general election attack on Obama’s foreign policy as weak and feckless.

Time and actual voting behavior will ultimately tell whether this strategy resonates with the American electorate. As my colleague John Hudak points out, Trump’s base may be vocal, but it is “a minority of the minority” of American voters and hardly provides viable ground for a success in a general election. The repudiation of his recent policy pronouncements on Muslims by the mainstream Republican leadership reflects an awareness that the current theatrics may undermine the party’s ultimate nominee, as well as other Republican candidates on the ballot next November.

Still, so far, this has not proven to be a typical campaign, and there are no guarantees that Clinton’s clever attempts to thread the needle on complex issues will persuade the prospective voters who applaud Trump’s shameless provocations. The results of a recent focus group comprised of Trump supporters demonstrated that criticism and countervailing information about Trump’s statements on the stump only bolstered their support for him.

Where Trump plays the demagogue, Clinton triangulates.

One of his key strengths is the perception among his supporters that he is both authentic and audacious—two characteristics that tend to be attributed to Hillary Clinton with far less frequency. However, her hard-hitting Saban Forum comments on Iran and the peace process—including a warning that the alternative to the current Palestinian Authority “could be the black flag of ISIS”—suggest that Clinton’s consummate preparedness can be an important asset in addressing the genuine fears of Trump supporters and, indeed, much of the electorate.

Much will change between now and the general election, but should the current political mood hold, candidates will need to communicate precisely what President Obama has been seen to lack: a sense of purpose on terrorism and a compelling counter-strategy. Accomplishing this without sowing fear or stoking xenophobia is equally essential for advancing American security and remaining consistent with our founding principles.