Why you should care
Because every leading presidential candidate has an Achilles’ heel.
In this special election series, OZY has been looking at Hillary Clinton — including her past, a key player from her inner circle and what could become her most influential domestic policies. In this installment, we explore the global issues that could disrupt her push for the Oval Office, and tomorrow, we’ll consider what her record in Haiti tells us.
Chat with John McLaughlin, the former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, and he’ll methodically take you through the alphabet soup of foreign issues that could scald Clinton’s campaign. But will it be further attacks by ISIS, Benghazi’s ghosts or China’s ongoing military modernization that possibly generates the biggest burn? OZY’s edited conversation with McLaughlin, who briefed four presidents — from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush — follows.
OZY: What is the most volatile issue that could affect the campaign and the candidates?
John McLaughlin: As the attacks in Brussels show, nothing galvanizes debate more rapidly and in a more controversial way than a major terrorist attack, because it goes to the heart of any president’s first duty: security for the American people. That attack will stoke fear in Europe and in the United States and is already pushing candidates to say more specifically how they plan to combat ISIS and other groups. Clinton, Donald Trump and other candidates will be under great pressure to estimate the potential threat to the U.S. and to say, in a convincing and more detailed way, what they could do to protect the country.
OZY: How is Clinton poised to tackle this threat compared with the other candidates?
J.M.: By virtue of her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton is well-versed on foreign issues, including terrorism. Her opponents will probably try to make the controversy about her handling of the Benghazi attack a liability, although she has managed to push that away so far. On trade, her coming late to public skepticism about the Trans-Pacific trade pact leaves her somewhat exposed to the flip-flopping charge, as Bernie Sanders has sought to portray it.
On balance, though, Clinton’s detailed understanding of most foreign policy issues and her ability to address them articulately will probably serve to protect her from deeply wounding attacks on these issues.
OZY: You’ve written about ISIS as a major security threat. What’s your take on Clinton’s approach to handling it versus other candidates’?
J.M.: None of the candidates is offering highly detailed proposals, but Clinton has been more specific as I understand her positions — going beyond Sen. Ted Cruz’s emphasis on bombing and Trump’s vague assurances that we should just trust him to defeat ISIS. Although she does not favor injecting large numbers of conventional U.S. ground forces, she seems open to increasing the numbers of special ops troops the U.S. has in theater and combining that with the creation of some kind of safe zone or no-fly zone to protect moderate rebel fighters and some refugees — and building a stronger coalition of regional partners to combat ISIS.
OZY: What’s her greatest strength for addressing some of the global concerns you might have?
J.M.: Simply the fact that she has “been there.” This is a field where experience does count. She has seen the system at work and, I believe, knows how to ask the right questions to get to the bottom of a complicated foreign policy situation. It’s important to get all the facts you can, listen to different points of view on contentious issues and be open to diverging views. Then, the intangible quality of good judgment — the most important factor — has to kick in. Clinton’s experience has given her the opportunity to develop that. Time will tell if she has.
OZY: Given the reaction to Benghazi, she’s also perceived by some to have certain weaknesses. What’s her Kryptonite when it comes to handling certain challenges from overseas?
J.M.: Her ability to keep her cool under pressure, which she managed to do during lengthy Benghazi hearings in Congress. Power and influence in Washington flow to those who can do that. It remains to be seen whether she is able to do that in a real, ripsnorting foreign policy crisis, as opposed to a congressional hearing, but she’s certainly been around enough crises — during her husband’s administration and her time in the Senate and at State — to develop the instincts.
OZY: How could criminal charges over her emails change the course of this race?
J.M.: They would obviously be a blow to her campaign and exploited mercilessly by her opponent, whoever the opponent is. Beyond that, her opponent can reach into her background and find all sorts of things she’s been involved in before, but as she says all the time, she’s had it all before, she’s still standing. She’s well prepared to handle almost any attack on her — other than the possibility of this email issue turning bad on her.
OZY: Previously we asked what it might be like to help brief President Trump, presuming he wins the presidency. If Clinton becomes America’s new commander in chief, what might a briefing with her look like?
J.M.: This would be a matter of updating Clinton on issues she is well aware of. I can imagine her most frequent question being, “Now where are we on … ?” I have not briefed her other than long ago when she was in the Senate. My sense is she listens intently, with a properly skeptical mind, asks good questions and draws her own conclusions in consultation with close aides with whom she has worked over a long period of time.
OZY: Where might details about dealing with security issues and China fit into a conversation with her?
J.M.: China will loom large in discussions with any candidate or with a new president. As a rising power in the midst of yet another economic transition and ongoing military modernization, and as our primary competitor for international influence, China will command attention from anyone aspiring to the White House. Discussions would focus on its military power, domestic stability, economic future, cyber policy and global ambitions.