The limits of Hillary bashing
Clinton is a symptom of a dire new politics, not its cause.
Perhaps the news that FBI director James Comey has discovered a tranche of emails that ‘may be pertinent’ to the case of Hillary Clinton’s missing/deleted communiques really will decide once and for all whether Clinton has something wicked to hide. Perhaps amid the 600,000-plus emails fired between Clinton’s aides and staff, there really will be that admission, that revelation, that flashing-red proof-positive of Clinton’s wrongdoing while she was US secretary of state. Perhaps, finally, there really will be that smoking gun in what Clinton’s arch-enemy Donald Trump has called the ‘motherlode’. Such are the hopes of the anti-Hillary brigade.
But they’re likely to be disappointed. For a start, what Comey has launched, with striking, innuendo-inviting vagueness, is an investigation of sorts into a cache of emails discovered ‘in connection with [the] unrelated case’ of disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who has been accused of sending ‘sexually themed’ messages to a 15-year-old girl. Comey’s intervention is explosive, of course, because Clinton has long been on the brink of being engulfed by the swirl of speculation and accusation that has been stirred up by her use of a private email server, the contents of which have been hinted at by Wikileaks, but left frustratingly out of reach by Clinton’s deletion of said emails. But this newly discovered email edifice looks more likely to inspire another round of conspiracy theorising, rather than finally resolve doubts. ‘[The FBI] cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant’, said Comey before adding another dollop of ambiguity: ‘I cannot predict how long it will take for us to complete this additional work.’ And just to add to the confusion about what it is that Comey may or may not have found, Newsweek reported that not one of the emails was either from or to Clinton.
In sum, at some indefinite point in the future, emails not from Clinton but that ‘may be pertinent to [the Clinton] case’, might possibly reveal something or other. Team anti-Hillary should probably put away the champagne.
But there’s a deeper problem with this lust for Hillary’s comeuppance, aside from it being wishful thinking. It’s that it is so politically limited, shallow even. Too many of those now opposing Clinton seem to think that the problems of US politics – its oligarchical nature, its disenfranchisement of vast swathes of ‘flyover’ America, its visionless, futureless mangerialism – can be boiled down to a single individual. They seem to think it’s possible to pin it all on Hillary. She’s the problem. She’s the corruption, the source of all that’s wrong, the ‘cancer’ on the body politic, as some have called her. Cut her out, and let the healing begin.
This narrative is at its crudest among Trump and his fanboys. She’s ‘crooked’ Hillary. She’s ‘corrupt’. She’s a ‘criminal’. As one put it, ‘Hillary Clinton is the biggest threat to world peace and the most dangerous person on the planet’. Another argued that her ‘crimes… should still be under investigation; crimes that will, in fitting Watergate parlance, be a cancer on the presidency if she manages to win on 8 November’. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was a little more measured: ‘I think that Hillary Clinton’s activities over 30 years kind of indicates that there’s something rotten here.’
But if her political opponents are desperately conjuring her up as the singular embodiment of all that’s grown rank in US politics, her liberal critics are no less shrill. In the New York Times, one commentator said she was an emblem of ‘elite folly’, a representative of ‘the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals’; ‘a woman whose record embodies the tendencies that gave rise to Trumpism in the first place’.
Of course there are some truths here. Clinton is typical of the insularity of ‘Beltway’ politicos. Thanks to the isolation of the American political class, which nearly half of the American electorate don’t vote for, let alone care for, it can appear as if Clinton embraces a ‘cult of presidential action’. But peer a little deeper, and it’s clear that Clinton is at most symptomatic of the state of US politics, her focus on ‘presidential action’ less a cultish tendency than a practical necessity born of a federal state that governs apart from near enough the majority of Americans. And, ironically, given the obsession with her emails, it’s clear from the contents that have been Wikileaked so far that Clinton is more cynical and clueless than corrupt and cruel. She’s uncertain about what to say on even the most trivial of issues, so frightened and unsure is she of what voters might think. And she seems utterly tone deaf to the problems of her fraternising with Wall Street and the global super rich, be it through the Clinton Foundation or otherwise.
But she’s not the cause of the dire state of US politics; she’s not the bad apple in the otherwise healthy barrel of the political class. To almost treat her as if she is, as many of her liberal critics want to, is to scapegoat her, to force her to atone for the sins not just of her husband or the Democratic elite, but of the whole political establishment.
This is most palpable in the obsession with Clinton’s overseas adventures as secretary of state. Now US foreign policy, much like European foreign policy, is deserving of plenty of criticism. It is relentlessly, infernally interventionist; it seems driven by the need to be seen to be doing something ethical, something good, rather than by practical or material objectives; and, as such, it has destabilised and brutalised whole regions with no apparent end in sight. Clinton, who, during her time in office, did so much to undermine the governing structures of Libya and most damning of all, Syria, has shown herself to be a major part of this problem. She has shown herself to be so in thrall to the short-term PR gains of ethical foreign policy that the long-term objectives of international diplomacy have been forgotten. And whole peoples have suffered as a result.
But listening to the criticism of ‘Killary’, listening to those who seem to want to hold her uniquely responsible for the deaths of US servicemen overseas, listening to those who want to hang her out to dry for the operational failings that led to the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens during the Benghazi attack in 2012, you can’t help feeling that there is something else going on here. That is, the excited, detail-heavy criticism of Clinton, the conviction that it was her failure, for instance, to pay attention to the security situation in Libya, her failure to pay heed to intelligence warnings, her failure to fortify the embassy, that led to the Benghazi attack, personalises what should be a debate about interventionism, about the purpose of foreign policy. It turns it into a discussion, on the one hand, about the iniquity, conniving and incompetence of Clinton, and on the other, about technical details – who knew this, who was responsible for that. And, like the attempt in the UK to blame the Iraq War on the evil, dossier-doctoring, WMD-fabricating genius of Tony ‘Bliar’, this attempt to blame Libya and Benghazi on the wicked Killary lets the rest of the political and media class off the hook. Because Clinton wasn’t alone in supporting no-flyzoning intervention and, ultimately, regime change in Libya; no, she was cheered on by the do-something laptop bombardiers and posturing politicians of the West who urged Hollande, Cameron and Obama to send in the planes.
And that’s the problem with this determined demonisation of Clinton. It is scapegoating and futile – let’s face it, Clinton’s conversation with Mephistopheles won’t be found no matter how many emails are churned up. And it also means that the real political debates about the trajectory and objectives of Western foreign policy, the future of a stagnant, debt-ridden economy, and the deep-seated crisis of a duopolistic political elite, are left unsaid and unargued. As a result, the estrangement of the people from a ruling class that speaks to no one but itself and its donors will only deepen.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.