Clinton, Putin, and The "Good Guy vs. Bad Guy" Fallacy of American Foreign Policy
The former Secretary of State still refuses to learn from her mistakes.
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Last week, Pod Save America had on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a discussion on Donald Trump’s indictment. Amidst the cavalcade of “but her emails!” jokes, one of the hosts asked Clinton about her interactions with Vladimir Putin at the 2011 Asian Pacific Economic Community summit, and what it taught her about his decision to invade Ukraine. Clinton’s response (below) was equally illuminating as it was maddening. In her response, Clinton engages in a cardinal flaw of American foreign policy, the belief that malicious actors do bad things (such as invade a neighboring nation) simply because they are Bad Guys, not because they have genuine motivations that drive them to commit their heinous acts.
(Transcript provided by Crooked.com. I’ve paraphrased slightly for clarity and brevity.)
Hillary Clinton: So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got to think of something to talk to him [Putin] about.’ So I said, ‘Mr. President, before I came, I stopped in Saint Petersburg for some meetings and I went to the museum commemorating the siege of Stalingrad. And, I just wanted to tell you how much it meant to me that I actually had a chance to see that.’
[Putin] sat up straight and said, ‘Let me tell you a story. My father was in the siege and they would be on the front lines for three or four days and then they would get some time off. So once when he had time off, Putin’s father was walking back to their apartment and he walked past a pile of bodies waiting to be burned. Putin’s father looks down and sees what he believes to be his wife’s leg with her shoe on. He runs over and starts trying to pull this body out of the pile of bodies, screaming that it’s his wife. Eventually, he got her out and she was alive. She recovered, and a few years later, Vladimir Putin was born.
So he tells me this story and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, this explains so much.’ I think about this story and think about the trauma that his family and so many Russian families went through. And in some people, that kind of trauma makes them feel like never again, no war. We have to be more compassionate and caring. We have to help people. And in some people, it makes them think I’m going to be on the side that wins. The people who die are going to be the people that I don’t want to see living or doing, because we’re going to have a different future. And when you think about Putin and the way that for so many years his absolute prevailing conviction has been the need to restore Russian greatness. He thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe in his own words. And it’s almost like he found Mother Russia dying when he took over. And he’s going to bring it back to life. And bringing it back to life means asserting its power, its domination, its strength, and taking over everywhere you can, starting in Russia itself, then moving on to Chechnya and now moving on to Georgia in 2008, then moving first to Ukraine in 2014 and then now what we see happening there. And it just spoke to me about what was really going on in Putin’s mind and what we’re now facing in Ukraine and what we would face if we don’t stop him in Ukraine.
Host: Just an incredible window into Putin’s mindset.
I was listening to this interview while grocery shopping. Clinton’s response was so tone-deaf that I lost all concentration on my task, blocking the aisle and causing the mother behind me to grumble as she swerved her cart past me. (Ma’am, if you’re reading, my bad.)
This is the former Secretary of State, whose entire job was to construct relations between the U.S. and foreign nations, admitting she thinks one of the world’s most powerful leaders is as shallow as a villain in a C-rate James Bond ripoff. To conduct effective foreign policy, America has to understand the motivations of other nations, and therefore their leaders: What do they want? What do they fear? Why are they the way they are? What would cause them to invade Ukraine? Only with a proper understanding of each country can the U.S. effectively work with them. And, as evidenced by Clinton’s response to the only actual question she faced on the Pod Save stage, she has fundamentally failed to understand Vladimir Putin, a mistake that has cost thousands of lives.
The Bad Guy vs. Good Guy Fallacy
In Clinton’s mind, Putin is just a bully, looking for revenge. According to her, much like schoolyard bullies replicate the abuse they receive at home onto vulnerable classmates, Putin is funneling the pain Nazi Germany brought to Russians onto Ukrainians, simply for the purpose of making Russia “strong.”
What Clinton is expressing above is what I consider to be a severe misunderstanding of American ideology, the idea that the world is filled with “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” The Bad Guys do things simply because they are Bad, such as invading Ukraine because they want to look tough. As the former Secretary of State put it, the Good Guys must “stop them.” This mantra has severely misguided American foreign policy. Not only has it led us to invade and destroy sovereign nations (Iraq, Libya, etc.), but its limitations have given us a false understanding of leaders like Vladimir Putin, hindering us from preventing wars, and, in some cases, causing the U.S. to provoke them.
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