Hillary Clinton glided onto a stage in Manhattan with the luxury of now being a cool-eyed outsider who can sharply question foreign policy decisions being made by the Trump administration on such controversial places as China, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
Clinton was the keynote speaker at the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s daylong forum on Oct. 15 on advancing global peace, held at The Times Center in Midtown. The program, part of the Carnegie Peacebuilding Conversations, featured panels with experts from the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and academia.
But it was Clinton’s opening interview, led by William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and formerly a top American diplomat, that zeroed in on the raging state of global affairs.
Here is a summary of what Clinton said to questions from Burns on several geopolitical problems. (She took no questions from the audience.)
On Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria and its effect on the Middle East and relations with America’s allies. The decision — apparently a “personal” one made by Trump, Clinton said, and connected to a phone call with President Erdogan of Turkey — did not appear to follow internal processes that would have “sounded an alarm.” The withdrawal, she added, is not only a “betrayal of the Kurds,” who fought with American forces to dislodge ISIS from Syria (and Iraq) and “had every reason to believe that they were acting not only on American but Western interests,” has left the Kurds “to the mercies of not just the Turkish military . . . but Turkish-supported militias.” These forces are now “engaging in executions, civilian casualties and really, uncontrolled violence against Kurdish targets — both soldiers and civilians.” The Trump move, Clinton said, also “opened the door to further aggressive behavior by the Russians” and solidified the positions of [President] Assad and Iran in Syria. “I think it’s going to be a free for all with tremendous and terrible loss of life” — leaving “really wicked problems.”
On Afghanistan and the recent US-led peace talks with the Taliban: “I for one am glad that the peace talks that the administration was engaged in collapsed,” Clinton said, adding that they fell apart because Trump had invited the Taliban to Camp David. “That was a good outcome of another bad process.” It was an “absolute error for the United States to negotiate bilaterally with the Taliban and essentially concede to their demand that the Afghan government not be involved.” Future negotiations, she said, should be done “at the very least” with low-level representatives of the Taliban and the government. “The goal should be to try to make sure that the Taliban becomes a political party, not an armed insurgency force.” The model of peace talks should be the negotiations that ended the war in Colombia. She noted some progress in Afghanistan: lowered infant mortality; more women and girls in school; and businesses flourishing. The US should “come to the negotiation anew with a different approach.”
On China’s expansion in the South China Sea and its Belt and Road initiative: “I don’t know what our strategy [in China] is other than imposing tariffs. . . .” China should be the No. 1 priority in the US foreign policy list. “But it also has to be dealt with in a stable, predictable way” that sets forth America’s goals in China and clarifies steps that are “very understandable as to what it is we are standing up for and why.” An example: China’s encroachment in the South China Sea — a “flashpoint” that emerged under the Obama administration — involving China building airstrips, installing military forces and conducting mineral development in the atolls and the ocean, actions that the Trump administration is not talking about at all. Clinton called the South China Sea expansion “a huge strategic issue,” that requires the US to find a “broader view” about how to deal with China overall. Its ambitious Belt and Road plan includes building ports that extend from Myanmar to Djibouti to southern Europe and that the Chinese will then control. “What are the consequences?. . . . There is no work being done in this administration. Everybody waits around to see what the latest tweet is. . . . That’s how policy is being made, and we are going to pay a really big price for that in the years ahead.”
On outstanding women across the globe: The trait shared by gutsy women, echoing the title of her book, written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, “The Book of Gutsy Women,” is persisting against high odds to make change. Clinton cited Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile who is the UN high commissioner for human rights and endured imprisonment with her family under the Pinochet regime in Chile; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in leading a successful peace movement with other women in Liberia during its civil war, was beaten, arrested and exiled but who eventually became Africa’s first female president. Against “almost unimaginable” circumstances, Clinton said that such persevering women believed in the “fundamental human rights that motivated their careers and their opposition to the forces of darkness and oppression that they dealt with personally.” That alone, she added, should give everyone “some hope and some optimism.”
On Saudi Arabia’s murder of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudis’ role in the Yemen war: “You gain leverage when you speak out about fundamental rights and values . . . ” because doing so “lays down markers,” Clinton said. The Trump administration’s failure to acknowledge the seriousness of an intentional murder of a journalist “is not only a big mistake on moral grounds, it’s a missed opportunity diplomatically and strategically. We criticize a lot of countries and then we have to do business with them; that’s kind of the way it works.” But if you don’t criticize, you “lose that leverage, that credibility.” Moreover, withdrawing US troops from northeast Syria this week and then sending several thousand troops to Saudi Arabia “could not be a worse message for the United States to send in the entire region.” Yemen is a disaster on every front — the amount of violence inflicted on this population “is almost hard to imagine.” And there is “no real effort being undertaken to try to work out what could possibly be a real end to the hostilities, in part because there is no broker willing to do that. The UN has thrown up its hands. That’s a role we could have and should have played in the past.” She added: “There has to be an effort at some kind of peacemaking . . . maybe the UN can get back into it,” by finding “somebody to try to get the parties to the table.” The Saudi question “is even bigger”: the US “pandering” to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “is a mistake personally and it’s certainly a mistake diplomatically.” The US had an opportunity to help “guide his ambitions, which were cosmic” and then figure out how to work better with him and his team. But that chance, Clinton concluded, has been squandered by the current White House and members of Trump’s family, who have been “rent-seeking” for financial gains from the Saudis “at the highest level.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.