THE NATIONAL INTEREST — IN THE early 1970s, Hillary Clinton was a familiar face in the left-liberal milieu she had cast her lot with: a volunteer for the Yale Law School watchdog committee to monitor fairness in the trial of the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale; a worker for Marian Wright Edelman’s Washington Research Project (the precursor of the Children’s Defense Fund); a member of the legal staff of the Nixon impeachment inquiry. In one cause, however, she was mostly absent and unaccounted for: the protest against the Vietnam War. A friend of the Clintons, Greg Craig, told the New York Times reporter Mark Landler that while others in their circle were “heavily involved” in antiwar activism, “I don’t remember Hillary having much to do with that.” Clinton gave two pages to the war in her memoir Living History. She sympathized there with the burden of responsibility borne by President Johnson for “a war he’d inherited,” which turned out to be “a tragic mistake.” Johnson is her focus: the man of power who rode a tiger he could not dismount. On a second reading, “mistake” may seem too light a word to characterize a war that destroyed an agrarian culture forever and killed between one and three million Vietnamese. “Mistake” is also the word that Hillary Clinton has favored in answering questions about her vote for the Iraq War.
Like every Democrat who has run for president since 1960, Clinton sometimes talks as if she wished foreign policy would go away. A president’s most important responsibility, she agrees, is to strengthen the bonds of neighborhood and community at home, to assure a decent livelihood for working Americans and an efficient system of benefits for all. Yet her four years as secretary of state—chronicled in a second volume of memoirs, Hard Choices—have licensed her to speak with the authority of a veteran in the world of nations. War and diplomacy, as that book aimed to show, have become an invaluable adjunct to her skill set. Clinton would want us to count as well a third tool besides war and diplomacy. She calls it (after a coinage by Joseph Nye) “smart power.” Smart power, for her, denotes a kind of pressure that may augment the force of arms and the persuasive work of diplomacy. It draws on the network of civil society, NGOs, projects for democracy promotion and managed operations of social media, by which the United States over the past quarter of a century has sought to weaken the authority of designated enemies and to increase leverage on presumptive or potential friends.