Hillary Clinton: Warrior or peacemaker?

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Richard Holbrooke's philosophy may reveal a lot about what Hillary Clinton's presidency could look like
  • Zelizer: Holbrooke's energetic diplomacy is captured in HBO's new documentary, "The Diplomat"

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, a New America fellow and author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)What kind of foreign policy would Hillary Clinton pursue if she is elected president?

During recent weeks, public attention has shifted back to her vote in 2002 in favor of the resolution granting President George Bush authority to use force in Iraq because Bernie Sanders blasted her for the decision. "In my view," Sanders said, "a major military power, which is what we are, has got to do everything that it can to resolve international conflict without going to war."
Julian Zelizer
But speculation that Clinton would quickly depart from the Obama Doctrine, which revolves around the use of diplomacy through international alliances, is misplaced. While Sen. Clinton did support a resolution allowing President Bush to use force in Iraq, this does not reflect her overall approach to foreign policy. Not only was Clinton one of the key players in implementing Obama's distinct approach to international affairs, but she has repeatedly been very clear in her belief that muscular diplomacy, coupled with selective military force, offers the best approach to solving challenges overseas. She was one of the principal forces, for example, in pushing for the economic sanctions that helped bring Iran to the bargaining table over nuclear weapons.
    Sometimes the best way to understand what a person would be all about as a leader is to look at the figures who shaped their ideas. Fortunately for political junkies, they get a glimpse into her strategic world view with the television premiere November 2 of HBO's documentary, "The Diplomat."
    The movie focuses on the career of Richard Holbrooke, a legendary figure in U.S. diplomacy over the past few decades. The film, directed by his son David, who searches to understand a father who was usually absent from his life, offers a fascinating account of the mission of diplomacy.
    Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, at a meeting during the Obama administration, seen in a photo from the HBO documentary, "The Diplomat."

    Who was Richard Holbrooke?

    Holbrooke, who advised Hillary Clinton on foreign policy when she was a senator and as a presidential candidate in 2008, was a pivotal influence on her development before and after becoming secretary of state. Though he was Clinton's biggest "headache," Clinton said, referring to the fact that he was extraordinarily difficult to work with, he was also her source of "inspiration."
    A towering figure both physically and emotionally, Richard Holbrooke had a remarkable life through which he witnessed the complex trajectory of foreign relations since the 1960s.
    He was born in New York City in 1941. A graduate of Brown University, he abandoned his initial dream of becoming a journalist and went to work for the State Department as a foreign service officer in the early 1960s. He spent three years in Vietnam where he saw firsthand the limits of American military power. He returned to the United States in 1966 to work on President Lyndon Johnson's staff, participating in the Paris peace talks that finally brought an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam when Richard Nixon was President in 1973.
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    After serving as a fellow at Princeton University and then working as director of the Peace Corps in Morocco, he took a job editing Foreign Policy and writing for Newsweek. He returned to politics by working on Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign and then as the President's assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
    After a break from government during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, he returned to public service in 1993 when President Bill Clinton named him as ambassador to Germany and then as assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.

    Diplomacy, not guns

    At the heart of "The Diplomat" is Holbrooke's tireless work trying to resolve the conflict between Serbia and Bosnia in 1995. Rather than sending guns, President Clinton sent Holbrook to resolve what had become a brutal war in Yugoslavia that had unfolded after the Soviet Union collapsed.
    Facing a horrendous situation that included the violent "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs (the film has images of the conflict that are a powerful reminder of what was at stake), he undertook many days of intense shuttle diplomacy that ultimately produced the 1995 ceasefire completed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio.
    The war, which killed almost 100,000 people, finally came to an end. Holbrooke would explain that he had no problem "negotiating with people who do immoral things" since preventing the "deaths of people still alive" was not "doing a disservice to those already killed trying to do so."
    Importantly, Holbrooke was not opposed to the use of military force but thought that it should only be used on very selective occasions. As Hillary Clinton explained in a talk after his death, "He understood that at times, one had to use military force. But he also fought hard about how to end it and what tools were necessary to do so."
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    He had less success with President Obama. According to the movie, Holbrooke was never able to fully work his way into Obama's inner circle even though he had joined the administration to work on the problem of Afghanistan.
    As the special representative or Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke had difficulty dealing with Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan. The publication of a story about the diplomat in the New Yorker by George Packer angered administration officials who felt that he was attempting to steal the President's spotlight.
    Frustrated, he felt that an inexperienced president in 2009 and 2010 was too often listening to military advisers rather than to those advocating the possibility of peace. Within the administration, Clinton was one of his strongest champions. Worn down and feeling defeated, he died tragically from a torn aorta that began while he was in a meeting with Secretary of State Clinton.
    To be sure, Holbrooke had many flaws. His famous ego and arrogance turned many people off. He could be brutal with enemies -- and also his friends. President Clinton said that though he was full of "energy and force" he would also "scream and claw and scratch and make you feel like you had a double-digit IQ if you didn't agree with him." Many people didn't like him personally and, as the film shows, he was not the best father.
    But, as his son learned in making this movie, Holbrooke's career was a shining example of how diplomacy could be used to stop war in a post-Vietnam era when there were clear limits to military power.

    Diplomatic theater

    His mix of "realism and idealism," Hillary Clinton said, was exactly what the nation needed as our leaders rebuilt a foreign policy agenda. Holbrooke used every tool during negotiations, from his extensive personal contacts, to his mastery of the news media, to his relentless negotiating style. He knew how to make bitter opponents whose troops had been murdering each other talk —and reach agreement.
    Known as the "bulldozer" for his hard-hitting style, he was a master of using the social circuit to advance his goals, famously introducing people at cocktail parties and worrying meticulously, according to the film, about the seating arrangements at his legendary dinner parties in New York.
    Fellow diplomat Henry Kissinger said that if Holbrooke "calls you and asks you for something, just say yes. If you say no, you'll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful."
    Every particular interaction became part of a larger strategy for advancing the nation's interests. He usually operated without much sleep, reading through the night and exhibiting a total obsession with the mission at hand. He insisted on traveling to the regions that he was dealing with so that he could fully understand and absorb himself in their culture.
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    He perfected a kind of diplomatic theater, full of temper tantrums and perfectly timed outbursts that often proved effective at moving discussions forward. Opponents reported feeling that they were either seduced or coerced into agreement.
    "The Diplomat" is a great exploration of the realistic alternatives that exist to war and a powerful account of one of Hillary Clinton's proteges that gives some good clues as to how she might handle international relations if elected president.
    As the nation faces the challenges from Syria, ISIS, Iran, and other threats around the globe, a Clinton presidency would likely mean a continuation of using strategic force — such as arming certain rebels in Syria — with ongoing, relentless and aggressive diplomacy in an effort to find tenable deals that cause adversaries to lay down their arms.
    She would clearly move with full force to ensure strict compliance by the Iranians of the President's deal, realizing that any evidence that the rules were being violated would cause the agreement to collapse. It is very likely she would pursue an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians with the same vigor as her husband and as Jimmy Carter with the Egyptians.
    Mentors tell us a lot about a candidate, so voters should watch closely at the story of Richard Holbrooke for a good sense of what a Clinton presidency might look like.