It's 2019, and the issue the Cabinet is debating is tragically routine — whether to summon arms, advisers and airstrikes to help a struggling rebel faction in a land torn by centuries of brutality and religious strife. How good is our intelligence? Are we sure the rebels are committed to democratic ideals? Are we confident in their numbers and capacity? What are the risks? Will we find ourselves, later, under assault by our own weapons, or destroying U.S. arms that have fallen into the wrong hands? What is the full range of unintended consequences? On a scale of one to 100, how catastrophic might they be? As terrible as inaction? Worse?
Grim faces all around. The discussion has been painfully intense, with experienced hands pleading that the government not repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and the others. It's a long list by now, associated with many presidents, including President Hillary Clinton.
Her hawkish tendencies are, of course, long-standing. As a senator, and in the 2008 presidential campaign, she often seemed to have more in common with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona than with her fellow Democrat, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who campaigned in 2008 against "dumb wars" and for diplomacy on steroids, even direct talks with hostile heads of state. Not surprisingly, Obama's signature approach in office was to prod other countries to fight for their own interests and futures. He deployed U.S. force sparingly, applying rigorous conditions for intervention that were rarely met.
All that restraint produced a kick-ass mood in the 2016 Democratic primaries. The party turned to Clinton — belatedly, she would say privately and sometimes even, joking, in public — as an antidote to Obama's lead-from-behind prudence. Some Democrats were exasperated, and past ready to try the more assertive Clinton doctrine.
Other Democrats liked her feminist focus on abortion, contraception and equal pay. They knew they could trust her when the next Supreme Court seat opened up. Still other Democrats were drawn by her down-to-earth populist image. She managed to keep those Wall Street allies behind a curtain that must have stretched all across lower Manhattan as she commiserated, in her on-again, off-again Arkansas twang, with struggling voters in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and southeast Ohio.
If elected, Democrats knew, there was always the possibility that Clinton would come to grief over her enthusiasm for sending send money, troops and arms to global hot spots. On the other hand, her status as the first woman president would be an indelible, perhaps eclipsing legacy — a breakthrough no one could ever take away from her or those who elected her.
Nevertheless, Clinton did not have an easy path to the White House. She repeatedly displayed bad political instincts, highlighted by a tone-deaf preseason interview with The Atlantic. Did she really have to brand Obama's approach to Syria a failure? There were far more diplomatic ways to remind people that, as his secretary of state, she had urged a different path. As for belittling Obama's "don't do stupid stuff" mantra, why not call it a good starting point and outline her own broader ideas? But she didn't, and when asked, she proved unprepared, falling back on "peace, progress and prosperity" — a cliched staple in the cupboard of every president and candidate.
None of that ended up mattering, however, because Clinton got lucky in both the primary and general elections. With Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sticking to her intention not to run, she had only token opposition from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was positioning himself as a vice presidential or Cabinet pick (he is now Clinton's secretary of homeland security).
Republicans helped Clinton by trying something new. They nominated Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-style ambassador to youth and minorities who spoke their language on sentencing laws, government spying and staying out of foreign conflicts. The youth vote split, but so did the GOP vote. Quite a few Republicans, it turned out, preferred Clinton over Paul to manage international affairs.
Clinton's leadership style in office has been her trademark combination of showy, steely attitude on international matters and a maternal "hug it out" strategy for resolving conflicts within her Cabinet, staff and party.
Those contrasts have been apparent to the close observer since her husband's 1992 campaign. When she said she could have "stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" but preferred to continue her work as a lawyer, the comment came off as harsh toward homemakers and dogged her for years. She received far less attention a few days later for a gentle reading of "Where The Wild Things Are" at a New York school. "Let the wild rumpus start," she read to the young children, and laughed, recognizing that it had already begun.
For Clinton, decades later, it has never stopped.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.