When it comes to foreign policy, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is arguably the most experienced candidate among all of the 2016 presidential contenders, Republican or Democrat.
She's also the most vulnerable.
That helps explain why newly minted Republican contender and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is taking verbal shots at Mrs. Clinton.
“[I]t’s easier to talk to Kim Jong-un than it is to her,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader Tuesday, adding that Clinton is “making a fatal mistake of trying to insulate herself.”
In a “Fox & Friends” interview Thursday, Senator Graham said Clinton’s “biggest nightmare,” is for someone to ask, “‘Hey, do you think the war on terror is going well? Do you agree with Barack Obama’s foreign policy? If you don’t, tell us why.’”
Hyperbolic, sure. But there is some truth to Graham's claims. Clinton does have a reputation for avoiding media questions.
The press guidance for Clinton's speech Thursday on voting rights at Texas Southern University, clearly stipulated that there will be “NO opportunities to interview Hillary Clinton; her speech will be her interview.”
And as multiple media outlets have pointed out, after announcing her campaign, Clinton went 21 days without answering a single press question, prompting rivals like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has not yet announced his candidacy, and Carly Fiorina to blast her "protective bubble."
So why is Clinton avoiding engagement, particularly on foreign policy? Considering that she served as secretary of State, foreign policy should be her strong suit.
In fact, her State Department career is as much an advantage as it is a liability, an opportunity for conservative opposition to pin the country's overseas woes to Clinton.
Justified or not, voters can expect GOP contenders to allege the foreign policy Clinton executed at State was disastrous for the US, citing as evidence the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, a bruised relationship with Israel, and Russian incursions into Ukraine.
“I think Republicans and Democrats both get to say: ‘Don’t saddle me with the failures of my party in the past,’ ” Richard Grenell, a longtime US spokesman at the United Nations, told the Guardian. “However, Hillary Clinton is unique. She was actually the implementer of the foreign policy. So there’s a difference, because with Hillary, all you’re trying to do is hold her accountable for the actual job that she just had.”
Clinton, then, is disinclined to discuss foreign policy because it's a delicate line to walk, distancing herself from the Obama administration and its foreign policy problems without criticizing her former boss or renouncing her record.
And of course, any discussion of foreign policy is likely to touch on Clinton's record at the State Department, which rivals will argue is besmirched by the revelation that she used a private e-mail account while at State, and by the 2012 Benghazi attack, when militants attacked the American embassy in Benghazi, killing four, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Of course, Clinton is aware of the challenge. Last year, she began to distance herself from Obama's positions on Iraq and Syria. After CNN and Fox News interviews in June 2014, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier observed:
On Syria, Clinton sounded more interventionist than the Obama White House, saying that her feeling is the US should have armed Syrian rebels “you know, two-plus years ago.”
On Iraq, she questioned the wisdom of working with Iran to try to keep the Iraqi government from crumbling under an onslaught of militant Sunni Islamists. (The administration has explored the possibility of Iranian involvement in Iraq but hasn’t committed to anything.)
“I am not prepared to say that we go in with Iran right now, until we have a better idea what we’re getting ourselves into,” Clinton said.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle— the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
She also said that Obama's foreign policy has been overly cautious. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle," she noted.
But Clinton's silence lately on the subject leaves many questions unanswered, and provides an opportunity for opponents like Graham to raise doubts about her presidency.