Will Syria crisis harm Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016?

Hillary Clinton spoke out Monday for a strong international response in Syria. Her role as a loyal foot soldier for former boss Obama is hardly surprising. But it raises questions about her presidential prospects.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about Syria, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House Complex in Washington, during a the White House Forum to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.

When former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the White House Monday, she echoed the Obama administration’s arguments on Syria perfectly.

“As the president has said, the Assad regime's inhuman use of weapons of mass destruction against innocent men, women, and children violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order,” Mrs. Clinton said at a forum on wildlife conservation. “And therefore, it demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States.”

Clinton, fresh from a meeting with President Obama, also addressed the news of the day: that Syria voiced support for a proposal – floated by her successor, John Kerry, and picked up by Russia – to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. She credited Mr. Obama’s threat of military action against Syria as spurring this development.

This discussion “could only take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia,” Clinton said.

The remarks were Clinton’s first on Syria since President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people last month. Last week, a Clinton aide issued a statement saying she supported Obama’s decision to enlist congressional support before launching airstrikes against Syria.

Clinton also reportedly contacted two Democratic senators – Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Chuck Schumer of New York – over the weekend, at the Obama administration’s request, to talk about the forthcoming vote on military action. Both, in fact, were already decided on their votes, Senator Pryor against and Senator Schumer for.

That Clinton is a loyal foot soldier for her former boss is hardly surprising. But given the riskiness of Obama’s gambit in soliciting congressional buy-in for a military strike – even as he insists such congressional authorization is not required – the episode raises an important question about Clinton’s political future: Will her close association with Obama hurt her if she runs for president in 2016?

On the nomination, the answer is likely no. Clinton is still the big fish in a little pond, with a big support network ready to jump the minute she gives the signal – and few other Democrats making serious noises about running. Vice President Biden is clearly interested, but even more tied to the Obama brand than Clinton is. None of the other potential Democratic contenders (such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar) has carved out a profile on Syria.

As for the general election, if Clinton is the nominee, it’s hard to imagine that Syria would have a major impact on her prospects – assuming, as the Obama administration insists, that any US military action would last only a few days. If airstrikes morphed into a longer engagement and “boots on the ground,” then that’s a different story, and Clinton might well be damaged. But any limited engagement would be long over by the time voters go to the polls in November 2016.

Syria comes up in the context of the 2016 campaign mainly because of Clinton’s history. In 2002, Senator Clinton voted in favor of the Iraq invasion – a position that, at the time, seemed to bolster her credibility as a “defense Democrat,” but ended up giving an opening to then-Senator Obama in the 2008 campaign. Obama had opposed the Iraq War from the start, and his popular antiwar stance gave him critical momentum against Clinton.

Now Clinton and Obama are on the same team. And her political fortunes, should she decide to pursue the presidency again, are closely tied to his. But realistically, the state of the economy in 2016 is likely to play a much bigger role than a war in Syria in determining whether the Democrats can win a third straight term in the White House. And that, again, is assuming that any US military involvement in Syria ends up being short-lived.

Could Syria even end up helping Clinton? After all, the news Monday that Syria “welcomes” a proposal to relinquish its chemical weapons to international control might have given Obama a new path to solving the Syria problem. If the Syria drama ends without US military involvement, Americans are likely to see that as a bullet dodged, not a cause for celebration. And so Obama’s former secretary of State isn’t likely to reap much benefit. 

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