In a new interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, former secretary of State and probable candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton went further than she has to date in openly criticizing the foreign policy of the president that she served under from 2009 to 2013. Specifically, Mrs. Clinton draws a direct line from the president’s failure to act in Syria to the rise of the Islamic State and the problems it now poses for Iraq and the rest of the region, and generally criticized the president for a having a foreign policy that had no clear sense of purpose:
President Obama has long ridiculed the idea that the U.S., early in the Syrian civil war, could have shaped the forces fighting the Assad regime, thereby stopping al Qaeda-inspired groups – like the one rampaging across Syria and Iraq today – from seizing control of the rebellion. In an interview in February, the president told me that “when you have a professional army … fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict – the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
Well, his former secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the “failure” that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.
“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,” Clinton said.
As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.
Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve. On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway. (And for what it’s worth, I also think she may have told me that she’s running for president – see below for her not-entirely-ambiguous nod in that direction.)
Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.
During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up,” she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
I responded by saying that I thought that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” In other words, that the U.S., on balance, has done a good job of advancing the cause of freedom.
Clinton responded to this idea with great enthusiasm: “That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned.” And then she seemed to signal that, yes, indeed, she’s planning to run for president. “Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea, but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.”
Mr. Goldberg’s article is worth reading, but it is long and defies excerpting. The quoted portion above, though, gives you a fairly good idea of the message that Clinton seems to be quite obviously be wanting to convey here, especially in the light of the events in Iraq over the past weeks and President Obama’s decision to join each of his three predecessors in engaging in military action in Iraq. In some sense, what she is saying here isn’t all that different from what she apparently says in her new book, and what she has said during her book tour this summer. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour to promote the book on CNN in June, for example, Clinton made several efforts to make clear that she and the president had disagreed about the proposals that had been floated in the administration to arm the Syrian rebels when the civil war began in that country in 2011. In that interview and elsewhere, Clinton has made sure to emphasize that she favored the idea but that the president ultimately decided against it.
It’s hard to understate the significance of Clinton’s comments in this interview. She has gone further than ever before in distancing herself from an increasingly unpopular president on an issue where his public support continues to plummet, foreign policy. Granted, as Maggie Haberman notes in Politico, Clinton has always been more of a hawk and more of an advocate of a forceful foreign policy than Mr. Obama. However, she does more than just point out policy disagreements here. In this interview, Clinton is not just pointing out the fact that there had been a policy difference between her and the president regarding arming the Syrian rebels, she really seems to be attacking the entire manner in which the president had conducted his foreign policy, both now and during the time that she was secretary of State. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the attacks that her campaign launched against then Senator Obama during the 2008 campaign that culminated in the famous “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which was essentially intended to make the case that, unlike Clinton, Obama was not ready to make the decisions that a president would need to make in a dangerous world. It’s almost as if she intends to build her likely 2016 campaign around the idea that she can provide the leadership that America needs in a dangerous world, leadership that has been lacking for quite a long time. Frida Ghitis makes this point in an opinion piece at CNN, and also suggests that this interview is the clearest sign yet that Clinton is running for president. It’s hard to disagree with that.
On some level, of course, there’s a certain amount of absurdity in Clinton criticizing the foreign policy of an administration that she was not only a part of, but in which she played a key role in shaping that very foreign policy. No doubt, when she runs for office she will be relying heavily on her experience at Foggy Bottom to make the argument that she is ready to be president, indeed it would be extraordinary if she didn’t. If she’s going to claim her time as secretary of State as an argument in her favor, though, then it seems to me as though she is going to have a hard time criticizing the administration for policies that she played a role in developing. Even accepting the argument that she makes regarding the connections between the Obama administration’s decision to not intervene directly in the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the idea that it was merely the one thing she disagreed with the president about that led to the events we see unfolding today is simply absurd. There were a number of events that contributed to today’s state of affairs, many of which involve policies that Clinton favored, and if you’re going to make the argument that one failure by this administration is responsible then you have to look at all of them, including the ones that Clinton played a role in. You can’t claim the credit without accepting at least some of the blame, but that seems to be exactly what Hillary Clinton wants to do when it comes to the foreign policy of the Obama administration.
Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.