Clinton Distances Herself from Obama's Foreign Policy

Hillary Clinton
Clinton in Paris, France on July 8, 2014 Benoit Tessier/Reuters

As Hillary Clinton draws closer to a likely presidential bid, the former secretary of state is distancing herself from President Barack Obama. In an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, she drew out the contrasts between herself and her former boss.

She took issue with his approach to the Middle East by declaring that the U.S. should have taken a more active role arming and training the rebels against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, particularly now that the instability there has helped the al Qaeda-inspired group IS (Islamic State) take over large swaths of neighboring Iraq, prompting U.S. air-strikes against the advancing Islamist terrorists.

"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.

Though she stopped just short of saying that an early intervention would have prevented the current mayhem in Iraq, it was clear from the interview that had she been president when the popular uprising in Syria began, the U.S. would have played a bigger role in aiding the rebels.

Clinton also took issue with Obama's recent formulation of his foreign policy, which put simply says, "Don't do stupid shit." "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," she said.

Clinton may have served for four years as Obama's top diplomat, but she has always been more of a hawk than him. Her vote for the Iraq War -- and Obama's early opposition to the war -- likely cost her the Democratic nomination six years ago.

The question for Clinton now is whether a rash of violent foreign crises have made Americans more open to intervention abroad, or whether they remain as war weary as they have become since the long and indecisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While Clinton distanced herself from Obama's approach in Syria, she hesitated to say that the president had, as Goldberg put it, "overlearned the lessons" from Bush's hawkish administration.

"I don't think you can draw that conclusion," she said. "It's a very key question: How do you calibrate, that's the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing."

Clinton laid out some of her own organizing principles. On foreign policy, she said the U.S. needs a broad strategy for combating Islamist terrorism. "Their raison d'etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories," she said. "How do we try to contain that? I'm thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat."

Clinton went on to invoke the U.S.'s fifty-year-long Cold War policy of containment against communist aggression and territorial ambition as a suitable means of tackling foreign policy today. "You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes. We supported really nasty guys. We did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia.

"But we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it," she said.

Clinton also came to the defense of Israel, one of the seemingly mandatory positions for anyone who wants to win the White House. "I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets," she said. "Israel has a right to defend itself."

Clinton's strong defense of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in sharp contrast to her time as secretary of state, when, as Goldberg put it, "she spent a lot of time yelling at Netanyahu on the administration's behalf over Israel's West Bank settlement policy."

The interview with Clinton was conducted last week, before Obama announced air-strikes and aid in Iraq to combat the IS advance against Baghdad and the Kurds. Clinton sources have told the press the interview was one of a number set up weeks ago to promote her memoir of her time as secretary of state, "Hard Choices," and was not intended to lay out her foreign policy for a 2016 run. But, intentionally or not, that may be what she has done.

Obama's foreign policy has come under fire as conflicts erupt around the world, from Gaza to Iraq to Syria to Ukraine. But it's unclear whether unease with Obama's cautious, minimal approach to the unfolding military action and humanitarian disasters means Americans are ready for a more interventionist foreign policy. Steve Clemons, a foreign policy writer at The Atlantic, thinks the interview could backfire against Clinton.

"Her comments on Syria are very provocative," Clemons told Politico. "This is a staggeringly important interview and, in many ways, is going to reawaken the substantial resistance to her as a reckless interventionist by some quarters."