Clinton Out-Hawks Obama

by Dish Staff

How Jeffrey Goldberg characterizes his recent interview with Hillary Clinton:

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.

But Andrew Sprung disagrees with Goldberg’s framing:

I’ve seen more than one tweet this morning to the effect that Hillary Clinton “threw Obama under an ISIS-driven Humvee” in a long, probing, interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.  I think that’s a wrong impression created by Goldberg’s introductory overview, which overstates her actual and implied criticisms of Obama.

It’s no secret that Clinton advocated for early U.S. support of allegedly moderate factions in the Syrian opposition. And it’s necessary and prudent for Hillary to distance herself from Obama, or position herself to do so, in that a) she genuinely is more interventionist, and b) the world could blow up on Obama and doom her chances if she’s seen as a continuation. But it’s also in Hillary’s DNA to hedge, both from a desire to cover both sides and an ability to see complexity (except with regard to Israel, to which she pandered without inhibition). And in at least three instances, Goldberg emphasized just one side of her equation.

Francis Wilkinson seconds Sprung:

The skill and elasticity of her rhetoric was impressive. She spoke at length, and seemingly without restraint, yet it’s hard to find specific acts of the Obama administration that she has clearly renounced or endorsed, or firm positions of her own to which she irrevocably committed. … Clinton drew a clear distinction with Obama on Syria, pointing out that she had wanted more vigorous support for the non-jihadists among the Syrian opposition. But she made no claim that her preferred approach would have succeeded. She also compared herself very favorably with her successor, John Kerry, in moving Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward compromise, casting Kerry’s subsequent efforts in a diminished light. But much of Clinton’s foreign policy analysis fell under the rubric of “time will tell.”

Cillizza sees Clinton’s comments as baldy political:

Clinton wants people to remember she never always agreed with Obama. One of the challenges Clinton will face in 2016 — although not the biggest challenge — is her association with Obama, particularly on foreign policy. (She was, after all, the top diplomat in the Obama Administration for his first term.) What Clinton does not want to do, however, is be forced to own every decision the President made — especially those that she disagreed with. On Afghanistan, Clinton — along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — advocated for putting more troops in the country. On Libya , Clinton was a lead voice making the case for a military intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi. And, in the interview with Goldberg, Clinton calls the U.S.’s decision to not actively involve itself in the early days of the uprising in Syria a “failure”.  There will be plenty on the foreign policy front that Clinton will have to own — “pushing the reset button” with Russia, anyone? — but she also wants to make very clear that had she been president, our foreign policy might have looked very different over the past six years.

Matt K. Lewis calls out-hawking Obama politically brilliant but his argument is relatively flimsy:

Pundits love to say that people vote their pocketbooks, not foreign policy. Well, what Clinton is doing here transcends foreign policy. It’s about restoring America’s swagger. And I think there’s a real hunger for this.

Larison more convincingly argues that Clinton’s hawkishness will backfire:

There are many things one could call Clinton’s recent foreign policy remarks in this Goldberg interview, but politically savvy or brilliant is *not* one of them. The foreign policy she outlined in the interview is one that would replicate all of Obama’s major errors (e.g., intervention in Libya, arming foreign rebels, etc.) while expanding on and adding to them. She is clearly currying favor with foreign policy analysts and pundits that already think Obama has been too passive on Syria, Ukraine, etc., and she is doing that by reciting many of their unpersuasive arguments.

Clinton has “brilliantly” identified herself as the hawk that she has always been, which puts her sharply at odds with most people in her own party and most Americans of all political affiliations. That’s not triangulation at all.

Dougherty fears the worst:

Clinton’s strategy of trying to say that she would have embraced Obama’s foreign policy — But harder! And bigger! — amounts to admitting she would double down on failures, engage in drive-by wars, and get America stuck in confusing entanglements with gun-wielding losers and child-beheaders. Will some Democrat with an ounce of sense speak up and try to defeat Clinton before we get George W. Bush’s third term?

Josh Marshall thinks thinks Hillary is playing a dangerous game:

[T]here’s an element of Hillary’s strategic distancing I’ve not seen widely mentioned. President Obama is not popular at the moment. His popularity is at best in the low 40s. But among the people who choose Democratic nominees – that is, partisan Democrats – he remains quite popular. And even for many Democrats who feel disappointed, let down or just worn out by the whole six year journey, President Obama represents something that transcends how they may feel about him at just this moment.

Quite apart from the pros and cons of particular foreign policy strategies, I believe the great majority of partisan Democrats feel protective of the President. So it’s a delicate, perilous thing to criticize him so publicly, particularly at a politically vulnerable moment, especially when the nature of the criticism mirrors that of many of the President’s most dogged and aggrieved foes.

And, lastly, looking beyond Clinton’s rhetoric, Marc Lynch pushes back on Clinton’s suggestion that we should have armed Syria’s rebels. Among his reasons for rejecting that step:

The idea that these rebel groups could be vetted for moderation and entrusted with advanced weaponry made absolutely no sense given the realities of the conflict in Syria. These local groups frequently shifted sides and formed alliances of convenience as needed. As MIT’s Fotini Christia has documented in cases from Afghanistan to Bosnia, and the University of Virginia’s Jonah Shulhofer-Wohl has detailed in Syria, rebel groups that lack a legitimate and effective over-arching institutional structure almost always display these kinds of rapidly shifting alliances and “blue on blue” violence. A “moderate, vetted opposition” means little when alliances are this fluid and organizational structures so weak.

Andrew’s take on the interview is here.