Can Hillary Run Against Obama’s Foreign Policy?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 22, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton listens to U.S. President Obama speak during a meeting with members of his cabinet in Washington

A recent article in the National Journal suggested that Hillary Clinton is beginning to position herself for the 2016 Presidential run. Headlined, ‘Hillary Clinton Steps Away From Obama on Foreign Policy,’ the main point was made.

In the text of the article, a Democratic pollster, Jay Campbell of Hart Research, says Clinton may need to, in effect, separate herself from her own legacy, but that she should be able to do it:

It’s absolutely true that things are tough for the president all around right now, whereas before, his foreign policy and relations with the world were one of the high points   [Mrs. Clinton] can credibly create the separation for herself. It’s going to be a lot tougher for Vice President Biden.

That is certainly true: in addition to the albatross of his own record, Joseph Biden will now have to account for Obama’s too.

Another Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg says: “Republicans will waste their time on Benghazi and extreme over-the-top partisan reactions to events.” Perhaps Mrs. Clinton will escape with answering questions on Benghazi—and the GOP has made this perfectly plausible. By making unwarranted, hysterical attacks on things that were not problems in the real world—albeit with the genuine points about the CIA’s weird covering up for the administration with the talking points—what they have done is exhausted the patience of the electorate and convinced people that this is a hyper-partisan incident.

The real criticism was, first, the specifics of the security situation and why nobody had headed-off an obviously-looming fiasco—but this is the sort of disaster that occurs under every President. Still, it is not an excuse for the fact that, once again, when a major intelligence bungle occurs, nobody gets fired. Second, and much more important, the terrorist attack in Benghazi—and the administration’s response to it—was a microcosm of the administration’s failed Middle East policy. By its determination to blame the anti-Islamic video and to deny that this was a pre-planned al-Qaeda attack to coincide with the Sept. 11 anniversary, the administration showed its dangerously naïve view that a) al-Qaeda was all-but beaten, and b) the dire state of relations between the Muslim world and the West was basically a misunderstanding that c) Obama himself, by his charm and biography, could correct in a single administration. It also highlighted that having intervened (eventually) to protect Libya’s civilians and bring down Muammar el-Qaddafi, the administration had then abandoned the country and refused to provide the sinews of power that would allow the government that was friendly to us to enforce its writ. And above it all the administration’s palpable retreat, especially its liquidation of America’s strategic victory in Iraq and its announcement in advance of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, had invited a challenge by displaying a weakness that was the real fuel for the jihadists. In the GOP’s haste—and especially in is activists’ wing lack of knowledge, and indeed lack of care, about the Middle East and the foreign world more generally—it squandered this and convinced a strategic majority that this was no more than a re-run of their deranged “Fast and Furious” conspiracy theories.

Mrs. Clinton will undoubtedly have questions on Russia—especially since she was the one to present that “reset” button to Sergei Lavrov. She has begun to revise herself on this already, making some stern statements since Vladimir Putin began dismembering Ukraine—so strong indeed she had to slightly walk them back and reassure one and all that she was not comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler, merely pointing out the similarities in their salami tactics—which is a stark contrast to an administration that needed two attempts to impose meaningful sanctions.

Mrs. Clinton does have a clear record of wanting to come to the rescue of Benghazi when Col. Qaddafi was at the gates and she was in favour of arming the Syrian rebellion when it really would have made a difference in the summer of 2012. Her admitting to opposing the “surge” in Iraq solely for political reasons and her failure to leave a mark on Iraq policy when Obama abandoned the Fertile Crescent to chaos and bloodshed will likely do her no harm: somehow the horrors in Syria are not seen as having anything to do with her and it is not as if nobody knew her sudden dovish turn on Iraq in 2007 was political posturing. If the Democrats are presented with Mrs. Clinton as a fait accompli in 2016, expect Mrs. Clinton’s record on Mesopotamia to disappear down the memory hole.

If there is to be a Middle East stumbling block for Mrs. Clinton it might well turn out to be Iran, which has not had as much attention as it deserves. She was the first U.S. official to say, in December 2010, that Tehran was “entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy.” At that time there were six extant United Nations Security Council resolutions saying that Iran had no “right” to enrich any uranium, and this had been long-standing American policy. These resolutions have now been destroyed by the “interim” accord signed with the Iranians in November. In January, the Obama administration said that Senate Democrats who want to impose sanctions if Iran cheats on this “deal” are warmongers. Mrs. Clinton has stayed studiously quiet on this, but in 2016 she might find herself answering for being part of an administration that put the Islamic Republic within touching distance of a nuclear weapon. (If the Republicans get their act together she might also be asked about her silence during the 2009 uprising against the Iranian theocracy.)

Assuming Mrs. Clinton held to the positions she now claims, she has to be reckoned among the most ineffective Secretaries of State in recent times. But then, had she actually been truly invested in arming the Syrian rebellion, for example, to prevent a humanitarian and strategic calamity, she could have resigned; it might even have made a difference. Instead, she subordinated policy to her future ambition. Like the Bosnians, the Syrians are a mere prop in her narrative. In fairness to Mrs. Clinton she cannot take all the blame for a foreign policy ordered by a President whose apparatus for its enforcement is this centralised. And this is how, one can see already, the distancing will be done: Mrs. Clinton will be both the skilled diplomat who brought off the successful foreign policy initiatives, and the loyal servant who carried out the President’s wishes on the failed ones. Fantasies about being under fire in Tuzla will not be necessary next time: Mrs. Clinton now has a resume all her own, all those air miles, and she will likely be up against a Republican opponent with no kind of claim to foreign policy experience or expertise.

When asked what Mrs. Clinton would run on if she was to try to succeed Obama, one “prominent Democratic strategist” put it tersely to the New York Times last November: “Competence,” since “by the end of Obama’s second term, that may be more than enough.”

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