Hillary Clinton takes on Barack Obama


Friendlier times: President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arrive at Yangon International airport during his historical first visit to Myanmar in November 2012. (File photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Here we are witnessing the world on fire again, in multiple locations. August is never as slow as it ought to be. I think of it as the time my tomatoes ripen, but in some parts of the world it’s known as Fighting Season. The news from much of the world is so awful that you almost feel guilty watching baseball, much less plotting a trip to the beach.

Questions: Why is it so hard to get supplies to those poor people who have taken refuge on the mountain? What will happen if the militants blow up the Mosul Dam? What’s the latest from the Green Zone in Baghdad?

Meanwhile,  we see an eruption of dissent within the Democratic establishment: Hillary Clinton has distanced herself quite dramatically from President Obama. This doesn’t look like a mere kerfuffle to me. This is a planned political maneuver by the former secretary of state and not-quite-announced presidential candidate.

In her interview with the Atlantic, Clinton states:

“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.”

Just in case you thought that notion slipped out accidentally, she doubled down, jabbing Obama for his cautious approach to foreign policy:

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Obama, however, gave an interview to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman on Friday in which he explicitly derided the idea that there was a road not taken in Syria that could have squelched the gestation of the Islamic State:

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

Counterfactual history is for arm-wavers: No one can know what might have been.

But think ahead to 2016: Clinton has taken a big step toward advocating a more hawkish and interventionist foreign policy. Would love to see her debate Sen. Rand Paul on that!

As for Obama: His strategy, as articulated to Friedman, goes beyond “Don’t do stupid stuff.” He believes that the United States should use its military might as political leverage. We shouldn’t simply answer the  bell whenever someone needs us to serve as an emergency air force, Obama says. Think long-term, think endgame, think about the political fallout from the military actions. His broader message to the fighting factions abroad: We can’t solve your problems. Only you can solve your problems. And the only way you can solve your problems is to stop trying to kill everyone you disagree with.

But hate is toxic, and it does not tend to mellow into something more palatable over time. Hate can’t be wished away.

I wrote something in late June that touched on Obama’s philosophy:

Obama’s signature philosophy has been to turn crises into mere problems. It’s a ratcheting down of dilemmas, at least in theory. The catastrophe is reframed as a crisis and the crisis is reframed as a problem and the problem is reframed as a policy question.

The world isn’t cooperating. The president now has to scale up in the opposite direction. Problems are now crises; crises are becoming catastrophes. No use pretending otherwise.

A smart and unified U.S. policy, with politics stopping at the water’s edge, is probably unattainable given our own domestic rancor and the cable TV shout-fest culture, and Clinton’s comments suggest that even the Democrats could become fractured. Everyone play the blame game!

So: This is a bad situation and could get even worse. If the U.S. policy is to await the efflorescence of harmony and power-sharing among rival factions in places like Iraq, we may want to rethink that. It’s hard to see how the United States can finesse this situation with limited air strikes here and there. Even reluctant warriors know that.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · August 5