August 12

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Associated Press)

Boom! Hillary Clinton last weekend lowered it on her former rival and boss with her criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy: “Great nations need organizing principles,” said the former secretary of state, “and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Bam!

The buzz regarding Clinton’s comments has been all about the political implications of distancing herself from the president. That does interest me; the tightrope between political loyalty and independence is always dramatic, but let’s deconstruct Clinton’s withering critique on its merits. She might have had in mind a long interview also published this weekend that Thomas Friedman conducted with President Obama centering on foreign affairs. It is an essential read for anyone still interested in Obama’s worldview, for it presents what might be called a “post-empire” view of the United States’ role in the world, one that few politicians, certainly not Clinton, seem to share. Here is the heart of the Obama doctrine, and while it may be common sense to most Americans, it is radical in foreign policy circles: “We cannot do for (other countries) what they are unwilling to do for themselves.” And the president elaborated on his doctrine: “Our military is so capable … we can keep a lid on a problem for a while. But for a society to function longer-term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together … how they are going to compromise.”

What Clinton misses in her criticism is that Obama’s foreign policy does have an organizing principle, and it is one that other presidents have learned the hard way, as their presidencies matured (George W. Bush being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule). Presidents learn the difference between U.S. power and influence. At the end of his term, John Kennedy, some historians have argued, was beginning to see the limitations of American power to influence the outcome in a Southeast Asian region struggling to gain autonomy from Western colonial rule. The tragedy of Lyndon Johnson was that he escalated a war he sensed couldn’t be won because he feared the political consequences of losing it. Despite tough talk, Ronald Reagan intervened only in places, like Grenada, where victory was assured, and pulled out of Lebanon, where it was not. The first President Bush operated under the Powell doctrine of clear objectives, overwhelming international force and a clear exit strategy. President Clinton had the disaster in Somalia, but success with limited action in the Balkans.

There is a lot of wisdom in what Obama is telling us about the world, but it is tough to swallow for many who still cling to the notion that our true status as the world’s “indispensable nation” means that we can assert our will. Obama is telling us that the notion that we can impose our solutions on countries and people who are not ready to embrace them is not only naive, but extremely dangerous.