Hillary Clinton’s problem is not only what she objected to in President Obama’s foreign policy and when she objected to it, but also what she now thinks is the right course of action.
Libya, which the administration once boasted was an example of their superior “light footprint” strategy (contra President George W. Bush), is in flames, verging on a continuation of its civil war. Iraq and Syria now host the Islamic State. Iran’s leaders have paid no price for continued violations of international edicts against their illicit nuclear program and feel emboldened enough to declare they will never dismantle the program. Russia has enveloped Crimea and is now poised to do the same with the remainder of Eastern Ukraine. Surely Clinton doesn’t think things are going well, does she?
Free advice is worth what you pay for it, but here goes. She should stake out a bold course, distinct from the president’s on national security. She has overlearned the lesson of 2008 (i.e. the hawk always loses in the Democratic primary). She really doesn’t have credible challengers, nor will her diehard fans hold a little hawkishness against her. They understand you do what you have to do to get elected. Frankly, this is the only rational course of action.
Continuing to attack the president and then retreat is a losing strategy. It merely cements the view that she is at bottom an unprincipled schemer. Having declared (more or less) herself to be more hawkish than the president, she now needs to demonstrate what that means in practice.
Since she surely believes the Islamic State is a threat to the United States, she should say so and then commit to its destruction. On Iran, there is no downside for her in urging passage of the Menendez-Kirk sanctions when the November deadline (already extended from July) for a final deal comes and goes. And she should actually devise a policy for confronting Iran. She has not been big on grand policies, but here is one: In concert with our Arab allies, Israel and Europe we will confront Iran wherever and whenever we see fit. That means intercepting arms shipments. That means assisting the Free Syrian Army to dislodge Tehran’s junior partner, Bashar al-Assad. And it means kicking Iran out of international organizations and putting the mullahs in a diplomatic deep freeze (a long overdue correction to treating Iran as if it were just an ordinary state, not a terrorist organization with oil).
Who is going to cry foul? The administration is in collapse, so criticism from the Obama crowd might benefit her. Her supporters aren’t going to go fleeing. And conservatives will have little to quibble with. None of this involves boots on the ground in combat (although advisers and intelligence personnel in Iraq will need to be increased). She can call it “Super smart diplomacy” (or whatever she focus group tests). The Clintons have always been slaves of polling (recall they polled a vacation location) so if nothing else she should be encouraged to go bold by polling showing the public has largely lost faith in our commander in chief.
Generals, they say, are always fighting the last war, and in this case Clinton seems to be fighting the last campaign. It’s a new election and a new world. If she wants to be president, she should start establishing herself as a credible commander in chief.