Hillary Clinton backs down in foreign policy scuffle with President Obama


Hillary Clinton prepares to sign copies of her new memoir "Hard Choices" at a Costco in Arlington, Va., in June. In the book, Clinton detailed some differences with President Obama's foreign policy. This week, she took it a step further by pretty openly criticizing Obama's "Don't do stupid [stuff]" approach. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
This post has been updated with a quote from a Clinton spokesman saying she didn't intend to criticize Obama. The statement is at bottom.

Hillary Clinton wants to distance herself from President Obama's foreign policy. This much has become clear over the past 24 hours — and it makes sense politically.

Unfortunately for the former secretary of state, attempting to do so in as blunt a fashion as she did carries with it significant risks. By paraphrasing Obama's own attitude toward foreign policy — "Don't do stupid [stuff]" — and turning it against him, she has understandably touched a few nerves in Obama-world.

Case in point: David Axelrod. The top former Obama adviser tweeted this broadside Tuesday morning:

The tweet, of course, is a reference to Clinton having voted for the Iraq war. That issue just happens to be the one which really opened the door for a guy named Barack Obama to beat her in the 2008 primary. In other words, Axelrod's rejoinder is about as personal and pointed as Clinton's initial criticism of Obama's foreign policy. In neither case were Clinton or Obama actually named, but the targets are unmistakable in both cases. And in both cases, the messages were broadcast in strikingly public ways.

In addition, it's pretty clear that administration officials are only so happy to try and undercut Clinton's attempts to distance herself from Obama. Witness this New York Times story from late Monday, in which anonymous administration officials suggest that Clinton doth protest too much when it comes to certain foreign policy issues:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

And this:

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

If you think it's any coincidence that anonymous "officials" are speaking out in ways that make Clinton look hypocritical is any coincidence, we have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you. No, it's pretty clear that feelings have been hurt and  battle lines have been/are being drawn.

As in relationships, sometimes when you want a clean break, you need to be a little harsher than you'd like to be. Unfortunately for Clinton, that means the other person is much more liable to hold a grudge. And when that person is the incumbent president of the United States, things can get messy.

Update 3:24 p.m.: Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill has released the following statement, which says that Clinton and Obama have spoken about the matter and argues that Obama wasn't, in fact, a target of her comments -- despite her having used the same "don't do stupid [stuff]" construction:

"Earlier today, the Secretary called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership. Secretary Clinton has at every step of the way touted the significant achievements of his presidency, which she is honored to have been part of as his secretary of state. While they've had honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents, she has explained those differences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues. Like any two friends who have to deal with the public eye, she looks forward to hugging it out when she they see each other tomorrow night."

Update 4:43 p.m.: It's also worth noting that "Don't do stupid [stuff]" was brought up earlier in the interview by the interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton then returned to it in the portion of the interview in which she appeared to rebuke Obama's foreign policy.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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