Clinton navigates foreign policy balancing act as Obama leadership questioned

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discusses the capture of the Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala. Diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan adds her context and commentary to Clinton's interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour during a town hall event. (Divya Jeswani Verma/The Washington Post)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent June 18

It is a near-perfect storm that has come together as Hillary Rodham Clinton tours the country promoting her new book and preparing for a possible presidential campaign in 2016.

At a time when she is drawing attention to her record as secretary of state, the Middle East has become dangerously chaotic and President Obama’s approval ratings are sliding. That has left Clinton in a difficult position of trying to claim success when she was in office while shielding herself, carefully, from real or perceived weaknesses in the administration’s handling of crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other trouble spots.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Clinton has two messages. One is touting her accomplishments. She says her biggest success as secretary of state was to restore American leadership and prestige in the world. At the same time, as Iraq descends into sectarian conflict, the other message is that she would have dealt with Syria differently than Obama has and that, perhaps, things would be better there and in Iraq today had he listened to her and others.

Her claims of restored American prestige are in comparison to this country’s standing as a result of what happened during George W. Bush’s presidency, when the unilateralism practiced in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned off many of the nation’s allies and the public soured on the U.S. mission in Iraq. But her assertion about the United States’ restored standing comes at a time when other countries wonder now about the nation’s, and Obama’s, resolve, and when public appetite for international engagement is at best tepid.

As with some other questions she has been asked during her tour (her financial situation and her evolving position on same-sex marriage, for example), Clinton did not initially have a ready or crisp response to what she would point to as her major accomplishments at the State Department.

But under questioning last week from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), a friend for two decades, she cited several specifics: laying the foundation for nuclear negotiations with Iran, Senate passage of the New Start treaty with Russia, “making clear we were going to stand up for peace in the Middle East,” stopping a war in Gaza and strengthening the nation’s relationship with China.

In her new book, “ Hard Choices ,” and during a series of interviews, Clinton has acknowledged that the U.S. relationship with Russia deteriorated badly once Vladimir Putin regained the presidency, and that it could be that way for some time. She has expressed doubts that the foundation laid with Iran will lead to a successful conclusion. As for the Middle East, what was a terrible situation in Syria has expanded into Iraq, where the conflict is threatening security far beyond the region.

Clinton has been upfront about her disagreements with Obama over Syria. She devoted a chapter in her book to the conflict there and makes clear that she and others on the national security team, among them then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus, urged Obama to take more assertive steps to arm the moderate opposition fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Her position was well known in policymaking circles. As she has gone around the country this past week, she has emphasized those differences with Obama to a much wider audience. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, Clinton again outlined her belief that arming the rebels could have helped “tip the balance” in Syria.

“I recommended that we do more in the very beginning to support the moderate opposition,” she said, “because I believed, at the time, that they would be overwhelmed by Assad’s military force and that they would open up the door to extremists coming in.”

Amanpour asked whether she should have pushed harder. “We pushed very hard,” Clinton responded. “But as I say in my book, I believe that Harry Truman was right, the buck stops with the president. And the president had very legitimate concerns.”

Clinton did not enumerate Obama’s concerns, which drew criticism then and have been called into question even more today as the Sunni extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria battle Shiite forces for control of Iraq.

“I’m not sure that it would have turned the tide,” she said about aiding and arming the opposition. “But I believed then that it was important for us to make clear that we were going to try to support them against Assad and also fill the vacuum that would be created in that territory.”

Still, this leaves Clinton in an awkward position, unable to be too explicitly critical of the president’s past decisions while remaining cautious about outlining what steps she would recommend — not just because of legitimately “hard choices” Obama confronts but also because she cannot afford to be in a conflict with the administration at such a difficult moment.

She would not say what course the Obama administration should pursue in Iraq, other than to agree with many others that the United States should not put combat forces on the ground there. She hesitated to endorse the use of airstrikes, and cautioned about working with Iran to try to stabilize the situation. She was highly critical of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom she blamed for the inability to negotiate a pact to keep a modest U.S. force there and whom she said is the wrong person to lead Iraq.

Clinton also has used her book and tour to take on the administration’s critics over the killing of four Americans in Benghazi in September 2012. She devoted a chapter in the book to the attacks and cast those on the right who have continued to question the events there as inspired mostly by partisanship.

On the day the news broke about the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, an alleged ringleader of the raid, Clinton did an interview, scheduled earlier, with Fox News Channel, which has been among the most persistent critics about what happened in Benghazi.

She responded effectively to a series of pointed questions from anchor Bret Baier about her role and the administration’s efforts to understand what took place during what she called “the fog of war.” Those questions, however, will continue. As even she said on CNN, “There’s a lot we don’t know.” What she hasn’t said is whether she will testify before a newly established House committee, if called.

Clinton is navigating through this moment of international instability at a time when the president’s leadership is again being called into question. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday put Obama’s overall approval rating and his foreign policy rating at 41 percent.

“It all comes back to one word: leadership,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the survey with his colleague Fred Yang and Republican Bill McInturff, was quoted by the Journal as saying. “He may be winning the issues debate, but he’s losing the political debate because they don’t see him as a leader.”

If she runs for president, Clinton will face even more questions about the administration’s foreign policy record. Given the current situation, her sense of self-preservation and her innate caution are understandable and no doubt necessary. Eventually, a fuller accounting of the past and a clearer vision of the future will be required.

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