Cherry-picking Clinton’s words


This combination of file photos shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. (-/AFP/Getty Images)
August 18

Hillary Clinton says the country should “learn lessons” from today’s problem areas and “figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.”

That’s my take-away from reading the transcript of her long interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, published Aug. 10. In total, it was Clinton’s description of the world as she sees it and hardly an attempt to highlight her differences with President Obama, as Goldberg and others have written by cherry-picking her answers to some leading questions.

For example, Clinton does not say it was the U.S. “failure” to aid Syrian rebels that created the vacuum that led to the rise of Islamic State militants.

Clinton said she had proposed that “if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground.”

She also pointed out that establishing that unified opposition “would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that.”

Clinton then added this important factor: “We were never able to bridge that [gap among the various groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad inside and outside Syria], despite a lot of efforts that [former U.S. ambassador to Syria] Robert [Ford] and others made.”

Her conclusion: “I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.”

That is exactly the argument Obama has been making in justifying his limited support given through the CIA to selected, vetted Syrian opposition fighters.

Take the other picked-up phrase, Obama’s statement, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

It came up after Clinton spoke of “what we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy.” She described that as “one of the big lessons out of Iraq.”

Another lesson from Egypt should be, she said, “if you have no political — small p — experience, it is really hard to go from dictatorship to anything resembling what you and I would call democracy.”

When Goldberg first raised “don’t do stupid stuff,” Clinton described Obama’s phrase as a lesson for “what we did in Iraq . . . to have no plan about what to do after we did it [invaded the country].” She went on to describe the phrase as “not an organizing principle” that great nations need but “a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.”

It was Goldberg who then suggested that “don’t do stupid stuff” was Obama’s “foreign policy in a nutshell.”

Clinton responded, “I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy.”

She talked about Obama having expended “a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in. So I think that that’s a political message, it’s not his worldview.”

Goldberg asked whether she was “taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration” when it came to Iran having little or no right to enrich uranium.

Clinton replied, “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they [the Iranians] did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded.”

That has been the position of the Obama administration. In a 2013 backgrounder for reporters, a senior administration official said Article IV of the NonproliferationTreaty “is silent on the issue [of enrichment]. It neither confers a right nor denies a right. So we don’t believe it is inherently there.”

Clinton then explained her view of the negotiations.

“I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.”

Pushed by Goldberg, Clinton said, “No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment.”

On the controversial question of permissible centrifuges for Iran, Clinton laughed at the Iranian leadership saying Iran has no intention of developing a bomb but wants 190,000 centrifuges. She called it a maximum position but pointed out that there are talks going on inside Iran about what a final position should be.

She was asked if she would she accept “a few thousand centrifuges.”

“If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges,” she said, but she refused to define what “a little” is.

That also appears to be the Obama administration’s current negotiating position.

Read the transcript and make up your own mind about Clinton’s views.

I fear the interview’s treatment so far illustrates a concern about journalism that former Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield noted more than a dozen years ago.

In her book “Washington,” she wrote that journalists “in so many cases [have] ceased thinking of the people they write about as people at all, thinking of them instead as opportune props and raw material for use in their stories and in opinion pieces.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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