The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton disowns Obama-Clinton foreign policy

Hillary Clinton has decided to sprint as far from the president’s foreign policy debacle as possible. She told Jeffrey Goldberg, the friendliest foreign policy journalist she could find, that not acting in Syria was a big mistake that has led to the spread of violent jihadists throughout the region. (“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”)

She also implicitly criticized President Obama on Israel, sounding much more sympathetic toward Israel about the difficulty of fighting terrorists embedded in the civilian population. On a potential withdrawal from the West  Bank she said, “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”

Just to turn the knife, she threw in: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

The remarks confirm how badly Obama’s foreign policy is playing, even in Democratic circles, and the recognition in Hillaryland that she will be stuck defending it. However, her excuses raise numerous problems.

Let’s start with two-overarching issues. First, in arguing against inaction in Syria she is aligning herself with conservatives against the isolationist left and right. That leaves open a wide path for a left-wing challenger in the primaries. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley could make the very same argument (equally misguided) that Obama did in 2008 when he argued against Clinton’s vote for authorization for use of force in Iraq. In Clinton’s most honest moments, she is much more in tune with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) than Warren or O’Malley. Her base will either have to assume she is “faking it” for electoral purposes or do a 180-degree shift on their own views about U.S. interventionism.

This gets to the second problem. Her latest interview is the worst sort of political opportunism for which she is infamous. For a year and a half after leaving the administration, she has not spoken out against the president on Syria or much of anything else. She did not have the nerve to resign out of principle on Syria, as did former ambassador Robert Ford. Only now, when the entire region has gone to seed she decides the Obama critics were right on some key aspects of foreign policy. How long will it take for her to drift back into the McGovernite camp once in office? For Hillary Clinton, it has always been whatever the traffic will bear.

More specifically, Clinton contributed to the misreading of Bashar al-Assad. She tried engagement of the brutal dictator for a year or so and continued to call him a “reformer” as he was beginning to slaughter his own people. She publicly defended going to Russia time and again for support, which was a preposterous endeavor given that we were doing nothing on the ground to assist anti-Assad forces.

Moreover, the Islamic State problem enveloping the Middle East, which she finally recognizes, stems not only from inactivity in Syria, of course, but also from the failure to secure a stay-behind force in Iraq. She and the president boasted at the time that all troops were out of Iraq. She since has tried to rewrite history by claiming the Bush administration forced them to get out of Iraq and then claiming she couldn’t get the Iraqi government’s permission to keep troops there. In fact, the U.S. military wanted 10,000 troops to remain; the Obama-Hillary brain trust whittled that down to 3,000 and insisted the stay-behind deal be agreed to by parliament, which was an impossibility. To be clear: Both Obama and Hillary Clinton wanted out of Iraq completely; this turned out to be among their gravest errors, which contributed to the rise of the Islamic State and necessitated our re-entry into Iraq.

Hillary Clinton’s problems don’t stop there. She spent most of her term focused on the “peace process.” She personally berated the prime minister and his top officials for building in Jerusalem and within settlement blocks that would, in any agreement, be retained by Israel. And, to top it off, she has supported the 1967 borders, which puts Israel at a distinct disadvantage in any negotiations and does not account for her new concern over Israel’s security.

Given that the Middle East is now overrun by terrorism, the Russian reset obviously didn’t work, Iraq is crumbling, there are as many as 200,000 dead in Syria and the “peace process” is kaput, what did she accomplish as secretary of state? It’s a question she has never answered because the honest reply is: Nothing.

When asked about her visions or accomplishments she’s given mushy answers like: “I’m very proud of the stabilization and the really solid leadership that the administration provided that I think now leads us to be able to deal with problems like Ukraine because we’re not so worried about a massive collapse in Europe and China — trying to figure out to do with all their bond holdings and all the problems we were obsessed with.”

Her recent contempt for proceeding without an “organizing principle” is problematic for a former secretary who didn’t have one. (Is it just talking up the good things about the United States, as she recently suggested?) What was and what is her organizing principle? She went four years in office without spelling one out. She didn’t set one out in her book, which was devoid of original analysis and seemed intentionally innocuous. And even in the Goldberg interview she puts “need organizing principle” on her must-have list, but doesn’t share what hers is. On Sunday, Chuck Todd remarked, “I think that I’ve been trying to figure out [Obama’s] doctrine now for six years. He doesn’t have one.” And neither did the woman he put in charge of his foreign policy for four years.

Hillary Clinton knows a third Obama term is not a winning presidential message. She and her advisers are bright enough to figure out that Iran, Syria, Iran and Russia policies begun under her tenure have had disastrous results. She is left repudiating a foreign policy in which she fully participated and did not seriously criticize publicly until beginning her presidential pre-campaign. That bespeaks not only a lack of political courage and honesty but also deficient foreign policy vision and foresight.

Where was her warning signal on al-Qaeda’s creep into Libya and the rest of North Africa? Where was her recognition that Iran engagement was a waste of time and that the interim deal was counterproductive (or does she still think it’s a swell idea and we have sufficient leverage to force Iran to give up its nukes)? Where was her warning not to take a victory lap after Osama bin Laden’s assassination?

Hillary Clinton has never been known as a big-picture gal — other than picturing herself in positions of power. What we now know is that she’s not even good at faking foreign policy vision. That’s a problem for a candidate whose main claim to the presidency is her foreign policy experience.