Hillary Rodham Clinton might be dumping on President Obama’s Pacific Rim trade accord, but some of the Democratic presidential candidate’s longtime confidants on foreign policy can’t stop talking about how important it is.
Take Michèle Flournoy, a former high-ranking Pentagon official who supported Clinton’s first White House bid and is considered a potential defense secretary candidate if Clinton wins in 2016. Just hours after the former secretary of state announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Flournoy endorsed it at a Washington think tank.
The 12-nation free trade pact is “the most important thing” for the Obama administration’s strategic foreign policy rebalancing toward Asia, Flournoy said Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Without that, we don’t have a rebalance. That is foundational.”
Clinton’s defection on a pact that she helped champion in Asia during her time as the nation’s top diplomat represents her sharpest break on policy with Obama. It has also put her at odds with those she worked with most closely during her time in the administration.
Some of her former State Department aides — and some of her current campaign aides — were among the strongest proponents of the trade accord as a linchpin of the Obama administration’s Asia strategy. And many have continued to lobby in favor of the deal since leaving office.
Kurt Campbell, who served as Clinton’s top East Asia deputy at the State Department, said earlier this year that the United States would get a failing grade on Asia policy without the TPP. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who was Clinton’s chief operating officer at State, continues to be one of the Obama administration’s most vocal supporters of the trade pact.
Having sold the deal so forcefully at home and abroad, some of those who worked for Clinton fear the consequences for the United States’ global reputation if Congress rejects the deal.
“The president and senior leadership committed to this, and it will be definitely seen by countries in Asia and elsewhere as a sign of weakness” if the deal collapses, said James Keith, who served as U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, one of the TPP countries, from 2007 to 2010. “It would add to the perceptions of the U.S. in decline.”
Clinton said she was “worried” that the trade accord lacked protections against nations that manipulate their currency rates and provisions dealing with market exclusivity for pharmaceutical drug companies.
Her decision to oppose the pact has been viewed by her rivals on the campaign trail as a politically expedient move to insulate herself from attacks from the left. Most of the Democratic Party opposes the TPP deal, including her top competitors for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.
White House officials said Thursday that the president was not surprised by Clinton’s position on the TPP deal, considering she had not supported his push for “fast-track” trade authority in the spring.
But in private, administration officials have made clear that Clinton and her team in Foggy Bottom were instrumental in developing the Asia strategy and pushing the trade initiative.
Lew, representing State, attended a key meeting at the White House in 2009 when the determination was made to rejoin the TPP negotiations, which had begun under the George W. Bush administration. Campbell and Jake Sullivan — a former State Department aide who is now the Clinton campaign’s top foreign policy adviser — helped Clinton compose a Foreign Policy magazine cover story in October 2011 in which she wrote that the TPP could become “a benchmark for future agreements.” Sullivan is considered a potential national security adviser if Clinton becomes president.
During an appearance last spring at the Jamestown Foundation, Campbell said that “Asia has basically decided, which I agree with, that American seriousness will be judged on one issue over the course of the next few years, and that’s the issue associated with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If we did everything right in Asia . . . and did not get TPP, we can’t get a passing grade.”
Flournoy, who served as third-ranking civilian at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2012, said in her remarks at the think tank forum on Wednesday that “nothing that we can do in our military posture would compensate for not getting that [trade] agreement put in place as the reality of the U.S. commitment to the prosperity and growth of the region: That we’re there, that we’re staying there, that we’re invested.”
In an interview Thursday, Flournoy said she had not known of Clinton’s public opposition before she appeared at the forum, and she declined to comment on the former secretary’s criticism of the deal. Flournoy, who also served in the Pentagon during the Bill Clinton administration, said her support is based on the “strategic element” of the trade accord.
“To the extent that the deal is imperfect, which every multilateral trade deal is . . . my view is that we should try to make it a better deal by building upon it” and not killing it, said Flournoy, now the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security.
Asked Thursday whether the administration’s Asia strategy would fail without the trade deal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest noted that the Obama administration had spent more than five years negotiating the pact with the 11 other nations, including Japan, Australia, Canada and Vietnam.
“This is an agreement that was hard-won,” Earnest said. “And the likelihood that the United States could unilaterally back out of that agreement and then try to bring all those countries together to renegotiate it and convince them that negotiation could take place both in good faith and with the confidence that Congress would approve it, I think, is quite far-fetched.”