Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has not yet said whether she will pursue the presidency. But for a candidate-in-waiting, she is clearly carving out a foreign policy distinct from the man she used to serve.
In the spring, President Obama articulated a philosophy for avoiding dangerous entanglements overseas that was modest in its ambitions and focused on avoiding mistakes. Don’t do stupid things, he said.
Now Clinton is offering a blunt retort to that approach, telling an interviewer, “Great nations need organizing principles — and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
The surprisingly direct critique, coming in an interview with the Atlantic, represents Clinton’s most forceful effort yet to distance herself from an unpopular administration ahead of her expected 2016 campaign. It also foreshadows the unusual political challenges facing Clinton as she accentuates her foreign policy credentials while trying to avoid blame for the nation’s defensive posture in an increasingly unstable world.
The White House declined to comment on Clinton’s remarks, which came as Iraq has plunged into political turmoil and the United States has launched airstrikes to aid Kurdish forces under siege by the Islamic State militant group.
The administration is now grappling with multiple armed conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, making Clinton’s record as the nation’s top diplomat more fraught.
Clinton, who has already used her recent memoir, “Hard Choices ,” to apologize for her decision to support the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and to draw some careful distinctions between herself and the administration, provided a more direct assessment in the interview published Sunday.
She drew special attention to Obama’s determination to sidestep costly foreign interventions. The president and his aides have referred privately to that strategy in recent months as, “Don’t do stupid s---.” That approach has come under fire from some now that Islamist militants have gained ground overseas.
Clinton said the phrase was “a political message” rather than Obama’s “worldview.”
Even so, she argued that the United States has to strike a better balance between overreaching in foreign affairs and being so restrained that conflicts can spiral out of hand.
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” Clinton said.
As secretary of state, Clinton backed arming the rebels in Syria’s ongoing civil war. In the new interview, she said, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against [Bashar al-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.”
Clinton added that she couldn’t be sure whether her preferred course of action would have changed the direction of the war. “I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what [former U.S. ambassador to Syria] Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place,” she said.
While Clinton and Obama have taken steps since her departure from the administration to present themselves as friends, the two engaged over the weekend in a sort of indirect foreign policy debate — with each sitting for separate interviews with journalists known for their Middle East expertise.
Clinton made her comments to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Obama, speaking with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, dismissed the idea that arming the Syrian rebels would have made a difference, saying it has “always been a fantasy.”
“This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards,” he added.
In an e-mail Monday, an aide to Clinton wrote that the interview was “intended to promote her memoir, and Goldberg was a long-planned-for target on a list of interviews around the book — and not part of an overarching political strategy related to 2016.”
Several experts said there is little precedent for a secretary of state preparing a presidential campaign in part by criticizing the foreign policy being carried out by the administration she helped lead. Yet the benefits to Clinton are clear.
“It’s in her political interest to begin to distance herself from an unpopular president and to drive home the fact that she’s risk-ready while Obama’s risk-averse,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center.
Clinton’s comments cheered some Democrats who have become anxious about the threat Islamist militants pose to both stability in the Middle East and U.S. national security.
Josh Block, president of the Israel Project, said it is “important” to see a Democratic leader laying out a worldview “that recognizes the role of our values and very real threats and trends facing the U.S. and our allies today.”
“It struck me as the reemergence of common sense in Democratic foreign policy after a period of drift and indecision,” Block added.
Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski seized on Clinton’s remarks Monday, e-mailing reporters, “good luck to you, Hillary” as she tries to refashion her record.
“She’s going to try, because that’s what the ever-calculating, ever-political Clintons do best, but let’s be real, she was the Obama foreign policy for four years,” Kukowski wrote.
Shawn Brimley, who served as the National Security Council’s director for strategic planning during Obama’s first term, said he did not see “much of a chasm between where Secretary Clinton is and where the president’s been for some time.”
Brimley said it is always easier for those who have left the administration to reflect upon world affairs and articulate an overarching vision than those who are “running on a treadmill at 20 to 30 miles an hour.”
Still, Clinton’s remarks appear to be carefully calibrated, the latest example of a deliberate distancing from her former colleagues.
Syria, for example, was not the only issue in which Clinton had a more interventionist view than Obama. Along with then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, she advocated sending more troops to Afghanistan. Clinton also wrote in the book that when it came to the Arab Spring, she and other senior advisers — including Gates and Vice President Biden — were not “swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment” like other, younger White House aides when it came to ousting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.