Hillary's break from Obama: Here's what it really means (hint: She's still a hawk)

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama still have different approaches to foreign policy. Sound the alarms!

Published August 11, 2014 4:07AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

A fissure broke out into the public among the Democratic party's top two figures this weekend, as President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton explained their differing foreign policy views to two war-loving centrist journalists this weekend. Let the speculation about the political motives behind each politician's decision to, uh, explain their well-known opinions about the proper uses of American force begin!

Obama told the New York Times' Thomas Friedman that "the notion that arming the [Syrian] rebels would have made a difference has 'always been a fantasy.'" He continued: "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."

Clinton, meanwhile, voiced the common interventionist counter-argument to Obama's hands-off Syria policy in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg: that if "the rebels" had been armed at the outset of the Syrian uprising, the anti-Assad forces' descent into jihadism and the growth of ISIS could have been avoided. "The failure," Clinton said, "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." After which Goldberg successfully baits her into a clean break from the Obama administration's foreign policy shorthand:

At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Clinton has been tentative to disassociate herself from the current administration. So why now? As often happens in discussions about the Clintons, this decision to be modestly more aggressive in striking a contrast with Obama is seen, by some, as purely political. As Politico's Maggie Haberman writes in a behind-the scenes story about how Hillary Clinton gave an interview to Goldberg:

Political watchers will be tempted to characterize Clinton’s comments as calibrating away from an unpopular president as she looks toward a second presidential campaign. But Clinton has always been more of a hawk than Obama, and she has reached a point where she seems comfortable explaining their differences. Still, while her comments may not have been a specific effort to escape the creeping shadow of global chaos stretching over the White House, they will be viewed that way.

"I guess she is ready to begin to rip the Clinton franchise away from the Obama franchise,” said Steve Clemons, an Atlantic foreign policy blogger. “This is a staggeringly important interview and, in many ways, is going to reawaken the substantial resistance to her as a reckless interventionist by some quarters. … Her comments on Syria are very provocative.”

One Democratic operative who asked not to be identified said the clear takeaway from the interview was simply that Clinton advisers are “good poll readers,” a reference to Obama’s sinking public approval ratings. A Clinton adviser replied, “That’s ridiculous.”

Obama's foreign policy polling, much like his overall approval rating, is in the tank. One might even say that the two track each other, although it's harder to say which causes which. The bad assumption to make here, though, would be that the country is rejecting Obama's more cautious approach to foreign policy and longs for a return to a more interventionist posture. Consider Politico's own recent poll on foreign policy issues. Only 17% of respondents thought the U.S. "should do more to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, compared to 31% who considered current policy fine and 34% who thought the U.S. should do less." (Granted this was taken shortly before an airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine.) On Afghanistan, "More than three-quarters of likely voters [said] they support plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016." And on and on and on:

Forty-four percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war, versus 19 percent who favor more involvement and 23 percent who say the current level of involvement is appropriate.

A 51 percent majority said the situation in Iraq affects U.S. national security “a little” or “not at all.” Forty-two percent said it affects U.S. national security “a lot.”

Likely voters prefer less involvement in Syria’s civil war over more involvement, 42 percent to 15 percent. Twenty-six percent of likely voters support the current, limited level of involvement.

According to these numbers, President Obama's foreign policy ratings should be quite high. But they're not. What's the deal here? The most obvious answer is that since people don't approve of the guy overall, they're going to give him negative ratings on everything. And then there's the "lack of a magic wand" theory: that people may not want a more interventionist foreign policy, but they're also upset that bad things are happening, and so they're disappointed at Obama for not using his magic wand to fix them.

And on Obama's part, the most consistent mistake may be inviting a mismatch between his rhetoric and the actual steps he's willing to take. He uses lofty rhetoric about his foreign policy goals and is quick to make demands like "Assad must be removed" or "Putin must stop" or "Maliki must reconcile warning warring factions," but he's unwilling to take the aggressive risks to force such outcomes into reality. Which is fine; he doesn't have to take those risks! But if you're going to pursue a less involved, realist foreign policy, and have doubt about the United States military's ability to solve all the world's problems, then it's only sensible to deploy fewer demands and more realist rhetoric to match that.

There may be some political upside about distancing oneself from the second-term Obama administration's foreign policy results in a general sense, but getting specific by saying things like "we should have intervened more in Syria!" is hardly a winning political countermove. So why did Hillary Clinton say these things? Because that's who she is! She's a liberal interventionist hawk and it's what she believes, and it does open her to criticism in a Democratic presidential primary. It's going to be bizarre to watch the many, many Beltway interventionists giddily explain that Clinton's comments indicate there's a wellspring of support out there for invading every country. Because there really isn't.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Foreign Policy Hawks Hillary Clinton Iraq Jeffrey Goldberg Middle East Syria Thomas Friedman