Hillary's overlooked '16 worry: Will she write off the anti-interventionist left again?

For all the talk about her positioning around inequality, her foreign policy may alienate voters she needs in '16

Published August 11, 2014 3:56PM (EDT)

 Hillary Clinton (AP/Cliff Owen)
Hillary Clinton (AP/Cliff Owen)

Political mischief-makers are having a lot of fun with Jeffrey Goldberg’s Hillary Clinton interview, published Saturday night for maximum Monday morning OMG predictability. I admit: That makes me instinctively inclined to minimize the fissures between Clinton and President Obama that Goldberg widened into chasms to conform with his own political worldview.

Except I can’t entirely. Because Clinton and her team are smart enough to know that’s exactly what Goldberg would do. Which means that’s what they wanted him to do.

It’s important to note that there’s almost nothing new in the Goldberg interview. We already knew that Clinton is somewhat more hawkish than Obama. Specifically, we knew that as secretary of state she backed arming “moderate Syrian rebels,” took a maximalist approach to Iran sanctions, and was sometimes uncomfortable leaning on Benjamin Netanyahu the way Obama wanted, because she’s already told us. Here’s the best take on the way Goldberg and, more important, lots of pundits have exaggerated those differences.

Clinton also can’t be blamed for the timing of its publication – the weekend Obama ordered U.S. airstrikes in Iraq to set back ISIS, which enraged the right and the left for different reasons and satisfied practically no one. President John McCain, making a rare appearance on the Sunday shows, was certainly not impressed. But Clinton gave the interview before the crisis escalated.

What’s most disturbing about the conversation is not its timing in relation to Iraq, but to the Israel-Gaza debacle. The person most furious about Clinton’s remarks should not be Obama, but Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been barbecued by Israeli officials and hawkish American critics for daring to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to be a tiny bit more careful not to kill children while obliterating Hamas.

Clinton apparently felt it important to avoid every opportunity Goldberg gave her to criticize Netanyahu, occasionally sounding more hawkish than Goldberg himself, at a time when her successor was under very unfriendly political fire. Even assuming that everything she said about Palestinian leaders blowing chances at peace is true, I see no reason for such unyielding support for Netanyahu -- not to mention so little compassion for Palestinian victims -- except to court favor with hard-line supporters of Israel. That’s disturbing.

On the issue of arming “moderate” Syrian rebels, Goldberg’s headline and introduction exaggerate the extent to which Clinton was criticizing Obama. She explains to him, as she does in her book, that she thought it was possible to identify and support a secular opposition, but admits “we’ll never know” if she was right, and adds: “And I don’t think we can claim to know.”

Yes, she used the word “failure,” which became Goldberg’s headline. But her overall take on the differences between them is considerably more generous, and I’m inclined to read “failure” as “inability” – or as a generic failure of U.S. leaders, herself included, and their global allies, to figure out how to advance a moderate Syrian alternative.

But Clinton’s take on the potential power of the “moderate” elements in the Free Syrian Army stands in clear opposition to Obama’s, published for maximum contrast in an interview with Thomas Friedman the same weekend. Obama told Friedman that the idea of finding and backing a capable and moderate Syrian opposition 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.”

That difference between Obama and Clinton led Steve Clemons to warn that the interview will “reawaken the substantial resistance to her as a reckless interventionist by some quarters.” I would not call Clinton “reckless,” but Clemons has a point.

As someone who supported Clinton in 2008 and who anticipates supporting her again in 2016, assuming she runs, I found the interview sobering. So far, my approach to 2016 is to say that Clinton may not be perfect, but she's the not-perfect candidate we know, very well. I would rather not see progressives set up someone who seems perfect (Sen. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps?) who will turn out to be not perfect -- whether on Israel, Iraq or some crisis that hasn’t emerged yet -- as Sen. Obama did. Especially since I don’t see anyone on the horizon with Obama’s politics, charisma or capacity to unite the party.

I’d rather progressives start out realistic, elect Clinton, let her appoint two Supreme Court justices, do some good things on economic policy, and continue with at least 98 percent of Obama’s foreign policy -- while progressives work to change the House and Senate.

I still mostly feel that way. I also hope anti-interventionist progressives won’t be fooled by Sen. Rand “Stand with Israel” Paul. That said, I am not sure what we need is an American president who’s even closer to Benjamin Netanyahu and who can’t be moved to utter a word of genuine compassion for innocent Palestinian victims. Clinton may think she can write off the anti-interventionist left – again -- and win the White House this time. But she may find out she’s wrong this time too.

By Joan Walsh