Hillary Clinton gave a long and detailed interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, outlining her own foreign policy ideas and vision. When that interview was published on Sunday, it created some big waves as Hillary openly criticized President Obama’s foreign policy and, surprisingly, sounded a lot like a Republican. Any criticism of the president from the extremely presumptive Democratic candidate for president in 2016 would be headline news. But this interview goes a step beyond just criticality. This is the first truly big step towards a run for president and the battlelines are clearly drawn, creating a smackdown not between Clinton and Obama, but Hillary 2016 vs. Hillary 2008.
In 2008 during the Democratic primary, Obama hammered Clinton on her lack of foreign policy experience and coherence. Hillary had been very good on the social issue and on domestic policy, which was where a majority of her experience was, but breaking out onto the larger international scale of ideas was difficult to do. Neither candidate was particularly strong on the concept of foreign policy and neither had easy to point to experience in the field. Because of that, the debate centered around a “vision” for where to take America in the future. After nearly a decade of apparently unwinnable and definitely unpopular war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the key to the race was showing that a candidate knew where they were headed. The next president could not be someone who would stand under a moronic “Mission Accomplished” banner and make only himself feel good about it. When it came right down to it, Obama sold himself better on that score than Hillary did.
Six years later, the criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy activity can be well-documented, but until recently Clinton has not entered the fray. Part of the reason why is her involvement in the administration during her tenure as Secretary of State. It would not have been possible for her to criticise without looking more than a little foolish. Now, however, the gloves are off and she has come out swinging. “Great nations,” she told Goldberg, “need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” This direct attack on Obama’s foreign policy slogan was a clear sign to many that Clinton is distancing herself from the president. More importantly, though, it points to a key element of what most are assuming is a run for the presidency: the definition of her own foreign policy vision.
Clinton learned a lot in eight years. While she may not have had experience then, her time as Secretary of State gave her the experience she needed to bill herself as the complete candidate. Her success as a political personality is tempered now by successes as a political driving force and her resume looks far more complete than it did way back when. She can now bill herself as the candidate with the most foreign policy experience in the whole field of candidates at this point and probably beyond. Hillary 2016 looks like a stronger candidate on paper vs. Hillary 2008.
While campaign strategy certainly comes into play with this interview, the substance of what she said should not be ignored, especially when taking into account her bolstered experience. Hillary tackled some key issues for American foreign policy in this interview, including ISIS, Russia and the situation in Gaza. While she did not discuss the nitty-gritty details of what she would actually do, she did signal the way of thinking that would inform her actions. On ISIS she discussed a policy of “containment, deterrence, and defeat” which she compared to America’s policy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That strategy was effective then and apparently she believes it would be effective in the Middle East where jihadists have made great strides in gaining territory.
She also tried to show that had her ideas been put in place during the Syrian civil war, the situation would now be much different. According to her, she supported building what she termed a “credible fighting force” out of the Syrian rebels who were fighting Assad. Staying on the sidelines of that conflict was what created a vacuum of leadership that has since been filled by ISIS, a failure she put squarely at the feet of Obama’s cautious policies. The president has defended himself by saying that “the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” The desire for the United States to avoid another protracted conflict in the Middle East is Obama’s reason for staying out of Syria and, to be sure, he had the support of many Americans who were tired of continuous war in that area. But Clinton is saying that more could have been done without boots-on-the-ground conflict and that she was the one who supported the idea of doing something, anything, to make the situation better.
Obama’s doctrine may be “Don’t do stupid stuff” when it comes to foreign policy, but Clinton does not want to continue with that. In fact, her ideas sound very familiar, though some may be hard pressed to figure out why. Comparing statements by Clinton in the Goldberg interview and statements recently made on “Meet the Press” provides a clue.
“One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle east right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, affect the United States.”
“Dick Durbin says we’re not going to do this, not going to do that. I want to hear what he says when they attack us in the United States.”
The first statement was Hillary Clinton. The second was Representative Steve King, a Republican from the state of New York. The similarity between the two is striking and shows a fascinating strain in Hillary’s thinking right now: she’s gone Republican.
Admittedly, she has not gone too far to the right. Her comments on ISIS are infinitely more restrained than King’s are, as are the majority of her foreign policy ideas. But there is undoubtedly a more right-leaning theme than there has been in Democratic thinking as of late. For instance, Clinton lauded America’s efforts to be a good influence on the world. When asked about the administration’s idea that the United States should not be telling other countries what to do because it is not that great, she very definitely distanced herself from that view. In her view, America is great and she wants people to believe in the country again. According to her, the country needs a leader that believes in it, not someone who is down on it like Obama, by inference, has been.
This kind of hearkening to American exceptionalism, usually a favorite vaunt of the GOP, is an interesting twist on the Hillary Clinton everyone thinks they know. The political climate has changed from 2008, leaning more towards a belief in the goodness of America or at least the desire to believe it. The progress that has been made in withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan (one of Obama’s core campaign promises) has perhaps allowed for this change more than anything else. And Hillary looks poised to take advantage of that.
So what has really been learned from Hillary’s interview with The Atlantic? In many ways, it was a revelation of the progress she has made in her political education from when she first ran for president. She had taken all the prerequisites back in 2008. Domestic policy, the economy, and social issues were all well covered back then, but now she has completed the upper level courses. Foreign policy experience has been added to her curriculum vitae and she is using that fact to make a clear distinction between herself and the current president. Out of the time between then and now, she has manufactured her own vision, not just in foreign matters, but for America as a whole: “peace, progress and prosperity” is her desire for all of the United States, both at home and abroad, and she is bent on showing that she is the candidate to do just that. That is the real difference of Hillary 2016 vs. Hillary 2008: the ideological vision needed to appeal to all the voters of America, not just the Democrats.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury