Hillary Clinton Steps Away From Obama on Foreign Policy

She rolls out tough rhetoric on Russia as the president treads lightly with Putin.

US President Barack Obama (C) departs after making a statement on Libya with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) at the White House in Washington, DC, February 23, 2011. Obama, in his first televised comments on the Libya crisis, said he would send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva for a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council at the weekend and for talks with allied foreign ministers. 
AFP/Getty Images
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
March 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

In re­cent weeks, as the stan­doff over Ukraine es­cal­ated, Hil­lary Clin­ton did something that she nev­er did as sec­ret­ary of State: She put con­sid­er­able dis­tance between her­self and the pres­id­ent she served loy­ally for four years. While Barack Obama cau­tiously warned Vladi­mir Putin to back off his claims on Ukraine, Clin­ton rolled out a rhet­or­ic­al can­non, com­par­ing the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent’s moves to the seizure of ter­rit­ory by Ad­olf Hitler that set off World War II. Her com­ments were so harsh and con­tro­ver­sial that she was forced to walk them back a bit, say­ing, “I’m not mak­ing a com­par­is­on, cer­tainly, but I am re­com­mend­ing that we per­haps can learn from this tac­tic that has been used be­fore.”

Clin­ton’s re­marks ap­peared to be an in­dic­a­tion of two things. One, she’s con­cerned enough about shor­ing up her repu­ta­tion for tough­ness that she may in­deed be think­ing about run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2016. Clin­ton offered up, in oth­er words, a rare and en­ti­cing hint about the ques­tion that every­one in the polit­ics game is ask­ing these days. Un­doubtedly she knows that the ef­fort she led as sec­ret­ary of State in 2009, an at­temp­ted “re­set” of re­la­tions with Rus­sia that in­cluded a new arms treaty, now looks na­ive in the face of Putin’s re­pu­di­ation of Obama over Ukraine and his lack of co­oper­a­tion on oth­er is­sues, such as res­ol­u­tion of the Syr­i­an civil war. Two, Clin­ton could be wor­ried that by the time the next pres­id­en­tial sea­son rolls around, what was once seen as one of Obama’s stronger points — for­eign policy — could eas­ily be­come a li­ab­il­ity to whomever is seek­ing the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion.

That was not the case in 2012, when even some Re­pub­lic­an for­eign policy pro­fes­sion­als, many of whom had worked for George W. Bush, agreed that Obama’s for­eign policy had been im­press­ive in ways that went well bey­ond his sig­na­ture achieve­ment: the 2011 take­down of Osama bin Laden. The pres­id­ent also or­ches­trated a new set of al­lied sanc­tions against Ir­an and the first fun­da­ment­al re­ori­ent­a­tion of U.S. stra­tegic and mil­it­ary fo­cus — from the Middle East to East Asia — in more than a dec­ade. The worst blot on his first-term re­cord, the em­bar­rass­ing Benghazi scan­dal in­volving the killing of a U.S. am­bas­sad­or and three oth­er Amer­ic­ans, didn’t hap­pen un­til the fi­nal months of the cam­paign, lim­it­ing the dam­age. It was no sur­prise that Mitt Rom­ney’s re­peated ef­forts to paint Obama as weak on for­eign policy came to naught.

But little has gone right so far in the second term, es­pe­cially in re­cent months, with the pos­sible ex­cep­tion of the on­go­ing nuc­le­ar talks with Ir­an. Putin’s con­tin­ued re­cal­cit­rance, and Obama’s hes­it­ancy over how to re­act to the biggest for­eign policy test of his pres­id­ency, is only the cap­stone to a series of ap­par­ent fail­ures and abort­ive ef­forts to avert war in Syr­ia, re­solve the situ­ation in Afgh­anistan, and tamp down the re­sur­gence of al-Qaida. If, as is likely, Rus­si­an forces are still oc­cupy­ing Crimea come 2016 — or worse, ad­van­cing west­ward — if chaos and blood­shed still reign in Syr­ia, and if Afgh­anistan be­gins to look as chaot­ic as Ir­aq has in the af­ter­math of the planned U.S. troop with­draw­al at the end of this year, the nar­rat­ive will be very dif­fer­ent in the next pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks on Obama in re­cent months are an early in­dic­a­tion of what’s to come. Sen. John Mc­Cain, Obama’s 2008 op­pon­ent, has been al­most be­side him­self with fury in con­demning the pres­id­ent as weak on Ukraine, Syr­ia, China, and Ir­an. With ne­go­ti­ations fail­ing over Syr­ia, Egypt be­com­ing a mil­it­ary-run state, and Putin in­dic­at­ing he in­tends to stay where he is in Crimea, the killing of bin Laden will be but a dis­tant memory in 2016. Even some prom­in­ent Demo­crats, such as Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, have turned in­to per­sist­ent crit­ics of Obama’s policies abroad. “Our policies to­ward Rus­sia re­quire ur­gent reex­am­in­a­tion,” Men­en­dez wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post this week.

To be fair, Clin­ton has of­ten been the Demo­crat stak­ing out rhet­or­ic­ally tough po­s­i­tions on for­eign policy, even ap­pear­ing to act as Obama’s bad cop dur­ing her term as sec­ret­ary of State. Back then, the pres­id­ent de­pended on her to ham­mer Ir­an (which was be­com­ing a “mil­it­ary dic­tat­or­ship,” she de­clared), cri­ti­cize the Chinese over In­ter­net cen­sor­ship, and har­angue Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu over his de­fi­ance of U.S. de­mands for a set­tle­ment freeze.

In ad­di­tion, as Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted last week, the likely con­tenders in the Re­pub­lic­an field are largely lack­ing in for­eign policy ex­pert­ise, while Clin­ton and an­oth­er pos­sible Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for 2016, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, have plenty of it. “I lose no sleep over this,” says Demo­crat­ic strategist and former Clin­ton poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg. “Hil­lary is strong and will have a strong team. There will be a sense of change in dir­ec­tion [in 2016]. And Re­pub­lic­ans will waste their time on Benghazi and ex­treme over-the-top par­tis­an re­ac­tions to events. I do not think there will be any ap­pet­ite for their re­turn to power to man­age the af­fairs of state.”

But an­oth­er Demo­crat­ic poll­ster, Jay Camp­bell of Hart Re­search, says that to achieve that “change in dir­ec­tion,” Clin­ton may need to, in ef­fect, sep­ar­ate her­self from her own leg­acy. She could suc­ceed at that simply by em­phas­iz­ing how much time has lapsed since she left the State De­part­ment, a pro­cess she may already be start­ing. “It’s ab­so­lutely true that things are tough for the pres­id­ent all around right now, where­as be­fore, his for­eign policy and re­la­tions with the world were one of the high points for a long time,” Camp­bell says. “She can cred­ibly cre­ate the sep­ar­a­tion for her­self. It’s go­ing to be a lot tough­er for Vice Pres­id­ent Biden.”

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