Hillary Clinton Lays Out Her Own Middle East Approach -- And It's Not Obama's

Donald Trump wasn't the only one Clinton distanced herself from in her AIPAC speech.

WASHINGTON -- After her landslide loss in the New Hampshire primary last month, Hillary Clinton responded by tying herself tightly to President Barack Obama and slamming her opponent, Bernie Sanders, for past criticism of the president.

That embrace, though, has not extended beyond U.S. shores. On Monday, Clinton used her speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to continue to lay down a foreign policy vision starkly at odds with the Obama doctrine of restraint and retrenchment. Clinton sent a clear signal: Her presidency would replace reluctance to intervene and get bogged down in Middle East conflicts with a hawkish approach -- one her aides have previously asked reporters to describe as "muscular."

Clinton, in her AIPAC speech, repeated and, in some cases, put a finer point on arguments she advancced in the fall at a major Brookings Institute speech, and in December at the Saban Forum. But set against the backdrop of a recent profile of Obama's foreign policy doctrine by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, as well as the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to skip AIPAC's gathering while Obama traveled to Cuba, the daylight between the world views of Clinton and Obama was that much more apparent.

Obama, as described by Goldberg, has attempted to pull the U.S. back from unwinnable conflicts in the Middle East, and has criticized a shoot-first mentality in Washington's foreign policy network. He doesn't seem to have won over Clinton.

"Obama's goal of 'ending the mindset' that got us into Iraq inspired a lot of progressives," said Matt Duss, a foreign policy analyst at the progressive Foundation for Middle East Peace. "Apart from support for the Iran agreement, I didn't hear anything from Clinton that suggests that she sees that mindset as a problem."

Clinton, without naming the president, tweaked Obama for his strained relationship with Netanyahu. "One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House," she offered to raucous applause.

"She's been very clearly laying out her own thinking. And she's laid out some very, very clear principles that are orienting for her view of how we approach the Middle East," said a Clinton aide who was involved in the speech preparation and requested anonymity to give background about the talk.

The aide added that progressives concerned about the hawkish tone should remember that Clinton has been a staunch advocate of diplomacy, noting her support for the Iran deal, which Clinton helped launch through back channels; her backing of a political transition in Syria; and "supporting a two-state solution and needing to take steps that encourage that ultimate outcome."

"The other thing I'd point [progressive critics] to is her emphasis on the values that underpin both why the U.S.-Israel relationship is so important, but also a real part of our global leadership," the aide said. "That is also a really important point for those who try to paint her as a hawk -- they are ignoring how much work she's done on behalf of -- whether it's on women's rights or gay rights or development -- and really ensuring that those are core parts of our approach to foreign policy and a key element of our national security."

The outreach to Netanyahu, though, comes after he has been as aggressively opposed to Obama as any Israeli leader has been to a U.S. president in the history of the relationship between the two countries. Netanyahu actively rooted against Obama's re-election in 2012 and lobbied relentlessly against the president's Iran nuclear deal, going so far as to address Congress. Clinton on Monday suggested there would be no cost for such a move against a U.S. president, a signal she may come to regret if she becomes one herself.

Clinton's one half-phrase of criticism was couched in a grammatically awkward construction that served to obscure its target, and was followed by an applause line.

"Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements. Now, America has an important role to play in supporting peace efforts. And as president, I would continue the pursuit of direct negotiations. And let me be clear -- I would vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the U.N. Security Council," Clinton said, the only mention of Israel's settlement policy, which violates international law, followed quickly by a promise to block the U.N. from moving the peace process forward, as Secretary of State John Kerry and European leaders are attempting to do.

"Clinton has struggled hard with the progressive base because of her vote for the Iraq war, but I think a lot of voters would be willing to forgive that vote if they thought she really understood why it was a strategic mistake, and not just a political one. I don't think today's speech allayed those concerns," said Duss.

Sanders, who has mostly ignored foreign policy to focus on economic inequality, decided to skip AIPAC, leaving the stage to Clinton and, later Monday, to Donald Trump. Instead, in Utah, Sanders delivered a speech that would have left the AIPAC crowd as silent as they were when Clinton praised the Iran deal.

Clinton also put the blame for the non-existence of peace talks squarely with the Palestinians. “It may be difficult to imagine progress in this current climate when many Israelis doubt that a willing and capable partner for peace even exists," Clinton said, neglecting to mention that Netanyahu himself is not a willing partner and has explicitly and repeatedly said that he is not open to a Palestinian state.

Elsewhere in the speech, Clinton aimed bellicose language at Iran, promising more sanctions and an aggressive regime of oversight of the nuclear deal. She also damned the growing Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, sidestepping the fact that some recent legislation targeting the movement includes language that also protects Israeli businesses operating in illegal settlements. Unmentioned was any Palestinian suffering under the endless military occupation.


The best hope for progressives, though, is that Clinton didn't mean any of it. When candidate Barack Obama came to AIPAC in 2008, he used similarly tough rhetoric. With Sanders in her rearview mirror, Clinton had little to gain politically from confronting AIPAC, and much to lose.

But that's not the case, said the Clinton aide. "This is all consistent with what she's been saying for awhile, but some are hearing it differently now," said the aide. "This is all very, very consistent with her long-held views."

Indeed, the remarks do fit her general foreign policy philosophy, suggesting her vote for war in Iraq was not a mistake made of political expediency, but flowed from a consistently interventionist mindset. Obama has described his foreign policy as being rooted in the idea that the U.S. should avoid doing "stupid shit." Clinton has disagreed, saying privately that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” She quickly apologized for that one, as she has apologized for her Iraq war vote. But she also condemned Obama privately for failing to attack Syria after it crossed his "red line."

“If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice,” Clinton said immediately after, according to Goldberg, who also reported Obama's private retort to the argument: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”

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