WASHINGTON -- For months now, political junkies and the national press corps have been salivating over the prospects of Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama once again applying proverbial chokeholds to each other.
Conflict seemed inevitable since she -- contemplating a presidential run -- needed distance from him -- wallowing in some of his lowest approval ratings on matters of foreign policy. After a few instances of apparent friction passed without much of a stir, the flames finally erupted over the weekend.
Interviews by the president and his former secretary of state put them at odds over (at least) two matters -- one specific, the other expansive. Clinton told The Atlantic Magazine that the failure of the U.S. to arm the moderate rebels in Syria had left a vacuum that Islamic State extremists had filled. Obama, meanwhile, told The New York Times that it was absurd revisionism to think that sending arms would have changed the course of the Syrian revolution. The president, in that interview, defended a foreign policy based on prudence, planning, and caution. Clinton, meanwhile, derided the Obama-themed tag line, “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” as insufficient and uninspiring as an organizing principle.
If you had flashbacks to the heydays of the 2008 campaign, when foreign policy rifts defined the Democratic presidential primary, you could be forgiven. By midday Tuesday, the emerging wisdom was that Clinton had committed the same mistake that cost her that contest.
And yet, below the surface, several Democrats insisted the rift may underwhelm. Clinton’s spokesman put a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying she had reached out to the president to assure him that her interview was not “an attempt to attack him, his policies, or his leadership” and to narrow the perceived schism.
“Secretary Clinton has at every step of the way touted the significant achievements of his presidency, which she is honored to have been part of as his secretary of state,” said Nick Merrill. “While they've had honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents, she has explained those differences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues.”
Tellingly, earlier in the day, Merill declined a request for comment, saying there was not much to add to Clinton’s previous remarks. Such reserve usually comes when one thinks a story is on the verge of petering out. Indeed, elsewhere on Tuesday, several other Democrats made the case that the gulf between Clinton and Obama -– at least on the specifics -- wasn’t vast.
“We are not talking about big differences in foreign policy,” Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chair and Vermont governor, told The Huffington Post. “I think the Hilary versus Obama stuff is inside the Beltway kerfuffle, irrelevant and typical Washington crap.”
The substantive component of Dean’s point was that on the issue of Syria, Obama and Clinton ended up largely in the same place. While Obama clearly moved slower than Clinton wanted, he did end up sending arms to the rebels -- even if he thought it was futile. In June, he asked for $500 million more.
Clinton also firmly backed the president's push to launch military strikes in September 2013 -- strikes that were called off when it became clear the president lacked congressional support, and a separate deal to rid the country of chemical weapons emerged.
And while Clinton may have expressed regret that the administration moved slowly to put its imprint on Syria’s civil war, she peppered her position with skepticism (“I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with”) and drew limits to U.S. involvement.
“Most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement,” Clinton said. “That’s why I use the phrase 'smart power.' I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.”
As for her criticism of “Don’t Do Stupid Shit,” not all old Obama hands were offended.
“I feel like that [phrase] has been misinterpreted. It’s not an organizing principle and it hasn’t been one for Obama,” said Tommy Vietor, a former Obama White House national security spokesman who has advised Clinton during the rollout for her book. “It is a shorthand rebuke to Bush administration.”
The problem, in the end, isn’t so much the substance or tone as the history -- namely, Hillary’s. Her support of the Iraq War spooked liberals in 2008 and she hasn’t earned back their trust since. In a phone conversation, Dean -- the first Democrat to run for president on an explicitly anti-war platform -- seemed to urge people to take a second look. He praised Obama’s foreign policy as laid out in his West Point address (“He is not interested in getting in a scrum with a lot of bad guys”) and offered confidence that Clinton would not deviate.
“She is very, very smart,” said Dean. “And she is more experienced with respect to foreign policy, really, than probably any American president since, gee, I don’t know ... Wow, you’d have to think how far back. Eisenhower I guess. I guess with the exception of George H.W. Bush.”
That may seem like wishful thinking to some. Certainly, there is ample evidence that Clinton’s hawkishness is not an act, meant to prop up the perception of her toughness, but an honest reflection of her worldview. Her insistence that Iran have no uranium enrichment capability, and her unbending, almost defiant, support for Israel in that same Jeffrey Goldberg interview suggest as much.
But Clinton’s defenders are certainly aware of the downside of that. Over the weekend, one loyalist told The Huffington Post that what made him nervous, heading into a presumptive 2016 presidential run, was disaffection on the left over matters of foreign policy. Clinton's remarks to The Atlantic likely caused their share of angina.
In the end, advisers said they expect Obama and Clinton to disagree on foreign policy matters. It would be odd if there was no divergence. And more likely than not, Clinton will come off as more aggressive than Obama. But the breaks, they said, shouldn’t be over-emphasized, considering the more copious common ground.
“Having a different point of view on policy than your secretary is not a rift. It is why you have smart advisers around,” said Vietor. “The notion that she has to be lockstep is ridiculous, as is the notion that he demands fealty. He is not a guy who is easily aggrieved by comments like this.”
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