The Difference Between Barack and Hillary

Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg, two well-respected and widely read foreign policy journalists, struck a goldmine over the weekend when the two veterans landed exclusive, one-on-one interviews with America's two most famous politicians. Friedman of The New York Times sat down with President Barack Obama last week at the White House for a discussion on virtually every major international story that the United States is confronting at the moment. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine did the same with Hillary Clinton--a former Obama political nemesis before turning into a trusted and well-liked Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

After reading those two interviews consecutively, one can't avoid the large and noisy elephant in the room, in the form of a question: how on earth were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama able to reconcile their views of the world, and America's role in it, for four years straight years? I ask this question not because the two don't like one another on a personal level; after all, during a joint appearance on 60 Minutes before Hillary left the administration, President Obama called Hillary "a strong friend" and "one of the most important advisers" that he had on a range of issues. Yet on matters of U.S. foreign policy, American global leadership, and American engagement in the world, the two interviews reveal stark differences of opinion.

Different opinions between Obama and Clinton, of course, are unsurprising. They also happen to be healthy for an administration and a good way of avoiding the type of groupthink that has ruined other administrations in years' past. Indeed, one of the lasting virtues of President Obama's first term in office was the formation of a "team of rivals," where a holdover from the Bush administration (Robert Gates), a blue-collar Democrat (Joseph Biden), a new and progressive president (Barack Obama) and an icon of the Democratic Party establishment (Hillary Clinton) were able to coalesce together, sit around the same table, and engage in some long, crucial, and at times tedious, debate on matters as serious as war and peace.

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What was surprising from reading the interviews, however, was how gaping those differences are. I was somewhat taken aback that Hillary Clinton was confident enough unmask herself to a journalist and make her views known in such black-and-white terms (Obama's politicos may very well view Hillary's interview with Goldberg as an attempt to kick a man while he's down. That man is Barack Obama, who's public approval ratings on foreign policy are below 40 percent). Either she was especially open-minded and honest that day, she got ahead of herself, or she knew exactly what she was doing while she was doing it. Given her personal desire to perhaps run for president for a second time--and her mission to solidify her reputation as one of America's leading stateswomen--I'm betting on the third option.

Both Obama and Clinton spoke about a variety of international crises that are occurring in the world today, but Syria and the role of U.S. global leadership were two issues that were especially revealing to the extent that the two are coming from separate directions. Reading the quotes side by side, you may come to the same conclusion that I came to: Hillary Clinton is in the mold of the traditional American exceptionalist, whereas Barack Obama values his restraint as much as his action.

On Syria, this is what President Obama had to say:

"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."

Compare this to Clinton's response on the same topic:

"I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad--there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle--the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."

And this on U.S. global leadership:

Obama: "I'll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day. And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. ... Had we not intervened, it's likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you're going to do this. Then it's the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, 'Thank you, America.' At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions. ... So that's a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, 'Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?"

Clinton: "[M]ost Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. 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.

You know, when you're down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward. One issue is that we don't even tell our own story very well these days."

If Hillary Clinton finally decides to put her hat in the ring for the 2016 presidential race, she is going to keep repeating this message: America is indispensable, it's smart, it's savvy, it has unlimited potential and an innovative and entrepreneurial population, and it also happens to be the one country wealthy, powerful, and dynamic enough to stick its neck out to solve intractable problems that no one else is able or willing to solve. If you asked President Obama whether he would agree with this statement, he would most likely say yes, with a sole exception: the United States cannot come to the rescue of other people and resolve their problems for them.

Republicans have come to rely on that passive sentiment over the past six years in order to put the Obama presidency down a notch. With Hillary Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner for 2016, that strategy is no longer one that the GOP can pursue in order to burnish its own foreign policy credentials and those of its candidates. Perhaps this is another reason why Republicans are hoping that Hillary decides to walk away and not bother with another grueling national campaign.