Okay, everybody. Deep breath, back to equilibrium. Yes, Hillary Clinton talked some smack on Barack Obama to Jeff Goldberg in that interview. But beyond those three or four sentences—and when yanked out of their larger context, sentences like that always carry more shock value than they do in context—did she really say very much that set her dramatically apart from Barack Obama? How different, really, would a Clinton foreign policy be?
Despite Clinton’s very public efforts to make up with the president, the consensus verdict over these last three hyperventilating days is: dramatically different. Hillary’s a neocon! Robert Kagan, operatic Iraq war enthusiast, admires her. MoveOn, the grassroots liberal group, snarled at her like a tiger—specifically, one freshly on the prowl for a non-Clinton alternative for 2016: “Secretary Clinton…should think long and hard before embracing the same policies advocated by right-wing war hawks that got America into Iraq in the first place and helped set the stage for Iraq’s troubles today.”
Having read through the interview a few times now and talked to some folks about it, I’m less convinced that the differences—with two key exceptions—are that dramatic. But those exceptions are big ones, and they make me wonder not only about any future Clinton foreign policy priorities, but about her political judgment today.
The main, non-headline-making takeaway from the whole interview is that she wants a bigger American footprint in the world than Obama seems to. Okay, we’ve known that, but she spelled out what that means at some length. And she’s actually pretty nuanced about it. She does not mean, as people to her left reflexively seem to think she means, going bombs away. Money quote:
“I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.”
What did she just say there? No Iraqs. Good. But more aggressive pushing on Egyptian moderates to form political parties, get in the game, and not leave the competition to just military vs. Muslim Brotherhood (she had spoken at length on this earlier). And more follow-through in Libya. I don’t think those are positions that would have her marching in the shoot-’em-up parade next to John McCain. A bit later, Goldberg gently challenged her that the constituency in America for her middle-ground views between Obama and the neocons might not exist, and she acknowledged that by making a good point in her own defense: “…most 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.”
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