The kerfuffle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is all in the news right now. Clinton, who sees her coronation as Democrat presidential candidate for the 2016 as a done deal, is trying to establish some daylight between herself and her former boss on foreign policy. There is a good reason for that. Other than coasting through 2009 with an “I’m not George Bush” strategy (which we’re seeing play out in the long run as a “I’m an incompetent boob”) this administration has had no identifiable foreign policy. For a while it seemed to embrace the feel-good but impractical Responsibility to Protect doctrine. This was abandoned before the first Syrian chemical attack and since that time the administration simply staggered from one crisis to the next failure.
The conflict comes from an interview Clinton gave The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg titled Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS. It is unusual not because of any insights we gain into what passes for foreign policy in the Age of Obama but we see a secretary of state disavowing herself from the foreign policy she formulated and carried out. The key pull quotes follow:
Well, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.
“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,” Clinton said.
As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.
…At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Let’s look at these two items.
There is no real evidence, beyond Clinton’s self-serving memoir, that Clinton objected to Obama’s policy in Syria… whatever that was intended to be. Back in March 2011, as the current civil war in Syria was gaining momentum, this is what Hillary Clinton had to say:
If Pres. Barack Obama prefers not to intervene on behalf of the protesters being slaughtered in Syria, the least his administration could do is refrain from endorsing their tyrant. In Obama’s speech Monday night about America’s interest in defending Libyans and standing alongside other freedom-seekers of the Arab world, Syria didn’t even rate a mention. That discussion was handled Sunday in remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation. Not only did Clinton nix any thoughts of action on Syria, she ran interference for Syria’s murderous president, Bashar Assad, saying: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
Such deference to U.S. lawmakers was absent from Obama’s decision to go to war in Libya; the president sought a resolution from the United Nations, but not from Congress. But if Congress is now back in the loop, with some members singing the praises of Assad, clearly the State Department needs to do a much better job of briefing them on the realities.
Mind you, she doesn’t say that is her belief but the tone and context of the statement leaves no doubt that she isn’t saying, “this is crazy, wtf are these people thinking?”
By July she was saying Assad had “lost legitimacy” but not that he needed to go away. In August 2011 she called for Assad to resign. In December 2011, she met with Syrian opposition leaders. If February 2012, she expressed a concern that arming the Syrian opposition could result in arming al Qaeda:
"We know al Qaeda [leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?" Clinton said. "If you're a military planner or if you're a secretary of state and you're trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don't see. We see immense human suffering that is heartbreaking."
By June 2012, the New York Time was reporting that the CIA was arming and training Syrian opposition forces.
When one looks at the record one is strained to conceive how what Clinton says in the interview actually differs from her actions. In fact, her concern that aiding the Syrian opposition could result in arming al Qaeda was, and is, spot on. In fact, by September 2013 it was being reported that Syrian opposition fighters were rallying to the al Qaeda because the al Qaeda were actually fighting.
The real problem on this is that the only source we have for this disagreement in policy on Syria between Obama and Clinton is that it is based on alleged "behind the scenes" discussions, they are non-falsifiable. The non-falsifiable nature of Clinton's assertions are further complicated by the fact that both principles and their inner circles are enthusiastic and inveterate liars. All things considered, it is difficult to see how arming any of the opposition groups earlier and more aggressively would have produced a better or different outcome. The other alternative is that Clinton means by " help build up a credible fighting force" a significant US military presence to bolster our chosen faction. That idea, in the context of Obama facing an election in 2012, is so farfetched as to not merit discussion.
The best defense of Clinton I've seen, Josh Rogin's Obama Stifled Hillary’s Syria Plans and Ignored Her Iraq Warnings for Years, in my view, makes Obama look much more on top of the situation than Clinton.
"Don't do stupid sh*t"
In the interview, Clinton is critical of Obama's "Don't do stupid sh*t" statement." From The Atlantic interview:
Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.
When she is asked what her organizing principles are she says:
Peace, progress, and prosperity.
Pardon me if I fail to see how her organizing principles are any more awe inspiring than Obama's. I'm in favor of fuzzy puppies and unicorns, I don't organize my life about them.
This tempest in a teacup, as they used to say, is simply kabuki intended for the rubes who dominate the Democrat party base. There is no evidence that there was any substantive disagreement between Obama and Clinton over Syria or much of anything else. Clinton did not resign in protest over the mismanagement of American foreign policy even when public seppuku in atonement was called for. There is much to fault Obama for in Syria: his stupid "red line" comments, his encouraging of an armed revolt when he had no intention of supporting it. But a critical view of the record and Clinton's claims indicates that if there was a conflict we are lucky that Obama prevailed.