4 Things We Learned From Hillary’s Last Interview: From Obama to Iraq

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State and presidential possibility Hillary Clinton’s gave an interview with The Atlantic this week which has become quite the topic of conversation. She wasn’t gentle in it — not gentle to President Barack Obama, not gentle on foreign policy; in a word, she was strong. The transcript of the interview itself itself is many pages long, so let’s make a quick outline of the most revealing content from the dialogue and the most notable implications therein.

1. Critique of Obama

Having a connection to President Obama is not a helpful political token to be in possession of these days, as Senatorial Democrats can well attest to this midterm election. His approval ratings as of early August sat at 42 percent, with disapproval up at 52 percent, according to Gallup. So Hillary Clinton’s time working under him as Secretary of State is hardly a plus in her column when considering a future run for the executive office — especially given the Benghazi scandal and the attention it garnered. So it comes as no surprise that she’s rather noticeably critical of our current Democratic leadership, partially a result of policy disagreement, but also likely an attempt to distance herself from the public opinion vacuum that is the Obama approval vortex.

I’d say this focus on distance and PR is more telling than the Clinton quote that journalist Jeffrey Goldberg picked out as an admission of presidential intent: “Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea (that the U.S. had impressively defeated fascism and communism), but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.”

She was particularly critical of Obama’s overall foreign policy, saying it was too hesitant and careful, not direct or powerful enough. The main critique you hear batted around is “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” And indeed, ouch. But hitting on the president’s rhetoric doesn’t mean she didn’t empathize with some of his political goals, even if she feels he’s been too weak on stamping down jihadist activity and preventing uprising expansion.

She admits that the “don’t do stupid stuff” is likely a “political message” rather than his global viewpoint; he’s trying to let Americans — who are already heavily concerned with the economy and conditions at home — know that he won’t be throwing the U.S. into “something crazy.” That said, she successfully made it clear that Obama’s view of our international role was not one she shared — a goal I can practically hear a campaign manager emphasizing pre-interview.

2. Syria and Iraq

Conditions in Syria were, in Clinton’s view, mishandled by the United States. Rather than putting a hand into the conflict earlier to help prevent the formation of current power struggles, she hints the Obama administration was cautious to its detriment.

She was careful in her phrasing, not point blank challenging the president’s decisions in regards to Syria, but certainly implying if not stating that had the administration listened to her suggestions at the time — that the U.S. “carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army” — things might have gone differently. She never claims to know what would have happened, saying quite often “I don’t know the answer to that,” but what she does know fills in the blanks of her position.

“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,” Clinton said.3. Israel

Clinton stands behind Israel, defending its right to protect itself and criticizing those who ignore Russia, Ukraine, ISIS, and Assad but focus on Israel instead. “We do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself,” she said. “This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.” When pressed on the high civilian death count and exactly why people are so critical of Israel, Clinton stood with the Obama administration in near blind defense of current events.

She admits that “it’s dreadful” that so many children have died, but insists that it’s “very difficult to sort through to get to the truth” of events in war, noting that Hamas began the conflict and suggesting that Israel’s PR problem may be anti-Semitic at its root.

“Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult,” said Clinton. “Hamas has consistently, not just in this conflict, but in the past, been less than protective of their civilians.”

4. America’s role in the future

If you’re wondering what kind of president Hillary Clinton would make — another aggressive George W. Bush or another overly careful Obama? — the answer may be a little bit of both, but almost certainly not as restrained a leader as Obama. “I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes” of jumping into action and standing back on the sidelines, she said.

She discusses the sentiment in the U.S. that we have far too many economic and political problems at home to be diving into international issues. “You’ve got to take care of your home first,” she explained. “People are not only turned off about being engaged in the world, they’re pretty discouraged about what’s happening here at home.” That said, she goes on to emphasize that “they don’t want to see a resurgence of aggression by anybody.” Which is exactly what she believes jihadism will lead to.

“One of the reasons why I worry what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United states,” she said. She argues that the final goal of such groups isn’t to simply govern a region, but to conquer and expand. “Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank — and we all fit into one of these categories.”

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