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How Hillary Clinton Would Differ From Barack Obama on Foreign Policy

Clinton's advisers are more hawkish than Obama on Russia, Syria and Iran, and last week one was openly critical of the president's performance.
Image: US President Barack Obama visits Myanmar
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wave as they arrive at Yangon International Airport in Myanmar in November 2012.LYNN BO BO / EPA

Given some of the extreme positions taken by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign — he has said he would torture terrorists and “take out their families," to name two — it sometimes gets lost that there are significant differences on foreign policy between the Democrat running for president and the man she would replace if she won.

It’s no secret that Clinton is demonstrably more of a hawk than Barack Obama. She voted for the Iraq war, a decision she now regrets; she urged Obama to mount the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, when some of his advisers balked; and by all accounts she pushed Obama to arm Syrian rebels early in the conflict, a step he declined to take.

Clinton has been been careful and circumscribed lately in discussing foreign policy, and she may not be much more specific as she faces Trump in the first presidential debate Monday night moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.

But some of her advisers have made clear that they would be more aggressive than Obama, if they were running the show.

The latest example of that came a few days ago, when Michael Vickers, a longtime intelligence official who has been frequently mentioned as a potential CIA or national intelligence director under Clinton, gave a public talk in which he called for a a more muscular approach to Syria, ISIS, Iran and Russia.

Vickers, a Clinton campaign adviser, has held senior positions throughout much of the Obama administration, including as the top Pentagon official in charge of intelligence and special operations.

But in a discussion last Wednesday in the Georgetown offices of the Cipher Brief, a national security web site, he lamented recent foreign policy “failures” that he said stemmed from restrictions placed on bombing campaigns and misjudgments about the scope of key foreign policy problems.

'Clinton was on one side, Obama was on the other'

Vickers, a famous former Green Beret and CIA officer who was portrayed in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” — and who was once tasked with parachuting into the Soviet Union with a small nuclear weapon strapped to his leg, delivered his remarks all in a folksy, understated manner. But his words were stark and unmistakable. And he is not alone.

Clinton’s roster of foreign policy advisers includes several people who have urged tougher action in Syria and around the world, including former CIA leaders Leon Panetta and Michael Morell, and former top Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, who is often mentioned as a potential defense secretary.

“You can look at the record and see that Secretary Clinton was on one side of a number of issues and President Obama was on the other side,” said Heather Hurlburt, a program manager at New America and a member of Clinton’s foreign policy advisory team. At the same time, she cautioned, "there’s a lot of stuff you can advocate in public when you don’t have folks in the situation room making the other side of the argument. The people around her are going be very well aware of the constraints and limitations, and so I think the differences are magnified in the campaign from what they would actually be in practice."

That may be, but Flournoy, for example, has called for U.S. air strikes against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s military as a way of deterring its attacks against civilians, a step Obama has been unwilling to take.

And Panetta has been deeply critical of what he called Obama’s inaction on the Syrian civil war, arguing it paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State.

Vickers, whose previous job gave him detailed insights into U.S.bombing in Iraq and Syria, compared that campaign unfavorably with the one that ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001.

“If you compare this campaign, which has been two years in the making, with our campaign against the Taliban in 2001 — dramatically shorter time frame,” he said.

One reason for that, Vickers said, was “bombing intensity — airpower really works well when you are really clobbering them and then when you have a ground force to exploit the effects. …We broke the back of the Taliban when we really started hammering them with bombers ... and then had a force to exploit that. That, I think, has really been missing.”

According to Vickers, 60 percent or more of the air strikes against ISIS have been in Iraq, even though the terror group's headquarters is in Syria. That shows the campaign is not as intense as it could be, he said.

Vickers acknowledged that ISIS is far more dug in, and intermingled among civilians in urban areas, than the Taliban was in 2001. But he also suggested that Obama’s rules of engagement are overly restrictive.

He made the same complaint about Obama's counter terrorism campaign to target and kill ISIS and al Qaeda leaders around the world, mainly with drone strikes. He believes it is not as robust as it should be.

In 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration was conducting as many as two CIA drone strikes a week in Pakistan, including so-called signature strikes against groups of fighters whose names were not known. That campaign that appears to have decimated core al Qaeda even as it drew international condemnation.

In Yemen, by contrast, the drone campaign has been far more limited, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group that operates there, has persisted as a threat.

“You compare …what we’ve done in Pakistan versus what we’ve done in Yemen, you see the same intense application of air power produces greater effect without the increased downside of greater collateral damage because of the precision of the weapons and the intelligence that goes into the operations,” Vickers said.

“Too narrow a view of a conflict has led to either strategic failure or underperformance.”

Translated, he was saying that a more intense drone campaign would be more effective without increasing the risk of civilian casualties, a claim some Obama administration officials would dispute. Obama ramped up the drone war but dialed it down in his second term, imposing a restrictive set of targeting rules. He did that in part over concerns about civilian casualties, officials have said.

Heeding the lessons of the American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the debacle of a U.S.-led intervention in Libya that left the country in chaos, Obama in his second term began emphasizing restraint, a kind of “do no harm approach” that arguably undergirds much of his foreign policy.

Vickers also said he would advise the next president to respond aggressively to Iranian provocations around the world, despite the Iran nuclear deal.

In his view, Vickers said, the administration made another error in Yemen when it failed to prevent President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi from being displaced by the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency. Saudi Arabia subsequently stepped in, and has been fighting a long-running air war against the Houthis.

“Taking too narrow a view of a conflict has also led to either strategic failure or underperformance,” Vickers said. “An example of that was in Yemen. ...We didn’t support him as fully as we might have and we lost our good (counter terrorism) partner and big chunks of the country.”

Russian hacks 'beyond the pale'

Beyond the Middle East, Vickers made clear he believes the Russian hacks into the U.S. political system merit an immediate and forceful American response.

He called the intrusions “appalling” and “beyond the pale,” adding, "there, I think, they’ve really crossed a threshold. …Pushing back against this, either symmetrically or asymmetrically, I think is really important. Putin is not going to stop until we do.”

Clinton has not said what she would do about the Russian hacks, nor has she been very specific about what she would do differently about ISIS, other than an “intelligence surge,” and an a stepped up effort to capture or kill its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Trump, who has touted his “secret plan,” to destroy ISIS, has not been specific either. Nor has his principle national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who multiple sources say did not get along with Vickers when they worked together while Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But one thing is clear: whichever candidate wins will be advised by people who advocate military force, covert action and tough diplomacy more readily than Obama has been willing to deploy those tools.

“Our next president will inherit a world that in my judgment has a multitude of national security challenges that collectively are greater than any president has inherited in some decades,” Vickers said.