Clinton's Sharpest Distinction Yet From Obama on Foreign Policy

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In an interview with The Atlantic, Hillary Clinton made her strongest statements yet differentiating her foreign policy views from the president's, saying that his "failure" to aid Syrian rebels resulted in the rise of ISIS. “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,” she said in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. And here's what she said about Obama's informal foreign-policy doctrine: "Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle." With the president's foreign policy approval rating at 36% in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, it's logical to see Clinton starting to distance herself this sharply from her former boss. But it's also worth noting that she has always been more hawkish than the president; remember, it was her Iraq vote that largely boosted the more dovish Obama to victory in the 2008 primary. And her disagreement with Obama over arming the Syrian rebels is documented in her own book, so while she may be using harsher language on this point, this isn't a major reversal for the former secretary of state.

But how does a more hawkish stance play with a war-weary public?

While Obama's numbers on foreign policy are sinking, his overall philosophy of staying out of conflicts abroad remains popular. The number we keep referencing: Our April NBC/WSJ poll that showed almost half of Americans saying that the U.S. should be less active in global affairs, versus just 19 percent who said the country should be more involved. Clinton’s certainly making the case for carving out a middle ground between the Obama doctrine and George W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policy, but that still means more engagement in foreign affairs. If she continues to stake out these relatively hawkish positions, how much does that expose the same left flank that doomed her in 2008? And what does a Clinton/Rand Paul debate look like -- especially when it comes to independents and younger swing voters who are particularly weary of dragging conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere?

The latest in Iraq

NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports that the CIA is now directly supplying weapons to peshmerga fighters who are fighting ISIS militants outside Erbil. The U.S. had previously only been providing ammunition to the fighters through the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces are beginning to notch some victories against ISIS in the wake of U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq. And/but all this comes as Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki is clinging to power, now saying that he's going to take the country's new president to court for violating the nation's constitution. That prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to make clear that Maliki doesn't have Washington's backing, saying in Australia that "We believe that the government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”

Obama: "I think this is going to take some time"

Before Obama left for his Martha's Vineyard vacation Saturday, here's the warning he gave Americans on Iraq: This is not a short-term problem. "I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that's what you mean. I think this is going to take some time,” he said. “I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for [Iraqi security forces] to do the hard work that’s necessary. If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in, in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project."

No love for the gov in Hawaii

Incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie wasn't just beaten by challenger David Ige in the weekend's Democratic primary; he was trounced. Voters registered disapproval for the governor, whose approval ratings had been sliding, by choosing the little-known state senator by a two-to-one margin and making Abercrombie the first sitting governor in the state's history to be ousted in a primary election. The defeat is surely the result of a combination of factors: the unpopular pension reform program he pushed, his messy involvement with the Senate seat held by the late Daniel Inouye, and/or plain old incumbent fatigue. But it sure showed just how vulnerable a governor with waning public support can be.

And we're watching the too-close-to-call Senate race

Incumbent Brian Schatz also had a Saturday night of heartburn as he watched election results, with his race against Colleen Hanabusa still too close to call. The latest election results released early Sunday morning showed Schatz leading by 1,635 votes. But this one's going into overtime, with about 8,000 registered Democrats from two Puna polling sites that were closed due to storm damage eligible to vote absentee. Both candidates have said they will head to the area to campaign. If Schatz pulls out the win, it will conclude a race much more grueling than the appointee may have expected early on. Schatz's appointment to the Senate seat over Inouye's wishes rubbed a lot of Democrats in the state the wrong way. Voters certainly registered some of their disapproval by ousting Abercrombie; we may have to wait for weeks to find out if Schatz narrowly escaped becoming the victim of the same disappointment.

2016 hopefuls hit Iowa confab

Meanwhile, over the weekend, five GOP hopefuls made their pitches to Iowa conservatives at the Family Leader Summit in Ames, NBC's Alex Moe reports. Moe writes that Ted Cruz received a particularly warm reception for a speech outlining seven GOP "victories" including the Hobby Lobby ruling and "the FAA quickly lifting the ban on flights to Israel." And Rick Perry won applause for talking up his efforts at the southern border. Add Rand Paul's high-profile trip to the state last week and this is all a LOT of early activity for the first caucus state.

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