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Hillary Clinton’s criticisms of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy approach in a recent interview brought back memories of 2008, when the two feuded in at times deeply personal tones on the campaign trail. It punctured the perception, one that both have promoted the past six years, that any differences between Obama and his former Secretary of State were buried in the past.
The comments touched off so much news coverage that Clinton on Tuesday personally reached out to the president, as first reported by Politico. In a statement, a Clinton spokesman emphasized that “nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership” and that Obama and Clinton would be “hugging it out” at a party both are attending on Wednesday night.
Ahead of a book signing in Martha's Vineyard, Clinton told reporters she "absolutely" will be embracing the president when she sees him and the two have disagreements just like any set of partners or friends.
Here’s a closer look at their foreign policy differences:
What did Clinton actually criticize Obama about?
It’s important to note Clinton’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic was part of the long series of media appearances she has been doing to promote her book “Hard Choices.” Also, Clinton’s comments were made before President Obama’s decision to authorize airstrikes in Iraq to stop ISIS forces from making further gains in Kurdish territory, a step Republicans and some Democrats have suggested could have been avoided if the president had a more effective policy in Iraq.
That context is significant, because Clinton did not schedule an interview simply to opine on Obama’s foreign policy in the midst of him starting a military action, even though the timing made it seem that way. (The U.S. launched airstrikes on Saturday; Clinton’s remarks were published on Sunday.)
She offered two major criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy. One, as was known during her tenure as a Secretary of State and as Clinton noted in her book, the former first lady believes that the U.S. should have acted earlier to arm the rebels in Syria. What was new about this criticism in the Atlantic interview was the use of a more blunt term, “failure,” and that Clinton directly connected the U.S. decision not to engage in Syria to the rise of ISIS.
“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,” she said.
Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle.
The second criticism by Clinton was in Obama’s broader approach on foreign policy. The president, in a closed-door session with foreign policy writers earlier this year, had described his approach on many national security issues as “don’t do stupid” sh*t. This four-word phrase then appeared in many articles.
Obama has never uttered it himself publicly, and he describes his national security decisions in more complicated terms, although critics in both parties say they struggle to find the coherence in Obama’s decisions to intervene in some places (Libya) but not others (Syria.)
Clinton, in the interview, also downplayed this phrase, saying “I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.”
That said, she took a question about this phrase from Goldberg and turned it into a sentence that quickly went viral.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle,” she said, adding, “It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.”
Does this mean Obama and Clinton don’t like each other?
No. By all accounts, Obama and Clinton have a strong relationship, with little ill will from 2008. She is not one of Obama’s friends like Attorney General Eric Holder, who spends social time with the president and whose wife flew to Hawaii earlier this year to celebrate Michelle Obama’s birthday.
But when Clinton was leaving the State Department last year, Obama took the unusual step of doing a joint interview with “60 Minutes” with her. It is unprecedented for a president to hold an interview just to send off a Cabinet member and was an acknowledgement of how smoothly Clinton’s tenure working for Obama went.
Obama aides are comfortable with Clinton as the Democratic-nominee-in-waiting. And the president himself seemed to indicate his acceptance of Clinton as his potential successor earlier this year. At the White House Correspondents Dinner, tweaking Fox News, he joked, “It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”
Numerous accounts have suggested there is a member of the Clinton family Obama does not particularly enjoy spending time with, but that is Bill.
Do they have a strong disagreement on foreign policy?
Yes. This dispute seems grounded less in personalities and politics and more on a true different on policy. Bill Clinton, in a private session last year that he did not know was being recorded, suggested Obama was wrong in his approach to Syria. The former president went even further, arguing that Sen. John McCain, who has feuded with Obama on every foreign policy issue the last six years, was correct on the issue.
President Clinton’s administration featured limited U.S military interventions in places like Kosovo. He tried to change the perception of the Democratic Party as being one that was too dovish in foreign affairs.
President Bush’s administration and the failure of Iraq War have of course completely rewritten how the American public views war and in turn how politicians do. Obama has been very reluctant to use U.S military force anywhere and has suggested that America has limited influence on shaping foreign governments, from Russia to Syria to Iran.
Hillary Clinton implied Obama has overcorrected from Bush’s policies. She suggested, without quite saying so, that Obama might be too reluctant to engage in trying to shape outcomes in other nations and that she would employ the influence of the U.S. more if she were president.
“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,” she said.
What does this mean for 2016?
Probably not much. Clinton’s apology suggests this was not some attempt to separate herself from an increasingly unpopular Obama. In her statement, she emphasized “broad agreement on most issues.”
But the controversy is likely to remind some of Obama’s supporters in 2008 why they did not Clinton. There is already a small caucus of Democrats who are looking for another candidate to defeat Clinton. They have touted Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as this year’s version of Obama.
Whether someone can defeat Clinton or not in the Democratic Party, it suggests there is much to learn between now and 2016 about the former first lady. How different are her views from Obama on both foreign and domestic policy? Are her pro-intervention views in line with a Democratic Party that is still bitter about the Iraq War? And can she separate herself from Obama in a way that appeals to moderate voters but does not annoy his base?