Hillary Clinton very visibly started putting water between herself and President Obama’s Middle East policies in a must-read interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Though being careful to portray President Obama as a thoughtful and intelligent leader, she nevertheless points to several instances where she was on the losing end of an argument that, had it gone her way, would have led to arguably better outcomes. Perhaps the most striking example of this is during the exchange on Syria:
JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?HRC: I have the highest regard for Robert. I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made.So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them, and we didn’t have to go all the way, and I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.JG: You do have a suspicion, though.HRC: Obviously. I advocated for a position.
Elsewhere in the interview, Clinton comes the closest thus far to announcing she is running in 2016—something surprising to just about no one at this point. And while this kind of talk is clearly her first attempt at drawing sharp contrasts between herself and her increasingly unpopular boss, there might also be a personal element in play: Clinton was a strong supporter of the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya, a decision that President Obama has lately been publicly wringing his hands over—most recently in his interview with Tom Friedman.But beyond the politics of it, this kind of interview can only undercut the President’s authority abroad. Both his ex-Secretary of Defense and now his ex-Secretary of State are on the record now as being critical of key decisions he made, decisions that have led to big problems currently dominating the news. With the chances looking less and less that President Obama will be followed by a foreign policy soulmate when his term ends, foreigners are going to increasingly look past him as they try to understand where U.S. policy is headed in the medium term.