Hillary Clinton’s recent efforts to distance herself from President Obama’s foreign policy may be generating a lot of attention, but nothing she is now saying about foreign policy will matter in the future.
If history has taught us anything, especially when it comes to foreign policy, it’s that Clinton doesn’t have positions — she has positioning.
When she wanted to appear tough on national security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Clinton happily voted in favor of authorizing President George W. Bush to launch a war against Iraq. But once opinion of the war turned sour – especially within the Democratic Party – Clinton positioned herself as a long-time critic of the war. And she would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for a young Illinois senator.
In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published Sunday, Clinton drew headlines for criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to sit out of the Syrian civil war when it was in its early stages — and she happened to be secretary of state.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against [Bashar] 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.
In addition, she offered a staunch defense of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — this even though as secretary of state, Clinton was a fierce critic of Netanyahu — even to the point of having her department boast that she berated the Israeli leader on a phone call. (For a more detailed account of Clinton’s attempts to rewrite her record on Israel, check out Noah Pollak in the Weekly Standard.)
Over at The Week, Matt Lewis argues that Clinton’s decision to strike a more hawkish tone is an act of “political brilliance” that would allow her to appeal to Americans who have a sense of the nation’s waning influence in the world. This, he argues, could be equally effective whether Republicans nominate a non-interventionist such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., or somebody such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has advocated a stronger projection of American power abroad.
Meanwhile, anti-interventionist conservative Michael Brendan Dougherty, also writing for The Week, argues that Clinton “is gunning for a third George W. Bush term.”
At a time when Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy issues is tanking, Clinton wants to create some distance between herself and his views given that she served as his chief diplomat when key decisions were being made. But this shouldn't be confused with any firm ideology. Her positions during any presidential campaign are going to largely depend on what the political conditions are at that time. Should she generate a serious challenge from the left, she’ll probably tone down her hawkish and interventionist rhetoric.
Clinton’s ultimate strategy is to use the fact that she led the State Department under Obama to win over those who sided with Obama over her in the 2008 primary, while bolstering the facade of herself as an experienced, savvy, foreign policy leader.
But as far as her positions during the general election, they’ll largely be determined by the public perceptions of Obama’s foreign policy. On any area in which his policy is clearly seen as a failure, she’ll suggest she has differences. In areas in which the public approves of Obama’s actions, she’ll say she was on board with him.
This was already apparent in her book, Hard Choices, in which she distanced herself from a number of Obama policies, but was sure to point out that she was all about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Were Clinton to become president, what she says now will have even less importance. She can say all the pro-Israel stuff she wants, for instance, but as president, she could turn on a dime and pressure Israel into making dangerous concessions, and claim that she’s simply providing “tough love.” Sure, some journalists and commentators will accuse her of flip-flopping, but nothing she says will in any way be binding.
So, forgive me if I’m not hyperventilating with each Clinton foreign policy pronouncement.