As Clinton puts more distance between her foreign policy and President Obama’s, his national security legacy may prove short-lived.
When Hillary Clinton declared herself defender of President Barack Obama’s legacy in the last Democratic debate, it marked a change in the careful balance she has sought between taking credit for the national security successes she orchestrated for his administration and distancing herself from its failures.
National security was always going to be tricky for Obama’s former rival and secretary of state. Then came the Islamic State. Then the Paris attacks. Then San Bernardino, Calif. On the campaign trail, she’s called for a tougher, more active foreign policy better attuned to a general election in which anxiety is pushing the pendulum toward greater U.S.military intervention.
“I have made clear that I have differences, as I think any two people do,” she said following a November national security speech. “We largely agreed on what needed to be done,” she said, but on Syria, “I thought we needed to do more earlier.”
Then came the surge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa and Hampshire. “I am so proud of what we've accomplished under President Obama’s leadership,” Clinton said during Obama’s last State of the Union. “If we don't have the resources to win those key early states and then the nomination, the next State of the Union could be delivered by Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.”
The shift is not about defending Obama’s record; it’s about suggesting Sanders is unelectable. While Clinton and the president’s foreign policy often overlaps, there are key divergences which she has sought to highlight that are decidedly more hawkish, according to several lawmakers, former administration officials, political analysts, and campaign advisors who spoke to Defense One over the last several months.
Their wide-ranging forecasts conveyed only one certainty: Clinton is no ready heir to the Obama doctrine.
‘This is Not 2008, This is 2016’
In the 2008 election, then-Sen. Obama bludgeoned Clinton with her vote for the Iraq War, turning national security strength into a liability. In the 2016 election, Sanders has adopted the tactic to question her judgment and undermine her deeper foreign policy experience.
“This is not 2008, this is 2016,” said Clinton senior policy advisor Jake Sullivan Thursday.
The American public is as anxious about terrorism and national security as it has been since Sept. 11, 2001. Some 60 percent think military action against ISIS is in the U.S. interest. More voters trust Clinton to handle terrorism threats than any Republican — but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for her. For the general electorate, anti-establishment angst and fear-mongering have proven more potent political tools than nuanced foreign policy prescriptions. In the primary, fewer Democrats than Republicans say national security and terrorism is their top concern, 73 to 87 percent, according to a Friday poll.
As secretary of state, Clinton was a voice at the table pushing the president toward additional military force when others urged him to heed his instinctive caution, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or the Osama bin Laden raid. That well-documented divide over intervention reflects a broader schism among Democrats, torn wide open by the Iraq invasion and resurfaced by ISIS.
Though in many ways the “Obama Doctrine” has expanded the “War on Terror,” the president’s approach is more clinical than his predecessor, using precision air strikes and targeted special operations raids to avoid the potential casualties and costs of large ground force invasions. Obama sees it as consistent with his reluctance to bog down the military in the Middle East, preferring to prod local forces to take up arms for themselves while the U.S. uses multilateral, diplomatic channels. Jim Ludes, executive director at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, said while Obama wants people to believe his foreign policy is predicated on restraint, from the Afghanistan surge to U.S. commitment in Iraq and Syria, “If I see any pattern emerging from the later Obama years, it’s one of pragmatism.”
The Democratic Party’s foreign policy bench has long been dominated by “centrist-hawks” like Clinton who push intervention, said Ludes, who worked on foreign policy for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and Obama’s 2008 transition team. According to Ludes, despite Clinton’s Iraq vote, her national security credentials are “politically unassailable.”
“Clinton has a track record of advocating the use of American military power to solve the problems of the world,” he said.
Clinton emphasizes “smart power,” using the kinetic to get to the diplomatic. Princeton professor Julian Zelizer described her approach: “Use force when necessary so that diplomacy is possible.” Julie Smith of the Center for New American Security said articulating the “Clinton doctrine is tough because, “Americans are lousy with nuance … Nobody wants footnotes on a bumper sticker.” Before advising the Clinton campaign, Smith was Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor and handled European policy at the Pentagon. “She’d talk about the value of U.S. leadership and engagement … it’s not hope and change, but there’s something in there,” she said. “‘Tough and smart' is a nice brand for her.”
After Clinton left office, a spate of foreign policy crises — not least the unexpected emergence of ISIS — prompted criticism of the national-security strategy she helped craft. The Obama administration’s slow response exacerbated the challenge, putting Clinton on defense long before she announced her candidacy. In August 2014, she said Obama’s “failure” to intervene earlier in Syria abetted ISIS. “Great nations need organizing principles,” Clinton told The Atlantic. “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Now even allies of the president are weighing in.
“The president famously said once his doctrine is, ‘don’t do stupid stuff.’ That’s not a big enough doctrine,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters this fall. “You are also often not doing stuff that’s stupid not to do.” When Kaine was governor of Virginia, he became one of the first to endorse Obama against Clinton. Now he’s mentioned as one of her potential vice presidential picks.
“She says, ‘I’m not running for Bill Clinton’s third term, I’m not running for Barack Obama’s third term, I’m running for my own term,’” Kaine said. She’s “better equipped” to define a doctrine “than anybody else who’s run for president in a very long time.”
No ‘Carbon Copy’
Early in her candidacy, Clinton didn’t emphasize foreign policy, a stark contrast to GOP candidates making up for shallow experience with a rhetorical-arms race on American power. The economy is the top issue for Democrats, and she has been keeping a close eye on Sanders, who has generated unexpected enthusiasm.
But when Biden decided to bow out, he left his party without a national security counterweight, clearing Clinton to retire the president’s incremental approach in favor of a bolder one. “The most disappointed people in the universe are the press, second to the Republicans,” Derek Chollet, counselor and senior advisor at the German Marshall Fund, and Defense One contributor, joked. Chollet, who advises the campaign, previously worked at the Pentagon, White House and State Department, and was part of Obama’s transition team.
Clinton aides are trying to have it both ways for the primary and the general elections: she’ll be just like Obama, but better; she’ll be nothing like Obama, and better.
“The center of gravity for foreign policy in the Democratic Party is still a Clinton-Obama center of gravity,” Chollet said. Last week, he observed, “There are things she would do differently,but I see those as course corrections, not a fundamental reorientation of American foreign policy that Republicans across the board are offering.”
Smith said Clinton’s administration wouldn’t be “a carbon copy” of the last eight years. She has taken time since leaving office to “learn the lessons” — such as overestimating allies’ ability to manage their own regional security, and “overlearning” the Iraq War. “You can take it too far and start to make an argument about the limits of U.S. power that might not in fact match the realities on the ground.” Still, the intervention question hasn’t been resolved. “Maybe it was too much in Iraq, maybe too little in Syria, and we did something in Libya — in all cases, we weren’t happy with the outcome,” she said. “How do you apply U.S. power in a way that does the least amount of damage, and has the most impact?”
Toward the end of last year Clinton gave several high-profile national security speeches to refocus on foreign policy, which communications director Jennifer Palmieri said “hasn’t gotten as much attention on the campaign trail as we think is warranted.”
Speaking in September at the Brookings Institution on Iran, Clinton named a variety of interconnected foreign-policy conundrums — from Ukraine to cybersecurity — on which she said, “I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more.” She posited, “We don’t have a set of strategic pillars and organizing principles.”
In the first Democratic presidential debate in October, she drew her strongest contrast, calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, as “leverage” against Russia. “Diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution,” she said. “It’s about how you balance the risks.”
In November at the Council on Foreign Relations, less than a week after the Paris attacks, Clinton’s critique was more direct: Obama isn’t doing enough to counter global terrorism. Emphasizing she doesn’t support large deployments of U.S. troops, she said, “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory.”
Yet in that same time, the Obama administration has “accelerated” the campaign against ISIS, and its territory is shrinking, military officials say. This month, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airpower, intelligence and advisors, took back Ramadi. They are openly planning to move on Mosul, and eventually, Raqqa — when local forces are deemed up for the job.
Obama has criticized Republicans for “half-baked ideas” that would escalate the war in Syria. When asked about Clinton’s shared support for a no-fly zone, he responded, “Hillary Clinton is not half-baked in terms of her approach to these problems. But I also think that there’s a difference between running for president and being president.”
The next president’s worldview will be most impacted by the realities of day one on the job, according to former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s chief of staff for nineteen years. “It’s going to be a lot more of the coalition building of George H.W. Bush than the go-it-alone of George W. Bush,” he said.
Still, Chollet argued Obama’s successors will have him to thank for “putting us on a course that has renewed American power.”
“Obama’s Warren Buffett and the foreign policy debate is a bunch of day traders,” he said.
Yet Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, appeared almost insulted when asked if Clinton would inherit Obama’s doctrine. “Oh no. Absolutely not. I know her too well,” the Armed Services Committee chairman said, pointing to Clinton’s early support for arming moderate Syrians and the no-fly zone.
“Would she be everything I want? Of course not,” he said. “My beloved Mo Udall said a politician’s prayer is, ‘May the words I utter today be tender and sweet, because tomorrow I might have to eat them,’ and she will.” But, he insisted, “She’s certainly not Obama.”