Hillary Clinton gives liberals 2008 deja vu
By: Katie Glueck
August 11, 2014 06:33 PM EDT
Hillary Clinton is giving some liberals flashbacks to 2008, and not in a good way.
Progressives are wincing over Clinton’s foreign policy comments in a blockbuster interview with The Atlantic, saying her statements are excessively hawkish and reminiscent of her past support for the war in Iraq. Some foreign policy experts, meanwhile, are criticizing her views as too simplistic; one analyst called them downright disloyal to President Barack Obama.
In the interview with prominent foreign affairs writer Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton called Obama’s decision not to back Syrian rebels early on a “failure;” stood staunchly with Israel in its fight against Hamas; took a tough tone on Iran; and said that the West Wing’s foreign policy mantra — “Don’t do stupid stuff”— is “not an organizing principle.”
Clinton has always been more of a hawk than Obama, whom she served under as secretary of state during his first term. But for many liberals, whose enthusiasm will be important if she runs again for president in 2016, her comments simply felt like code for Bush-era interventionism.
“She basically seems to be taking positions that are very similar to the vision of America’s role in the world that [in 2008] Democrats rejected,” explained Michael Cohen, a fellow at the progressive Century Foundation. That approach, he said, was “out of touch with Democrats in 2008, and it’s out of touch now.”
Prominent liberal writer Joan Walsh wrote at Salon.com that she expects to support Clinton if she runs in 2016, but she called the interview “sobering.”
“Clinton may think she can write off the anti-interventionist left — again — and win the White House this time,” Walsh warned. “But she may find out she’s wrong this time, too.”
And Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped publish Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks, sniped on Twitter that Clinton is “demanding more militarism and violence.”
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton positioned herself as an experienced hand who could handle the “3 a.m. phone call.” She was pilloried for that by the Democratic base, and the war-weary grass roots turned instead to Obama, who was able to position himself as the more anti-war candidate.
Polls today also indicate that Americans have little appetite for much overseas engagement, even as chaos is erupting in theater after theater — including Iraq, where Obama recently authorized airstrikes against Islamist militants. (Clinton’s interview took place before Obama’s decision and coincides with the promotion of her new memoir, “Hard Choices.”)
At the same time, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from earlier this month showed Obama’s approval rating at an “all-time low.” Fairly or not, Clinton’s interview was seen by many political observers as an opportunity for her to separate herself from an unpopular president, and some found that distasteful.
“My understanding is that there’s political utility in her bad-mouthing the president now,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group. “But it’s bad for foreign policy. It is disloyal …When Hillary does it, it’s a bigger deal. It does more damage.”?
One Obama ally described Clinton’s maneuver this way: “Inevitable. Predictable. Authentically HRC in a fashion that reminds people like me why we opposed her so strongly in 2007.”
A Clinton aide replied that the interview, posted over the weekend, “was a long-planned-for target on a list of interviews around the book — and not part of an overarching political strategy related to 2016, or anything else for that matter.”
One key difference in the run-up to the presidential race this time, in contrast to 2008 is that, for Democrats, there’s no clear, competitive alternative to Clinton. Liberal grass-roots darlings such as Elizabeth Warren have said they are not running, and there’s no Obama-like figure on the scene. Also, unlike 2008, there is no other candidate who can overwhelmingly win black voters, a key part of the base, like Clinton could.
Brian Katulis, of the liberal Center for American Progress — a think tank loaded with Clinton allies — dismissed the notion that progressives are well-organized around progressive foreign policy in the same way that they were at the height of the Iraq war.
He also noted that Clinton’s overarching position on foreign policy is squarely in line with the tradition of liberal interventionism held, largely, by most Democrats in the Senate. As of Monday evening, most prominent Democrats and even some progressive groups were staying clear of criticizing Clinton.
“Some will disagree with how she talks tough on Iran, but that’s reflected by the consensus on the Hill right now,” Katulis said. Of the anti-war activists, “I don’t think they’re as organized on foreign policy as they used to be. … They kind of went home, went to Wall Street and ‘Occupied’ that or something. I don’t know where they are. There’s that element in the base she may be out of touch with, but they don’t seem to be galvanized.”
Some of the people criticizing Clinton in the wake of her interview questioned her grasp of the facts.
Writer Peter Beinart took to the pages of Ha’aretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper, to charge: “Clinton offered the most articulate, sophisticated, passionate defense of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s conduct I’ve heard from a government official on either side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, important chunks of it aren’t true.”
The piece of the interview receiving perhaps the most scrutiny concerned Clinton’s remark that the Obama administration’s decision not to offer early assistance to some Syrian rebels battling President Bashar Assad’s regime was a “failure.” She had advocated doing so, including in “Hard Choices.”
She was criticized for it by at least one person who resides in a vastly different corner of the political universe: Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, who had that position while Clinton was at the State Department.
“It is difficult for me to see how arming the moderate rebels would have made that much difference in Syria,” he said on “CBS This Morning” on Monday, saying he supported Obama’s course of action at the time.
Morell, who works for the same strategy group as Clinton’s longtime aide Philippe Reines, continued, “We would have had to have done it on a very, very large scale that I think would would have frightened our partners in the region because it would have put a very, very large footprint, U.S. footprint, on the ground in the Middle East.”
At the same time, Lawrence Korb, also of the Center for American Progress, said in an interview that Clinton’s formulation on that issue was “simplistic.”
Still, Clinton’s comments did earn her some praise from Republicans, as some in the GOP are deeply concerned by what they see as a rising tendency toward isolationism in their party.
Sen. Rand Paul has promoted a less interventionist foreign policy, though the Kentucky Republican stresses it is in the tradition of former President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine. As Paul continues to build a national political network suggesting a 2016 run for the White House, some in the establishment GOP remain skeptical of his views.
“If Republicans nominate an isolationist, those Republicans who want America to not become an isolationist state will certainly take a look at [Clinton] if she continues talking that way,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.
Others said that the interview hasn’t quite sparked a Republicans for Hillary movement — but they praised her for trying.
“It’s a little bit opportunistic politically,” veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black said. “But I give her credit for being right now, even if she wasn’t as secretary of state.”