EDGARTOWN, Mass. — Laying out a foreign policy vision before a possible run for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton made her most aggressive effort yet to distinguish herself from her former boss, President Obama, rebuking his cautious approach to global crises and saying the U.S. doctrine has to go beyond “don’t do stupid stuff.”
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said in a weekend magazine interview, referring to a version of the phrase Obama and his advisers have used privately to describe his approach to foreign policy.
Asked for her organizing principle, she replied: “Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time.”
Clinton’s critiques come as she weighs whether to seek the White House in 2016, and as Obama wrestles with tough choices on how the U.S. should engage in disputes erupting across the world.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Atlantic published on its website, Clinton offered an uncompromising defense of Israel’s battle against Hamas in Gaza and argued against Obama’s decision not to build up a fighting force to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Clinton previously described her advocacy for the Syrian rebellion in “Hard Choices,” her memoir about her time leading the State Department. Obama has said supporting the rebels would not have stopped al-Qaida-inspired groups from rampaging across Syria and inside Iraq today.
Clinton and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly argued for arming the rebels who first stood up to Assad three years ago. Since then, the question of “arming the rebels” has become more complicated, as al-Qaida-linked and other fundamentalist Islamist groups have joined the rebellion.
She told The Atlantic she can’t say definitively that her recommendations as secretary of state would have made a difference, but “the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
In describing what she means by “peace, progress, and prosperity,” Clinton said Americans want to take care of each other and do so in a way that rewards those who work hard and play by the rules.
“And yeah, we don’t want to see the world go to hell in a handbasket, and they don’t want to see a resurgence of aggression by anybody,” she said.
The White House declined to respond to Clinton’s comments, but said her team gave them a heads up before the interview was published.
Clinton wrapped her critiques in expressions of respect for the president’s intellect and sympathy for the tough decisions he grapples with from the Oval Office. On Monday, a vacation day for Obama, he dealt with issues involving Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, as well as terrorism and Ebola in Africa.
“He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time,” she said. “I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in.”
Coincidentally, Clinton plans to be on Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday for a book signing of her memoir at the Bunch of Grapes book store, which Obama often visits while he’s in town. The White House said Obama would not attend and, as of Monday, had no plans to see Clinton while they are both on the island.
Clinton, who lost to Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, has not said definitively whether she will run in 2016. But her decision to sit down for an in-depth interview about her foreign policy vision and to distinguish herself from the unpopular incumbent for whom she worked is the latest signal she’s seriously preparing for a bid.
Republicans say she won’t be able to escape that she carried out Obama’s foreign policy for his first term without public complaint. “Hillary Clinton spent four years executing Barack Obama’s foreign policy and in year five of Obama’s term it’s ridiculous for Hillary to try to swindle voters into thinking what’s happening around the world isn’t a product of Obama-Hillary diplomacy,” Republican National Committee spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski said in response to her interview.
Clinton described Obama’s “stupid stuff” doctrine as a political message and not his worldview, while also suggesting there’s a middle way to lead.
“When you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
She expressed adherence to the idea that America has overall been a powerful force for advancing the cause of freedom, despite its missteps.
“I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea – but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one,” she said.