A typical account of Hillary Clinton's assessment of Obama's foreign policy in the Goldberg interview ran like this one in the New York Times:
Her blunt public criticism of the president’s foreign policy in The Atlantic this week touched off frustration among Mr. Obama’s advisers and supporters, especially her suggestion that under Mr. Obama, the United States lacked an “organizing principle” in its approach to international relations. “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Mrs. Clinton said.Three things to note about this takeaway:
1. Clinton didn't say that "don't do stupid stuff" is Obama's organizing principle, or that he lacks one. In fact she said the opposite.
2. The "organizing principle" that Clinton articulated, when pressed, is indistinguishable from Obama's, and, just like Obama's, incorporates "don't do stupid shit" but doesn't end there (though the particulars of her favored policies on specific issues may quite different, in disturbing ways -- more on this at bottom).
3. Obama has articulated that principle continually since his first year in office.
Point 1: Here is the full text of what Clinton said with respect to the "don't do stupid stuff" mantra:
HRC: Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.Note that the premise that Obama has cast "don't do stupid shit" as his "policy in a nutshell "was Goldberg's, not Clinton's. Though she didn't directly challenge the claim that Obama has defined his policy this way, she did deny that his policy is thus bounded. Note too that "don't do stupid..." is not political in a cynical sense. that is, it's not a distortion of Obama's views, or a sugarcoating, it's just half the equation -- a reassurance that he sees fit to emphasize. Again, Clinton is struggling to explain a reality that Goldberg has defined.
JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?
HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. 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.
So I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.
Point 2: Take a look at Clinton's own credo. I have highlighted two echoes of Obama's thinking and phrasing:
JG: What is your organizing principle, then?There are three components to this little disquisition (beyond the singularly canned and vacuous slogan): 1) economic strength at home is the foundation of U.S. influence and power in the world; 2) sustainable economic strength requires, strengthening the middle class, and by implication reducing inequality (Obama always casts his economic policy as support for those who "work hard and play by the rules"); and 3) to get it right at home, it's imperative that we don't do, um, stupid shit abroad. Throughout the interview, Clinton stressed a fourth element: deploying "smart power," i.e., an array of diplomatic tools other than military force. That formula too is pure Obama. The differences between them lie elsewhere.
HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.” You’ve got to take care of your home first. That’s another part of the political messaging that you have to engage in right now. People are not only turned off about being engaged in the world, they’re pretty discouraged about what’s happening here at home.
I think people want—and this is a generalization I will go ahead and make—people want to make sure our economic situation improves and that our political decision-making improves. Whether they articulate it this way or not, I think people feel like we’re facing really important challenges here at home: The economy is not growing, the middle class is not feeling like they are secure, and we are living in a time of gridlock and dysfunction that is just frustrating and outraging.
People assume that we’re going to have to do what we do so long as it’s not stupid, but what people want us to focus on are problems here at home. If you were to scratch below the surface on that—and I haven’t looked at the research or the polling—but I think people would say, first things first. Let’s make sure we are taking care of our people and we’re doing it in a way that will bring rewards to those of us who work hard, 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.
Below, a few instances of Obama articulating these four points, from 2009 to the present. Note the mantra throughout (or recall it -- it's bound to sound familiar): It's time to do some nation-building at home.
1. Obama's speech at West Point laying out his Afghan strategy, Dec. 1, 2009. In defense of his setting a timeline for withdrawal after the announced troop surge:
As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."
Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.
All told, by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.
But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.
2. Announcing the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, 8/31/10
Indeed, one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America s example to secure our interests and stand by our allies. And we must project a vision of the future that is based not just on our fears, but also on our hopes a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world, but also the limitless possibility of our time.
Today, old adversaries are at peace, and emerging democracies are potential partners. New markets for our goods stretch from Asia to the Americas. A new push for peace in the Middle East will begin here tomorrow. Billions of young people want to move beyond the shackles of poverty and conflict. As the leader of the free world, America will do more than just defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction we will also lead among those who are willing to work together to expand freedom and opportunity for all people.
That effort must begin within our own borders. Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its link to our own liberty and security. But we have also understood that our nation s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.
3. Announcing beginning of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, June 22, 2011
4. State of the Union, 2013.
Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.
We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force -- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don't have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we are doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their destiny.In all that we do, we must remember that what sets America apart is not solely our power -- it is the principles upon which our union was founded. We are a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others. We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab World. We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach.America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.
Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America. It is this kind of prosperity -- broad, shared, built on a thriving middle class -- that has always been the source of our progress at home. It’s also the foundation of our power and influence throughout the world.More recently, in laying out his military and foreign policy at West Point on May 28, 2014, Obama focused more on the tools of soft power, or "smart power" as Hillary is trying to brand it. He laid out a quite specific "organizing principle" with regard to when unilateral military action as opposed to multilateral military action or nonmilitary forms of pressure and influence:
First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.
On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake -- when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us -- then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes...
Obama went on to describe describe multilateral action against Russia and Iran. Then he laid out another core goal of an evolving foreign policy:
After World War II, America had the wisdom to shape institutions to keep the peace and support human progress -- from NATO and the United Nations, to the World Bank and IMF. These institutions are not perfect, but they have been a force multiplier. They reduce the need for unilateral American action and increase restraint among other nations.After arguing that multilateral efforts in response to crises in Ukraine and in response to Iran's nuclear program have been effective, he went on to sketch out the beginnings of the above-mentioned "evolution" in multilateralism -- in support for regional peacekeepers in Africa, an expanded writ for NATO, the quest for a maritime code of conduct in Asia, and the need for international action on global warming. Argue all you want about the efficacy of administration efforts on these fronts, but organizing principles for military and diplomatic engagements are hardly lacking.
Now, just as the world has changed, this architecture must change as well. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy spoke about the need for a peace based upon, “a gradual evolution in human institutions.” And evolving these international institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership.
In the Goldberg interview, Clinton did spell out real disagreements with Obama with regard to Syria, Iran and Israel. Personally, I find the differences Clinton staked out disturbing, not because I think she'd necessarily be much quicker to resort to military force once invested with the president's full responsibility (though both her track record and rhetoric do suggest a greater propensity for military action), but because of her professed willingness to let Israel's perceived security needs dictate U.S. policy. Why else stake out a position on Iranian enrichment that would torpedo current negotiations? But she articulated no theoretical difference with Obama, and no organizing principle other than his.
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