Sunday, August 10, 2014

Read Goldberg's interview with Hillary Clinton before you read Goldberg's account of that interview

I've seen more than one tweet this morning to the effect that Hillary Clinton "threw Obama under an ISIS-driven Humvee" in a long, probing, interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.  I think that's a wrong impression created by Goldberg's introductory overview, which overstates her actual and implied criticisms of Obama.

It's no secret that Clinton advocated for early U.S. support of allegedly moderate factions in the Syrian opposition. And it's necessary and prudent for Hillary to distance herself from Obama, or position herself to do so, in that a) she genuinely is more interventionist, and b) the world could blow up on Obama and doom her chances if she's seen as a continuation. But it's also in Hillary's DNA to hedge, both from a desire to cover both sides and an ability to see complexity (except with regard to Israel, to which she pandered without inhibition). And in at least three instances, Goldberg emphasized just one side of her equation.

First, with regard to the Syrian intervention. Here's Goldberg:
In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against 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.
And here's Hillary, in the interview:

I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place...

JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?

HRC: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against 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.

They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.

JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?

HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing
 Now, I've left out a bit of context too. It's complicated. But given the public difference of opinion, I think Clinton is pretty circumspect here.

Second point: according to Goldberg, Clinton "said that the resilience, and expansion, of Islamist terrorism means that the U.S. must develop an “overarching” strategy to confront it, and she equated this struggle to the one the U.S. waged against Soviet-led communism."

Sort of. But while Clinton did draw an analogy between containing communism and containing jihadism, she never said that the challenges were on the same scale -- a longstanding neocon talking point. In his introduction, Goldberg quoted only the first paragraph below, emphasizing the jihadist threat. The paragraphs that follow, however, diminish and contextualize the analogy:
One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d'ĂȘtre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.

Now the big mistake was thinking that, okay, the end of history has come upon us, after the fall of the Soviet Union. That was never true, history never stops and nationalisms were going to assert themselves, and then other variations on ideologies were going to claim  their space. Obviously, jihadi Islam is the prime example, but not the only example—the effort by Putin to restore his vision of Russian greatness is another. In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players.

JG: There doesn’t seem to be a domestic constituency for the type of engagement you might symbolize.

HRC: Well, that’s because most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.
Third point: Goldberg's take on discussion of a signature Obama dictum:
At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.
Goldberg notes one way that Clinton "softened the blow." But he neglects the more important way -- Clinton made it clear that "don't do stupid shit" is not Obama's "organizing principle." Here's the full context:
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.

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.
I don't want to overstate the alleged overstatement. Goldberg highlighted what he thought was important, and newsworthy -- and of course, the full interview text followed. But readers imprint what they first read, and we all tend to respond to a work of art or an expression of thought as we are first told to. The gap between Goldberg's account of the interview and the interview itself reminds me of the gap between Bob Woodward's account of Robert Gates' treatment of Obama in his memoir and the actual treatment, which was  lot more nuanced that Woodward allowed.

I should add, on a substantive note, that I have always found Clinton's neocon impulses worrisome and her judgment suspect, and this interview bolstered those impressions, particularly with regard to her maximalist position with respect to Iran's nuclear program, probably a function of her no-holds-barred pandering the the Israel lobby. While I might well prefer a different Democrat on the merits, per my last, Clinton's longstanding quasi-neocon branding may provide a political bulwark for Democrats if if more foreign policy disaster strikes in the remainder of Obama's term. [Update: more thoughts on the substance of Clinton's discussion with Goldberg here.

Hillary Clinton was not so hawkish on Iraq

Hedges, lies and pablum
Barbarians at the gate
The president who doesn't do sound bytes (on Goldberg-Obama interview)
If only Obama would say what he's always said. If only he'd do what he's done.
A lover of fairy tales casts Obama as villain in chief


  1. Clinton's pandering to the Israeli Lobby particularly astonishes here. She quotes practically verbatim every rhetorical point from the Israeli ideological style guide, the exact same phraseology we are forced to read/hear repeatedly and everywhere, over and over again, down to the most unfortunate mis-use of the phrase "anti-semitic" that's now used automatically to intimidate and oppress any intelligent discussion of Gaza. Ms. Clinton, possibly more than any other politician, is thoroughly bought and paid for by AIPAC and one of its chief patrons, of which there are many. She did quite the bang-up job for them in this case

  2. I think that the interview is appalling whichever way you read it.

    As a European I have watched OBAMA since he was sworn in as president and his decisions have always given the US and the
    US people enormous moral credibility. I think that OBAMA is intellectually thoughtful about using US MILITARY FORCES to prop
    up dubious political regimes who have political problems because they have considered narrow polticial interests against benefit
    of national unity.

    When OBAMA says there are no military solutions to political problems he is correct.

    The USG and AMERICAN people have gained a lot of moral high ground by his decision to restrict MILITARY INTERVENTION
    to HUMANITARIAN contexts where civilians are targeted for genocide and/or rape and/or slavery. Of course no one knows how
    IRAQ will evolve. BUT one thing is clear the USG cannot write - or - will ever be permitted to write another countries POLICIES.

    It is now a WORLD where diplomacy becomes ever more important and taking sides simply forces USG to 'RECUSE' itself as a HONEST BROKER.

    Sometimes it is SUPER-SMART to be like SWITZERLAND.

    I do not think anyone is in the market for another war right now.

  3. I think it's an excellent vision from an american and i think it's time we let her pursue it