Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called President Barack Obama today to say that her remarks in a recent interview weren’t intended as an attack on his policies or leadership, according to her spokesman.
“While they’ve had honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents, she has explained those differences in her book and at many points since then,” Nick Merrill said in a statement. “Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues.”
Tension has been building between the Obama and Clinton camps since Aug. 10, when Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg published an interview with the former secretary of state in which she said “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
While the president’s aides have used that four-word mantra for months to describe his foreign policy doctrine, longtime Obama political adviser David Axelrod fired back at Clinton earlier today with a terse Twitter message.
“Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision,” he wrote.
A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, declined to comment.
The episode has escalated tensions between an administration eager to defend its foreign policy at a time of global chaos and a Clinton operation equally eager to separate the former secretary of state from Obama decisions she fell in line to support.
Her efforts to distance herself from Obama could hurt her with Democratic primary voters should she run for president in 2016 and help her with independents and national security-minded Republicans in a general election.
The anti-war base of the Democratic Party has long distrusted Clinton’s support for a muscular foreign policy. Obama used her vote as a U.S. senator to authorize the Iraq war as a cudgel in defeating her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, and some of her political critics are re-emerging.
“Secretary Clinton, and any other person thinking about seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016, should think long and hard before embracing the same policies advocated by right-wing war hawks that got America into Iraq in the first place and helped set the stage for Iraq’s troubles today,” Ilya Sheyman, executive director of the political action arm of MoveOn, a Democratic group, said in a statement.
In the interview, Clinton told Goldberg that she advocated arming moderate Syrian rebels in 2012 and was rebuffed by Obama. The Islamic State, a militant force now sweeping across Iraq, took root in the Syrian conflict, and she told Goldberg that a vacuum was created by the “failure” to arm moderates in Syria. The basic thrust of her remarks to Goldberg was also reflected in the memoir she released in June but attracted far less attention.
Clinton didn’t make public her disagreement on Syria policy while she served in government, and she told Goldberg that she couldn’t say for certain that her approach would have yielded any different outcome.
The timing of her remarks caused discomfort for the White House because of the crisis in Iraq. In addition, Clinton and the president are scheduled to appear together tomorrow night on Martha’s Vineyard at a birthday party for Ann Dibble Jordan, wife of Vernon Jordan, the former president of the National Urban League and a confidant of both Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
Merrill said that Clinton “looks forward to hugging it out” with the president at that party.
“Secretary Clinton was proud to serve with President Obama, she was proud to be his partner in the project of restoring American leadership and advancing America’s interests and values in a fast changing world,” Merrill said. “The secretary called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies, or his leadership.”
Clinton and Axelrod haven’t always had strained relations. She has appeared at fundraising events for the charity that Axelrod and his wife created to fight epilepsy, a disorder that afflicts their daughter. Clinton and Axelrod grew apart during the 2008 campaign as he led Obama’s messaging campaign against Clinton.
All seemed forgiven in 2013, though, when Clinton headlined a fundraiser for the epilepsy-research charity and Axelrod called her the organization’s “patron saint.”