A wary eye.

Hillary Didn't Throw Obama Under the Bus

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Andrew Sprung questioned how far former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually distanced herself from President Barack Obama in her interview with the Atlantic's (and Bloomberg View's) Jeffrey Goldberg. It's a good question. With every half-step retreat, she seemed to provide sufficient context or caveats to make the measurement difficult.

The skill and elasticity of her rhetoric was impressive. She spoke at length, and seemingly without restraint, yet it's hard to find specific acts of the Obama administration that she has clearly renounced or endorsed, or firm positions of her own to which she irrevocably committed.

In one of her most forceful pronouncements, she drew a hawkish line on Iran's nuclear program. Yet not so hawkish that she doesn't have ample room to support or denounce a range of outcomes.

HRC: The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position ...

JG: Would you define what “a little” means?

HRC: No.

Clinton drew a clear distinction with Obama on Syria, pointing out that she had wanted more vigorous support for the non-jihadists among the Syrian opposition. But she made no claim that her preferred approach would have succeeded. She also compared herself very favorably with her successor, John Kerry, in moving Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward compromise, casting Kerry's subsequent efforts in a diminished light. But much of Clinton's foreign policy analysis fell under the rubric of "time will tell."

Did Obama underreach on foreign policy in reaction to President George W. Bush's overreach?

What do we have to think about? In order to do that better, I see a lot of questions that we have to be answering. I don’t think we can draw judgments yet. I think we can draw a judgment about the Bush administration in terms of overreach, but I don’t know that we can reach a conclusion about underreach.

On the Muslim Brotherhood's potential for violent jihad, "the jury is out." As to whether the U.S. can ever work with political Islam, Clinton thinks "it's too soon to tell."

Ultimately, after decades of grappling with turmoil in the Middle East, what have we learned?

I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.

Despite a New York Post cover today depicting Clinton denouncing Obama's "Stupid Policy" in the Mideast, blunt talk was in short supply and mostly reserved for the Bush administration.

It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid.

Attacking Bush, rather than Obama, makes sense, and not only because Clinton served in Obama's cabinet. Clinton is two years away from the 2016 Democratic Convention. Presuming she intends to be nominated for president on that occasion, her first task is to win a series of Democratic primaries. Those contests will be decided by voters who think pretty highly of Obama; his favorability-to-unfavorability ratio among Democrats is about 87-to-10. So even if Clinton thinks Obama is a fool -- in this interview she calls him "thoughtful ... incredibly smart ... able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time" -- she would be a bigger one to say so.

I'm not complaining about Clinton's caution. It's politically wise, and wisdom often seems to be a good quality in a president. Not that we can say so definitively. The jury is out. Time will tell.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net