The not-Obama, except....

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Foreign Policy, Clinton Debates Obama

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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On Saturday evening in the final presidential debate of 2015, Hillary Clinton was in 2008 mode. Her toughest barbs were not directed at the two Democrats on stage with her, but rather at the Democrat who beat her in her previous bid for the White House, and whom she served as secretary of state.

The veiled attacks on President Barack Obama began almost from the outset. When asked about how confident the American people should be that there are not more potential attackers in the U.S. like the San Bernardino killers, Clinton said: "I have a plan that I've put forward to go after ISIS, not to contain them but to defeat them."

The contrast Clinton drew there was a reference to Obama's famous interview that aired the morning before the Islamic State massacre in Paris last month when he assured that the group had been "contained." Obama has spent the last month assuring Americans that he intends to "defeat" them.

But Clinton's distancing operation did not end there. She also emphasized in the debate, as she has done many times in recent months, that she urged the president to support moderate rebels in Syria in 2012, when she was in her last year as secretary of state. Obama has bristled at the suggestion that he could have done more to support those opposition figures then, but eventually he did authorize a covert CIA program and an overt Pentagon program to train and equip such rebels -- as Clinton had recommended.

Clinton's final stiletto for Obama came in a colloquy with Martin O'Malley, the former Democratic governor of Maryland. In response to O'Malley's criticism that too much foreign policy thinking these days is mired in the cold war, Clinton disagreed. She said that "finally" the U.S. was "where we need to be" in terms of the strategy to defeat the Islamic State, referencing a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a political transition in Syria that passed this week.

But Clinton ended her thoughts on the matter by saying, "If the United States does not lead there is not another leader, there is a vacuum and we have to lead if we’re going to be successful.” Clinton has used this formulation for more than a year when discussing Syria. The clear implication is that Obama allowed for a vacuum in Syria that the Islamic State and other jihadists have now filled.

This version of Clinton is in stark contrast to the senator who ran against Obama for her party's nomination in 2008. Back then, Clinton ran away from her vote to authorize the Iraq war, having been the last major Democratic candidate to apologize for her support for it. She openly questioned the new military surge in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007 and commanded by General David Petraeus. On the trail, Clinton promised -- like Obama -- to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq if she were president.

Obama ended up fulfilling that campaign promise in 2011. He boasted of the withdrawal in 2012, though today he says he had no choice because Iraq's prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, had insisted on not providing legal immunity to U.S. soldiers and contractors in the country.

Today, Clinton is presenting herself as the candidate who would work to shrink the Muslim world's ungoverned spaces. At the same time, Clinton does not endorse sending large numbers of ground forces to Iraq and Syria to take on the Islamic State in these countries.

She's trying to show her distance from Obama, but she's also revealing how much she has in common with him. Like Obama, Clinton favors an air war against jihadis in Syria and Iraq with special operations forces and local allies to do the fighting on the ground. Like Obama, Clinton also at least rhetorically supports the removal of Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power. Like Obama, Clinton has not put forth a plan to instate a no-fly zone in Syria -- although she has voiced support for the idea, and he has not.

If you take Clinton's word for it, she would avoid the pitfalls of Obama's policy against jihadis. But when it comes to the details of the current war on terror, she has much more in common with the president than her rhetoric would imply. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net