Last month, Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic published an interview with Hillary Clinton. At 8,000 words it can be off-putting to plough through, but I have now finally got around to it, and it is rather interesting. The interview focusses on the three areas where President Obama’s foreign policy has so conspicuously failed—Syria, Iran, and Israel—and also includes sections on Egypt and Libya, where the administration’s failure has been somewhat less in the news.
Mrs. Clinton’s remarks about Syria are the ones that have garnered the most headlines because she stakes out a position clearly distinct from President Obama on the most crucial issue of this terrible war: When should the help to the nationalist rebels have begun. Mrs. Clinton says:
“I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition [that was not outside Syria]. … [T]he failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
The President has dismissed as a “fantasy” the idea that had the moderate rebels been armed earlier they could have kept the jihadists at bay and led a more effective battle against the Assad regime. But Frederic Hof, who oversaw the Syria desk at Clinton’s State Department, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and former CIA Director and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta—among many former officials—have all said that earlier help to the moderates would have prevented the jihadists filling the vacuum.
Mrs. Clinton very carefully does not directly attack the President. Asked if this hold-back in Syria was a case of “underreach,” Mrs. Clinton says: “I don’t think you can draw that conclusion,” but she allows the impression to stand that that is exactly what she is saying.
On Iran, Mrs. Clinton now takes an uncompromising view:
“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. … [T]here is no such thing as a right to enrich. … The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.”
Asked if it was acceptable for Iran to be kept perpetually on the threshold of nuclear weapons—a year or so from “breakout”—Mrs. Clinton says, “it should be more than a year,” and adds that the position of not allowing Tehran any enrichment at all is “not an unrealistic position.” There is a trapdoor in this.
As Mrs. Clinton now hopes people will forget, she was the first U.S. official to say, in December 2010, that Tehran was “entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy.” At that time there were six extant U.N. Security Council resolutions saying that Iran had no “right” to enrich any uranium. These resolutions were destroyed by the “interim” accord signed with the Iranians in November, but Mrs. Clinton’s role in weakening the American position—and in keeping quiet during the June 2009 uprising—could still be a major obstacle to her nomination in 2016.
Turning to Israel, Mrs. Clinton says the reaction against the Jewish State for Operation PROTECTIVE EDGE was “uncalled for and unfair“:
“There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here … [W]hat you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”
It was quite obvious during the fighting that HAMAS was manipulating the press; since then the reports have come thick and fast to confirm this view. Mrs. Clinton is therefore on firm factual ground, as she is in mentioning that the most ancient of hatreds was clearly a major motivating factor in the “protests”—often violent demonstrations—across Europe. Mrs. Clinton is also quite correct that “the ultimate responsibility [for the casualties in Gaza] has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.” The points made about the damage to Israel in terms of PR made above are perfectly true, and it is why even many friends of Israel thought the sending of troops into Gaza this last time was a mistake (myself among them), but moral seriousness calls for recognising that HAMAS did everything it could to maximise the civilian casualties in Gaza, starting with provoking the war and then by continuing to refuse ceasefires offered—and stuck to, by Israel—on half-a-dozen occasions.
On the “peace process” more broadly, Mrs. Clinton says, “Dealing with Bibi is not easy, so people get frustrated and they lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here,” but she nonetheless lays out a vision of how this ends that essentially accords with what Prime Minister Netanyahu has demanded:
“[I]f I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else.”
In short, Mrs. Clinton draws people’s attention to the fact that the FATAH/PLO administration on the West Bank is not actually as keen as it publicly suggests for a final settlement to this conflict: it does rather well financially out of the status quo, and if it was truly independent, FATAH would have to deal with HAMAS on its own.
Mrs. Clinton also takes a hardline view of HAMAS:
“I would not put Hamas in the category of people we could work with … because its whole reason for being is … [the] destruction of Israel, and it is married to very nasty tactics and ideologies, including virulent anti-Semitism. I do not think they should be in any way treated as a legitimate interlocutor, especially because if you do that, it redounds to the disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority“.
There are some in Israel, and especially outside Israel, who have come to view HAMAS as, if not moderate, then a workable actor in a final settlement. This has been brought about mostly by looking at the Islamic State and its reign of unremitting savagery—video beheadings, crucifixtions, mass-rape, and ethnic cleansing—across Iraq and Syria. Mrs. Clinton’s view is closer to that of the Israeli government, which says that HAMAS is distinct from the I.S. only by degrees.
It is in this part of the interview that Mrs. Clinton really tries to sell herself: “I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. Kerry never got there“; “I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze“; “I got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025“; “I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria.” In remarks attributed to the historian Edward Gibbon, “I” has been called “the most disgusting of pronouns“. One begins to see why. Everyone at some time has to sell themselves if they want to get ahead, but at those moments one understands that a risk is being run of sounding conceited and everything possible is done to minimise that risk. Not so from Mrs. Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton takes no distance from Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, the intervention that brought down Muammar el-Qaddafi. “I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove Qaddafi because that came from the bottom up,” says Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton makes an (unintentionally) good case for having intervened deeper—Libyans have a “lack of security, which they inherited from Qaddafi. Remember, they’ve had two good elections. They’ve elected moderates and secularists and a limited number of Islamists, so you talk about democracy in action—the Libyans have done it twice—but they can’t control the ground.”—but she never quite completes the thought, and it does not seem to be her view. Mrs. Clinton is happy to leave it at the question of whether to intervene, of whether to help “the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff,” or whether “we should have been on the sidelines“.
To Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Mrs. Clinton is clear that “[t]he debate is between the bin Ladens of the world and the Muslim Brotherhood,” between the Islamists who are willing to work for peaceful transformation and those who say the only means of Islamising the society is through violence. But her judgment of what happened in Egypt, with the Ikhwans’ year in office, is not encouraging. For instance, she says:
“I think [Mohamed Morsi] genuinely believed that with the legitimacy of an elected Islamist government, that the jihadists would see that there was a different route to power and influence and would be part of the political process.”
That actually had started to happen. The jihadist insurgency in the Sinai was much less pronounced than it is now after the violent overthrow of the Brotherhood, HAMAS was estranged from its mother-branch, which was upholding the peace treaty with Israel, and the Wahhabi Hizb an-Nur was breaking down. The Islamists were in a tumult trying to deal with the fact that the government in Egypt was one of their own; the numbers of people who thought the government was not extreme enough were small, and the numbers prepared to violently contest the government for not being extreme enough smaller still. The coup unified all these Islamist forces: now they are all against the government.
But it is worse than that. Mrs. Clinton says:
“We will see how [the Brotherhood] respond to the crackdown … The jury is out as to whether they morph into a violent jihadist resistance group.”
If this transition happens, if the Brotherhood takes up arms again, there is no doubt why they did it. They Ikhwans tried the democratic path, for which they gained much scorn from Salafi-jihadist forces like al-Qaeda, who told them that the infidels outside and the apostates within would never allow the triumph of Islam by the ballot; the only when was the imposition by force. That advice now looks vindicated. The Brotherhood played the game with elections—of which it won five—while being blocked at every turn by the feloul, which maintained enormous power in the economy, the media, the army, the police, and the judiciary, and it was then brought down by what it calls (quite correctly) a conspiracy between these remnants and the Tamarod movement of the “liberals,” who, in combination with the police, put enough people on the streets and caused enough chaos to give cover to the military take-over last July.
It is a bit much therefore to see Mrs. Clinton say:
“The Muslim Brotherhood had the most extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the potential for an Islamist movement to take responsibility for governance, and they were ill-prepared and unable to make the transition from movement to responsibility.”
The Brotherhood was heavy-handed—its every instinct is authoritarian—and incompetent, and yes emerging from six decades in the shadows meant it was not as prepared as it might have been for governance. But it is absurd to even suggest that its year in office is in any way responsible for the ruin of the country: six decades of dictatorship—the very forces that stymied the Brotherhood in office and then brought it down—are what destroyed Egypt. Even the Brotherhood’s inability to govern is only another way of stating the harvest of dictatorship: they were unable to mature into a governing party because they were kept out of office and on the run by the Police State.
Mrs. Clinton says of the Middle East more broadly:
“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’être is to be against the West“.
There is an oblique criticism of President Obama in this too for his allowing a Takfiri Caliphate to take root that has the time and space to train these Europeans in domestic terrorism.
Getting as close as she dared to an outright attack on President Obama—who is “thoughtful,” “incredibly smart,” “able,” and “cautious“—Mrs. Clinton said that while the President “was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” he had somewhat overdone it:
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward. One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days. … Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
This is a reference to a phrase that appeared in May after Obama’s trip to Asia, where his aides summarised his foreign policy as: “Don’t Do Stupid Shit.” Syria was drowning in blood and the Kremlin was openly defying all cannons of international conduct and dismembering a Member State of the United Nations, and Obama looked—and had made himself—a spectator to these events. Evidently nettled by this, he had taken to calling his opponents—including Democrats in the Senate who had any doubts about his policies—warmongers, and placing his masterly inactivity in the realm of intellectual superiority. Mrs. Clinton seems to think that action is discernible from inaction, and that there is a case for a foreign policy where the former has a role.
Mrs. Clinton concluded on what might well be her slogan in 2016: “Peace, progress, and prosperity.” She said:
“Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations … [T]here’s a little bit happening that is making them feel better about the economy, but it’s not nearly enough where it should be.”
Again the criticism is less-than-direct but Mrs. Clinton’s clear meaning is that the President has not done enough to secure the middle-class and to get the economy going.
Mrs. Clinton essentially tells Goldberg that she will run in 2016, though everyone knew this already. A Democratic strategist was quoted by the New York Times in November 2013 saying that for Mrs. Clinton, in distinguishing herself from the Obama administration in 2016, “Competence” would be the key, “And by the end of Obama’s second term, that may be more than enough.” That seems to be the main intent of this sudden hawkish turn. As the polls turn on the Obama foreign policy, Mrs. Clinton is capitalising, explaining that she would have steered things a little differently by being just a little more involved—not everywhere, and not with boots on the ground, but with just enough of America’s power to have made the outcomes a bit better.