Bloomberg News

Hillary Clinton Keeps Obama Close While Citing Policy Gap

June 10, 2014

Obama and Clinton

U.S. President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton arrive at Yangon International airport during a visit to Myanmar, on Nov. 19, 2012. Photographer: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In her latest memoir, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton distances herself from President Barack Obama on foreign policy while characterizing their personal relationship as close.

It’s an early indication of how Clinton would have to run her campaign for the White House, keeping Obama close to win over his most ardent supporters and donors who were cool to her in 2008, while finding ways to separate herself from an Obama foreign policy often criticized as too timid by Republicans.

“I wouldn’t always agree with the president,” Clinton writes in “Hard Choices,” which is due to be released today by Simon & Schuster. “But he and I developed a strong professional relationship and, over time, forged the personal friendship he had predicted and that I came to value deeply.”

In other words, Obama’s likable enough -- even if he’s not always right.

In the book, Clinton echoes Obama’s tendencies on domestic issues of importance to the coalition that twice put him in office, which included large numbers of young, African-American and Hispanic voters. For example, the positions Clinton articulates on the advancement of women and gay rights, and changing the immigration system align with Obama’s base.

“Politically it makes sense for Secretary Clinton to stay close to the Obama political machine and his legion of activists,” said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “Clinton and Obama may have different policy views but they all lead to a common goal.”

Presidential Call

Clinton nods at the looming decision about her political future in the last line of the book: “The time for another hard choice will come soon enough.”

To keep Democrats unified, Clinton must remain in the good graces of Obama loyalists, even if many of those same voters rejected her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

In her concession speech in June 2008, Clinton appealed to women who supported her historic bid for the White House to get behind Obama’s effort to become America’s first black president. Since then, she has put a new emphasis on portraying herself as a champion of individuals and classes of people who have disproportionately little power.

She devotes eight consecutive pages in the book to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, focused largely on a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2011 in which she said “gay rights are human rights.” That echo of a line she delivered about women’s rights at a Beijing conference in 1995 put the speech in the context of her work for groups she refers to as “invisibles” -- women, girls, and religious, sexual and ethnic minorities.

Aligned Policy

Though Clinton rarely delves into contested domestic policy topics in the book, she takes on immigration from the perspective of first- and second-generation Americans. They “were valuable links back to their home countries and also significant contributors to our own country’s economic, cultural and political life,” she writes. “I only wish that the bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in 2013 reforming our immigration laws could pass the House.”

Obama in 2012 defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney 76 percent to 22 percent among gay voters, and 71 percent to 27 percent among Hispanic voters, according to exit polls.

While aligning with the president on domestic issues, Clinton details the separation between her own hawkish views and decisions Obama made on a range of foreign policy issues, including Israeli settlements, arming Syrian rebels and apologizing for a drone strike that killed Pakistani soldiers.

Israel Split

In 2009, Clinton and George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader and Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, disagreed when the president decided Israel should freeze settlement construction as a confidence-building measure to lay the groundwork to restart direct peace talks.

The president had reached that conclusion at the urging of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former civilian volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces who argued for a tough stance on settlements.

“That spring I delivered the President’s message as forcefully as I could, then tried to contain the consequences when both sides reacted badly,” Clinton writes.

Israel initially refused to extend a moratorium on new construction, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama became embroiled in a public standoff that has shadowed U.S.- Israeli relations ever since. Once the 10-month settlement freeze expired in September 2010, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t engage in talks until the freeze was restored -- all of which were complications Clinton says that she and Mitchell feared would come to pass.

‘Didn’t Work’

“In retrospect, our early hard line on settlements didn’t work,” Clinton writes.

Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel in March 2010 when Israel announced plans for 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, the contested city that Israelis had refused to make part of the freeze.

Obama and Emanuel “were furious,” Clinton writes and assigned her with telling Netanyahu that the move was seen as a personal insult. “I didn’t enjoy playing the bad cop,” Clinton writes, distancing herself from the content of the message even as she describes relaying it, “but it was part of the job.”

Clinton draws another distinction between herself and the commander-in-chief on Syria, where conflict erupted in March 2011 and became so violent that the UN said in January it could no longer reliably update the death toll there.

Syria Challenges

By 2012 it was clear Syria represented a “wicked problem,” Clinton writes, where each option was worse than the last. By March, more than 8,000 had been killed, the UN said. Regional stability, growing extremism, and the world’s largest humanitarian disaster added to the complicating factors.

Clinton, four-star General David Petraeus, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others on the National Security Council decided that a trained, armed, and carefully vetted force of moderate rebels could shift the battle. The U.S. had balked at doing so, even as allies rushed weapons into the country. Reversing course on arming moderates was risky, Clinton writes, but “it was the least bad option among many even worse alternatives.”

Obama still said no. The president “worried” that it wouldn’t be enough to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and could have unintended consequences, Clinton says.

“This was the president’s call,” she writes. She threw herself into continued diplomacy and implementing the U.S. policy of providing Syria’s civilian opposition with blankets, food, water, and non-lethal aid such as computers and phones.

Band-Aid Fixes

“All of these steps were Band-Aids,” Clinton writes. “The conflict would rage on.”

When she left the administration in 2013, she notes that “tens of thousands” of Syrians had been killed. In April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of dead at a minimum of 150,000. Millions are displaced.

Travel with Obama offered a chance “to consult and strategize far from the hubbub of Washington,” Clinton writes, and advice went both ways. Before a meeting in Prague, Obama said he needed to talk to Clinton privately, threw an arm over her shoulder and steered her over to a window.

He leaned over to whisper in her ear: “You’ve got something in your teeth.”

It was, Clinton writes, “the kind of thing only a friend would say and a sign that we were going to have each other’s backs.”

Russia Frustrations

Russia also provided grist for difference between Clinton and Obama’s White House. In January 2013, she wrote the president a memo suggesting a new, tougher course with Russia.

Clinton had spent her tenure as secretary monitoring Russia -- calling for an investigation into “fraud” in Russian elections in 2011, warning of President Vladimir Putin’s plan for “Sovietization” of former republics in late 2012, and denouncing his “despicable” support for Assad.

She suggested Obama not appear too eager to work with Putin, that he decline an invitation to St. Petersburg in September, and that “strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.”

“Not everyone at the White House agreed with my relatively harsh analysis,” she writes. Obama accepted Putin’s invitation for a summit in St. Petersburg. In the months that followed, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden fled to Moscow and Putin annexed Crimea. “By 2014, and the Ukrainian crisis, relations had plummeted,” she writes.

Staff Hurdles

The White House staff surrounding Obama posed another hurdle for Clinton.

In November 2011, an errant drone strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan. The White House, viewing all decisions in terms of his 2012 re-election campaign, were “allergic to the idea of any apology, especially to the country that had harbored” Osama Bin Laden, Clinton writes.

Pakistan responded by shutting down NATO supply routes, creating logistical problems for U.S. troops and adding $100 million to monthly costs there.

Clinton promised Obama that she would absorb any political fall-out, and by July she’d negotiated an agreement. Her takeaway, couched in terms of U.S.-Pakistani relations, could also serve as a rebuttal to an administration overly driven by political concerns. “If we want results we have no choice other than to stay focused and pragmatic,” she writes.

Benghazi Issue

During an interview that aired last night on ABC, Clinton addressed one of the lowest points of her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat and one that Republicans are sure to attack if she runs for president: the September 2012, attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Clinton said told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the Benghazi outpost was one of many perilously situated U.S. diplomatic facilities around the globe. “There’s a long list of countries where there are security threats,” she said.

In the end, Clinton doesn’t need to work too hard to distinguish herself from Obama, said Joe Trippi, who managed former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

“There are very few people on the political scene in either party that are defined in her own right and she’s one of them,” he said. “She’s so identified as Hillary Clinton and who she is that she doesn’t have to worry about association with an administration. She’s in her own right. People identify her as Hillary Clinton, not connected to Obama or even Bill.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Allen in Washington at jallen149@bloomberg.net; Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net Craig Gordon


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