Clinton vs Obama: The 2nd round

FRENEMIES? There are signs of the old animosity between former political rivals Obama and Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.


    Aug 20, 2014

    Clinton vs Obama: The 2nd round

    AMERICAN politics and the international system have changed quite a lot since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

    On the domestic political front, the two leading Democratic rivals in 2008 - former presidential candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton - had made peace, with Mrs Clinton joining the Obama administration as Secretary of State during the first term of the newly elected president.

    And on the international front, Mr Obama launched a diplomatic and military effort to withdraw United States troops from Iraq and bring to an end American military intervention in that country.

    In a way, the Obama-Clinton conflict and the Iraq War were part of the same political drama. One of the main reasons that the young and relatively unknown Mr Obama was able to beat Mrs Clinton - once considered the inevitable Democratic presidential candidate - in their party's primaries had to do with Iraq.

    The former senator from Illinois was an early critic of the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Mesopotamia, while the former senator from New York had voted to authorise then president George W. Bush to attack Iraq in 2002.

    By blasting Mrs Clinton's vote on Iraq, Mr Obama ended up mobilising the support of the Democratic voters who, by a large majority, were opposed to the war.

    Before joining the Obama administration, Mrs Clinton apologised for her 2002 vote and went along with the new president's strategy of disengaging from Iraq. Farewell Iraq and hello the Obama-Clinton alliance. All's well that ends well?

    Apparently not. Mrs Clinton has all but announced her decision to run for the White House in 2016, and as the Obama administration is taking steps to re-assert the US military in Iraq, there are new signs of the old animosity between the two former political rivals.

    Launching a blunt political and personal attack against her former boss, she made it clear what she thought of the Obama administration's policy in Iraq and elsewhere.

    More specifically, candidate-in-waiting Clinton directed her criticism at what she believes is central to Mr Obama's foreign policy doctrine: Evading new and risky US military entanglements around the world or avoiding new Iraqs. Or as the President put it in colourful terms: "Don't do stupid things."

    "Great nations need organising principles - and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organising principle," Mrs Clinton argued in response to Mr Obama's comments in an interview with The Atlantic. Ouch!

    She made her remarks at a time when he was trying to deal with a series of crises abroad, most recently the danger that Iraq would disintegrate and come under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a murderous radical Islamist group.

    And Mrs Clinton also decided to blast Mr Obama when his popularity has been at its lowest during his presidency, with the majority of Americans expressing dissatisfaction with his handling of foreign policy.

    That she is more hawkish than the President on national security issues doesn't surprise most observers.

    In fact, in her new book Hard Choices, she recalls that when serving as the Obama administration's top diplomat, she advocated providing military assistance to the rebels fighting Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad - an idea rejected by Mr Obama at that time.

    Indeed, critics of his foreign policy have argued that the refusal to aid Syria's moderate insurgents has helped fuel support for the more militant elements in Syria and Iraq. Mr Obama has responded to the criticism by arguing that there was never a unified and effective Syrian opposition to support and that US weapons could have ended up falling into the hands of the ISIS forces.

    But Mrs Clinton's criticism goes beyond Syria and Iraq. What she seemed to be trying to do was to paint the current White House occupant as a leader whose caution in dealing with international crises, and in particular, his reluctance to use military force in responding to these crises, is eroding US credibility and influence around the world.

    She seemed to suggest that, as president, she would be able to find the right balance between overextending US military reach abroad and being so cautious as to allow global crises to explode and harm American interests.

    "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," Mrs Clinton told The Atlantic.

    Critics of Mrs Clinton - who also sounded in the interview more supportive of Israel and less willing to reach a nuclear deal with Iran - accuse her of echoing Mr Obama's Republican neoconservative bashers.

    More to the point, if as secretary of state, Mrs Clinton had such strong reservations over the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda, why didn't she resign from her position in protest, especially when the White House expressed criticism of Israeli policies and promoted a diplomatic dialogue with Iran?

    And let's not forget her vote on the Iraq War. The fact is that it allowed the Bush administration to launch a war that is, in many ways, responsible for the mess that exists in Iraq today that Mr Obama is being forced to deal with.

    Moreover, it's not clear whether Mrs Clinton's hawkish views are going to win her a lot of support among Democratic activists and voters who have been strongly opposed to new US military interventions, a sentiment that seemed to be shared by the majority of Americans.

    Adding to all the confusion is the possibility that the Republicans could end up selecting Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky - a staunch libertarian and anti-interventionist politician - as their presidential candidate.

    If that happens, and the Democrats elect Mrs Clinton as expected as their candidate, we might witness a dramatic reversal in the two parties' positions on foreign policy: A hawkish Democratic presidential candidate running against a Republican military dove.