Hillary's Predictable Syria Protest

Hillary's Predictable Syria Protest

The purpose of Mrs. Clinton’s seemingly provocative comments is clear—to distance herself from Obama’s increasingly unpopular foreign policy.

Much has been made of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, where she deliberately, albeit delicately, disparaged certain aspects of the Obama foreign policy. Immediately after, the Washington punditry began in earnest to promote the narrative of a rift between Mrs. Clinton and President Obama over the latter’s management of U.S. foreign affairs. Obama’s neoconservative and liberal-internationalist critics quickly exploited the comments in efforts to vindicate their perennial belligerence. Charles Krauthammer uncharacteristically praised Clinton, writing in the Washington Post that she was altogether correct in her criticism. On CBS, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer echoed Krauthammer's sentiments. Even The Weekly Standard, no friend of Clinton’s, couldn’t help but to enthusiastically wade into the supposed rift, running a Special Guest Editorial entitled “Obama’s Foreign Policy Failures,” which featured verbatim excerpts from the now famous interview.

In response, Obama confidant David Axelrod took the dispute to Twitter to invoke the memory of Clinton’s infamous vote for the Iraq War, hoping to draw a stark contrast between Clinton’s reckless past behavior and Obama’s allegedly indelible low tolerance for “stupid stuff.” The interview would precipitate a “hug summit” between Obama and Clinton to patch things up, reminiscent of Obama’s rather silly “beer summit” at the White House in 2009. Yet the purpose of Mrs. Clinton’s seemingly provocative comments was clear: In order to stand out in the upcoming Democratic primary contest, as well as in a general-election setting, Clinton is frantically searching for ways to distance herself from Obama’s increasingly unpopular foreign policy, a foreign policy she integrally participated in crafting during Obama’s first term, even if the policies she now professes support for are not all too different from the ones her former employer presently advocates.

Aside from cozying up to Bibi Netanyahu and wearing her advocacy of overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi like a badge of honor, the supposedly key moment in the interview came when Clinton voiced dissent over Obama’s admittedly incoherent Syria policy. According to Clinton, the rise and subsequent expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria was largely the result of the Obama administration’s decision not to actively arm and finance “a core group” within the Free Syrian Army. “The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” said Clinton.

At no point in the lengthy interview did Clinton reflect on or even acknowledge the obviously failed U.S. policy of seeking regime change in Damascus, and what that policy has entailed for Syria and the region. By encouraging armed revolt against the Assad regime, the administration indirectly helped foment the jihadist insurgency now controlling a third of both Syria and Iraq. In other words, the vacuum now filled by violent jihadists that Clinton speaks of was not created by Obama’s lack of initiative when it came to nurturing the development of the Free Syrian Army. As long-time commentator and correspondent Patrick Smith recently observed in the Fiscal Times, Free Syrian Army democrats intent on establishing an inclusive polity in a post-Assad order “were born and raised in Washington imaginations.” Furthermore, Obama has consistently and routinely offered rhetorical and material support to the anti-Assad rebels, most recently by asking Congress to authorize half a billion dollars in arms, training and equipment to “vetted” rebel factions.

Rather, the vacuum came into being as a result of Washington’s preoccupation with toppling regimes it finds objectionable, even if the alternatives turn out to be exponentially worse. One need only consider the intervention in Libya for confirmation of that. In her interview, Clinton seemed to pat herself on the back for being the administration’s principal advocate of regime removal in Tripoli, proudly stating, “But you know, we helped overthrow Qaddafi.”

Yes, we do know. We know that post-Qaddafi Libya is a country currently defined by pervasive lawlessness and that it shares all of the distinctive hallmarks typically found in traditional failed states. We also know that just last month, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had to be swiftly evacuated because of an increased threat of militia violence. With the Libya braggadocio, Clinton now seems to be posing that same profound question she put before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 2012 hearing concerning the attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi—and whether the attack was premeditated or spontaneous—that claimed the lives of four Americans, including our Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens: In spite of Libya’s myriad woes, with Qaddafi gone, “what difference, at this point, does it make?”

In Syria, much like in Libya, Clinton and Obama both hoped—and continue to hope—that Assad would be deposed, regardless of the consequences his ouster would likely produce. One would have hoped, with the tragic U.S. experiences in Iraq and Libya behind her, that in the interview, Clinton would have at last disavowed both regime change in general and removing Assad in particular and subsequently articulated a strategy that was ISIS-centric, with the ultimate goal of irrevocably degrading the capacity of a group more heinous and considerably stronger than bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda ever was.

Instead, Clinton proposed the familiar, ineffectual prescription to cure Syria’s catastrophic ills: Heavily arm the “moderates,” and in spite of all indications to the contrary, expect that they would then roundly defeat both regime forces and the more radical rebel groups. Clinton, like Obama, can’t seem to fathom the inherent contradiction such a strategy carried, and still carries, with it. ISIS and the comparatively extreme al Nusra, for all intents and purposes, are and always have been the rebels. With over 170,000 dead, millions displaced, and ISIS on the march, it’s high time that Washington came to realize that toppling Assad would in the end benefit only those who espouse jihadism. In addition, it was the Clinton/Obama insistence on ousting Assad that was conducive to the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship and put to rest all talk of a fruitful reset with Moscow, despite the Kerry/Lavrov accord brokered last September to remove and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

One can find no comfort in Obama's characterization of Clinton’s comments as “horsesh*t,” or even when he describes as “fantasy” the thinking that providing Syrian rebels with more advanced weaponry much earlier would have produced more satisfactory results. When he’s not spending his days at the links, Obama’s actions with respect to Syria belie any sentiments he might happen to express to David Remnick or Thomas Friedman. Criminally naïve and counterproductive declarations that “Assad must go,” clandestine rebel training camps sponsored by the CIA in Jordan, foolish advertisements of what turned out to be an unenforceable red line, approving the indiscriminate supply of advanced weapons to rebel groups through U.S. regional allies, and the aforementioned $500 million request for the rebels all attest to the reality that, specifically as it concerns U.S. policy in Syria, Clinton and Obama aren’t all that far apart. Obama, like Clinton, also expressed no regrets about participating in the overthrow of Qaddafi in his own interview with Friedman in the New York Times.

Mrs. Clinton, like anyone else, has a right to criticize what she perceives to be wrong with President Obama’s foreign policy, even if ultimately it was she who helped make it. With experience comes, or should come, wisdom. Besides, there is much to criticize, especially in light of the ISIS blitzkrieg across the Syrian border—to the extent that it’s even a formal border anymore—into Iraq, and the fact that earlier this year, Obama was naively characterizing ISIS as merely a jayvee threat. Yet, if indeed she is determined on making her long-awaited, Obama-deferred trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Clinton also has a special responsibility to be right in her criticism. That can only happen, however, when Clinton unequivocally repudiates the disastrous policy of regime change and realizes the damage that such a policy has inflicted upon the national interest. Unrealistic though it may be, it is only then that Clinton could even hope to begin the process of substantively differentiating herself from President Obama.

Zane Albayati is a writer based in Washington, DC. He received a BA in Government from Belmont Abbey College. He tweets @zanealbayati04.