An interview with The Atlantic published Sunday contained some of the strongest public criticism Hillary Clinton strongest criticism has made of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy since she left her position as his secretary of state last year.
Clinton attributed the rise of jihadists affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria to the White House’s “failure” to do more to back other rebels who have been fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.
ISIS began making substantial gains in Syria last year and has since advanced into Iraq where the U.S. launched airstrikes against the group last week.
In the Atlantic interview, Clinton noted she “advocated” doing more to support a “core group” of Free Syrian Army fighters opposed to Assad. She argued this would have, potentially, helped oust the Syrian leader and would have given the U.S. better knowledge of the situation in the country.
“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,” said Clinton, adding, “Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that.”
Syria wasn’t the only area where Clinton contrasted herself with Obama in her conversation with the Atlantic. In an introduction posted with the discussion online, Atlantic National Correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, who conducted the conversation with Clinton, said it appeared to be the beginning of an “effort” by Clinton to contrast her views with the president’s.
“Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve,” Goldberg wrote. “On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway.”
Clinton also distanced herself from the Obama administration’s position in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 powers. While the U.S. and other P5+1 powers have indicated they would allow Iran to have a limited nuclear enrichment program, Clinton took a harder line.
“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right,” said Clinton. “I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment.”
While she made it clear she would prefer not to allow nuclear enrichment for Iran, Clinton said permitting “little” enrichment with a “discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges” would be a “potential fallback position.”
Overall, Clinton also criticised the slogan Obama has recently used to articulate his foreign policy doctrine — “Don’t do stupid sh*t.”
“Great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle,” Clinton said.
Clinton subsequently softened this critique by noting she thinks it is “a political message” and not Obama’s “worldview.” She also gave the president several compliments.
“I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” said Clinton. “I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyse a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in.”
In an email to Business Insider, a source close to Clinton rejected the notion she is strategically distancing herself from Obama. They noted she has articulated some of these positions in her book, “Hard Choices,” which was published in June.
“What she said is what she said in the book,” the source said, adding, “The rest was merely commenting on world events.”
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