Many observers who read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview of Hillary Clinton in the Atlantic interpreted it as a formal declaration of independence from President Barack Obama. I doubt that was the intention.
For me, what stood out was Clinton’s unplugged willingness to give serious answers to serious questions, and in so doing, to reveal her intent to run for president, something that was overlooked in the hype created over her areas of disagreement with her former boss.
Take the New York Post, which last week ran a front-page headline juxtaposed against an unflattering photograph of Clinton reading: “Hill Blames Mideast crisis on Obama’s ‘STUPID POLICY.’” And yet, here is the exchange to which that headline refers:
Goldberg: “Is the lesson for you, like it is for President Obama, ‘Don’t do stupid (stuff)?'”
Clinton: “That’s a good lesson but it’s more complicated than that. Because your stupid may not be mine, and vice versa. I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove (Moammar) Gadhafi because that came from the bottom up. That was people asking us to help. It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid. I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories. That’s what I’m arguing.”
Clinton was being critical of the George W. Bush administration for invading Iraq, a criticism for which she will rightfully be taken to task after having voted for the war authorization without such a plan, as evidenced by her Twitter rebuke from David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama.
Of course, reporting on a difference of opinion between George W. Bush and Clinton lacks the buzz that comes from an Obama/Clinton smackdown just as the Middle East is imploding, hence the contrary interpretation of that passage. And it’s not just the Post.
Many outlets portrayed the interview as more than it represented. A CNN headline used the word pummels. The New York Times saw a “rift.” So overplayed was this faux dispute that, ultimately, Clinton had to telephone Obama to make sure there were no hard feelings and that they could still party together on the Vineyard.
Later in the interview, Clinton made another reference to “stupid stuff”:
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision,” she said.
That certainly was a reference to Obama. And there will surely be more like that as we draw nearer to 2016 as Clinton seeks to differentiate herself from Obama’s perceived foreign policy failures. I just don’t think that’s what she had in mind now, two years before that cycle. Instead, this is what you get when an intellectual at the Atlantic sits down with a former secretary of state and asks substantive questions that were not raised in the many book release interviews that came before.
I emailed Goldberg and asked him whether he thought Clinton intended for the interview to represent a defining moment in which she separated herself from the president’s foreign policy. (I noted: Others see her motivation as such – I disagree and think you were the first to ask the right questions.)
He replied: “I don’t necessarily see it that way. I think she answered the questions that were asked, and I think her answers were consistent with her long-term worldview.”
Or, as Maggie Haberman, the senior political reporter for Politico who reports extensively on Clinton, told me, “She was comfortable with Jeffrey Goldberg and she just talked.”
Almost lost in the coverage of this interview was that Clinton is close to dropping all pretense about running for president. In the context of talking about her engagement to contain, deter, and defeat the breakout capacity of jihadist groups like was done with the Soviet Union and communism, she told Goldberg, “I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.” She surely wasn’t talking about her retirement.
Also significant is that Hillary the Hawk is back. Whether discussing jihad, Syria, Iran, Libya or Israel, if the name Clinton was replaced in print with either John McCain or Lindsay Graham, no one would have recognized much difference.
On Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad, she said, “I know that 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 she believes Iran has no right to enrichment; embraced Israel’s right to defend itself when asked whether the response in Gaza was disproportionate; defended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right to have control over the West Bank; and is willing to discuss the threat of jihad in a way that Obama is unaccustomed to.
So here’s the real takeaway from the Atlantic: Clinton is running, and fears no one to her left within her own party. This time, there is no Obama-like candidate on the horizon to thwart her path at least to the nomination.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com