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Is foreign policy a liability for Hillary Clinton?

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Should she run, Clinton will have more foreign policy experience than any potential rival
  • GOP will help tell the story, pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies at every turn
  • Clinton's supporters are anticipating the onslaught of foreign policy-related attacks

Washington (CNN) -- Presidential candidates often lack experience in one critical area: foreign policy.

But should she run for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have more experience on that front than any other potential presidential competitor.

With experience, however, comes risk. Growing global crises, some of which have festered since Clinton's time as secretary of state, could turn what is seen as one of her assets into a liability.

Unparalleled experience

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Of any potential presidential contender, none could match Clinton's experience overseas.

Governors are the most disconnected to foreign policy. Those aspiring for higher office often take international trips to learn about issues. Senators and members of Congress, meanwhile, can beef up their foreign policy cred by serving on committees dealing with international affairs, formulating policies and voting on matters of war, peace and which government to support. But none of that compares to the experience of being directly engaged in global events.

If Clinton does run -- and win -- it would be quite a departure from modern-day political ascension. She would be the first president since James Buchanan, the 15th president, to previously serve as the country's top diplomat. (Although it was almost a requirement closer to the founding of the country, with five of the first eight presidents being previous secretaries of state.)

But Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln, is considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. His failings, however, had nothing to do with his dealings with foreign policy, but with trouble at home over slavery and his reluctance to engage on the issue.

An opening

But Clinton's opponents are sure to make her resume a liability, especially if unrest around the world continues.

Sometimes excessive experience is a liability, especially in political campaigns. It's easier to talk about what you will do with no record to show than it is to explain what you've done.

Republicans will help tell Clinton's story, pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies at every turn.

"It creates an opening for the Republicans," said Alex Wong, former director of foreign policy for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run. Wong said candidates won't win an election on foreign policy but they sure could lose one on it.

Before Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, ISIS gaining ground in Iraq and Syria, Republicans had been homing in on the issue of Benghazi -- the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens -- insisting that Clinton knows more than she is willing to admit and that it was her negligence as secretary of state that led to a dangerous environment for Americans working in Libya.

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But since international hot spots are flaring, Republicans have more material to work with and more crises at which to point blame.

For instance, after an interview with CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on Sunday in which Clinton said she was "among the most skeptical of Putin during the time" in the Obama administration, a Republican research organization, America Rising PAC, noted that it's "too late to hit the 'reset' button on your record with Russia."

During her first months at State, Clinton spearheaded an awkward media event in which she and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hit a gimmicky reset button to signal a new start to the U.S.-Russia relationship.

"The dilemma she faces is she was either responsible for a failed foreign policy, or she was not influential enough in the administration to right the ship," Wong said.

But Clinton's supporters are anticipating the onslaught of foreign policy-related attacks.

The group Correct the Record, which was created by Clinton supporters to defend her, lists 11 foreign policy-related accomplishments on its website, including helping "restore America's leadership and standing in the world," building a coalition to enact "the toughest sanctions in Iran's history," playing "an integral role" in the missile reduction START treaty with Russia, and supporting the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

Correct the Record also says Clinton "helped avert all-out war in Gaza" with a cease-fire in 2012.

A tricky paradox

But responding to Republican attacks is only one part of Clinton's challenge to protect and defend her record. She is also undertaking the difficult dance of distancing herself from President Barack Obama's policies while promoting her own, especially as Republicans continue to tie Clinton to what they say is Obama's failed foreign policy.

Clinton is more hawkish than Obama, but working for a President includes having to put your policy positions aside if they don't agree. With possibly higher political aspirations, Clinton must distinguish her positions from those of her former boss.

She wrote a 596-page book to do just that. She used the opportunity to frame the narrative after the events happened, when context and the outcome of her decisions were apparent.

Regarding Russia, in her memoir "Hard Choices," she placed herself in a category within the administration that had more modest expectations, which included progress on some priorities "the reset delivered."

Clinton portrayed her role in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians as a constant broker able to maintain an honest relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his and Obama's relationship "continued to deteriorate."

Clinton wrote about phone calls she had with Netanyahu in which they "argued frequently" for more than an hour, "sometimes two."

After failing to extend the freeze on settlement expansion, Clinton wrote, "I spent much of the rest of 2011 trying to keep the situation from deteriorating from deadlock into disaster. That wasn't easy."

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Now that Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in intense fighting, Clinton promoted her role as secretary of state while defending the President in her interview on CNN.

"I think the President is doing what he can do to try to get a cease-fire and then see whether we can sort out some, you know, longer-term resolution," she said.

But Aaron David Miller, with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Clinton's role at State is not necessarily an asset but definitely not a liability.

If the world is relatively quiet by the time 2016 rolls around, foreign policy will be at the bottom of most Americans' priority list.

Miller said he admires Clinton for her work in difficult circumstances under a president who didn't give her a lot of latitude. He said she was a good secretary of state who improved America's image around the world but that she isn't "in the category of slam dunk secretaries of state."

"There is not a foreign policy crisis that is currently ongoing that you can directly blame Hillary Clinton for," he said.

That doesn't mean her opponents won't try, though.

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