Skip to main content

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama both wrong

By Timothy Stanley
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Hillary Clinton criticized Obama on foreign policy in magazine interview
  • Stanley: She'd have been more aggressive. Particularly in Arab world, her critique has point
  • He says Obama appears to have hung back, but America didn't want military adventuring
  • Stanley: A candidate must show U.S. they know what's worth fighting for

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In the absence of any serious Democratic opposition, Hillary Clinton appears to have decided to run against Barack Obama in the 2016 primaries. An interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic revealed her frustrations with the over-caution of the White House. Its maxim "don't do stupid stuff" might display post-Bush wisdom, says Clinton, but it also betrays a lack of a plan: "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," she said.

Clinton would have gone harder into Syria, for example, and armed the democratic opposition early on. The message is that while Obama has somewhat withdrawn America from global war games, she would like it to take a lead. Annie Oakley is back.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

At the time the interview was conducted, poor Clinton could not have known that events were about to blunt her criticism. (A spokesman for Clinton said Tuesday that Clinton "called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies, or his leadership," according to Politico.)

Now that U.S. planes are bombing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, forces in northern Iraq and aid is finally reaching the persecuted religious minorities stranded in the wilderness, Obama's defenders could argue that he's displaying exactly the kind of leadership Clinton accuses him of lacking. Yet, her charge still stands.

Consider the wider fate of the Arab world in the past six years. The Arab Spring promised a new era of democracy and better relations with the West. Few of its revolutions worked, many were betrayed by the foreigners who should've been friends. The United States rather arbitrarily decided to help topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, resulting in an anarchic situation today that is being exploited by a mix of Islamists and warlords.

The administration was less certain of what it wanted in Egypt, vacillating between support for the protesters to support for the army -- and a failed experiment in Islamic democracy gave way to a return of the generals. In Syria, as Clinton suggests, the United States watched as Bashar al-Assad slaughtered the opposition. In Bahrain, it did worse: Arms sales from America rose prior to the regime's brutal crackdown on protesters. And even as Saudi Arabia continues to export its apocalyptic version of fundamentalist Islam, the U.S. government sells it billions of dollars worth of weapons.

The greatest failure has surely been in Iraq, because it is the country for which America bears the greatest responsibility. Obama's actions over the weekend are necessary and just. The world cannot tolerate the slaughter of thousands of religious minorities, the collapse of Baghdad or the invasion of the Kurdish homeland. So, well done, Obama, for sending in the planes.

But when he was pressed at a press conference on why U.S. troops were not already in Iraq and, by implication, why the United States had stood back as the situation deteriorated, the President economized with the truth. He insisted that it was "not my decision" to withdraw troops.

Yet he ran for office on quitting Iraq in 2008, then celebrated having done so in 2012, even as -- as Patrick Brennan argues in National Review -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was prepared to negotiate on maintaining a U.S. presence. "Maliki was willing to accept a deal with U.S. forces if it was worth it to him — the problem was that the Obama administration wanted a small force so that it could say it had ended the war," he writes. "Having a very small American force wasn't worth the domestic political price Maliki would have to pay for supporting their presence."

In short, Obama's claim that withdrawal from Iraq was forced upon him is hard to believe. He was elected and re-elected as the anti-Iraq war president (it's why he deserves some credit for having the courage to return to the country today).

Hillary Clinton swings at Obama
Clinton breaks with Obama policy
Where Clinton and GOP agree

Clinton is right that Obama has hung back from action. But the very fact that he was elected and then re-elected on a broadly anti-intervention ticket suggests that this is what the people wanted. And therein lies the problem with Clinton's critique. Foreign policy rarely functions separately from the domestic political context: Presidents typically only do what they think they can get away with.

There was appetite for military adventures after 9/11; there is little post-Iraq. That's borne out in the polling and by the lack of political support for action in Syria. It's all very well for Clinton to talk of high-mindedness in pre-primary season, but she'll find that does not go down so well in New Hampshire in 2014 and probably won't be popular in the general election or inside the White House. And rightly so. Had the United States involved itself in the Syrian conflict, it would have been picking sides in a brutal civil war with few heroes to choose from.

So how does the United States -- undoubtedly a "great nation" -- handle foreign crises in an age of doubt? The problem is that no politician, Democrat or Republican, has yet managed to articulate a vision for an America that does believe in things worth fighting for yet which picks its battles with incredible care.

Obama's presidency has been too reactive, Clinton is now laying out a plan that sounds a little too proactive. What a pity that so few are saying, "The U.S. is powerful and, because of that, has a responsibility to support democracy where it can. But we cannot always presume success and history teaches that going it alone comes at a heavy price."

Or, what would be so wrong about pursuing a strategy that asserts that if the United States cannot do much good then it at least will do as little evil as possible -- starting by refusing to provide arms to Arab dictators who torture their own people and export terror?

Alas, all too often the only choice American voters are given is between playing the world's policeman or doing nothing at all. Better to be, as John Kennedy described himself, "an idealist without illusions."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT