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Clinton dances between loyalty and self-interest

By Dan Merica, CNN
updated 11:50 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
  • Tied to Obama's foreign policy, Clinton must find the right way to create some distance
  • Trying to break with Obama, Clinton created an uproar from his loyalists and liberals
  • Clinton missed an opportunity in her memoir to create some distance from Obama
  • Clinton is tied to much of Obama's foreign policy from her time as secretary of state

Washington (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton finds herself in an impossible position.

She's seriously considering what some believe is an inevitable second run for the presidency. But the four years she spent as Barack Obama's secretary of state look a lot different today than when she left the administration more than a year ago.

The surprise reset of Russian relations went awry over Ukraine and the promise of the Arab Spring collapsed amid worsening civil war in Syria and the brutal advances of the Islamic State in Iraq. Baghdad lapsed into political chaos, violence flared anew in Libya, Benghazi remains under scrutiny, and the perennially tense situation between Israel and Hamas exploded in violence again in Gaza.

Much of this reached crisis stage after she left the State Department, but Clinton is on the hook for a lot of Obama's foreign policy legacy. And many experts say she needs to distance herself from it before launching any campaign for the White House.

But the strategy for that is complex and risky.

Not only does it open Clinton up to attacks from Republicans like GOP uber-strategist Karl Rove, who wrote on Thursday that breaking with Obama "may not work so well" for her. But it also runs counter to what she, her advisers and supporters have been doing for the past two months.

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Clinton recently published "Hard Choices," a 656-page volume about her experiences as America's top diplomat that is noticeably thin on disagreements with Obama.

Yes, Clinton writes about conflicting opinions over arming Syrian rebels and some smaller differences on drones. But she largely balked at her chance in the book to break with Obama. It was a perfect opportunity to do so.

If anything, Clinton's aides and outside supporters responded to Republican criticism of her record at the State Department and drew her closer to her boss's foreign policy.

Correct the Record, an outside rapid response and communications group, began tweeting and writing about Clinton's accomplishments on a daily basis.

It touted her book as a success, highlighted her work in the Middle East and heralded Clinton's "pivot to Asia."

At the same time, Clinton and her advisers retooled her promotional bio and worked out an answer for the question, "What did you accomplish as secretary of state?"

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Instead of stumbling on the question -- something Clinton did more than once during the book tour -- she began to breeze through it. She highlighted a checklist of accomplishments and victories shared with Obama.

"Thanks in large measure to Hillary's leadership, people were finally able to say: 'America's back,'" reads her new promotional bio.

But a cascading series of world events that seemed to coincide with the book tour or the buzz around it challenged America's interests abroad in a big way and tested its influence. New and more difficult questions emerged. Obama's foreign policy was under fire on a number of fronts.

Acutely aware of the changing narrative, Clinton has been trying to selectively distance herself from some of the messy foreign developments.

But this week, she put it into clearer political context.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Clinton trashed the Obama mantra that reflects his cautious approach to foreign policy: "Don't do stupid stuff."

She said that was "not an organizing principle" and labeled the President's decisions in Syria, with which she has long disagreed, a "failure."

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This all appeared to cause more harm than good.

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David Axelord, Obama's former top adviser who now acts as his biggest defender outside the White House, took her to task with a tweet, referencing her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War. And liberals in her party spoke up about the quickness with which she broke with Obama in favor of hawkish rhetoric.

Clinton reached out to Obama this week to assure him that her comments did not represent an attack on his policies or his leadership.

People close to Clinton argue she used the interview to only articulate what she wrote in the book about Syria.

On the festering civil war, Clinton writes that "the President's inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels," while hers was to arm the rebels.

"No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President's call and I respected his deliberations and decision," she writes.

As secretary of state, though, Clinton publicly expressed doubt with arming the rebels.

"What are we going to arm them with and against what," Clinton told CBS in February 2012. "You are not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — that's not going to happen. So maybe at the best you can smuggle in, you know, automatic weapons."

Few hints of disagreement

But there was little indication that she disagreed with Obama on other big issues during her time in his Cabinet, including the pivot to Asia, a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza the last time around, and working to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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One former Clinton aide said what Clinton told The Atlantic reflected what she wrote in the book and that there's no indication she's being a "Monday morning quarterback."

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"I think it is wrong to assume that the fact things are going to sh** abroad, that is why she is coming out so forcefully against him," said a former Clinton campaign aide. "The timing of this book, the timing of these interviews is coincidental."

Republicans see Clinton distancing herself from Obama as a boon for them. Not only might it reinforce their anti-Obama efforts, but it enables them to amplify their claims that Clinton's just expedient.

"She is cold and calculating and a hyper-positioning politician," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist.

Opinion: Clinton, Obama both wrong

He was excited about the prospect of the GOP exploiting Clinton's "voluminous" and "overwhelming" record of working with Obama.

The Republican National Committee also sees an opening.

"Hillary Clinton spent four years executing Barack Obama's foreign policy and in year five of Obama's term, it's ridiculous for Hillary to try to swindle voters into thinking what's happening around the world isn't a product of Obama-Hillary diplomacy," said Kirsten Kurkowski, spokeswoman for the RNC.

Republicans are trying to exploit Clinton's attempts to distance herself from the "Obama Doctrine."

"Moving away from Mr. Obama may look good on paper, but it may not work so well," Rove wrote in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. "For one thing, Mrs. Clinton cannot point to any notable successes during her State Department tenure."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney also got in on it as well.

"I don't think it's a slam dunk for her by any means," he told conservative Hugh Hewitt's radio show on Wednesday.

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