Should Hillary Clinton embrace Obama’s foreign policy?

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of “The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.” Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

Story highlights

Frida Ghitis: Hillary Clinton has to walk a tightrope when it comes to foreign policy

Clinton can't disown Obama's policies, but she differed with him on key issues, says Ghitis

She says Clinton wanted to arm Syria rebels and keep a large force in Iraq

Ghitis: As Obama loses support on foreign policy, Clinton can maintain her standing

CNN  — 

Should Hillary Clinton embrace or criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy? This is a particularly complicated choice she faces as she sets out on what looks like a soft launch of a presidential campaign with her “Hard Choices” memoir.

She must distance herself from key elements of Obama’s controversial foreign policy record while simultaneously defending it because, after all, as secretary of state she was a prominent official on the administration’s foreign policy team.

The answer is a delicate balance, one that risks looking like clever calculation but in fact reflects reality.

Frida Ghitis

The fact is that Clinton, as administration insiders have repeatedly confirmed, offered Obama strong advice, which he often ignored. The record shows that in areas where Obama did not heed Clinton’s more muscular approach, the outcomes have at times proved little short of disastrous.

Where he listened to her, as when she urged him to launch the risky raid to kill Osama bin Laden or shift U.S. policy for Myanmar, the administration scored tangible gains.

Clinton cannot launch a wholesale attack on Obama’s policies. That would reek of disloyalty, it would anger Obama’s core supporters, and it would risk looking like an assault on her own record as the country’s top diplomat.

At the same time, she cannot simply ignore the controversies and wage an energetic defense, a full embrace of America’s international record at a time when Obama is scoring the lowest poll numbers of his presidency on that issue. Obama’s foreign policy looks like a key vulnerability for Democrats in the next presidential election.

Landscape leaves much to be desired

It’s impossible to know with certainty if different policies would have yielded better results, but there is no question that the global landscape six years into Obama’s presidency leaves much to be desired.

Syria is a humanitarian and strategic disaster. Relations with Russia are worse than they have been in decades, and Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, which is legally Ukrainian territory.

Ties with key Arab allies are frayed. In Egypt, all sides are angry at Washington. The U.S. supported democratic aspirations there over the fate of an authoritarian but loyal ally, former President Hosni Mubarak. Now Egypt has no democracy and another authoritarian ruler.

In Pakistan, the Taliban are wreaking havoc as the United States leaves neighboring Afghanistan. Iraq is spiraling into disaster. Israelis and Palestinians are as far from peace as ever. Tensions are rising in East Asia. Extremists are slaughtering civilians in Africa, and Libya is in chaos. It’s not a pretty picture.

What’s a former secretary of state and likely presidential candidate to do?

The answer is to carefully draw the tactical differences with her former boss, explaining that many of the strategic objectives were similar – and thus drawing a clear distinction with Republicans – while respectfully showing where she and the President she loyally served disagreed.

Parting ways on Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq

Where did they disagree? On Syria, Clinton was one of the early advocates of arming moderates fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Obama chose to largely stay out, while declaring that al-Assad must go.

Now, in what should be a profound embarrassment for the administration, Obama’s man in Damascus has turned on the President.

Former Ambassador Robert Ford said he resigned because “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy.” Terrorist groups are running free. “We warned this would happen, and it has,” Ford said. “The State Department thought we needed to give much more help” to the opposition. That is what Clinton has recommended.

Another area of disagreement was Afghanistan. Clinton supported Obama’s 2009 surge, but she opposed his decision to announce an early date for the troops’ withdrawal. According to Vali Nasr, who served on Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s Afghanistan-Pakistan mission, Clinton was “eyed with suspicion” by the White House, which sidelines the State Department on most foreign policy.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that she “argued forcefully” against the Afghanistan withdrawal date.

Obama’s decision to announce an Afghanistan withdrawal date sent a message to the Taliban that they could wait out the U.S. presence, undermining the impact of Obama’s surge, as Clinton warned. Obama’s reluctance to take on a more assertive international leadership position, to follow a more muscular foreign policy - which she had advocated – arguably empowered extremists everywhere.

She also advised Obama against turning his back on Egypt’s Mubarak, urging the President to advocate a more gradual transition to democracy. Obama rejected her advice and things did not go well for Egypt or for relations between the two countries.

Clinton recommended that the U.S. leave behind a substantial residual force in Iraq to help prevent a return to sectarian violence and terrorism, a version confirmed by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. Obama sought a smaller force.

In the end, the two countries could not reach agreement and all Americans left. Perhaps it would not have been possible to keep a U.S. force there, but recent events underline that her instincts were correct. Iraq is now teetering, with an al Qaeda spin-off gaining key territory from the central government.

Several administration insiders, including Nasr, confirm the account that Clinton was a strong advocate on the raid that killed bin Laden, whose position was at odds with that of Gates and Vice President Joe Biden.

In her book, speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Clinton says she disagreed with Obama’s tactical move to demand a complete settlement freeze from Israel. She said she thought the emphasis was misplaced and created unnecessary tensions. Not everyone believes her claim that she was just a messenger for his policy when she promoted that approach. But Nasr says the Arab-Israeli issue was “for all practical purposes managed from the White House.”

Soft power approach in 112 countries

With the White House taking control of most big foreign policy areas, Clinton found a separate path, launching a campaign of public diplomacy, traveling to 112 countries, drawing large crowds and making headlines.

It was a soft power approach, but it raised America’s profile, advancing women’s rights along with one of her top policy goals. In 2010, she explained that “my big-picture commitment is to restore American leadership … everything I’ve done is in in furtherance of that.”

On the Benghazi, Libya, events that ended in the death of America’s ambassador to Libya, she will not be able to deflect full responsibility onto Obama. But her argument may resonate in some quarters when she says that Republican attacks on her over Benghazi make her want to run for office.

“Our great country should not be playing minor league … we ought to be in majors,” and the Republican reaction to Benghazi is a distraction from what Congress should be doing to raise America’s game.

Clinton did not get everything right. Her failure to list Nigeria’s Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, for example, was a mistake. And to the extent that she did play a role in Obama’s foreign policy, she cannot completely disassociate herself from his failures. But her instincts on many counts were on target.

Before leaving office, Clinton writes, she left a note to Obama warning about Putin. “If Putin is restrained and doesn’t push beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine it will not be because he has lost his appetite for more power, territory and influence.”

Clinton can embrace Obama’s goal of leading a country that is respected as a symbol of freedom in the world, while explaining that she would have done some things differently. That if Obama had listened to the hard choices she suggested, America – and the world – would be better off.

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