I do not support Hilary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. There are many qualified Democratic women who could run; in fact, I consider the view that Clinton is the only near-term potential female president to be atrociously sexist. However, Clinton is getting underserved flak for her comments in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. In the context of the interview, Clinton is not critical of President Obama and his foreign policy. Indeed, she by and large defends the Obama administration policy, one that she helped create as secretary of state. Here is what she said:
HRC: 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.
JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?
HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in. So I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.
She did not argue that Obama’s foreign policy lacks an organizing principle but that the principle has not been well articulated. The domestic political concern—that the public will not support a more activist foreign policy—is driving presidential speechmaking. As part of the discussion prior to this, she said “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.” One issue. Not the only issue or even the primary issue.
And she is right. The perennial problem with the domestic politics of US foreign policy is that presidents fail to communicate what they are doing and why to persuade Congress, the political parties, and the public to support them. Instead, they either pretend that they do not have much of a foreign policy agenda or their articulate an agenda in such idealistic terms that it fails to actually explain what they are doing and why. Almost no president since FDR has been able to explain what he is doing and why (see his 23 Feb. 1942 “fireside chat”).
Even Clinton herself retreats to aspirations and domestic focus right after having critiqued the president’s policy so adeptly.
JG: What is your organizing principle, then?
HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.”
The 3Ps are no more an organizing principle than stupidity avoidance (and even less so). Indeed, Clinton gets the causation wrong: to make Americans secure in their middle-class aspirations, we need to secure commercial shipping along the South China Sea. Otherwise, global trade is disrupted, the economies of key trading partners suffer, and the US economy slumps as a result. Peace is a wonderful goal but it is hard to square that with arming Syrian rebels without United Nations consent (which Russia and China would veto). As for progress, what kind, at what pace, toward what end? Those are the kinds of questions one needs to answer if one is going to run for president and be prepared to govern if one wins.