NEW YORK — For the 19 months since Hillary Rodham Clinton departed as President Obama’s secretary of state, she and Obama, and their respective aides, have labored to preserve a veneer of unity over how they worked together and how they view the world.
On Sunday, that veneer shattered — the victim of Clinton’s remarkably blunt interview with The Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, in which she criticized not just Obama’s refusal to aid the rebels in Syria but his shorthand description of his entire foreign policy.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said, referring to the line that Obama has used with aides and reporters to describe his reluctance to inject the United States into messy foreign conflicts.
Clinton said she assumed the line was more a “political message” for a war-weary American public than his actual worldview — an interpretation that makes her words even more stinging, since “don’t do stupid stuff” was in fact the animating principle for the new foreign policy blueprint that Obama laid out at West Point in May.
That Clinton is more hawkish than Obama is no surprise to anyone who watched a Democratic primary debate in 2008. Her policy differences with the president are well-documented: She favored supplying arms to moderate Syrian rebels, leaving behind a larger residual force in Iraq, and waiting longer before pulling US support for Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak during the historic protests in Cairo.
What has changed is her readiness to surface those differences and put them in the context of a different worldview. Even her memoir, “Hard Choices,” which she was promoting in her interview with Goldberg, soft-pedaled the gaps and painted a portrait of her and Obama in lockstep in rebuilding America’s tattered image abroad.
Now, though, Clinton is suggesting that she and the president hold fundamentally different views of US power: his view cautious, inward-looking, suffused with a sense of limits; hers muscular, optimistic, unabashedly old-fashioned.
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” Clinton said to Goldberg. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
Much of the interview’s resonance is in its timing, coming two days after Obama authorized airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq. Clinton’s aides say this was a coincidence; the session was scheduled long before anyone knew about military action.
Still, when Clinton says “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” it suggests that Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment.
At the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate about that decision, several officials said, Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic channel with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.
As Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, there are likely to be other cases where her statements do not seem entirely in synch with her record as secretary of state.
At the end of her tenure, for example, Clinton wrote a memo to Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.
In the interview with The Atlantic, Clinton said she had always been in the camp of those who believed that Iran had no right to enrich uranium. Yet in December 2010, she was one of the first US officials to acknowledge publicly, in an interview with the BBC, that Iran could emerge from nuclear negotiations with the right to enrich.