Hillary Watch

After Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton’s Real 2016 Motivation Is Foreign Policy

The former Secretary of State thinks President Obama has made serious foreign policy errors, and she is determined to restore U.S. prestige from the White House.

Ramin Talaie/Getty

If Hillary Clinton had any lingering doubts about another presidential run, the crisis in Ukraine should tip the balance.

As she watches Russia’s push into Ukraine reinforce the world’s perception of American weakness, Clinton’s deep belief in the need for American global leadership and her visceral reaction to perceptions of American retreat will trump all other considerations in her decision-making process, even her real wariness about going back into the trenches of politics.

You probably think she’ll run because she wants to be the first woman president, or because she has a clear domestic-policy agenda around the issues with which she’s been associated for decades. Certainly, both of those things are true.

But I’m here to tell you, as one who covered her every day for four years when she was secretary of state, that America’s place in the world now concerns her at least as much as those other considerations and probably more. And it’s only as commander-in-chief of the United States that she can have any real influence on the issue that matters to her most: America’s power and prestige. You can read her new book, Hard Choices, as a proto-campaign document if you like, but it also spells out her vision for America’s role in the world.

It’s perhaps instructive to compare Clinton with Barack Obama on foreign policy. While the substance of their views may not always differ much, the form does—and form matters tremendously when projecting power. Her visceral reaction to any suggestion of American retreat stands in such contrast with Obama’s more passive attitude to engagement with the world. His West Point speech did little to dispel the impression of his fatalistic resignation to America’s shrinking role.

Traveling with Clinton for four years across the globe as the BBC’s State Department correspondent, I interviewed her more than 15 times—and she was always most forceful and passionate when she spoke on the topic of U.S. leadership and the importance of finding new ways for the United States to lead in a changing, multipolar world.

I recall one small but symbolic instance. In 2010, she made sure the United States had a pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo—a costly and futile exercise in national PR in the eyes of some. But Clinton felt the United States could not be represented by a gaping hole at a fair held by the world’s second-largest economy. She wasn’t delighted by the concrete structure that resulted, but she told reporters traveling with her, “Can you imagine if we had not been here?”

That passion carried through on more substantive matters. Take Syria. Arguably the most damaging foreign-policy episode of Obama’s tenure occurred when, and how, he backed out of conducting military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime last September. The United States and the world should welcome an American president who makes very considered choices about where to spend American money and blood but Obama was reluctant from the start, searching for a way out. And while diplomatic outcomes are always preferable to war, no amount of spin out of the White House can still convince anyone that the chemical weapons deal with President Assad was a victory of diplomacy.

Clinton was loyal and discreet, but within the confines of that loyalty, she sometimes chafed at Obama’s policy, perhaps never more so than over Syria. In Rabat in February 2012, we chatted after an interview that had focused on Syria’s revolution and Washington’s hands-off approach. She shook her head as she told me that Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran were all in, supporting Assad.

Her implicit question was: Where is the United States? We know now she was advocating internally for more robust support for the rebels, because she understood that America was leaving too much empty space for spoilers like Hezbollah to fill (there’s a separate debate to be had about whether it would have been the right policy). And with regard to dealing with Russia more directly, Clinton emphasizes in Hard Choices that she was more clear-eyed about Vladimir Putin than Obama, advising the president to turn down a summit with the Russian leader months before Obama ended up doing just that.

She wasn’t in favor of military adventures and took a pragmatic, deliberate approach to risk-taking. But she also clearly indicated that she believed the United States should always be in the game, not sitting on the sidelines.

When it became clear in March 2011 that the French and the British were planning to forge ahead with military action against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, with or without the United States, she told the president it was better to drive the process and shape it rather than let the allies take off on their own.

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Now, if she runs, Clinton will need to create distance between her and the president to speak out about where she stood on the issues, leaving loyalty behind without appearing to stab him the back. Republicans will rip her record apart, focusing on specific episodes like Benghazi, which Senator John McCain said “was either a massive cover-up or incompetence,” or now Bowe Bergdhal.

On a more ideological level, her opponents on the left and in Rand Paul’s corner will cast her as a hawk who will take the country on costly foreign adventures at a time when America is not in the mood and doesn’t have the resources. Clinton will need to work hard to explain to voters why what she did as secretary of state matters to them in the United States, and why her vision for American global leadership and “smart power” serves them best.

In his book Frugal Power, Michael Mandelbaum writes that “one thing that is worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.” Judging from the headlines around the world deploring Obama’s foreign policy, much of the world seems to have reached that point. As secretary of state, Clinton indicated to me she worried that it was a discovery the American people would make as well, but too late.

When she surveys the field of presidential hopefuls, Clinton sees Democrats who are inexperienced, apart from Joe Biden, and hawkish Republicans, advocating dangerous and adventurous approaches to the Ukraine crisis—or on the other end of the spectrum, isolationists like Rand Paul who will feed the current trend toward retreat with little understanding of the ramifications for people’s lives and jobs in the United States. This will worry Clinton and further compel her to run.

There has always been a tug of war in American politics between the poles of intervention and disengagement, and after the misadventures of the Bush years, the pendulum has swung perhaps too far the other way.

Can Clinton help find the elusive middle ground in American foreign policy between the hubris of Bush and the reluctance of Obama? It’s a challenge she should find irresistible.