President Obama has it right and the former secretary of state has it wrong.
Here is some of what Clinton said, in this case, about Syria:
JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?The problem with this is there simply was no reasonable way to do what Clinton describes. Indeed, America's history in trying to do things like this has been abysmal failures, as discussed below the fold.
HRC: I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.
JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.
HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made.
As President Obama said:
With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.” Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”Speaking of Iraq, and in terms that apply more broadly, the president said:
The “broader point we need to stay focused on,” he added, “is what we have is a disaffected Sunni minority in the case of Iraq, a majority in the case of Syria, stretching from essentially Baghdad to Damascus. ... Unless we can give them a formula that speaks to the aspirations of that population, we are inevitably going to have problems. ... Unfortunately, there was a period of time where the Shia majority in Iraq didn’t fully understand that. They’re starting to understand it now. Unfortunately, we still have ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], which has, I think, very little appeal to ordinary Sunnis.” But “they’re filling a vacuum, and the question for us has to be not simply how we counteract them militarily but how are we going to speak to a Sunni majority in that area ... that, right now, is detached from the global economy.”
“We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” said the president of the factions in Iraq. “Our military is so capable, that if we put everything we have into it, we can keep a lid on a problem for a time. But for a society to function long term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together, how they are going to accommodate each other’s interests, how they are going to compromise. When it comes to things like corruption, the people and their leaders have to hold themselves accountable for changing those cultures.... ... We can help them and partner with them every step of the way. But we can’t do it for them.”Again, President Obama is right.
The media likes to talk about foreign policy "achievements" the way they talk about legislatures "doing something." They believe the mere act of having "done something" is an accomplishment in itself and that governments have to "do something" to have effective foreign policies. This is the essential problem of foreign policy "experts." (current Secretary of State Kerry blunders constantly because of his drive for "achievements.") They see NOT "doing something" as failure in and of itself. This is the type of thinking that leads to "doing stupid shit," as the president was reported as saying.
Clinton's response to a question on that was problematic:
JG: Is the lesson for you, like it is for President Obama, “Don’t do stupid shit”?While Clinton is right that no one should jump to conclusions about what is stupid and non-stupid, she ignores that the impulse she appears to be defending, to "do something," seems to always lead to "stupid shit."
HRC: That’s a good lesson but it’s more complicated than that. Because your stupid may not be mine, and vice versa. I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove Qaddafi because that came from the bottom up. That was people asking us to help. It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid. I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories. That’s what I’m arguing. [Emphasis supplied.]
We confronted (and still confront) this attitude from liberal interventionists like George Packer. In 2005, I wrote about it:
It is NOT moral to adopt an unwise policy that does more harm than good even if the intention of the policy is moral. Indeed, it is IMMORAL in my view.When Clinton says, "It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid," she misses the point. Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent in its conduct of the Iraq debacle. But there was no competent way to do something that stupid—"what we did in Iraq." Clinton seems to not have learned that lesson.
And this is the fundamental point. Packer wants to grasp the mantle of the "right thing to do" even if unwise. I categorically reject that. It was the wrong thing to do and not moral.
Not to accept that is to not learn from your mistakes. Packer, it seems to me, and no, I have not read his book, just his posts, has learned nothing.
James Fallows, reacting to the Clinton interview, has a similar take.
The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed. [. . .]Fallows gets it exactly right. Now, to be clear, Clinton did say:
Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.”
But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House.
JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?Perhaps we can be optimistic that Clinton, who surely is running for president, was making a political calculation regarding her own candidacy, and sees the need to find some distance, even if just rhetorically, from a president whose popularity has waned. Maybe there's nothing more to it than that.
HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing.
But the issue is too damn important for such wishful thinking, Now more than ever, it is important that should Clinton run for president, she face a primary opponent who forces her to explain herself on this. Don't get me wrong, I fully expect Clinton will win if she runs, but the issues matter and while campaign promises are not worth the paper they are written on, how we discuss issues in elections does have strong effects on the discourse surrounding such issues, which in turn has actual impact on the policies that emerge.
So it is important to have folks out there saying Clinton is wrong on this, and President Obama is right. This is my two cents doing just that.