Jonathan Allen and Greg Giroux Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton is taking on President Barack Obama with the same issue he used against her in the 2008 Democratic primary: foreign policy vision.
Obama lacks a specific doctrine, according to an Atlantic magazine interview with Clinton, the unannounced presidential candidate who is leading Democrats and Republicans in 2016 polling.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, also a Bloomberg View columnist, in reference to the way Obama and his aides describe his approach to foreign policy.
That’s a “political message” and “not his world view,” she said.
Clinton’s effort to show differences with Obama, which began with the release of her book in June, reflects a new political reality. The hard-line policies that hurt her with a war-weary Democratic base in 2008 aren’t as significant now that polls show the party is unified behind her.
It also has become necessary for Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, to draw contrasts as his approval ratings have cratered. Thirty-six percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, and 48 percent disapprove, according to a CBS News poll conducted July 29 to Aug. 4.
Clinton’s criticism is a reversal from her 2009 Senate confirmation testimony, in which she embraced as her own an Obama vision that was conspicuously lacking specific principles.
In the Atlantic interview, Clinton said Obama is “thoughtful” and “incredibly smart,” while he was “cautious” after assuming office amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Clinton emphasized the importance of containing jihadist groups in the Middle East that she said “can affect the United States” because they are “are driven to expand” and oppose Western countries.
She drew a distinction with Obama over the policy in Syria, where civil war erupted in 2011. As Secretary of State, Clinton advocated for providing training and equipment to moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army battling President Bashar Assad. Obama resisted.
The Islamic State extremist group, an al-Qaida breakaway organization, has since made military gains and declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.
“I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said in the interview.
Clinton, using as an example tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors over the South China Sea, linked success in U.S. foreign policy to economic advancement at home.
“If you don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world,” she said.
“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,’” Clinton said.
Clinton has said that she’ll make a decision on a presidential campaign by the end of the year.