By Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic
President Obama has long-ridiculed the idea that the U.S., early in the Syrian civil war, could have shaped the forces fighting the Assad regime, thereby stopping al Qaeda-inspired groups—like the one rampaging across Syria and Iraq today—from seizing control of the rebellion. In an interview in February, the president told me that “when you have a professional army ... fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict—the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
Well, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.
JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?
HRC: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. 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. They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.
HRC: I’ve thought a lot about this, because you do have a number of conflicts going on right now. As the U.S., as a U.S. official, you have to pay attention to anything that threatens Israel directly, or anything in the larger Middle East that arises out of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. That’s just a given. It is striking, however, that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.
Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.
Clinton also seemed to take an indirect shot at administration critics of Netanyahu, who has argued that the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East means that Israel cannot, in the foreseeable future, withdraw its forces from much of the West Bank. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”