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Hillary's Putin Problem

1:35 PM, Mar 20, 2014 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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It would be ironic if Hillary Clinton had a second presidential campaign torpedoed because of another politician's foreign policy.

People don't much remember it now, but before Hope 'n' Change Mania swept the country, Sen. Barack Obama shot to the lead in Iowa based almost entirely on drawing contrasts with Sen. Hillary Clinton concerning Iraq. Go re-read the speech he gave at Iowa's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, shortly before he took off in the polls in November of 2007. Here's the key passage:

I am running for President because I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans.

When I am this party's nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I supported Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don't like. And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it is ok for America to torture - because it is never ok. That's why I am in it.

As President, I will end the war in Iraq. We will have our troops home in sixteen months. I will close Guantanamo. I will restore habeas corpus. I will finish the fight against Al Qaeda. And I will lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century - nuclear weapons and terrorism; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. And I will send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says, "You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now."

America, our moment is now.

Our moment is now.

Boo-ya! Touchdown! Yes! We! Can!

Oh, it's good to relive the magic, isn't it? But the point of this little nostalgia trip is to remember that while Hillary Clinton ran a strategically muddled early campaign in 2008, and while Obama got some lucky breaks (like having the press cover for John Edwards through Iowa)—the Obama insurgency doesn't succeed without Clinton's vulnerability on Iraq. She was, in effect, hostage to George W. Bush's foreign policy.

Fast forward to 2014, and Clinton is suddenly trying to get out in front of the passive Obama administration by likening today's Russia to Germany of the 1930s and suggesting that Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler have a few things in common. (And, by total coincidence, we're also having a what-if-Hillary-doesn't-run balloon being floated.) Why? Because the American politician with the most to lose in Ukraine is probably Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has had plenty of big jobs, but even Democrats have a hard time listing any of her actual accomplishments. (Aside from getting the jobs, that is.) Her tenure as secretary of state is probably the most impressive thing on her résumé because as head of the State Department, a lack of foreign crises can be read as something of an accomplishment in and of itself.

Yet the truth is, Clinton's second or third biggest advantage in 2016 would be the degree to which she can run away from Obama's biggest problems: unemployment, economic stagnation, assaults on religious liberty, and Obamacare. The only part of Obama's tenure for which she is legitimately on the hook is his foreign policy. Which is why Russia, Putin, and Ukraine are so problematic for her.

If the situation in Ukraine further destabilizes, if there is another crisis, if Putin becomes even more of a Global Enemy #1, then suddenly Clinton is open to a foreign policy challenge. Again.

What would such a critique look like? Walter Russell Mead has a pretty good approximation:

But cloud-cuckoo-land is exactly where many westerners live, in a resolutely post-historical world where foreign policy is about development, human rights, non-proliferation and trade. If Putin tells us he lives there too, we are hungry to believe him. We don't want to live in a difficult world. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were having a fabulous time in cloud-cuckoo-land back in the 1930s and many of them clung to their illusions until the last possible moment. We want to live in a stable and secure world order but we don't want to make the sacrifices world order requires—and so we will gaze deeply into the eyes of anybody who is willing to tell us what we most want to hear.

Mead was crafting an indictment of Western elites in general, not Hillary Clinton in particular. But the argument works just fine—after all, no one is more elite than the former first lady/senator/secretary of state. And I suspect that any words Clinton speaks now to distance herself won't be much help. Come 2016, whatever happened in the foreign policy world from 2009 to 2015 will accrue to her account. If she runs, beholden to another president's foreign policy problems this time, too.

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