Hillary's Putin Problem
1:35 PM, Mar 20, 2014 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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:
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:
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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