Hillary Clinton seeks distance from Obama on foreign policy

In this July 26, 2012 file photo, President Obama speaks alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as he holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is for the first time creating some distance from the foreign policy views espoused by President Obama as she ponders another bid for the presidency in 2016.

While Clinton has been a staunch defender of the president since stepping down as his first secretary of state in 2013, an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg shows that she'll be looking to establish her own identity and vision for the country as the election draws closer, and the world continues to erupt with fresh conflicts.

In particular, she disagreed with the idea that "don't do stupid stuff" can be a driving foreign policy principle as Obama aides have suggested the president does.

"Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision," Clinton said.

She went on to praise the president as "thoughtful," "incredibly smart" and "able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time" and said she believed it is a "political message" rather than a "worldview."

But she also said he "is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we're in."

Asked what her own guiding principle is, Clinton said, "peace, progress, and prosperity," an alliterative phrase that has been in her lexicon at least since the speech in which she endorsed Mr. Obama for president after dropping out of the Democratic primary in 2008.

Clinton leveled much of her foreign policy criticism at the president's handling of the civil war in Syria. The criticism comes on the heels of what she wrote in her memoir, "Hard Choices," when she claimed her campaign inside the administration to arm the Syrian rebels was ultimately ineffective.

But now, she has echoed many experts in drawing a direct link between the chaos in Syria and the rise of jihadists in areas like Iraq.

"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.

She indicated that Mr. Obama may have overreacted when reversing former President George W. Bush's more aggressive foreign policy views.

"You know, when you're down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward," she said. "One issue is that we don't even tell our own story very well these days."

Clinton also offered a more robust defense of Israel than the White House, which has been increasingly critical of the number of civilian deaths in the Gaza war in recent weeks.

She began an answer to a question about which side is responsible for civilian deaths by saying that she's "not sure it's possible to parcel out blame because it's impossible to know what happens in the fog of war." She admitted that Israel might have made errors even as it seeks to limit civilian casualties, "but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas."

Clinton also said that one "can't ever discount anti-Semitism" when it comes to the world's reaction to the Gaza conflict, citing the rising number of anti-Jewish acts in Europe.

"There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there's something else at work here than what you see on TV," she said. "What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It's the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it's a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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