US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Hillary Clinton knows how to make headlines. Her interview this weekend with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg featured tweet-sized bon mots that exposed the distance between her views on foreign policy and President Barack Obama’s.

Some have suggested this reflects little more than an ability to read polls, as Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy continue to sink as the international scene devolves into chaos. The Wall Street Journal, happy with Clinton’s hawkish pronouncements but hesitant to praise her too much, chalked them up to “political opportunism.” Karl Rove intimated the same when he called Clinton the “Goldilocks of foreign policy,” positioning herself between the belligerence of President George W. Bush and the restraint of Obama. But Clinton has long been a liberal interventionist, and the sooner Democrats reckon with that, the better.

Clinton, of course, realizes her hawkishness is a tough sell. The American people may be frustrated with the current state of the world, but they still have little appetite for adventures abroad. So how do you sell intervention to people who want nothing to do with it? By recasting restraint as retreat and intervention as the truest form of patriotism.

Though in her interview with Goldberg, Clinton repeatedly praised Obama’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, her disdain for his foreign policy seeped through. (Awkwardly, given that as secretary of state she was responsible for executing much of it.) “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 told Goldberg. Then she directly addressed the Obama approach, which the administration has short-handed as “Don’t do stupid stuff.” “Great nations need organizing principles,” she said, “and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Now, it’s true that the U.S. needs a set of guiding values that help leaders resist creating a foreign policy that is merely reactive or overly attuned to the vagaries of public opinion. But it’s also true that the Obama administration has that: a restrained realism that Obama outlined in detail in a recent interview with the New York Times' Thomas Friedman.

Implicit in Clinton’s critique is a more troubling notion that Obama’s foreign policy is rooted in a fundamental pessimism about America. “We don’t even tell our own story very well these days,” she said, an oft-repeated line from the book tour. But this time she followed it up by touting her faith in “an old-fashioned idea” that America’s victories in World War II and the Cold War were worth celebrating.

The juxtaposition of those two ideas makes clear the story Clinton wants to tell: one in which she is the Reagan to Obama’s Carter. It’s an alluring tale: morning in America, with a bit of a twist. (Reagan, after all, wasn’t Carter’s secretary of state.) But the story requires rewriting history some. Obama has, after all, been telling a triumphal tale of American exceptionalism for some time now. In recent years he has declared that “America must always lead on the world stage,” that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” that “America’s possibilities are limitless…we are made for this moment, and we will seize it.”

Storytelling is not the problem. What is needed is not a new American mythology that starts from a preference for American intervention and writes history backwards from there. What is needed is a clear-eyed realism that understands the possibilities and limits of power. That’s the sort of story we should be telling.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report