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With an ill-timed slap at Obama, Hillary falters [Commentary]

Hillary Clinton's tactical retreat in her soft apology and meet-up with President Obama at Martha's Vineyard, after her ill-timed criticism of his "failure" in aiding Syrian refugees, indicates she may not be quite ready to put her best foot forward for the 2016 presidential race.

Her remark in her interview with The Atlantic magazine, otherwise fulsome in praise of him, came at a time when Mr. Obama is struggling with a full plate of foreign policy woes. Inadvertently or not, it seemed politically self-serving, as she seems bent on shoring up her own acceptance with the more liberal elements in her own party.

By and large, liberals favored Mr. Obama over her in 2008 at least in part due to the candidates' differences over the invasion of Iraq, which Mr. Obama called "a dumb war" that he intended to end, and that she had supported in George W. Bush's use-of-force resolution passed by Congress.

Her remark that raised eyebrows came in the context of a discussion of where Mr. Obama found himself in dealing with the emergent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. "The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people (in Syria) who were the originators of the protests against (President Bashar) Assad," she said, "the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."

Referring to an Obama maxim on foreign policy -- commonly sanitized as "Don't do stupid stuff" -- she volunteered, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." That comment came off as a bit condescending, but Ms. Clinton went on in the interview to volunteer an excuse for him, that he was "trying to communicate to the American people that he's not going to do something crazy."

Then she observed: "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." That comment seemed to be comparing Mr. Obama's caution with the junior Mr. Bush's rash misadventure in Iraq in 2003, which she initially voted for.

But now she acknowledged with a dig at Bush: "It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid. I don't think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories."

The interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, wondered whether some middle ground was needed between "we must do something" and "let's just not do something stupid," or "just stay away from problems like Syria because it's a wicked problem and not something we want to tackle?"

Ms. Clinton this time defended Mr. Obama, while blaming Mr. Bush again: "I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the (dismal) economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we're in."

Then she segued into what could be a preview of her own organizing principle for a Hillary Clinton presidency: "Peace, progress and prosperity ... restor(ing) the American dream for Americans. ... Let's make sure we are taking care of our people and doing it in a way that will bring rewards to those who work hard, play by the rules. And yeah, we don't want to see the world go to hell in a hand basket" or "see a resurgence of aggression by anybody."

Taken as a whole, it was an excellent interview, in which the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic nomination made a very good case for herself and, with that one ill-conceived and badly timed critique of Mr. Obama's inaction in Syria, a defense of his presidency. She and her advisers should have realized that critique would jump out at other reporters reading it, leading them to write of a split between her and her old boss on foreign policy, and read it as a bid to assuage Democratic and other liberals, looking to 2016.

As political gaffes go, it could have been worse. She and her advisers should take it as a lesson on her way back to the White House, if indeed that's her destination.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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