Hillary’s foreign policy: Not Obama 3.0

It would be a mistake to align Hillary Clinton's record and policy outlook with that of the Obama administration

Joyce Karam

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She was his Secretary of State (2009-2012) and a key supporter of his breakthroughs on Cuba and Iran, but when it comes to steering America's foreign policy, Hillary Clinton -if elected President- would be a very different maestro than Barack Obama. Her approach to addressing conflicts is more bellicose and proactive, balancing military tools with vigorous diplomacy to assert Washington's influence rather than insulate it.

For Russian officials, Hillary Clinton was "the neocon of the Obama administration" a phrase they used to describe her presumed hawkish and interventionist approach that they clashed with so often while she was Secretary of State. But Clinton is no Dick Cheney or John McCain in her understanding and projecting of American power. Her track record suggests a playbook of assertiveness that is closest to the tenure of her husband Bill Clinton, thus striking a balance between soft power and the use of force when and if necessary.

More decisive on Russia and Syria

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have always had a split on foreign policy, one leaning to the left wing of the Democratic Party (Obama) and one capturing the center of the foreign policy debate in American politics (Clinton). Even rhetorically, Obama's rise came through promising the moon in his speeches, while Clinton has the tendency to appear more tough on national security. The 44th President rosy talk in Berlin and Cairo is very unlike the former First Lady who has consistently offered more sober and realistic tone in addressing global challenges. Her support for the Iraq war -now withdrawn- ended up costing her the nomination in 2008 against Obama who ran on an anti war platform.

It would be a mistake to align Hillary Clinton's record and policy outlook with that of the Obama administration

Joyce Karam

Later as Secretary of State and in the policy rooms during Obama's first term, Hillary Clinton comes across in several memoirs as frustrated at the slow and indecisive nature of Obama's policymaking. In his book "Confront and Conceal", David Sanger writes that after a month of meetings on a new Afghanistan strategy in 2009, Clinton bluntly tells a reluctant Obama that he needs to make a decision.

Obama's reluctance versus Clinton's decisiveness replays itself on major policy debates later in the administration on Libya, and Syria, where Clinton was a major proponent for early action while Obama dragged his feet in Libya, and sidestepped the conflict in Syria.

Ignoring Syria in 2012 came at a heavy cost in Clinton's words, telling Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that "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."

In that same interview, Clinton ridicules Obama's principle "don't do stupid stuff." Her response : "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don’t do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." In her speech at Brookings last September, Clinton also acknowledged one of the major gaffes in Obama's Syria policy, backing down on his own Chemical Weapons redline in 2013. She told the audience "I do think that not being able to follow through on it cost us...that still comes back in conversations that people have with me both here at home and abroad."

Today on Syria, Clinton is calling for a No Fly Zone and for upping the pressure "on Russia, in particular on Putin" who is "sinking himself into historical roots of tsar-like behavior and intimidation." The Obama administration for its part is divided on the way to the move forward, with Obama and his aides favoring a more cautious approach, while Kerry advocating a stronger response.

On Iraq, unlike Obama's White House advisers, Clinton was an early critic of the failed government of Nouri Maliki whose dismissal of the political process led among other reasons to the resurgence of ISIS in 2014. Clinton also pushed for keeping troops in Iraq post-2011, and for hard-nosed negotiations on the SOFA implementation.

For the Obama team however, lot of the regional calculus including the Iraq withdrawal, was driven by domestic poll numbers and making sure the President fulfills a campaign promise in 2012 despite the dire geopolitical ramifications it has brought today.

Support but skepticism on Iran

Despite her tough talk, Clinton's record is not one of unilateralism or warmongering. Her early role in the secret negotiations with Iran in Oman in 2011, and support for the deal thereafter captures the foreign policy balance that she is trying to contrast with both the Obama administration and the anti-deal Republican rivals.

Unlike Obama, however, Clinton avoids calling the Iran deal historic or transformational. She tells Brookings "my approach is distrust and verify" warning that Tehran "will test the next President. They'll want to see how far they can bend the rules. That won't work if I'm in the White House."

Clinton also takes a much harder line than the Obama administration in calling out Iran's behavior in Syria, Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen. She calls for increased U.S. military presence and security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to counter it. While the Obama Presidency has brought forth such measures to the GCC countries last May in Camp David, the implementation and follow up of these meetings has been slow and disappointing according to several Arab officials. The GCC countries are diversifying their options post-Iran nuclear deal, renewing ties with Russia and expanding relations with China. Never since Cold War have the leaders of the GCC and Egypt flocked to Russia at such a pace, which makes restoring the balance in the relations a major challenge to the next U.S. President.

People to people relations

Arab officials who have met Obama describe him as a "very business like" and "direct", in contrast with a warmer and more interpersonal exchanged with Clinton at the leaders and the public level.

Clinton's long meetings with the GCC leaders and visits to Tahrir square in Egypt, or her holding town halls in Qatar, emphasize this strong people to people suit that neither Obama nor Kerry have been able to replicate after she left office.

At at time when tectonic changes are taking place in the Middle East, having the ability to communicate with resolve tough messages to its leaders and public is paramount to U.S. interest. Messages from Kerry, Biden, and Obama himself on issues related to Yemen, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and funding ISIS have being constantly ignored by regionals players. While anti-Americanism is not at the level it was during the George W. Bush days, U.S. credibility and standing has taken a major hit in the region under Obama.

It would be a mistake to align Hillary Clinton's record and policy outlook with that of the Obama administration, given their disagreements from dealing with Putin to tackling ISIS. A more assertive foreign policy interwoven with personal relations would mark a Clinton Presidency, as one of caution and reluctance concludes the Obama era.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.