I once knew a curmudgeonly physician whose wife practiced family therapy. In her off hours, she often counseled a small army of girlfriends through romantic entanglements. One evening at dinner, the grumpy doctor decided he’d heard enough secondhand tales of woe.
“Look,” he said. “I know people have got to (bleep). It was covered in the medical school curriculum. But they certainly don’t have to talk about it to the exclusion of all else, do they?”
That’s my attitude toward the 2016 presidential race. I’m assuming that Hillary Clinton’s running because of how ostentatiously she’s not made up her mind. By sitting tight, she basically freezes potential Democratic rivals in place, passively using her lead in opinion polls to prevent others from raising money.
Otherwise, can’t we please, please wait until 2016 to obsess about it around the clock? There will be three World Series, two NBA championships and a couple of NCAA football seasons between now and then. Politically speaking, we’ll be in a different world.
But no, we’re not going to get even an August recess if the Washington infotainment industry gets its way. Witness the recent stir over Clinton’s ill-advised interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a colloquy quickly cartoonized into a rebuke of President Obama that never actually happened.
For now, the only important thing is to recognize how these media quasi-events take shape. Guided by Goldberg, headline writers focused on a throwaway line characterized by the inimitable Maureen Dowd as “a cheap shot at President Obama … calling him a wimp just as he was preparing to order airstrikes against ISIS.”
Clinton said this: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Actually, President Obama’s version of the slogan was earthier. However, turning Hillary’s paraphrase into an insult required ignoring almost everything she said about his administration’s foreign policy.
Why had Obama used the phrase?
“I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” Clinton said. “I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful; he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think 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. So I think that that’s a political message.”
Does that sound like a slam to you?
Elsewhere, Clinton added, “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.”
She’d voted for the Iraq war, you may recall. Dowd certainly remembered. The erratic New York Times columnist bitterly blamed Hillary for the death of her friend Michael Kelly, the first “embedded” journalist to die there. Dowd neglected to mention Kelly’s own September 2002 column calling Al Gore “wretched,” “vile,” “contemptible,” and worse for opposing the invasion.
I guess she forgot.
But did Hillary really argue that if Obama had armed Syrian “moderates” as she’d recommended as secretary of state, that the United States wouldn’t have to be bombing ISIS fanatics in Iraq today — blowing our own tanks and APCs to smithereens that they captured from fleeing Iraqi soldiers?
That was another headline take from The Atlantic interview. Once again, no, she did not. Indeed, she reminded Goldberg that the chapter on Syria in her recent book was entitled “A Wicked Problem.”
“I can’t sit here today,” Clinton said, “and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what (then-U.S. Ambassador) Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place … I don’t think we can claim to know.”
Obama’s position was that the idea of an effective fighting force of Syrian “moderates” is essentially a fantasy. He said exactly that to “CBS Morning News” last May, although he’s since asked Congress for $500 million to help train and equip this fantasy army — money he’s unlikely to get.
James Fallows argues that people who thought the U.S. could stage-manage the Syrian civil war were deluding themselves: “Yeah, we should have ‘done something’ in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage than it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ?”
Well, it was the mad fanatics of ISIS.
Actually, The Atlantic interview is fascinating, if not for the ballyhooed reasons. Hillary Clinton has provocative things to say about U.S. foreign policy — some alarming, and others more about political positioning than anything else.
Come 2016, there will be plenty of time to discuss them.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.