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December 19th, 2014

Insight

Hillary's Delphic politics

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published August 21, 2014

Hillary's Delphic politics The ruins at Delphi
If Hillary Clinton doesn’t become the next president of the United States, perhaps she could set up as the next Oracle of Delphi.

To the ancient Greeks, the oracle was an authority of immense significance, whose pronouncements carried such weight that supplicants would undertake grueling journeys to consult her before making important decisions. But the Delphic words of wisdom were often ambiguous. “Arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common,” one account notes, “but the oracle was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided.”

Clinton brings to mind the famous oracle, and not just on account of all the gold she has been amassing since leaving the State Department last year. The former secretary of state has collected so many six-figure speaking fees, according to Bloomberg, that her income now puts her in the top .01 percent of the nation’s earners. But even more striking than the riches and honors showered on Clinton by audiences eager to hear her speak are the debates over what she meant to convey and what her words portend.

Consider the competing takeaways from Clinton’s much-discussed interview this month with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

Was it a “forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve,” as Goldberg himself concluded? Or was it a disloyal “cheap shot” at the president “who has been boosting her at the expense of his own vice president,” as Maureen Dowd wrote in a New York Times op-ed? Was it a confident signal, as Commentary’s Seth Mandel argues, that although Clinton hasn’t even committed to another presidential bid, she is nonetheless already running a general-election campaign — since “with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the [Democratic] base on foreign affairs”? Or was it a major blunder, reminding influential party liberals that Clinton’s approach was “out of touch with Democrats in 2008, and it’s out of touch now,” as Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation told Politico?

Hillary Clinton, like the oracle of antiquity, was anything but clear.

In the most-quoted line from the Atlantic interview, Clinton alluded to an Obama catchphrase. “Great nations need organizing principles,” she told Goldberg, “and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

That was “a wicked jab” at Obama’s foreign policy, chortled Karl Rove, while the front page of the New York Post blared: “Hill[ary] blames Mideast crisis on Obama’s ‘stupid policy.’ ”

What could be clearer, right?

Except that Clinton, like the oracle of antiquity, was anything but clear, even about what she herself considers stupid. “Stupid,” she said to Goldberg, was what the Bush administration did in Iraq, not what the Obama administration did in Libya. Of course, she added, “I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories.” A few moments later, she insisted that “Don’t do stupid stuff” isn’t Obama’s organizing principle: “That’s a political message. It’s not his worldview.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that her interview could generate headlines as different as “Hillary Didn’t Throw Obama Under the Bus” (Bloomberg) and “Hillary Stabs Obama in the Back on Iraq” (Human Events). Like a lot of politicians, Clinton is not exactly a paragon of authenticity. What she genuinely believes may or may not be reflected in what she says — and when she says something that sounds hard-hitting, it is usually swaddled in enough caveats and platitudes to make it hard to pin down.

Regardless of what Clinton may tell interviewers or speech audiences now about her differences with Obama’s approach to world affairs, she can hardly dissociate herself from a record she played a central role in shaping. If she ever did have a fundamental disagreement with an Obama foreign-policy decision — if she genuinely believed, for example, that failing to arm non-jihadist rebels in Syria would prove a disaster — she could have resigned in protest. Other secretaries of state have done so. Cyrus Vance resigned when Jimmy Carter ordered an attempted military rescue of US hostages in Iran. William Jennings Bryan stepped down in 1915 to protest Woodrow Wilson’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania.

But Clinton was not about to break with a still-popular president and face a political backlash that might have hurt her prospects. What she says today, when Obama’s foreign-policy approval rating is at a record low, may make headlines. Why didn’t the country hear from her when it might have made a difference?

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.

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