Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her handling of relations with Russia despite the current conflict in Ukraine, declaring: “The reset worked.”
In an On Point interview, Mrs. Clinton pointed to her success at Foggy Bottom in obtaining Russian cooperation on several key objectives at the outset of the Obama administration. They included a new arms treaty, pressure on Iran toward halting its nuclear program, and assistance in resupply of US troops in Afghanistan.
“When Putin announced in the fall of 2011 he was coming back, I had no illusions,” Mrs. Clinton said by telephone from New York. “I wrote two memos to the president pointing out that we were going to have to change our thinking and approach.
On violence in Gaza, Mrs. Clinton placed blamed squarely on Hamas for deliberately provoking Israel. She defended the US administration’s reversal of its ban on commercial flights into Tel Aviv, which had prompted complaints from the Israeli government and from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The FAA received additional information,” she said.
More broadly, Mrs. Clinton shrugged off any blame for the array of foreign policy crises besetting the US after her departure from the State Department. some 18 months.
“It doesn’t do much good for us to point fingers at each other,” she said. Distancing herself from current problems, she added, “Every party in the White House has the responsibility during the time it’s there to do the best we can, to lead and manage the many problems we face. And I think we did that in the first term.”
She blamed both domestic and foreign policy struggles by the administration on Republican obstruction in Washington rather than failures of managerial competence. And she criticized a new plan by potential 2016 rival Paul Ryan to consolidate federal anti-poverty programs into a single funding stream for states. “Not a good idea,” she said, at a time when many states are refusing to expand Medicaid as permitted with generous federal help in the new health care law.
Mrs. Clinton also discussed her strained relations with the press, as underscored by former New York Times editor Jill Abramson’s recent assertion that the former First Lady harbors unrealistic expectations that the reporters will support her.
“Maybe one of the points Jill was making is that I do sometimes expect more than I should,” she said, “I’ll have to work on my expectations.”
— John Harwood
Below, read a transcript of the interview with Secretary Clinton.
John Harwood: This is On Point. I’m John Harwood in for Tom Ashbrook. She hasn’t declared, but she’s the 2016 presidential frontrunner, and the world is overflowing with what she spent four years handling as President Obama’s Secretary of State: Hard Choices, which happens to be the title of her new book. Joining me now from New York is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Madam Secretary, welcome to the show.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Thanks you, John. It’s great to talk with you.
JH: I’d like to start with simply the range of problems facing us in the world: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Gaza. I’m well aware of the propensity for an out party to look at events like that and say the party in the White House is to blame for all of it. The party in the White House says “Well, we can’t control events in the world.” But how much responsibility should the Obama administration accept, and should you accept, having run foreign policy for four years, for the chaos that we see right now?
HRC : Well, John, that’s why I wrote this book, Hard Choices – because I really want to give people an inside account and demonstrate some of the imponderables and intangibles that go into making these hard choices, so that Americans have a look behind the curtain, so to speak. I’d answer it this way. I think that one of the main points I make in the book is that we are living in a much more complex, fast moving world for many reasons. Obviously the end of the bipolar world with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which I think we’re still trying to adjust to and manage, the increase in non-state actors, terrorist groups first and foremost, but also other players, for good and for bad. The rise of technology, which has been overall a real positive, but which has empowered all kinds of people and groups. And so I think it doesn’t do us much good to point fingers at each other. What we should be trying to do is reestablish a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that requires America to demonstrate leadership, to be deeply involved in trying to do what we can to manage these crises. I negotiated the last ceasefire in Gaza November 2012. It lasted until this month. I fully support Secretary Kerry’s efforts to try to end the violence once again. But look at what happened in just two years. You had Hamas getting access to much more technologically sophisticated missiles, to launch at Israel. You had the very serious problem of the tunnels. You had a change in leadership in Egypt that we certainly had nothing to do with, the overthrow of the Muslim brotherhood president Morsi. So you constantly have to be evaluating, where can we make a difference? But the one big lesson that I hope Americans are taking from this is when we back off, or step away, that doesn’t bode well for either managing or resolving a lot of these disputes.
JH: But Madam Secretary, is that a longer way of saying, for Americans who are looking and saying, “Well, do we want the party that’s controlling foreign policy now, or do we want to make a different choice when we move forward in elections,” are you saying to them these problems are not to any degree our fault or my fault?
H: Well, I’m saying that every administration, every party in the White House, has the responsibility during the time it’s there to do the best we can, to lead and manage the many problems we face, and I think we did in the first term. I think if you look at what we accomplished, number one restoring American leadership and reputation after inheriting two wars, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and a collapsed economic system, I think that President Obama’s leadership and those of us who were his partners did a great deal to move us forward in the right direction. The pivot to Asia was necessary because many of our Asian friends and partners thought the United States had basically walked away from being a presence in the Pacific. I brought about three face to face meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas in an effort to continue to push for a two-state solution, but the United States can help facilitate but not dictate to other people what they should be doing for their own self -interest. But we never stopped working and I think it’s not just the headlines, John, it’s what I call the trendlines. Not only reestablish our reputation and our leadership, but beginning to do more to try to improve conditions around the world that affect women and girls, because that’s not just a nice thing to do. That’s very integrated into our foreign policy objective, because where women are treated fairly and equally you’re likely to see more stability, more democracy, less insecurity and terrorism. So there’s, I think there was an enormous amount accomplished in four years. I know I wrote a long book, but I cut about two thirds of it out.
JH: Let’s talk about Russia for a second. There is a line of criticism that the President’s reset didn’t work, that he was played by Vladimir Putin. You point out in your book, of course, that when George W. Bush with a doctrine of preventive war was president, he seized parts of Georgia. And so I guess my question is, you say in the book that America can’t solve everything but nothing can be solved without America; we’re the indispensable nation. If neither approach, the Bush administration or the Obama administration, worked with Putin, what exactly are we indispensable for?
HRC: Well, I would take issue with the way you characterize that, because what I think I demonstrate in the book is that the reset worked. It was an effort to try to obtain Russian cooperation on some key objectives while Medvedev was president, and of course Putin still pulled the strings but he gave Medvedev a certain amount of independence to negotiate, number one, a new arms control treaty, which was absolutely necessary. The Bush administration had allowed the treaty to last with respect to mutual examinations of missile sites and other important locations, so we knew what the Russians were doing, something that I believe strongly in. We brought Russia around to understanding why we thought there needed to be international sanctions against Iran. I’ll never forget the meeting that we had, the president and I and just one other person on our side and Medvedev and two on his side, where we told him that we had evidence, conclusive evidence, about Iran building an underground facility, a place called Fordow. And the Russians were shocked because they thought they knew what was going on in Iran. So we brought them to the table, at the security council, we got those tough sanctions, and we were eventually able to get to the negotiations that are going on now with the hope that something real can come out of them. We got support from the Russians to go across Russia, to resupply our troops in Afghanistan. The reset was a device to try to refocus attention on the transactional efforts that we needed to get done with the Russians. Now when Putin announced in the fall of 2011 that he was coming back, I had no illusions. I wrote a memo to the president, in fact I wrote two memos to the president, pointing out that we were going to have to change our thinking and approach. We’d gotten all we could get from the reset. The reset succeeded but we had to make adjustments, given the fact that Putin was going to resume both the real position of presidency and begin, I thought and argued, to be more aggressive in his foreign policy.
JH: Let me go back to Gaza for a second. First of all, are you pleased that the FAA reversed its decision after complaints from Mike Bloomberg and Prime Minister Netanyahu and allowed flights, U.S. flights, back into Tel Aviv even though many European countries have not?
HRC: Well, a number of Europeans have reversed their policy as well. Look, I think it needs to be based on the best understanding of the circumstances and I think that the FAA received additional information about steps that Israel has taken. From my understanding, with the reversal here and then the reversal in a number of European nations, they were basically sending a message out to passengers that we’re going to keep a close watch on this and you’ll have to be aware of potential changes in plans as we go forward.
JH: I’m a Methodist, as you are. You say in your book that you were inspired to go into public service by the Methodist faith, do as much good as you can for as long as you can. The United Methodist Church yesterday signed a letter saying, enough — with other religious organizations — it said that the underlying cause of the resumption of violence after repeated ceasefires is what they call the “legal, structural, and physical violence inherent in Israel’s occupation and siege on Gaza.” Do they have a point? Are they right?
HRC: Well I’m very proud to be a Methodist too, John, and very grateful for my lifetime involvement in the church. Of course they have a point. There are always arguments that can be made that have merit to them. But I think that particular analysis right now misses what I believe to be the central reason why this conflict has once again flared up, and that is the desire by Hamas not only to assert itself, since it feels it’s got its back to the wall. It doesn’t really have very many friends left in the region, thrown out of Damascus by Assad, basically losing their relationship in Cairo, and I think they’re doing it both out of a calculation that they can engender more sympathy and support for their cause, but also to put Israel on the back heel. And I have no doubt it was a deliberate provocation. Now I do think if we can get to another ceasefire, which I think is going to be difficult because Hamas wants to hold out for all kinds of substantive negotiations, which will be very difficult to negotiate and agree upon in the kind of time pressure that a ceasefire requires, then issues like greater access to Gaza or food and another materials can certainly be taken into account. But I think in this particular case, I think the responsibility falls on Hamas, and I think they knew exactly what they were doing, which was to try to put Israel in this position and try to engender some sympathy because they don’t really have support very much anymore.
JH: Another thing you say in the book when you’re describing your role as Secretary of State, you said it includes the policy element but it also involves being the CEO of the big vast State Department apparatus. Every four years when people run for president, governors say, “You ought to elect a governor because we’ve run things, we know how to manage.” Are part of the problems we’re now seeing in the Obama administration, both in foreign policy and domestically, a function of the fact that their leading figures, President Obama, Joe Biden, you as Secretary of State, were legislators who came out of the Senate and not people who had run things before?
HRC: Oh, you don’t expect me to agree with that, do you?
JH: What’s wrong with it?
HRC: Well, look, I think it depends on the individual. I had serious disagreements with George Bush and he was a two term governor. So look, I…
JH: But is there a management deficit in this administration?
HRC: I think there is a political deficit in Washington because of gridlock and opposition to the president that started the first day he went into office. And I find that so regrettable. I don’t want to sound naïve or Pollyanna-ish about it, but I think we’ve got two big crises in our country, and one of them is the economic crisis which we all know has just dramatically increased inequality and stagnated middle class incomes and outcomes, but we also have a political crisis. Our democracy is not working and I do not see how we’re going to resolve a lot of our issues. If you look at the reforms our president has put forward time and time again that would make the government more manageable, move it into the 21st century, they’re just met by a solid wall of resistance.
JH: Let me get to a couple of things real quick before we run out of time. You mention reform. Paul Ryan’s out with a plan today proposing that states be allowed to take all of the programs for those in need in one revenue stream as a way of finding better ways to make them work. Is that a good idea?
HRC: No. Not in the current atmosphere. It is not a good idea. All one has to look at is that nearly half the states that refuse to expand Medicaid to realize why it’s a bad idea. If states won’t even take what are very generous terms from the federal government to give working people and poor people access to healthcare, how can we turn over all of the resources that are meant to assist those in need?
JH: Okay. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, is out with an op-ed calling for comprehensive reform as you do, but saying that the law his brother signed in the past when you were in the Senate in 2008, the William Wilberforce law, ought to be changed to make it easier to send those other than the deserving few back to their home countries in Central America. Should that law be changed?
HRC: Well, I think it should be looked at as part of an overall package. We have two categories of people that are represented by these poor children that have come across our border. We have migrants, children who are leaving for a variety of reasons, economic, they want to reunite with family members. And we have refugees, people who have reason to be threatened, people who have bad probabilities if they return home as to what might happen to them. So we do need more resources very quickly deployed, which is what the president and the Democrats have asked for. We need some flexibility within the laws. The laws, our laws right now are not particularly well suited for making the kind of determinations that are required, and that we should, as Americans, want to see happen.
JH: Last question, Madam Secretary, before we run out of time. It’s about you and the press. Jill Abramson, my longtime boss and friend, said recently, “Hillary Clinton has terribly unrealistic expectations for journalists.” And my question for you is, have you been so scalded by your past interactions that it makes you difficult for you to communicate in the way that you would need to as a presidential candidate or otherwise?
HRC: Well, I don’t think so. I think maybe one of the points Jill was making is that I do sometimes expect more than perhaps I should, and I’ll have to work on my expectations. But I had an excellent relationship with the State Department press that followed me for four years and I enjoyed working with them, and whatever I do in the future, I look forward to having the same kind of opportunities.
JH: Secretary Clinton, thanks so much for being with us.
HRC: Thanks. Good to talk to you, John.
Rush transcript by On Point intern Gretel Kauffman.
What do you think? Is Clinton correct? Do global flareups have more to do with the world than with individual state actors? Is Clinton still your top pick for President in 2016?