Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama has long ridiculed the idea that the U.S., early in the Syrian civil war, could have shaped the forces fighting the Assad regime, thereby stopping al Qaeda-inspired groups—like the one rampaging across Syria and Iraq today—from seizing control of the rebellion. In an interview in February, the president told me that “when you have a professional army ... fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict—the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”

Well, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.

“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,” Clinton said.

As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.

Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve. On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway. (And for what it's worth, I also think she may have told me that she’s running for president—see below for her not-entirely-ambiguous nod in that direction.)

Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

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She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.

During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up," she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.

“You know, 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,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

I responded by saying that I thought that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” In other words, that the U.S., on balance, has done a good job of advancing the cause of freedom.

Clinton responded to this idea with great enthusiasm: “That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned.” And then she seemed to signal that, yes, indeed, she’s planning to run for president. “Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea, but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.”

She said that the resilience, and expansion, of Islamist terrorism means that the U.S. must develop an “overarching” strategy to confront it, and she equated this struggle to the one the U.S. waged against Soviet-led communism.

“One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States,” she said. “Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.”

She went on, “You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.” (This was one of those moments, by the way, when I was absolutely sure I wasn’t listening to President Obama, who is loath to discuss the threat of Islamist terrorism in such a sweeping manner.) 

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Much of my conversation with Clinton focused on the Gaza war. She offered a vociferous defense of Israel, and of its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. This is noteworthy because, as secretary of state, she spent a lot of time yelling at Netanyahu on the administration's behalf over Israel’s West Bank settlement policy. Now, she is leaving no daylight at all between the Israelis and herself.

“I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets,” she told me. “Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult.”

I asked her if she believed that Israel had done enough to prevent the deaths of children and other innocent people.

 “[J]ust as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians,” mistakes are made, she said. “We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.”

She went on to say that “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.”

She continued, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”

When I asked her about the intense international focus on Gaza, she was quick to identify anti-Semitism as an important motivating factor in criticism of Israel. “It is striking … that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. … You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member-state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.”

She went on, “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.” Clinton also blamed Hamas for “stage-managing” the conflict. “What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”

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Clinton also seemed to take an indirect shot at administration critics of Netanyahu, who has argued that the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East means that Israel cannot, in the foreseeable future, withdraw its forces from much of the West Bank. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”

Hillary Clinton arrives in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

She also struck a notably hard line on Iran’s nuclear demands. “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.” When I asked her if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies, that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity but not for length, as you will see. Two other things to look for: First, the masterful way in which Clinton says she has drawn no conclusions about events in Syria and elsewhere, and then draws rigorously reasoned conclusions. Second, her fascinating and complicated analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood's ill-fated dalliance with democracy.


JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator] Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.

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JG: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?

HRC: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000 centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.

JG: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?

HRC: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.

JG: Would you be content with an Iran that is perpetually a year away from being able to reach nuclear-breakout capability?

HRC: I would like it to be more than a year. I think it should be more than a year. No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment—

JG: So, a few thousand centrifuges?

HRC: We know what “no” means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. “No” is my preference.

JG: Would you define what “a little” means?

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HRC: No.

JG: So what the Gulf states want, and what the Israelis want, which is to say no enrichment at all, is not a militant, unrealistic position?

HRC: It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position.

JG: So, Gaza. As you write in your book, you negotiated the last long-term ceasefire in 2012. Are you surprised at all that it didn’t hold?

HRC: I’m surprised that it held as long as it did. But given the changes in the region, the fall of [former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi, his replacement by [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, the corner that Hamas felt itself in, I’m not surprised that Hamas provoked another attack.

JG: The Israeli response, was it disproportionate?

HRC: Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.

JG: Do you think Israel did enough to limit civilian casualties?

HRC: It’s unclear. I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets. And there is the surprising number and complexity of the tunnels, and Hamas has consistently, not just in this conflict, but in the past, been less than protective of their civilians.

JG: Before we continue talking endlessly about Gaza, can I ask you if you think we spend too much time on Gaza and on Israel-Palestine generally? I ask because over the past year or so your successor spent a tremendous amount of time on the Israel-Palestinian file and in the same period of time an al Qaeda-inspired organization took over half of Syria and Iraq.

HRC: Right, right.

JG: I understand that secretaries of state can do more than one thing at a time. But what is the cause of this preoccupation?

HRC: I’ve thought a lot about this, because you do have a number of conflicts going on right now. As the U.S., as a U.S. official, you have to pay attention to anything that threatens Israel directly, or anything in the larger Middle East that arises out of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. That’s just a given.

It is striking, however, that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.

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JG: What do you think causes this reaction?

HRC: There are a number of factors going into it. You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.

And what you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.

JG: Nevertheless there are hundreds of children—

HRC: Absolutely, and it’s dreadful.

JG: Who do you hold responsible for those deaths? How do you parcel out blame?

HRC: I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict and wanted to do so in order to leverage its position, having been shut out by the Egyptians post-Morsi, having been shunned by the Gulf, having been pulled into a technocratic government with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that might have caused better governance and a greater willingness on the part of the people of Gaza to move away from tolerating Hamas in their midst. So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.

That doesn’t mean that, just as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians, that there aren’t mistakes that are made. We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.

JG: Several years ago, when you were in the Senate, we had a conversation about what would move Israeli leaders to make compromises for peace. You’ve had a lot of arguments with Netanyahu. What is your thinking on Netanyahu now?

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HRC: Let’s step back. First of all, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin was prepared to do so much and he was murdered for that belief. And then [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak offered everything you could imagine being given under any realistic scenario to the Palestinians for their state, and [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat walked away. I don’t care about the revisionist history. I know that Arafat walked away, okay? Everybody says, “American needs to say something.” Well, we said it, it was the Clinton parameters, we put it out there, and Bill Clinton is adored in Israel, as you know. He got Netanyahu to give up territory, which Netanyahu believes lost him the prime ministership [in his first term], but he moved in that direction, as hard as it was.

Bush pretty much ignored what was going on and they made a terrible error in the Palestinian elections [in which Hamas came to power in Gaza], but he did come with the Roadmap [to Peace] and the Roadmap was credible and it talked about what needed to be done, and this is one area where I give the Palestinians credit. Under [former Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, they made a lot of progress.

I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. [Secretary of State John] Kerry never got there. I had them in the room three times with [former Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell and me, and that was it. And I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with. 

Now I put Jerusalem in a different category. That is the hardest issue, Again, based on my experience—and you know, I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented  settlement freeze, it did not cover East Jerusalem, but it did cover the West Bank and it was actually legitimate and it did stop new housing starts for 10 months. It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze, he had a million reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them the same old, same old.

So what I tell people is, yeah, if I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience. If this were Rabin or Barak in his place—and I’ve talked to Ehud about this—they would have to demand a level of security that would be provided by the [Israel Defense Forces] for a period of time. And in my meetings with them I got Abbas to about six, seven, eight years on continued IDF presence. Now he’s fallen back to three, but he was with me at six, seven, eight. I got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025. That’s a negotiation, okay? So I know. Dealing with Bibi is not easy, so people get frustrated and they lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here.

Hillary Clinton meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?

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HRC: I have the highest regard for Robert. I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.

JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.

HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made. 

So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them, and we didn’t have to go all the way, and I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.

JG: You do have a suspicion, though.

HRC: Obviously. I advocated for a position.

JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?

HRC: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know 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.

They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.

JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?

HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing. But you know, we helped overthrow [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi.

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JG: But we didn’t stick around for the aftermath.

HRC: Well, we did stick around. We stuck around with offers of money and technical assistance, on everything from getting rid of some of the nasty stuff he left behind, to border security, to training. It wasn’t just us, it was the Europeans as well. Some of the Gulf countries had their particular favorites. They certainly stuck around and backed their favorite militias. It is not yet clear how the Libyans themselves will overcome the lack of security, which they inherited from Qaddafi. Remember, they’ve had two good elections. They’ve elected moderates and secularists and a limited number of Islamists, so you talk about democracy in action—the Libyans have done it twice—but they can’t control the ground. But how can you help when you have so many different players who looted the stuffed warehouses of every kind of weapon from the Qaddafi regime, some of which they’re using in Libya, some of which they’re passing out around the region?

So you can go back and argue either, we should we have helped the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff, or we should have been on the sidelines. In this case we helped, but that didn’t make the road any easier in Syria, where we said, “It’s messy, it’s complicated, we’re not sure what the outcome will be.” So what I’m hoping for is that we sort out what we have learned, because we’ve tried a bunch of different approaches. Egypt is a perfect example. The revolution in Tahrir Square was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. It was not led by Islamists. They came very late to the party. Mubarak falls and I’m in Cairo a short time after, meeting the leaders of this movement, and I’m saying, “Okay, who’s going to run for office? Who’s going to form a political party?” and they’re saying, “We don’t do that, that’s not who we are.”

And I said that there are only two organized groups in this country, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what we have here is an old lesson that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. There was a real opportunity here to, if a group had arisen out of the revolution, to create a democratic Egyptian alternative. Didn’t  happen. What do we have to think about? In order to do that better, I see a lot of questions that we have to be answering. I don’t think we can draw judgments yet. I think we can draw a judgment about the Bush administration in terms of overreach, but I don’t know that we can reach a conclusion about underreach.

Hillary Cliinton poses with Libyan soldiers in the fall of 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

JG: There is this moment in your book, in which Morsi tells you not to worry about jihadists in the Sinai—he says in essence that now that a Muslim Brotherhood government is in charge, jihadists won’t feel the need to continue their campaign. You write that this was either shockingly sinister or shockingly naïve. Which one do you think it was?

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HRC: I think Morsi was naïve. I’m just talking about Morsi, not necessarily anyone else in the Muslim Brotherhood. I think he genuinely believed that with the legitimacy of an elected Islamist government, that the jihadists would see that there was a different route to power and influence and would be part of the political process. He had every hope, in fact, that the credible election of a Muslim Brotherhood government would mean the end of jihadist activities within Egypt, and also exemplify that there’s a different way to power.

The debate is between the bin Ladens of the world and the Muslim Brotherhood. The bin Ladens believe you can’t overthrow the infidels or the impure through politics. It has to be through violent resistance. So when I made the case to Morsi that we were picking up a lot of intelligence about jihadist groups creating safe havens inside Sinai, and that this would be a threat not only to Israel but to Egypt, he just dismissed this out of hand, and then shortly thereafter a large group of Egyptian soldiers were murdered.

JG: In an interview in 2011, I asked you if we should fear the Muslim Brotherhood—this is well before they came into power—and you said, ‘The jury is out.” Is the jury still out for you today?

HRC: I think the jury would come back with a lesser included offense, and that is a failure to govern in a democratic, inclusive manner while holding power in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood had the most extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the potential for an Islamist movement to take responsibility for governance, and they were ill-prepared and unable to make the transition from movement to responsibility. We will see how they respond to the crackdown they’re under in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood itself, although it had close ties with Hamas, for example, had not evidenced, because they were kept under tight control by Mubarak, the willingness to engage in violent conflict to achieve their goals. So the jury is in on their failure to govern in a way that would win the confidence of the entire Egyptian electorate. The jury is out as to whether they morph into a violent jihadist resistance group.

JG: There’s a critique you hear of the Obama administration in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Israel, that it is a sign of naiveté to believe that there are Islamists you can work with, and that Hamas might even be a group that you could work with. Is there a role for political Islam in these countries? Can we ever find a way to work with them?

HRC: I think it’s too soon to tell. I would not put Hamas in the category of people we could work with. I don’t think that is realistic because its whole reason for being is resistance against Israel, destruction of Israel, and it is married to very nasty tactics and ideologies, including virulent anti-Semitism. I do not think they should be in any way treated as a legitimate interlocutor, especially because if you do that, it redounds to the disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority, which has a lot of problems, but historically has changed its charter, moved away from the kind of guerrilla resistance movement of previous decades.

I think you have to ask yourself, could different leaders have made a difference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt? We won’t know and we can’t know the answer to that question. We know that Morsi was ill-equipped to be president of Egypt. He had no political experience. He was an engineer, he was wedded to the ideology of top-down control.

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JG: But you’re open to the idea that there are sophisticated Islamists out there?

HRC: I think you’ve seen a level of sophistication in Tunisia. It’s a very different environment than Egypt, much smaller, but you’ve seen the Ennahda Party evolve from being quite demanding that their position be accepted as the national position but then being willing to step back in the face of very strong political opposition from secularists, from moderate Muslims, etc. So Tunisia might not be the tail that wags the dog, but it’s an interesting tail. If you look at Morocco, where the king had a major role in organizing the electoral change, you have a head of state who is a monarch who is descended from Muhammad, you have a government that is largely but not completely representative of the Muslim party of Morocco. So I think that there are not a lot of analogies, but when you look around the world, there’s a Hindu nationalist party now, back in power in India. The big question for Prime Minister Modi is how inclusive he will be as leader because of questions raised concerning his governance of Gujurat [the state he governed, which was the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2002]. There were certainly Christian parties in Europe, pre- and post-World War II. They had very strong values that they wanted to see their society follow, but they were steeped in democracy, so they were good political actors.

JG: So, it’s not an impossibility.

HRC: It’s not an impossibility. So far, it doesn’t seem likely. We have to say that. Because for whatever reason, whatever combination of reasons, there hasn’t been the soil necessary to nurture the political side of the experience, for people whose primary self-definition is as Islamists.

JG: Are we so egocentric, so Washington-centric, that we think that our decisions are dispositive? As secretary, did you learn more about the possibilities of American power or the limitations of American power? 

HRC: Both, but it’s not just about American power. It’s American values that also happen to be universal values. If you have no political—small “p”—experience, it is really hard to go from a dictatorship to anything resembling what you and I would call democracy. That’s the lesson of Egypt. We didn’t invade Egypt. They did it themselves, and once they did it they looked around and didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.

I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.

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JG: Is the lesson for you, like it is for President Obama, “Don’t do stupid shit”?

HRC: That’s a good lesson but it’s more complicated than that. Because your stupid may not be mine, and vice versa. I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove Qaddafi because that came from the bottom up. That was people asking us to help. 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. That’s what I’m arguing.

JG: Do you think the next administration, whoever it is, can find some harmony between muscular intervention—“We must do something”—vs. let’s just not do something stupid, let’s stay away from problems like Syria because it’s a wicked problem and not something we want to tackle?

HRC: I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes. The pendulum swings back and then the pendulum swings the other way. What I’m arguing for is to take a hard look at what tools we have. Are they sufficient for the complex situations we’re going to face, or not? And what can we do to have better tools? I do think that is an important debate.

One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d'être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.

Now the big mistake was thinking that, okay, the end of history has come upon us, after the fall of the Soviet Union. That was never true, history never stops and nationalisms were going to assert themselves, and then other variations on ideologies were going to claim  their space. Obviously, jihadi Islam is the prime example, but not the only example—the effort by Putin to restore his vision of Russian greatness is another. In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players.

Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, in 2012 (Jim Watson/Reuters)

JG: There doesn’t seem to be a domestic constituency for the type of engagement you might symbolize.

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HRC: Well, that’s because most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.

You know, 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. One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.

JG: I think that defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.

HRC: That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned. Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea—but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.

Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.

JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?

HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. 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. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the campaign trail, in 2008 (Jim Young/Reuters)

JG: There is an idea in some quarters that the administration shows signs of believing that we, the U.S., aren’t so great, so we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.

HRC: I know that that is an opinion held by a certain group of Americans, I get all that. It’s not where I’m at.

JG: What is your organizing principle, then?

HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.” You’ve got to take care of your home first. That’s another part of the political messaging that you have to engage in right now. People are not only turned off about being engaged in the world, they’re pretty discouraged about what’s happening here at home.

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I think people want—and this is a generalization I will go ahead and make—people want to make sure our economic situation improves and that our political decision-making improves. Whether they articulate it this way or not, I think people feel like we’re facing really important challenges here at home: The economy is not growing, the middle class is not feeling like they are secure, and we are living in a time of gridlock and dysfunction that is just frustrating and outraging. 

People assume that we’re going to have to do what we do so long as it’s not stupid, but what people want us to focus on are problems here at home. If you were to scratch below the surface on that—and I haven’t looked at the research or the polling—but I think people would say, first things first. Let’s make sure we are taking care of our people and we’re doing it in a way that will bring rewards to those of us who work hard, play by the rules, and yeah, we don’t want to see the world go to hell in a handbasket, and they don’t want to see a resurgence of aggression by anybody.

JG: Do you think they understand your idea about expansionist jihadism following us home? 

HRC: I don’t know that people are thinking about it. People are thinking about what is wrong with people in Washington that they can’t make decisions, and they want the economy to grow again. People are feeling a little bit that there’s a little bit happening that is making them feel better about the economy, but it’s not nearly enough where it should be.

JG: Have you been able to embed your women’s agenda at the core of what the federal government does?

HRC: Yes, we did. We had the first-ever ambassador for global women’s issues. That’s permanent now, and that’s a big deal because that is the beachhead.

Secretary Kerry to his credit has issued directions to embassies and diplomats about this continuing to be a priority for our government. There is also a much greater basis in research now that proves you cannot have peace and security without the participation of women. You can’t grow your GDP without opening the doors to full participation of women and girls in the formal economy.

JG: There’s a link between misogyny and stagnation in the Middle East, which in many ways is the world’s most dysfunctional region.

HRC: It’s now very provable, when you look at the data from the IMF and the World Bank and what opening the formal economy would mean to a country’s GDP. You have Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe in Japan who was elected to fix the economy after so many years of dysfunction in Japan, and one of the major elements in his plan is to get women into the workforce. If you do that, if I remember correctly, the GDP for Japan would go up nine percent. Well, it would go up 34 percent in Egypt. So it’s self-evident and provable.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.