Before leaving the State Department in early 2013, Hillary Clinton wrote President Barack Obama a final note on Russia. The hoped-for “reset” with Moscow, she said, was in the end a setback. She urged Obama to set a “new course” by taking a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It would be several months until the Obama administration would accuse the Moscow-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing the White House’s red line on chemical weapons, and roughly two-and-a-half years until a Russian official would show up at the American Embassy in Baghdad with an hour’s warning before Moscow began dropping bombs in Syria. But the Syrian conflict had already begun to emerge as a new fault line in a tectonic clash between the United States and Russia.
Clinton cautioned Obama that the relationship between Washington and Moscow would “likely get worse before it got better,” and he had to be “realistic” about the danger Putin posed to both his neighbors and the world order, she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices, which was published before her campaign for president — her second — this year.
“We should hit the pause button on new efforts. Don’t appear too eager to work together. Don’t flatter Putin with high-level-attention,” she said, imploring Obama to cancel a summit in Moscow that September. “And make clear that Russian intransigence wouldn’t stop us from pursuing our interests and policies” in Syria and elsewhere. “Strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.”
Obama ultimately canceled that meeting, after Putin granted asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. But the White House overruled Clinton’s broader advice on taking a harder line toward Moscow and doing more earlier to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition. And now, as she seeks to burnish her national security experience in her run for the presidency against Republican nominee Donald Trump, Clinton is increasingly distancing herself from Obama’s foreign-policy failures — even as she tries to balance them against her credentials as his secretary of state.
In the Democratic primary’s first presidential debate last October, she made one of her clearest breaks from Obama, calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, a demand later echoed by many of the Republican candidates.
“It’s important, too, that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad,” she said. “And we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position.”
In pushing for a no-fly zone, Clinton said: “I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table. You know, diplomacy is not about getting to the perfect solution. It’s about how you balance the risks.”
When asked in a later debate if she was prepared to order the shoot-down of Syrian or Russian aircraft, she said she doubted “it would come to that.”
Clinton’s aggressive approach to Moscow — that Putin cannot be trusted and must be met with force — diverts sharply from Trump’s cozy take. But it also commits her to a far more confrontational policy in Syria if elected, giving the clearest indication yet that there and elsewhere, she’d try to handle the Russian bear head-on.
Moscow already sees Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria as a signal she’s ready to go to war with Russia. And so do many senior Republican officials, including those who agree with her foreign-policy strategies over Trump’s.
“We’d all be well served to have done that years ago,” former Trump rival Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of the prospects of a no-fly zone. “So I appreciate her saying it.”
Skeptics say that could lead to even more bloodshed.
“If you’re going to tell Russia, ‘We will shoot you down,’ it’s hard to see Putin saying, ‘I’m not going to fly anymore,’” said Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton. He called Clinton’s endorsement of a no-fly zone merely a “bumper sticker” slogan in a campaign where national security issues serve as a key dividing line between the two candidates.
For all the election-year talk of how to deal with Russia, neither Trump nor Clinton has detailed their planned policies toward Moscow. The Clinton campaign declined to comment for this article, and the Trump campaign did not respond.
But Clinton’s years of experience in dealing directly with the Cold War adversary give insight into how she’d approach the blood-soaked and intractable Syrian conflict facing her on Day One if she’s elected.
This week, a Syrian cease-fire agreement brokered by Washington and Moscow erupted into flames. Even as U.S. military officials and their Russian counterparts were to begin sharing targeting lists as part of the agreement, American warplanes conducted a deadly strike Saturday that killed as many as 60 Syrian soldiers. U.S. officials say they meant to kill Islamic State extremists, but Moscow claims it was an intentional attack on Assad’s forces.
On Sunday, Damascus unilaterally called off the cease-fire, though bombings had never completely stopped. And on Monday, a U.N. convoy delivering humanitarian aid near Aleppo was attacked by what U.S. officials say were Russian strikes.
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Moscow and Damascus to ground their air forces and give the cease-fire — which he already referred to as a last resort — one final chance to succeed.
“The future of Syria is hanging by a thread, and I urge this council not to give up,” Kerry said as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov looked on. “And I urge the entire international community to get behind the best chance that we have yet had.”
On Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “For now, for us to control all the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war with Syria and Russia.”
Still, in comments last week, Clinton made clear that she, like many still in the Obama administration, remains cynical about the latest attempts to persuade Russia to help negotiate a political resolution in Syria.
“It is up to whether or not Vladimir Putin decides that it’s time to do what the Russians can do to bring this conflict into a period where there can be the beginning of political discussions,” Clinton at a news conference. She renewed her call for a “protective zone” in Syria that is free of airstrikes and a commitment from Moscow to go after the Islamic State, rather than U.S.-backed rebel groups.
But there’s another reason for Clinton to be cynical. With the inevitable collapse of the latest cease-fire, it is unlikely that Washington and Moscow will find agreement on Syria before American voters elect their next commander in chief on Nov. 8. And yet, each day’s developments dictate the contours of the conflict that will remain on the new president’s desk on Jan. 20, 2017.
As the first debate between Clinton and Trump approaches on Monday, Russia remains central to the argument the Democratic nominee has embraced in the tough fight against her Republican rival: Experience trumps instinct.
In contrast with Clinton, Trump’s years of experience with Russia have consisted largely of a Miss Universe contest in Moscow, an earnest admiration for Putin’s strongman tactics, and murky business ties to Kremlin cronies, as the Clinton campaign seized on Thursday amid new revelations. The New York real estate magnate has bucked conventional Washington wisdom by warming up to the Kremlin, ringing alarms from Asia to Eastern Europe. He’s also encouraged Russian hackers to cyberattack Clinton’s email, and said he’d weigh nervous NATO allies’ financial commitments before deciding whether to defend them against a Russian invasion.
Trump has not commented on the crumbling cease-fire, but his uncharacteristic consistency in calling for the United States to work with Russia in Syria has defied the elusiveness of the rest of his so-called “America First” foreign policy.
“Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do,” Trump said on Sept. 7 during a televised “Commander in Chief” forum where Clinton also spoke. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”
Had Clinton been in the room to answer, she might have said: Not quite.
Clinton “spent years of her life with these guys, however insufferable it might have been,” said Julianne Smith, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security advisor and now co-leads Clinton’s working group on Europe and Russia. At some point, “You’ve got to decide you’ve tried enough,” Smith said.
“Past experience has to make one skeptical,” Mike McFaul, who served from 2012 to 2014 as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, said of relying on Russia to negotiate an end to the Syrian war. “I do find it odd that a cease-fire agreement is announced between the U.S. and Russia when, in fact, we are not fighting.”
Smith said one of the few remaining options worth examining in Syria, should the cease-fire agreement fail, could be the no-fly zone Clinton endorsed. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean shooting Russian planes out of the sky, said McFaul, who also leads the Clinton working group. A start would be for the United States to forcibly ground Syrian aircraft — making Moscow choose between defending Damascus and working with Washington.
By backing away from Obama’s own red line in Syria, the White House “painted itself into a corner” and left an opening for Putin to demonstrate strength among foreign powers, said Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who was born in Moscow.
But the administration has also cornered Clinton. While a no-fly zone would not be enough to stop the war, Aron said, “It’s a necessary first step.”
“If Putin, Russia, and Syria remain an election issue — and obviously Trump is actually doing his best to make it an issue — Hillary Clinton would not be able to back away from it once elected,” he said.
During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton again played the role of the more hawkish candidate by disparaging her less-experienced rival — then-Sen. Barack Obama — for being naive about Russia. Still, though she remained deeply distrustful of Putin, she served as the primary U.S. emissary for Obama’s “reset” with Russia.
In March 2009, during Clinton’s first meeting with Lavrov, she brought a red button she believed was labeled with the Russian word for “reset.” Prophetic in hindsight, it instead said “overcharged.” For a while, on issues from cutting nuclear weapons stockpiles, to allowing the United States to transport military supplies across Russia to Afghanistan, to slapping sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the Obama administration had an amenable working relationship with Lavrov and then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
That began to change in 2011, when Russia abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote backing a no-fly zone in Libya. According to several people familiar with the diplomatic talks, Clinton personally assured Moscow that the operation wasn’t a ruse to overthrow Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi. Then videos emerged of U.S.-backed rebels killing Qaddafi, and Clinton separately quipping, “We came, we saw, he died,” confirming for many Russians their mistrust.
In 2012, before elections that would re-install Putin as president despite widespread reports of fraud, Clinton said Russians deserved “fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.” Putin blamed Clinton directly for the large protests in Russia around the election. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said.
Putin had “real suspicions of Clinton in particular,” Smith said. “As soon as he arrived in office, the wheels came off.”
But Aron said the reset was always doomed to fail. “Putin simply concluded the benefits of working in even limited partnership with the U.S. weren’t worth the costs in terms of domestic political legitimacy,” he said.
Cohen agreed that the reset would not have worked — if for a different reason. Among foreign policy officials and experts in the United States, he said, “everything is reduced to ‘evil Putin.’”
On her way out of the State Department in 2013, Clinton concluded that Obama “needed to be ready to take a harder line,” as she wrote in Hard Choices. Later that year, Obama weighed strikes against Assad for crossing his “red line” of using chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
Clinton, who by then had left office, suggested Obama cajole Russia hawks in Congress, such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), to authorize the use of military force in Syria and strengthen Obama’s hand with Putin.
But prospects for congressional approval looked grim. And within days, Kerry inadvertently gave Damascus and Washington an out with a deal to remove Assad’s illicit chemical weapons arsenal, though officials believe Damascus maintains a stockpile.
That agreement gave Putin the opening he sought to become the major player in the Middle East, Aron said.
“Looking to Russia to essentially help us save face, and continuing to hope again and again against experience that Russia would do for the U.S. what the U.S. itself cannot do in Syria, is an utterly unrealistic goal,” he said.
Corker has endorsed Trump but disagrees with the GOP nominee’s coziness with Putin, and says Clinton’s no-fly zone should get another look. The party’s 2008 standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), maintains the United States shouldn’t be negotiating with Moscow. McCain, who is up for re-election, is known for his own hawkish stance against Russia but has pledged to support Trump’s candidacy. He said he no longer hears Clinton talk about establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, which he supports.
And as for Trump? “I have no idea what his approach to Russia is,” McCain said.
Cohen calls this across-the-aisle, anti-Russian convergence the “new Cold War wilderness that we have.”
Clinton said she was not surprised when Moscow invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea; the move was consistent with Putin’s intent to re-establish Russia as a world power, and most U.S. officials have united in condemning it. Russia’s military entry into the Syrian conflict, however, caught many off guard.
More than two years ago, Clinton argued that the United States should have been more forceful about its responsibility as a global leader.
To not do more in Syria was to become complicit in the “bloody stalemate,” she wrote in 2014. As it continues, the United States and its allies “will not be able to ignore it.”
Reporting contributed by Paul McLeary.
Top image credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration
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