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On foreign affairs, Hillary Clinton stakes her ground on rough terrain

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wave as they arrive at Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar,on Nov. 19, 2012. Hillary Clinton has staked out a more hawkish foreign-policy approach than the current president, should she run to replace him as expected. Would it actually work any better? Clinton herself admits she's not so sure.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Carolyn Kaster

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wave as they arrive at Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar,on Nov. 19, 2012. Hillary Clinton has staked out a more hawkish foreign-policy approach than the current president, should she run to replace him as expected. Would it actually work any better? Clinton herself admits she's not so sure.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Carolyn Kaster

WASHINGTON - Hillary Clinton has staked out a more hawkish foreign-policy approach than the current president, should she run to replace him as expected.

Would it actually work any better? Clinton herself admits she's not so sure.

The former secretary of state caught the attention of the U.S. political establishment this week where she distanced herself from President Barack Obama's choices in Syria, where a civil war has helped fuel a regional Islamist rebellion.

In a less-noticed snippet of that interview she confessed that she couldn't actually say whether things might have worked out better in the Middle East, if the president had listened to her and armed the Syrian rebels earlier in the conflict like she'd suggested.

"Well, I don’t know the answer to that," she told The Atlantic. "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."

In that same interview, she hinted that she favoured a foreign-policy approach somewhere between Obama's and George W. Bush's, saying that in U.S. politics the pendulum had a habit of swinging too far from one direction to the next.

It's far from clear, however, that a more hawkish stance is palatable — either at home or abroad.

With respect to domestic politics, yes, the polls say Obama's unpopular and respondents are likely to tell pollsters they disagree with his foreign policy. But drill a little deeper into the survey numbers, and you're likelier to find the president's actual policies in sync with American opinion.

Take Iraq, for instance. A late-June survey for the Washington Post and ABC News showed a strong majority, two-thirds, opposed sending in American troops and a split down the middle over whether to use airstrikes.

Obama has since called in airstrikes, and promised not to send in combat troops.

Many other surveys point to a war-weary mood in the U.S. There were similar findings last year regarding Syria, when Obama briefly considered possible airstrikes. Two-thirds of U.S. respondents opposed the idea, and the political will in Washington instantly evaporated.

As for world affairs, would more robust American engagement actually help?

With respect to Clinton's Syria comments, the Washington Post's political-science blog has surveyed some of the academic literature on arming rebel movements — and the pattern isn't encouraging. The Post cited studies that concluded that arming rebels usually made things worse, and the scenario in Syria, with its divided opposition, fit the profile of the worst-case conditions.

The hawk-dove question has been debated intensely in Washington, given the hangover from the Arab spring, the mess following the U.S. exit from Iraq, the impending U.S. exit from Afghanistan, and the conflict in Ukraine.

It's split the Republican party, between hawks like Sen. John McCain and non-interventionists like Sen. Rand Paul, who could potentially run to Clinton's left on foreign affairs should they wind up facing each other in 2016.

Members of the security community also appear split on how to respond to the current crises, judging by a fascinating panel discussion last month on Capitol Hill titled, "Obama's Foreign Policy And The Future Of The Middle East."

One ex-CIA analyst said he was struck, during his chats with multiple Obama officials in 2009, by their belief that the U.S. had wasted too many resources in the Middle East.

Five years later, Kenneth Pollack said he couldn't believe the Middle East had become an even bigger mess than it was under George W. Bush.

"The region has gone to hell. And I say this as someone who wasn't exactly fond of George W. Bush's approach to the Middle East either," he said. "And I think that in fact the best proof that even the Obama administration now recognizes this is how they've been handling the Middle East in the last year or so. We've seen a very significant change in the Obama administration's approach to many different issues in the region."

But another ex-CIA analyst cautioned against increased engagement.

Paul Pillar cited the timeless principle of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors — first, do no harm. That's an echo of a phrase Obama is said to use himself when weighing foreign engagements — "Don't do stupid (stuff)."

Pillar said there's one example where Obama intervened forcefully, in Libya, and he probably regrets it today.

A former U.S. ambassador, speaking at the same event, suggested a radical new direction for U.S. policy in the Middle East. He said the U.S. should try to get other countries to handle the mess.

More specifically, he said, the U.S. should reopen a dialogue with Iran, the region's Shiite power, then push Iran to talk to Saudi Arabia, its Sunni nemesis and, finally, let the Middle East powers sort out their own backyard.

To illustrate his point Charles Freeman, the ambassador to Saudi under the elder George Bush, listed several actors in the region — Iran, Syria's Assads, and the Islamic jihadists. He then listed different conflict zones, and noted how America's enemy in one battle was its ally in the next.

"How can you have a coherent policy in the Middle East when the people there are so damnedly inconsistent? I think the answer is that outsiders can't manage the Middle East and shouldn't try," Freeman told the panel discussion, organized by the Middle East Policy Council.

"It's time to let the countries in the region accept responsibility for what they do rather than acting in such a way as to free them to behave irresponsibly."

So it's far from clear how Clinton's statements on foreign policy might look during any 2016 presidential run.

But there's one possible benefit for her.

Whenever her opponents link her to an unpopular Obama move — and they will, repeatedly — she might point to an August 2014 interview in The Atlantic, offer it as proof she didn't always agree with her ex-boss, and call it old news.

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