Jeff Jacoby

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?

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. "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 a military rescue of US hostages in Iran that ended in failure. 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?

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for