Why the Clintons Need Obama to Win: Uncertainty as Hillary Pushes the Big Geopolitical Pivot

There has been a recurrent buzz about the Clintons, or at least some of their notable minions, being not all that keen on Barack Obama's re-election. Bill Clinton himself added to it greatly when he lauded Mitt Romney as a great businessman and defended Bain Capital, Romney's leveraged buyout and private equity shop. Early this week, their longtime fundraiser, Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign chair Terry McAuliffe, kicked up some concern when he made some comments on a cable chat show with Haley Barbour lauding the low regulation/low-tax style of Mississippi, and by extension Romneynomics, as a good thing.

I don't buy it. I think Hillary Clinton is by far best served by an Obama re-elect. Otherwise, her legacy is at best an incomplete, as her and Obama's plans are in mid-course. And Bill's foundation wouldn't be helped by a Romney presidency. Especially if President Romney, an infelicitous and unlikely phrase to be sure, is looking at a Hillary candidacy in 2016.

So how to explain this week's McAuliffe comments, and the Bill Clinton comments before? (Keeping in mind that the former president has campaigned with Obama.) It feels to me like the result of a lot of proximity to very big money on their parts.

After all, Clinton has switched from his ostentatiously populist Timex of his presidential days to collecting ultra-luxe watches that cost more than most BMWs. (Let's credit Joe Biden for not pretending with a Timex and keeping it real with an Omega Seamaster, a luxury watch that costs less than a used Vespa.) Clinton has dabbled in and made a fortune from the private equity investing game. He hangs with billionaires. The attitudes rub off.

McAuliffe, well, he's a career fundraiser. Moving on.

Speaking in Mongolia as part of her own "Pacific Pivot" tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took aim at China's model of economic growth without democracy, arguing that it undermines long-term prospects. She urged other Asian countries to expand markets and political freedom at the same time.

Meanwhile, Hillary, who has said repeatedly she will step down as secretary of state after Obama's first term, a long tenure at Foggy Bottom, is on her own Pacific pivot tour, following Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Pacific pivot tour of late May and early June.

This is part of the Pacific pivot I've been following closely with several pieces here on the Huffington Post, as the U.S. slowly shifts from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to enhanced engagement with the vast Asia Pacific region, marking the rise of China. (The move was officially called the "Pacific pivot" until Europeanists objected, so it's now dubbed the "rebalancing.")

It's a big geopolitical pivot which, one way or another, is inevitable. Because we can't keep on in the Islamic world as we have with the misadventures of the Iraq and Afghan Wars and the geopolitical and economic weight of the world is shifting toward Asia. Though so long as we're addicted to oil we will be engaged with the Islamic world, where we've been for the past decade is out of all proportion. Had we not invaded Iraq, I think we would already have executed the pivot to the Pacific.

Of course, pivoting away from our fateful engagements in the Islamic world is at least as tricky as pivoting to the Asia Pacific. The Clintons' potential political interests come into play in both halves of that.

If Hillary Clinton is to have the option of running for president in 2016, she needs a strong legacy as secretary of state, by far the most important post she's ever held. She can't run on her time as first lady, in which she presided over the disaster of national health care, which resulted briefly in a Republican House (just as the victory of national health care did), or on her time as a Senator from New York, most of which was devoted to running for president.

What she and Obama have done with American geopolitics is very much in flux. And while a President Romney would also end up pivoting to the Asia Pacific region -- he says, for example, he doesn't want to withdraw from Afghanistan, but with the endless embarrassments there, and allies heading to the exits, we may not have much choice about that -- he wouldn't follow the Obama/Clinton script.

Hillary Clinton has an investment in her policies with Obama being seen as successful.

And most of that is in flux.

The pivot to the Pacific, for example, is just underway now. And the pivot away from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia is very tricky.

In the Asia Pacific region, we have an imperial overhang to live down, dating much farther back than the Vietnam fiasco, though few Americans know the history. Much of it, perhaps fittingly, is wrapped up with the last two presidents to come from New York, the cousins Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt both cut their political teeth in the same post, that of assistant secretary of the Navy. (This back in the day when the Department of the Navy was not a subsidiary of the sprawling Department of Defense but a senior Cabinet agency in its own right next to the Department of War, which ran the Army.)

The U.S. Navy patrolled deep inside China on orders from the last two presidents from New York, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

Both TR and FDR were "big navy" advocates, pushing for much larger naval forces, the better to project American power in the Asia Pacific region. Taking advantage of a rather passive and much older secretary of the Navy, TR played a big role in setting American forces in position to prevail in the Spanish-American War, which gave American major new imperial possessions, especially in the Pacific. Most notable of these was the Philippines.

As president, TR moved to put down the Filipino uprising against American forces and established the Asiatic Fleet, which had its headquarters in Shanghai, China. From there, with America part of a European free-for-all in moving to exploit a weak Chinese imperial dynasty, U.S. Navy gunboats plied the rivers of China more than a thousand miles into the interior of the mainland and U.S. Marines kept order in "international settlements."

Americans have long since forgotten this, but China has not.

FDR's role in the Asia Pacific was no less fateful. In his work as assistant secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, the same number two spot in the department that TR had, he worked to expand the Navy in the Pacific, continued the imperial system in China, oversaw plans for a future war with Japan, and founded the naval reserve. As president, he did approve the transition of the Philippines from colony status to eventual independence, but, before sacrificing the Asiatic Fleet as a speed bump to slow surging Japanese forces after Pearl Harbor, maintained American forces inside China. FDR's economic moves to counter rising Japanese imperialism across the Asia Pacific led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which ultimately spurred the U.S. to become a superpower.

Now the U.S. seems to be on the verge of establishing a de facto new Asiatic Fleet, this time not to exploit China but to work with its neighbors in countering it, with a likely squadron of fast new vessels called littoral combat ships to be based in Singapore. And so another would-be president from New York, this time working with a veteran California politician, Leon Panetta, is off promoting the new policy.

Speaking in Hanoi, the secretary of state alternated between lauding improvements and prospects in U.S.-Vietnam trade and investment and chastising the Communist regime to democratize and respect human rights. But the tone was mostly positive.

She promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something Obama talked up when he toured the region last in late 2011, a new pact in development to lower trade barriers between Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Chile, and the U.S. U.S. and Philippine trade relations have already proceeded on another track.

There is no shortage of controversy about secretiveness surrounding the new trade pact, and provisions that would undermine U.S. law.

Clinton was proceeded to Vietnam by Panetta, who visited last month. The veteran California political figure was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Vietnam since the U.S. defeat in 1975. Panetta toured the former U.S. Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay, something which got remarkably little coverage in the U.S. After capturing it from us in the Vietnam War, Hanoi is now allowing U.S. ships to dock there. Currently, those Navy vessels are non-combatant ships. The U.S. is negotiating for the right to berth combat ships at Cam Ranh Bay. The Vietnamese appear at least somewhat amenable. Look for an arms and technology deal.

In a downbeat appearance in Laos, Clinton acknowledged that scores of people are still killed, and many more maimed, every year by unexploded American cluster bombs left over from the Vietnam War, which had a tendency to expand across Indochina.

In Mongolia at the beginning of the week, Clinton unveiled some tough talk on China, criticizing its model of economic growth without democracy.

Late in the week, in Cambodia, while attending the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers meeting, she warned of "conflict" if China doesn't come to the table for multilateral talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, virtually all of which is claimed by the PRC to the consternation of its neighbors. Which is giving the U.S. a big opening with the other countries on the South China Sea. She repeated her message in a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. But China insists on bilateral negotiations, in which it can bring its greater weight to bear on any nation in the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told China that it needs to be less aggressive with its neighbors in the South China Sea.

Not much of this will be finished by the time Obama's first term, and Hillary's time as secretary of state, ends. And still more is unsettled back in the regions from which we are pivoting.

One good thing for Clinton is that secular liberal forces seem to have prevailed in last weekend's national elections in Libya. This sets the country freed last year from dictator Moammar Gaddafi by NATO air strikes and an internal uprising apart from earlier Arab Spring nations such as Egypt and Tunisia where Islamist parties turned out to be the beneficiaries.

Clinton championed the U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya. Working with her campaign critic, longtime Obama advisor Samantha Power, she pushed successfully for the Obama administration to provide the crucial value-added factors needed to make the NATO mission a success.

But most other matters are unsettled.

Pakistan finally agreed to allow U.S. and NATO supplies for the Afghan War to again flow through its country and across its border. Why, after a seven month blockage?

Because Clinton finally called Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and apologized for the killings by U.S. forces of 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost last November in an odd incident. A formal apology had long been a precondition on the Pakistani side for resumption of the shipments.

On an unannounced stop last week in Kabul, Clinton declared Afghanistan a "major non-NATO ally" giving it top priority for assistance and certifying it as the success that it clearly is not. She was a big advocate of Obama's big escalation there and is now sweating out all the attendant problems.

Syria remains an open wound of a crisis, despite meeting at the end of last week in St. Petersburg with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Both Clinton and Lavrov, whose government is a close ally of the Assad regime, said after their discussions that the U.S. and Russian positions are moving closer together. But there was no agreement on any particulars of a transitional government.

If the situation continues as it has, there is plenty of opportunity for war to break out involving Turkey, as we saw with the F-4 shoot-down incident, and Iran, Syria's other remaining close ally.

Things are complex enough in the region with Iran itself.

Negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, which have gone nowhere in three major sessions in various international capitals in the past few months, picked up at a lower level on Tuesday in Istanbul. But there is little reason to believe that those negotiations will go any better, even though sanctions are taking very serious bites out of Iran already and are apt to do more.

And there is little reason to believe that Israel does not still view military strikes against Iran to be very much a live option, especially with Iran hanging tough and diplomacy stalling.

The European Union embargo on Iranian oil began on July 1st. So did an end to the insurance provided by European firms for Iranian oil shipments. Europeans firms are the bulk of that market.

Iran acknowledges drops of 20 percent to 30 percent in its exports. And another sign that the sanctions are hurting came with Tehran urging an emergency meeting of OPEC to try to have Gulf Arab countries cut production and jack prices back up to $100-plus per barrel. Which did not happen.

But Iran has come this far toward its nuclear goals. Why would its leaders, who have brought down so much economic travail upon the country in furtherance of those goals, stop now?

Accordingly, there has been a quiet U.S. military build-up in the Gulf, which Iran and tradition call the Persian Gulf and the Gulf Arab nations which share it call the Arabian Gulf. In the latest move, the U.S. Navy has deployed many Sea Fox underwater drones to the Gulf to find and destroy mines in case Iran makes good on its recently repeated threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most critical choke point in terms of oil supply.

Then there is Egypt, where Clinton was slow to describe longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak as a dictator when the Arab Awakening began. She's hailed early actions by newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the USC-educated former Cal State University engineering professor. She particularly likes the Muslim Brotherhood leader's pledge to honor Egypt's treaties, which includes a peace treaty with Israel.

But the interim ruling military council there, working with a supreme court still dominated by Mubarak appointees, has dissolved the first democratically-elected national parliament and arrogated many presidential powers, as well as the writing of the constitution, to itself.

Yet another major area in which Clinton's legacy as secretary of state is still to be written.

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