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Hillary Clinton was open to covert action abroad, hacked transcript shows

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to volunteers Friday at a campaign office in Seattle. [Andrew Harnik | Associated Press]

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to volunteers Friday at a campaign office in Seattle. [Andrew Harnik | Associated Press]

Hillary Clinton longs for the days when Americans knew how to devise a covert action abroad and not spill the details to reporters.

Addressing a Goldman Sachs event in 2013, in one of the speeches that WikiLeaks published Saturday, Clinton gave a tough-minded, realpolitik answer to the question of how to handle a problem like Syria. If the best chance of success was to act secretly inside that country, she made clear, she had no problem doing that.

She went on to say — as her audience already knew because of revelations in the news media — that as secretary of state she had advocated secretly arming the Syrian opposition and moving forcefully to counter the Russians, who at that point were supporting President Bashar Assad but had not yet fully entered the conflict.

"My view was you intervene as covertly as is possible for Americans to intervene," she said in answer to a question from Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, which paid Clinton about $225,000 a speech to give what felt like an insider's view of the making of American foreign policy, months after she left office.

But she quickly acknowledged that "we used to be much better at this than we are now."

"Now, you know, everybody can't help themselves," she added, and officials go out to "tell their friendly reporters and somebody else: 'Look what we're doing, and I want credit for it.' "

The three hacked speeches from 2013 that WikiLeaks published, most likely with Russian government assistance, help explain how Clinton approaches some of the world's knottiest problems. They are a reminder of the cold-eyed way she often assesses her most vexing opponents when the television cameras are not on.

By the time she left office that year, she had met and assessed two of the three world leaders who were determined most prominently to challenge the United States: President Xi Jinping of China, whom she clearly admires; President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom she clearly detests (and who has returned the sentiment this election); and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, whose determination to build a nuclear weapon and missiles that could "reach Hawaii and the West Coast, theoretically" poses a risk "we cannot abide," she said.

At moments in the speeches, Clinton was clear-eyed about how difficult it would be to execute some of the actions she advocated, including a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.

"To have a no-fly zone, you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas," she said. "So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we're not putting our pilots at risk — you're going to kill a lot of Syrians. So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians."

Her assessment of the risk came before she was formally running for president. But two years later, in a television interview in October 2015, she sounded willing to take that risk. "I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what's happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees," she said.

Her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, tried last month to open those humanitarian corridors, but the effort collapsed in a dispute with Russia. A push to get it restarted during a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday between Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, also failed.

In the talks at Goldman Sachs, Clinton was often more analytic than prescriptive, describing her perceptions of individual leaders and the domestic politics and foreign threats they face. In that regard, her approach is quite different from that of Donald Trump.

In two interviews on foreign policy with the New York Times, one in March and another in July, Trump moved directly to his plans of action: bombing the Islamic State and taking oil, for example, or withdrawing troops from Europe and Asia if allies do not pay their share. While Trump often talks in terms of striking deals, Clinton talks in the more traditional terms of alliance-building.

When she became secretary in 2009, she posed a question about China to an Australian leader: "How do you deal toughly with your banker?" In the Goldman transcript, she suggested that she had answered her own question when sparring with the Chinese over its claims in the South China Sea.

"I made the point at one point in the argument that, you know, you can call it whatever you want to call it," she said. "You don't have a claim to all of it. I said, by that argument, you know, the United States should claim all of the Pacific. We liberated it, we defended it. We have as much claim to all of the Pacific. And we could call it the American Sea, and it could go from the West Coast of California all the way to the Philippines."

"And, you know, my counterpart sat up very straight and goes, 'Well, you can't do that.'"

Clinton segued into an evaluation of Xi, the Chinese leader, who she noted had consolidated power in a way his predecessor never did, but had quickly traveled to places like Russia and Africa to assuage "doubts about Chinese practices."

"So he's someone who you at least have the impression is a more worldly, somewhat more experienced politician," she said.

Xi has since become more aggressive in the South China Sea, and it is unclear how forcefully Clinton, if she became president, would confront him over his claims. She acknowledged at one point that the administration had gotten distracted from its "pivot" to Asia.

In North Korea, the situation has worsened much more drastically. She summarized the Chinese message to the North Koreans this way: "We don't care if you occasionally shoot off a missile. That's good. That upsets the Americans and causes them heartburn, but you can't keep going down a path that is unpredictable."

That, of course, is exactly the path they have gone down.

Hillary Clinton was open to covert action abroad, hacked transcript shows 10/17/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2016 10:11am]
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