Ex-Hillary Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter lays out vision for people-centered foreign policy

March 17, 2015, 3:46 PM UTC

If you want to know how Hillary Clinton could try to distance herself from President Obama’s much-criticized foreign policy, listen closely to the words of her former top strategist, Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Syria, Slaughter charges, “is the Rwanda of this administration.” The President, she says, was wrong three years ago when he refused to arm the Syrian rebellion against strongman Bashar Al-Assad. He’s been wrong ever since in refusing to bomb air bases that enable Assad to drop barrel bombs on his own people. And he was wrong to let a terrorist threat in that war-torn country morph into ISIS.

Slaughter deflects questions when asked whether she’d want to join Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, saying she has no plans other than to run her think tank for the foreseeable future. And she makes clear that her views are her own. But the former Clinton aide also says that all roads to the Obama foreign policy travails lead to Damascus. (You can hear my full interview with Slaughter–part of the Smart Women Smart Power series at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies–by clicking here.)

The former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Slaughter was Clinton’s hand-picked policy planning director when Clinton was Secretary of State. Clinton honored her with a distinguished service award. Today Slaughter is President and CEO of the think tank, New America. She lavishly praises her former boss for pursuing the kind of “people-centered” foreign policy that she favors and uses her running room now to pointedly criticize President Obama.

In an interview at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit last fall, she asserted that, “The White House refused to recognize both the spreading and fueling of extremism…But the WH did not want to get involved in another Middle East war so we effectively limited our assistance to humanitarian aid [in the Syrian civil war].”

But Clinton herself–as Obama’s first-term Secretary of State facing overwhelming voter fears of terror and disapproval of his foreign policy–has already started the process of separation from the White House.

And Syria is the starting point for this strategic distancing. Clinton told the Atlantic magazine last summer that the White House decision not to intervene early in the Syrian war was a “failure” that left a “big vacuum, which the jihadists now fill.”

While Secretary of State, Clinton, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and CIA Director David Petraeus pleaded with the White House to arm Syria’s moderate rebels. But that was the summer of 2012, with Obama facing re-election from war-weary voters. The President rejected their pleas–and critics ranging from Slaughter and Panetta to congressional Republicans says that decision helped fuel the rise of ISIS.

Since stepping down from the State Department in 2011 to tend to her teenage sons, Slaughter has rocketed to fame over her provocative Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” (She has a new book coming out on the subject in the fall). And, indeed, the revelation from this former academic dean and law professor that until her late 30s she was nervous talking in front of people resonated with women attending our CSIS forum last week.

But that fame shouldn’t overshadow the fact that she remains one of the Democratic Party’s top foreign policy thinkers–and a marker of where the party’s foreign policy divisions will play out in the 2016 election.

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