Analysis: Hillary and Cuba

Hillary Clinton cuba 400 x 200

The President’s success – a new weapon for Hillary Clinton

With the historical opening of relations between Cuba and the United States, as well as a historic agreement with Iran, a potential soft spot could very well be closing, in Hillary Clinton’s otherwise potent foreign policy credentials. It will be a greater challenge for the Republicans to associate her with a faltering foreign policy – that is now getting results.

Written by Philip Chr. Ulrich

Over the past month, President Obama has enjoyed some historic foreign policy successes. This is not only good news for him, however, but also for the Clinton-campaign.

As a candidate with potent foreign policy credentials from both Congress and the executive branch, Hillary Clinton has two weak spots in these credentials.

First, the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2011, which Republicans will continue to bring up during the run-up to November 2016. This will undoubtedly heat up as Hillary Clinton has agreed to testify on the events of September 11th 2011 before the Benghazi-Committee in October.

Second, the Republicans had the chance of associating Hillary Clinton with President Obama’s foreign policy, which has been criticized for being a failure (for example Libya, Russia and ISIL). As a former Secretary of State in the Obama-administration, the association is obvious.

Success equals new Democratic weapon

2014 was by a lot of measures a horrible foreign policy year for the Obama-administration. As a result it would have been a clear advantage for the Republican candidates to associate Hillary Clinton with these policies.

However, the past month has given some major foreign policy successes, something which means that Clinton now has the opportunity to turn the tables on the Republicans.

Last week, Hillary Clinton began her foreign policy attack on the Republican candidates and critiques. In a speech at Florida International University, Hillary Clinton presented her opponents’ ideas of foreign policy as outdated.

Using the recent reset in US-Cuban relations, Mrs. Clinton said: “We cannot afford to let out-of-touch, out-of-date partisan ideas and candidates rip away all the progress we’ve made. We can’t go back to cowboy diplomacy and reckless war-mongering. We can’t go back to a go-it-alone foreign policy that views American boots on the ground as a first choice rather than as a last resort. We have paid too high a price.”

Clearly, showing Democratic (and they are Democratic now that they look like successes, otherwise they would have been President Obama’s) foreign policy successes, are not going to sway Republican voters. However, portraying Republican foreign policy as out-dated and showing herself as able to build on success stories, might help sway undecideds (with the important caveat that foreign policy is not going to win her this election). On top of presenting a forward looking foreign policy, Mrs. Clinton very neatly connected the Republican field with the foreign policy of former president George W. Bush (the “cowboy diplomacy and reckless war-mongering”). This very effectively turns the tables on the Republicans with regards to affiliation with tainted foreign policy baggage.

A temperate candidate

By coming down on the President’s side in the debate on reopening relations with Cuba, Hillary Clinton seems to be following popular opinion. An increasing number in younger generations acknowledge the need for a new approach to US-Cuban relations.

Although Mrs. Clinton has previously worked to tighten sanctions on Cuba, she now argues for a new course – with a watchful eye on how Cuba behaves: “Anyone who thinks we can trust this regime hasn’t learned the lessons of history.” A new Clinton-administration would not blindly continue reestablishing relations with Cuba, but judge its prudence by the actions of the Cuban government.

Besides portraying herself as able to build on a renewed U.S. foreign policy, Mrs. Clinton has the opportunity to show herself as a more temperate candidate than other candidates presently running. Support for reengaging Cuba shows her as willing to work with Central American nations, and listening to their needs, rather than judge the region merely in terms used by Republican candidates, most notably Donald Trump, of “rapists”, “drug dealers” and “border issues”. This will most likely sit well with Latino voters, a group that is central to a Clinton victory.

In short, this summer has not only been good to President Obama, but also for Hillary Clinton. The reopening of relations with Cuba gives her the chance to associate herself positively with the Obama-administration and turning the tables on Republican critiques. The challenge ahead will be to keep using this momentum to dampen Republican fire on the former Secretary of State for her involvement in other negative stories of President Obama’s foreign policy, like the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which many Republicans link to the emergence of ISIL. Another challenge will be to keep the positive light on her foreign policy credentials when the stories about Benghazi will reemerge as she testifies in October.

Philip Chr. Ulrich holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. He analyzes American foreign and defense policy for the Danish website He has previously worked as head of section at the Royal Danish Defence College, where he published several briefs on U.S. defense and foreign policy. He has also completed an internship at the Lessons Learned / Development Section at the Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence. He also has his own website and Facebook page where he makes updates and comments on current events in U.S. foreign policy. Find his website: and follow him on or on Twitter: @pc_ulrich

Photo: Keith Kissel

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