Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her record as secretary of State against Republican criticism that she had been too accommodating to Russia, arguing Wednesday that she had taken a tough but pragmatic approach so the U.S. could attain its goals.
In remarks at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Clinton assertively brushed aside opponents’ suggestions that she and the Obama administration effectively invited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent incursion into Ukraine by failing to blunt his aggression.
Clinton said that when she became secretary of State in 2009, “we had some business we wanted to get done with Russia.” Among the U.S. goals at the time: an arms control agreement, the creation of a pathway through Russia to provide support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and an effort to get Russia into the World Trade Organization.
“There is a debate in foreign policy, and you hear these voices on TV right now: ‘These are bad folks; they’re doing bad things; do nothing with them,’” Clinton said, adding that her approach was to “be smart about it; pick and choose; stand your ground on disagreements, but look for ways to get things done.”
Pointing to the administration’s accomplishments, Clinton said that the U.S. “even got [Russia] to support sanctions against Iran in the [U.N.] Security Council — something people predicted we couldn’t get done.”
Still, Clinton took the opportunity to throw darts in Putin’s direction, calling him “a tough guy with a thin skin” as she urged him to stand down in Ukraine.
Putin wants to “re-Sovietize” nations on Russia’s periphery, Clinton told hundreds of students at UCLA, and “in the process, he is squandering the potential of such a great nation — the nation of Russia — and threatening instability and even the peace of Europe.”
Clinton called on the nation to “refrain from the threat or use of force” in Ukraine, and said the situation called for careful diplomatic maneuvers to “avoid steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation at this delicate time.”
During a broad-ranging conversation with UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, Clinton all but dismissed criticism of remarks she had made Tuesday at a private fundraiser in Long Beach.
Clinton said she was merely comparing the tactics used by Adolf Hitler and Putin — and not equating the men themselves — when she drew a parallel between Hitler’s efforts to resettle Germans in the late 1930s to Putin’s recent moves to issue Russian passports to citizens with ties to Russia in Ukraine.
“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ‘30s,” Clinton said Tuesday, according to the Long Beach Press Telegram. “The Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places — Hitler kept saying, ‘They’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people’ — and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous” in Ukraine, she said.
Clinton reiterated Wednesday that statements by Putin and other Russian leaders that they needed to go into Crimea to protect Russian minorities were “reminiscent of claims that were made back in the 1930s when Germany under the Nazis kept talking about how they had to protect German minorities” in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
“I just want everybody to have a little bit more perspective,” Clinton said. “I’m not making a comparison, certainly, but I am recommending that we can perhaps learn from this tactic that has been used before.”
Although Clinton has offered no indication of whether she plans to run for president in 2016 — and is not expected to for months — her remarks on Russia on Wednesday suggested a more forceful effort on her part to define her accomplishments at the State Department. She also seemed to preview her approach should she run for president.
Clinton deftly sidestepped questions about whether she believed it was time for a female president, offered a staunch defense of President Obama’s healthcare law, and — in what could be a big part of her outreach to a key Democratic constituency in 2016 — touted her advocacy for gay rights around the world during her tenure at the State Department.
Clinton explained her own decision to support gay marriage in simple terms: “It just seemed to me it was time.” She added that she had spent much of her time as secretary of State talking to other world leaders about gay rights.
“I spent a good amount of time trying to defend and advocate, not for gay marriage, but against discrimination and laws that even imprisoned homosexuals,” particularly in Africa, Asia and Russia, she said. “It wasn’t just the poor, developing nations. I had a knock-down, drag-out argument with the Russians.”
“I think it’s going to be tough internationally for quite some time,” she said. “This is a big piece of unfinished business.”