In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton also was a hawk on military intervention in Libya to oust (and ultimately kill) Muammar Gaddafi. However, on Libya, Defense Secretary Gates sided with the doves, feeling that the U.S. military was already overextended in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and risked further alienating the Muslim world.
This time, Gates found himself lined up with Biden, Donilon and Brennan "urging caution," while Clinton joined with Rice and NSC aides Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power in "urging aggressive U.S. action to prevent an anticipated massacre of the rebels as Qaddafi fought to remain in power," Gates wrote. "In the final phase of the internal debate, Hillary threw her considerable clout behind Rice, Rhodes and Power."
President Obama again ceded to Clinton's advocacy for war and supported a Western bombing campaign that enabled the rebels, including Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda, to seize control of Tripoli and hunt Gaddafi down in Sirte, Libya, on Oct. 20, 2011.
Clinton expressed delight when she received the news of Gaddafi's capture during a TV interview. Gaddafi then was brutally assassinated -- and Libya has since become a source for regional instability, including an assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel, an incident that Clinton has called the worst moment in her four years as Secretary of State.
Gates retired from the Pentagon on July 1, 2011, and Clinton stepped down at the State Department on Feb. 1, 2013, after Obama's reelection. Since then, Obama has charted a more innovative foreign policy course, collaborating with Russian President Vladimir Putin to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs on Syria and Iran, rather than seeking military solutions.
In both cases, Obama had to face down hawkish sentiments in his own administration and in Congress, as well as Israeli and Saudi opposition. Regarding negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, the Israel Lobby pressed for new sanctions legislation that appeared designed to sabotage the negotiations and put the U.S. and Iran on a possible path to war.
After remaining noncommittal for several weeks as momentum for the sanctions bill grew, Clinton finally declared her support for President Obama's opposition to new sanctions. In a Jan. 26 letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, she wrote:
"Now that serious negotiations are finally under way, we should do everything we can to test whether they can advance a permanent solution. As President Obama said, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed, while keeping all options on the table. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that imposing new unilateral sanctions now 'would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.' I share that view."
The sanctions bill has now stalled and its failure is regarded as a victory for President Obama and a rare congressional defeat for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Clinton's successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, also has pressed Israel and the Palestinian Authority to accept a U.S. framework for settling their long-running conflict. Though chances for a final agreement still seem slim, the Obama administration's aggressiveness -- even in the face of Israeli objections -- stands in marked contrast to the behavior of previous U.S. administrations and, indeed, Obama's first term with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
One key question for a Clinton presidential candidacy will be whether she would build on the diplomatic foundation that Obama has laid or dismantle it and return to a more traditional foreign policy focused on military might and catering to the views of Israel and Saudi Arabia.