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MH17, Gaza: How foreign policy will impact the 2016 election

Rescuers stand on the site of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Domonique Faget | AFP | Getty Images
Rescuers stand on the site of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

First a disclaimer: It can seem crass to discuss U.S. political implications of human tragedies like the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and the fighting between Israel and Gaza. And in fact in some ways it is.

But it is also critically important as both events could shape the domestic political landscape in significant ways. MH17 and the Gaza fighting remind us what a dangerous and uncertain world we live in and suggest foreign policy could wind up playing a major role in the 2016 presidential election.

The most obvious implication is that this mostly plays to the strengths of presumed Democratic 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, assuming that the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of State ultimately decides to run.

Clinton is a strong and seasoned voice on foreign policy issues even though on one major topic—her vote to authorize President George W. Bush's war in Iraq —she has admitted making a mistake. Clinton will also continue to face criticism over the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, but that is more a rallying cry for hard-right critics who would not support Clinton under any circumstances.

Still, overall experience in dealing with foreign crises like those unfolding in Gaza and eastern Ukraine is Clinton's main strength.

She appeared on PBS' "Charlie Rose" show on Thursday, and demonstrated her broad understanding of the Crimean crisis and Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions in the region.

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"I think Putin is pushing the envelope as far as he thinks he can," she said. "I think he obviously has annexed and occupied Crimea. He is willing to keep Ukraine unstable in order to try and intimidate the Ukrainian government to back off from their approach to the EU, and I think the only language he understands is one that is very tough, very patient, very clear."

Clinton also made it clear that while she understood the implications of the airliner attack—assuming it is ultimately found to be the responsibility of Russia-backed separatists as audio recordings suggest—she put the onus on Europe to respond, reflecting the current desire in the U.S. to avoid foreign entanglements as much as possible.

"The Europeans have to be the ones that take the lead on this," she said. "It was a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over European territory—there should be outrage in European capitals." (Of course that outrage is currently tempered by close economic ties between Europeans nations, notably Germany, and Russia.)

If she faces any significant primary challenge—something that at this point seems fairly unlikely—Clinton will come under fire for being too "hawkish" and too much of an internationalist on foreign policy.

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Indeed, at the liberal activist "Netroots Nation" event in Detroit this week, attendees criticized Clinton for her foreign policy approach while also saying they would almost certainly support her.

But assuming she gets into a general election, Clinton's experience dealing with both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an unstable and aggressive Russian regime will almost certainly be a significant advantage. An election about a dangerous and troubled world would also take the focus off Clinton's own new-found wealth and difficulty connecting with Americans struggling in a relatively torpid U.S. economy.

Clinton's advantage could be augmented as polls suggest Americans have soured on President Barack Obama's foreign policymostly since Clinton left the administrationand may not want to take a chance on an untested, one-term senator in 2016.

On the Republican side, the Israeli and Russian crises could pose challenges for more isolationist-leaning Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has remained steadfast in his desire to see the U.S. spend less on defense and avoid foreign involvement whenever possible.

Paul, who recently got into a fight with fellow GOP 2016 hopeful Rick Perry of Texas over his foreign policy views, clearly thinks he is winning the argument in the GOP between hawks in the mold of Sen. John McCain and those with more narrow views of the U.S. role in the world. And he very well may be.

Paul has also been moving to convince big GOP megadonors like Sheldon Adelson that while he is not a super hawk, he is also a staunch supporter of Israel.

But if Paul, or someone like him, gets into a general election against Clinton, the differences in foreign policy depth would almost certainly be on stark display in ways that could tilt the electoral map heavily in favor of the Democratic nominee.

Some Republicans are obviously growing concerned about this fact, with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., recently saying Clinton would "destroy" Paul in a general election.

The current series of destabilizing geopolitical events of course could fade by the time the presidential election really begins to heat up next year, returning the focus to the domestic economy, immigration and other issues.

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But if it does not, the unsettled state of the world could also encourage more seasoned, "establishment" Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to get into the race and provide what could be seen as a safer alternative to Clinton for swing voters in key states.

The bottom line is that events like those of the last few days mean that whoever hopes to succeed Obama in 2016 will need not just a compelling platform on addressing economic inequality and slow U.S. growth.

They will also need a clear vision on the role the United States should play in a dangerous world in which the old Cold War order has melted away and crises with potential global implications seem to flare up nearly every day.

—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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