Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What Happened to Hillary Clinton?

From presidential aspirant to "chief implementer" of an aimless foreign policy

Foreign Policy magazine, which reflects in tone, texture, and content the buzzing hive of Washington’s foreign-policy elite, is what we could call this set’s “beach reading”–its easy-peasy, always breezy approach to global politics and national security is non-threatening and serves as a primer on the top issues of the day.

Some of its reporting is really good, like Susan Glasser’s “Head of State,” which deconstructs the four-year sojourn of the former first lady and U.S senator, now the nation’s third female Secretary of State, as she navigates the uncertain waters of revolution abroad and the chilly fjords of a strange White House relationship at home.

In addition to interviewing Clinton, Glasser provides some fresh insights into the diplomatic ping-pong match in which the freedom of Chen Guangcheng—the blind Chinese dissident seeking asylum in the United States—was in the balance. Chen ultimately prevailed and is now taking law classes and residing with his family in New York.

Glasser’s direct writing style, which thankfully dispenses with the usual sycophancy reserved for the Clintons, renders what seems to be a fair picture of a complex, hardworking, and pragmatic woman who could have been elected president in 2008. But it can’t be entirely edifying, at least from Clinton’s point of view. Referring to the frenetic Chen episode in May, Glasser says the one thing that at once encapsulates and diminishes Clinton’s role over the last four transformative years:

“By the next morning when we met, it was already clear this had been the most intense high-stakes diplomacy of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.”

Even worse than contending that Clinton’s statecraft has been a disaster, the charge here is that it has been unmemorable, if not invisible, until Chen came along last month. Glasser points out that while Clinton has a 60 percent approval rating among Americans, and seems to maintain some hip celebrity magnetism among the political geek set which is again palpitating over a possible 2016 run, her actual record is quite, well, insignificant. It isn’t her fault, necessarily:

… Few Americans have any idea what Clinton has actually been up to as secretary of state, or even what a secretary of state is supposed to do in this day and age. In the rarefied circles of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, where they’ve been paying closer attention, Clinton gets big points for style and for taking her brand of “people to people” diplomacy international at a time when America desperately needed just her kind of star power to revive an image tarnished by a near decade of George W. Bush’s cowboy unilateralism. Aside from that, as one of the city’s mandarins put it to me recently in one of numerous nearly identical conversations, “What has she done?” The poohbah reeled off a long string of Important Global Issues, from Middle East peace to negotiating a political end to the long-running war in Afghanistan, from which Clinton appears to have been sidelined by the Obama White House or is simply out of the picture. To those traditionalists, Clinton is something of a puzzle; clearly, she’s a success in the “soft power” department, a relentless cheerleader for Brand America. But they can’t help disdaining her focus on issues such as women’s rights and development economics–surely not the stuff of real diplomacy–and see her attention to them as proof of how marginalized she’s been by the Obama White House on the geopolitics that count. “That’s the rap,” sighed one Clinton booster.

One can’t help but note the irony — many of us thought Clinton’s concession to Obama during the 2008 president primary was some kind of “soft coup” in which the old Clintonian guard was then able to regenerate at various levers of Washington power, including Clinton herself in this powerful cabinet position. Glasser’s portrait now tells a different story, about a woman with the global vision of “it takes a village” reduced to just one more villager–albeit the most hardworking and capable–in the Obama settlement.

“It’s fair to say the conceptual framing of Obama foreign policy has taken place within the White House and not within the State Department,” one close Obama advisor told Glasser. Obama’s national security advisor, Denis McDonough (who counseled Obama, not Clinton, during the 2008 campaign) then provides the money quote for the piece:

When I asked McDonough to characterize the division of labor between Obama’s White House and Clinton’s State Department, he replied: ‘She’s really the principal implementer.’

What’s even more telling is when Foreign Policy combs its rolodex of hive dwellers for some comment on Glasser’s report. Not surprisingly, their responses often say more about them than about Hillary Clinton (foreign-policy elites hardly ever venture fresh insight, they merely struggle to put fresh spin on prevailing conventional narratives), politely exposing their court biases and axes to grind. But one thing is made clear: the Obama foreign policy has been sort of a mess, insignificant and wayward, and it’s not Clinton’s fault because she was forced to defer.

Martin Indyk, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Clinton campaign advisor, credits Clinton for the “heavily lifting” on Libya, but blames Obama for clipping her wings in the failed Middle East peace process.

But in the summer of 2010 she weighed in and by the fall she was spending eight hours straight with (Prime Minister) Bibi (Netanyahu) negotiating an agreement to extend the settlement moratorium that might have given the peace negotiations more time to succeed. We will never know what she might have achieved. The White House pulled the plug on that agreement and then the president walked away from the larger effort, leaving his “implementer” without a “decider.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, who throughout the Iraq War damned the State Department as more of a nuisance to the U.S. military’s mission than Saddam Hussein himself, suddenly springs to Clinton’s defense (most neoconservatives, who see a kindred spirit in the humanitarian interventionists’ cause, do) and blames Obama for everything:

Surely Hillary Clinton knew it was politics that dictated her appointment as secretary of state; ironically, it will be politics, personal and otherwise, that relegates her to a minor role in the Obama saga. Given the foreign-policy disasters the next president will face, we can only wonder what might have been had she been allowed to be more than an “implementer.”

Former Bush official and Hoover Institution research fellow Kori Schake does not let Clinton off the hook for some things–she largely dismisses the first Quadrennial Diplomacy Development Review (QDDR) as bureaucratic kabuki and says Clinton’s “judgement seems particularly lacking with respect to democratizing countries.”

“It is difficult to think of a major achievement for which she was a motive force,” she adds, except maybe for getting the troop surge the generals wanted in Afghanistan (many of us would think this was not such a great thing, especially in hindsight).

Still, the difficulties are not entirely of her making. President Obama seems to exclude his cabinet and military leadership from major national security decisions; journalistic accounts of this administration routinely describe NSC meetings at which Secretary Clinton and others speak, then the president retires with political aides to make decisions.

Surprisingly, David Ignatius, Washington Post foreign-policy correspondent and reliable Washington courtier, left Glasser’s key premise that Clinton was marginalized completely off the table. He concurs that Clinton is the most hardworking woman in the biz:

Sometimes she looks as beat-up as a UFC fighter who’s been a victim of “pound and ground,” but she’s all the more lovable for it. As far as I’m concerned, she has significantly strengthened her credentials to be president by working so hard as a journeyman secretary of state.

Typical Ignatius. But then he drops the bomb:

But what has she actually accomplished, beyond logging all those miles so dutifully? Her three high-visibility appointees for what were expected to be the key backroom negotiating positions–Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, and George Mitchell–never really had anything to negotiate. …

My biggest knock on Clinton is that she didn’t find a way to get more done in her role as the president’s diplomatic emissary, broker, and fixer …  Was the Chen negotiation as good as it will get for Clinton? I fear the answer is yes.

I wrote a piece in 2009 thankful that Clinton hadn’t won the White House, arguing that her apparent sidelining by the president was preferable to having her finger on the button. After reading Glasser’s compelling piece, I still feel that way. Especially when I read Ken Adelman‘s petty but telling response. Obviously not humbled by having the phrase “cake walk” forever attached his name, he calls Clinton a “second rank” secretary of state, behind the likes of Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger, and blames her shortcomings on her inability to “push and succeed in fostering homegrown regime change” in “key Middle East countries” like Iran and Syria.

“That, had it happened,” said Adelman, “would have placed her solidly in the first rank of secretaries of state”

Just imagine. In comparison, “chief implementer” sounds alright by me.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here