Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

January 14, 2013

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

My bottom line is this: Clinton has been a very good secretary – if more solid than spectacular. Pick your cliché or sports metaphor – she is more work horse than show horse, more an indefatigable marathoner (despite the setback last month) than a sprinter.

For someone who almost won the presidency before becoming a subordinate to her rival in his Cabinet, and who was already among the world’s most famous women before taking the job, this is a remarkable testament to her work ethic, her humility and her selflessness. It does not necessarily place her in the top tier of U.S. secretaries of state of all time – but even if not, she is certainly in the very next level.

No assessment of Clinton, of course, can be considered complete now. The issues she labored on hardest are works in progress. It will not be possible to gauge her contribution until we see more about where a number of key issues — concerning China, Russia, Iran and Syria – as well as broader matters – like the fight against global poverty and nuclear weapons proliferation – wind up in a few years’ time.

But some provisional conclusions are now clear, beginning with her relationship with President Barack Obama. Here, Clinton must be given outstanding marks.

She understood that she was a part of Obama’s administration, not a co-president. Where Obama had strong views or made overall decisions on the nation’s priorities, she did not complain, leak countervailing views, wind up in publicized spats or even allow any space to emerge between them.

There are some issues worth having major disagreements over. But, in general, a secretary of state is carrying out the foreign policy developed throughout an administration. It is the president’s job to determine what that policy should be, and no good can come of public disagreements, since they distract from an administration’s efforts to pursue a clear strategy. Clinton got this much better than most other people in the same situation.

Clinton’s work ethic was also remarkable. She will not overtake Condoleezza Rice’s travel record during a four-year stint as the nation’s top diplomat. But virtually all the people around her have been impressed by her level of preparedness. I know assistant secretaries of state who were stunned, even in Clinton’s fourth year in office, at her willingness to stay up until 3 a.m., mastering, for example, the complexities of an opposition political movement in a mid-sized foreign country. The assistant secretaries themselves admitted they mostly just wanted to go to sleep.

I once had the chance to meet with her in a small group at midnight in Qatar to discuss Gaza. Stories like this are legion.

This work ethic leads to another, even more important, point — Clinton did not make many mistakes as secretary. The reason was her thoroughness and preparedness.

Foreign policy priorities, of course, can always be debated. I do not mean to suggest Clinton always had the most imaginative or creative idea, or the most effective strategy.

But she rarely made gaffes. She did not embarrass allies by failing to understand their constraints and concerns when trying to forge a common position. She did not needlessly antagonize neutrals or enemies by letting words slip that later needed to be retracted. She did not have to backtrack on statements or positions that she took initially, but later recognized to be unwise.

This is not to say that Clinton was an historic secretary of state. Even an admirer, such as myself, must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch, few big victories achieved. There was no equivalent of success in the Cold War, or Henry A. Kissinger’s work on President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China. There is not likely to be a Clinton Doctrine to rival George Kennan’s containment policy, or the various doctrines associated with Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Signature issues that Clinton staked out a decade ago as important, when she was senator or first lady – global poverty or the plight of women around the world, for example – showed limited movement due to any idea of hers while secretary of state.

These conclusions were formed not only from personal observation but in conversation with many Democrats and Republicans, some friendly to her, some less so. Even critics often respect her a good deal. But what of her actions and achievements bear them out? Here is quick survey of key regions, noting not only what the Obama administration has done there to date but what Clinton’s contributions may have been.

Europe: Obama entered the White House after inspiring huge hopes across the Atlantic. Four years later, Europeans are generally still favorable toward his administration. This is largely due to Clinton.

To be sure, it was Obama’s vision of a more multilateral world, restoring classic diplomacy and greater attentiveness to the interests of others, that grabbed Europe’s attention in the first place. His biography, race and rhetorical skills had a lot to do with it. But once he was in office, Europeans wanted results. And these were delivered by Clinton.

She was the one who flew to see the Europeans (nearly 40 times). She was the one who worked with them to fashion tighter sanctions on Iran, or a new missile defense strategy that would antagonize Russia less and provide greater protection against ballistic missiles. Or a path forward in the war in Afghanistan. Obama was considered sound in his thinking, but often not the warmest or most personable. Clinton, helped by her key aides, such as Assistant Secretary for Europe Phil Gordon, made up for that in spades.

The Middle East: Alas here things have not gone great overall. U.S. popularity is back to Bush-era levels; there is no movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Syria is a mess. Even the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, while still a success, has now been tainted by the Benghazi tragedy – for which Clinton bears at least some indirect responsibility. The goal of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011, as attempted by the administration, was not realized either. Iran continues a gradual march toward nuclear weapons capability.

Despite all this, there is reason to give Clinton credit for some policies that have ameliorated the situation. Iran sanctions have never been stronger. They provide at least a chance of helping diplomacy work. The Arab Spring brought hope, not only to Libya but to Tunisia and Egypt, where the administration was wise enough not to try to prop up aging autocrats like President Hosni Mubarak when it became evident two years ago that they could not survive.

It is the president, and not Clinton, who bears considerable responsibility for at least two mistakes in the region. Obama raised hopes that his presidency could lead to a better rapport with Iran — hopes dashed by the stolen 2009 Iranian elections. He also sought to get Israel to freeze settlement activity as a precondition for peace talks. That idea was reasonably motivated, but ineffective.

I must, however, acknowledge Clinton’s shortcomings in at least two policy debates. On Syria, we remain at a loss for what to do. The administration’s caution, while understandable, has become counterproductive in light of the tragedy there. A more forward-leaning U.S. support for the opposition looks warranted.

On Afghanistan, while the overall policy of more robust engagement and counterinsurgency was preferable to accepting a defeat by the Taliban, as could have happened, the Obama administration did not develop a strong partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or even signal long-term plans clearly. That uncertainty led to hedging behavior by Pakistan, which has at times condoned the insurgency, and to corruption by Karzai’s cronies, since our challenging relations with the Afghan leader made him less willing to discipline allies when we demanded it.

EAST ASIA: Here, Clinton may have made her greatest and most memorable contribution. Working with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and others, she orchestrated the administration’s “rebalancing” or “pivot” toward Asia. This was a diplomatic achievement more than a military one. We added only limited forces to the region but got a lot of attention and mileage out of modest changes.

First, give credit to diplomacy. Clinton’s key interventions at various regional forums led the way – for example, by firmly and consistently opposing Chinese bullying of other countries. Beijing, increasingly assertive until the rebalancing, took notice. As did U.S. allies.

This approach alone is not a long-term strategy for handling the world’s fastest-growing power. But the growing perception of imminent U.S. decline, and distraction, was largely countered on Clinton’s watch. This has had a generally good effect on countries around the globe that had begun to doubt America’s ability to remain resolute and effective in the 21st century.

Put it all together and you have one of the most solid track records of any modern secretary of state. But you do not yet have a historic legacy – a major bending of history.

Perhaps Clinton will be able to take much-deserved pride from her record as a public servant without such a signature achievement, and spend the rest of her career using her charisma, energy and public voice to work on those issues of greatest concern to her in a more indirect way.

Or, if I am right, perhaps this is one more reason that the lure of running for president in four years may prove irresistible. It would still be desirable, not only for the world but for her, if we could someday point to a Clinton Doctrine.

For all her hard work and achievements, such a doctrine does not yet exist. Yet she has been a remarkable public servant and public figure, who served the country well and helped keep it safe on her watch.

PHOTO (Top): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at Dublin City University in Ireland, December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert 1): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to President Barack Obama during a meeting of his Cabinet in Washington, November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert 2): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

PHOTO (Insert 3): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Myanmar’s Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) sit together to hear President Barack Obama speak at the University of Yangon in Myanmar, November 19, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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Your admiration of Sec Clinton is obvious, not doubt present before the article was written. However, your article is quite thin concerning specific examples justifying your crush on Ms Clinton (?getting Russia to ‘like’ us again?).

Posted by LMPich | Report as abusive

“The issues she labored on hardest are works in progress. It will not be possible to gauge her contribution until we see more about where a number of key issues — concerning China, Russia, Iran and Syria – as well as broader matters – like the fight against global poverty and nuclear weapons proliferation – wind up in a few years’ time.”

If I read this correctly, she receives an “‘A’ for effort!” but an “‘Incomplete’ for results”. This is the new century equivalent of “every child gets a trophy” even though they didn’t win a game.

I will grant you, however, that Hilary works harder than the current incumbent in the White House, but I am not sure that is a very high bar.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

For the US Secretary of State, the measuring stick is really rather straightforward. Has she improved the standing of the USA among the nations of the world? Has she taken steps to increase the access of American citizens to other countries and markets? Has she left the country in better shape internationally than she found it?

Clinton certainly had a rather low bar to clear following Rice, and she has done better. Still, the pair have presided over a decline in American acceptability worldwide which is the greatest since Vietnam in the 1960’s. Americans are less welcome abroad than they were 12 years ago, and our economy is the weakest internationally since the 1930’s.

She should retire from the national stage with dignity and focus, if she must pursue power, on New York.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

So “Even the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, while still a success, has now been tainted by the Benghazi tragedy – for which Clinton bears at least some indirect responsibility.” that’s really paying out the line pretty far for Hillary. The same Hillary who even after accepting “responsibility” had skipped testifying 2 or 3 times now due to some health or schedule issue. The Clinton tatic is to delay beyond public interest or parse the facts so finely they leave no stain (on the dress?). This is the same First Lady who “lost” FBI files demanded in an investigation only to have them “appear” on a table in the White House library later? Seriously this reporter is in the bag for Blue States. Hillary has carefully continued to build her rep while distancing the public from memories of White Water, Travelgate, the first ClintonCare debacle and Bills bad behavior. Benghazi left four good Americans also State Department and CIA employees dead. Widows, children without fathers and parents are left behind to deal with her departments security failures. Nobody of any party should skate on their deaths as she seems to be doing now. We seem to have very short memories and nicely tinted glasses in viewing Hillary regarding her “accomplishments”.

Posted by will_rich | Report as abusive

Secretary Clinton has done a most admirable job as Secretary of State and has done it in the most admirable way, putting results ahead of personality, claim or credit. She has done an outstanding job at rebuilding the relationships damaged or lost under the Bush administration, and in particular she has strengthened our relationships in Asia and Europe.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

Are you serious?

Her performance in our government far outstrips most US presidents we have had, including the present one.

She was cheated out of her chance at the presidency by her race, and the changing demographics of this nation.

That is a fact I still find hard to believe — that after so many years of women trying desperately to get the vote and have a say in this government — they dumped her extraordinary experience for a charismatic young black man with absolutely none at all.

Your description of her performance and perseverance makes her sound mediocre when that is anything but the honest truth.

It sounds to me like the Republicans have suddenly realized that the next Democratic party contender is highly likely to be Hillary Clinton, and are already thinking ahead to the next election by attempting to discredit her for what she has done for this nation.

That is truly pathetic!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive