Madame Secretary: Hillary Clinton's a pretty good diplomat, but she will leave no landmarks behind
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America is now into the period in the four-year cycle of U.S. diplomacy when, because of impending elections, little if anything can be achieved.
Foreign countries understand that when America is in the throes of electing a president it is probably safe to ignore what its diplomats, including the secretary of state, have to say. Even if the president is reelected he will probably change his chief diplomat, and possibly some foreign policies. If there is a new president from a different party, there are certain to be major changes.
For career diplomats, the last few months of an administration are a strange time. They want to see the last of the current politicos and anticipate better or worse times under the next team. I remember career staff once being asked by an incumbent administration to write a positive account of its achievements. The paper for the region I was working in came back down from the State Department's seventh floor, where the offices of our political lords and masters are located, saying it was too long. I got stuck with the job of shortening it. On deadline I cut out every other sentence. No one ever noticed or commented.
Now, in anticipation of the departure of Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, who has said she will leave her post whether Mr. Obama wins or loses, we are seeing a flurry of puff pieces about what a great secretary of state she has been. I find these interesting, although a bit embarrassing coming from ostensibly serious journalists.
One by Steven Lee Myers in The New York Times Magazine of July 1 was titled "Last Tour of the Rock-Star Diplomat: What's the Future for Hillary Clinton? Given the State of the World, It's Hard to Look Past the Next Few Months." Another, by Times columnist Frank Bruni on July 8, was titled "The Thrill of Bill & Hill." I'm not kidding.
Apart from the fact that I don't find it hard to look past the next few months and that I don't think that either the former president or "Hill" are thrilling, I think U.S. diplomacy, like Penn State University and the Roman Catholic Church for different reasons, will benefit from a good policy and personnel shake-up. That doesn't mean I think Ms. Clinton has done an inferior job or that the next secretary will do better. But diplomacy is taxing work, and the problems it presents benefit from fresh eyes.
In assessing the impact on American diplomacy of Ms. Clinton, it is first of all worth noting that President Barack Obama should get a good chunk of the credit for whatever she has achieved. It is generally considered that the choice of Ms. Clinton as secretary of state was inspired on his part. She brought intelligence, relevant experience as senator and first lady, renown and energy to the job.
Mr. Obama could have relegated her, his principal rival for the Democratic nomination, to the political junk yard. He could have concluded that she was unlikely to become sufficiently loyal to him or his foreign policies. He judged correctly that not to be the case.
It is also true in judging Ms. Clinton's impact that Mr. Obama constituted an asset in conducting U.S. foreign policy. He is articulate. He travels well. He turns up at the necessary important summit meetings. He also remains, from the point of view of foreigners, an interesting novelty as a young African-American president. All of that helped Ms. Clinton.
Her four years as secretary of state also kept her alive in the public eye as a politician. Losers of primaries don't necessarily fare well in subsequent political endeavors, people like Mitt Romney to the contrary. Whether in 2016, at age 69, Ms. Clinton will still be a player in the American presidential sweepstakes is very hard to say. If I had to wager now, I would say not. The campaign of 2008 was probably her one bite at the apple.
I would judge that Ms. Clinton has run the trap lines well as secretary of state. For example, commentators are noting, in the context of her recent visit to Laos, that she has visited most Asian countries at least once. That's important. But not that important.
Although I think that she has represented the United States well in general, she has had no major impact on, not to mention resolved, any of the world's major problems. Among those she has not plowed into, for whatever reason, are Afghanistan, India-Pakistan, the Middle East peace process, Somalia, Sudan, even Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. She has not substantially improved U.S. relations with key countries such as Brazil, China, Japan, Russia or Turkey. She has not been a player in the major economic and financial upheavals that are perturbing Europe. She has no particular credibility in Latin America or Africa, although she seems to be sincerely respected on both continents.
Why Ms. Clinton more or less stayed away from the big issues is hard to say. It could be that she was seeking not to get her U.S. domestic political feathers too singed by plunging into storms such as Afghan-Pakistani or Israeli-Palestinian relations, or it could be that Mr. Obama didn't want her to stir those pots too vigorously to avoid potential damage to his own political standing. Whatever it was, she was notable by her absence from the conduct of U.S. public and private diplomacy in those two and other areas.
In the case of the Afghan-Pakistani fray, her absence left the ground to secretaries of defense Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, causing the U.S. approach to become far too militarized, as opposed to diplomatic. In the case of the Middle East peace process, after Mr. Obama's own initial foray into the issue in 2009, it has been allowed to die a dusty death, at least for the moment, leaving major problems down the road, awaiting her successor.
First Published July 18, 2012 12:00 am