Editor's Note: As we approach the end of President Obama's first term, we asked two of our correspondents—Barbara Crossette, who writes regularly on the United Nations, and Robert Dreyfuss, who covers foreign policy and the Middle East—to assess Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. Crossette sees a skilled diplomat who has built bridges to many world leaders alienated by George W. Bush, and elevated the concern of human rights wherever possible. Dreyfuss argues that Clinton's support for military intervention in Libya and elsewhere undermines her claims to humanitarianism. Round Two is immediately below; Crossette and Dreyfuss's first exchange follows.
An American secretary of state, the highest-ranking member of a president’s cabinet, has two basic roles. One is defined as the president’s chief foreign affairs adviser. That one is the inside- the-Beltway part.
The other role is to carry abroad the policy priorities and decisions of the United States, and explain and enforce them to this country’s best advantage. That is the image of Hillary Clinton the world sees, and through which a large number of civil society leaders whom she meets at public forums take stock of American intentions, as much as they may loathe or fear specific American policies or actions.
The job has limitations. In Washington, the days of all-powerful secretaries of state are over. Think of Thomas Jefferson, who before becoming president established an American geopolitical presence in Europe after the American Revolution; John Quincy Adams, who with President James Monroe (a former secretary of state) devised the controversial Monroe Doctrine; or George C. Marshall and the Marshall Plan. Henry Kissinger, who engineered a US opening to China (beginning as national security adviser in 1971) and James Baker, whose diplomacy made the first American war against Saddam Hussein a true international response to the occupation of Kuwait, but then kept the scope of that war well defined and under control. Like them or not, they are universally remembered.
Secretaries of state have many more competitors for power within Washington today. The inroads of strong national security advisers, a few offices away from the president and not a mile away, have not only created a second and at times much more important center of foreign policy decisions but have also proved again and again to be fierce competitors for attention. Defense secretaries and military commanders have expanded foreign policy roles, as Dana Priest of The Washington Post so brilliantly demonstrated in her series of articles titled “The Proconsuls: A Four-Star Foreign Policy?"
Supporting the president can be humiliating and embarrassing. Madeleine Albright had to join other high-ranking women in Bill Clinton’s administration to cheerlead publicly for him during the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998. (I was in the Iraqi government press center when CNN broadcast the event; the Iraqis were bug-eyed at the spectacle.) Colin Powell regrets his performance at the UN Security Council in February 2003. Before the invasion of Iraq, he held up a little vial of white powder and said that “less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, a little bit, about this amount'' had been enough to shut down the United States Senate in the fall of 2001, and said that UN inspectors estimated that Iraq may have produced 25,000 liters of the stuff.
Then there are the special envoys, a global phenomenon. The United Nations has dozens of them. The US has many running all over the State Department’s turf, in Sudan, Somalia, the Middle East and, of course, Afghanistan, among other places. Like Richard Holbrooke, a number of the envoys demand direct line to the White House, not the State Department, which they apparently did not consider the center of policy.
Envoys serve a purpose, however, no matter to whom they report. When crises are multiple, no secretary of state can concentrate much time on any one of them, while arid debates go on over stalemated issues with uncooperative governments, even when they are allies. Unless some measure of success seems possible, Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy is a waste of time.
There is a big world out there to deal with. Clinton has spent considerable time in Asia and the Pacific beyond Pakistan. It is a region that she and the president apparently consider neglected, and one where the rise of a more expansionist China is a genuine concern to regional governments from India to Australia. For India, a nuclear power that began the South Asia nuclear arms race, China is an obsession and the excuse for testing nuclear-capable missiles and running up a huge defense budget.
Clinton, trying to bring India “on side” on a number of international issues, has like her boss, gone easy on the country’s dark human rights record. There have been politically inspired killings of thousands of Sikhs and Muslims in recent decades and costly corrupt behavior in international institutions such as the World Bank. Women’s rights are not respected or enforced.
In Washington, the State Department’s current human rights report is very explicit on these issues. Moreover, the chief minister of the economically go-go Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, continues to be denied an American visa because of evidence of his support for a deadly anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. On the diplomatic road to Delhi, this gets toned down. It isn’t just Middle Eastern princes who are handled with kid gloves for self-interested US reasons.
The ambassador-at-large for women's issues, an innovation of the Obama administration, is Melanne Verveer, formerly the chair and co-CEO of the international nongovernmental organization, Vital Voices, and before that Hillary Clinton's chief of staff during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Verveer and Hillary Clinton worked closely together on women's issues at the United Nations in the 1990s, where they were widely recognized as strong advocates for girls and women worldwide. The office of global women's issues at the State Department now continues to promote a broad range of programs -- from environmental issues, education, health and economic empowerment to gender violence -- to assist women and women's organizations in scores of countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The new emphasis on women's issues has grown simultaneously with Obama administration efforts to expand diplomatic action on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which US embassies around the world have been told to raise with governments that discriminate or persecute people because of their sexual preferences. These social issues have never figured so prominently in US foreign policy.
It’s hard to think of recent secretary of state who’s been worse than Hillary Clinton. On the plus side, it’s hard to think of one who’s been more irrelevant.
Perhaps Barbara Crossette focuses so heavily on Clinton’s work on secondary and tertiary issues – such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, and women’s rights in the Congo – because as secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been stripped of nearly all the important portfolios. Since its start, the administration of Barack Obama has aggregated the making of foreign policy to a small group inside the White House. Maybe that’s because Obama didn’t trust either Clinton or Bob Gates, a Republican appointed by George W. Bush: Clinton because during the campaign she attacked Obama from the right on foreign policy, and Gates because of his GOP ties and shady past as a manipulator of intelligence at the CIA in the 1980s. In any case, it’s nearly universally accepted that when it comes to foreign policy, the White House runs the show. By and large – except for her hawkish advice, often in tandem with the secretary of defense and the military – irrelevant. On the big issues – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel – Clinton is an afterthought.
On Iran, for instance, where war and peace looms in the balance in talks over Iran’s nuclear program, Clinton has hardly been a factor. Following the conclusion of the May 23 Baghdad talks between Iran and the P5+1, I asked Aaron David Miller, a longtime diplomat and Middle East expert, who was in charge in Washington on Iran, and he said that the policy is “made, controlled, and micromanaged by the White House.” That, he noted, is true of most important areas of work. Clinton, he said, “doesn’t own any issues.”
On Iraq, the administration’s point man for policy was Vice President Joe Biden. On Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was Richard Holbrooke and his successor, Marc Grossman, along with a team of exceedingly independent-minded ambassadors who owed little or nothing to Clinton. Cameron Munter, the outgoing U.S ambassador to Pakistan, “was an ally of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s larger-than-life envoy to the region before he died in 2010.” And while Obama relied too heavily, especially in 2009, on tendentious advice from the generals on Afghanistan, if Clinton played any role at all it was echo the military brass.
It’s hard to think of single major accomplishment of Clinton since she took office. To the extent that America’s image in the world has improved since 2009, it’s almost entirely due to the fact that allies and adversaries alike saw Obama himself as a breath of fresh air after the heavy-handed, bungling warmongers of the previous administration. Crossette says that Clinton “has done more than any other Obama administration official to chip away at the image of the United States lefty behind by George W. Bush.” But that’s faint praise. All the softening up was done when Bush packed his suitcases, and – at least at the beginning – Obama had most of the world’s leaders at hello.
Crossette asks us to think about Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, but I’ve forgotten whatever I once knew about ancient history to understand why she mentions them. As far as more recent secretaries of state, I find myself going all the way back to Al Haig (1981-1982) to come up with one worse than Clinton. Condi Rice, for all her faults (and there are many), presided over the exile of the neoconservatives from the Bush administration. Colin Powell, who disastrously served as the White House’s mouthpiece in the run up to war in Iraq, at least argued internally against that reckless fiasco. Madeleine Albright, perhaps as hawkish as Clinton, didn’t succeed in drawing Bill Clinton into major wars outside the Balkans mess. And the array of white men who preceded them – Warren Christopher, Larry Eagleburger, James Baker and George Shultz -- were Cold War hawks but mostly realists who understood that the United States is limited by balance-of-power politics abroad. If Clinton is not worse than any of them, she’s certainly no better.
Crossette cheers Clinton’s role in promoting “the office of global women’s issues at the State Department” as well as her efforts to “expand diplomatic action on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.” All to the good – but hardly the big-think issues that a secretary of state ought to focus on. If, in extricating the United States from the Afghan quagmire, the United States has to finesse its commitment to the rights of women in that exceedingly male-dominated, tribal society, will Clinton be the grease under the wheels on the exit ramp or the anchor that entangles us further?
Meanwhile if Obama lurches dangerously toward a containment policy vis-à-vis China, will Clinton suggest a softer course? Not likely. So far, by her own rhetoric, she’s waving the flags of various Southeast Asian nations against what some of their leaders see as Chinese hegemony.
Going forward, if Obama does indeed see more “flexibility” in his second term on foreign policy, as he suggested to then President Medvedev of Russia in the famous live-mic moment, he ought to usher Clinton quietly into her retirement after the election. We can hope that successor will be someone who brings a more dovish, and humble, counsel when he or she sits down with Obama.
In early 2008, when Hillary Clinton still had high hopes of emerging as the Democratic nominee for president, she projected herself as an experienced foreign policy player with better credentials on national security than Barack Obama. Recall her TV ad in which a telephone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House and viewers are asked, “Who do you want answering the phone?”
Four years later, as she prepares to leave the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton’s legacy promises a markedly different tone from that fear-mongering image.
A natural diplomat skilled at public diplomacy, Clinton has done more than any other Obama administration official to chip away at the image of the United States left behind by George W. Bush. She has established strong working relationships with numerous countries that will ease the way for future American diplomats and State Department officials.
In that alone, she has served Barack Obama and the country well. While Obama lurched through an inadequate response to the unending economic crisis and paralyzing missteps trying to build bipartisanship at home, Clinton grabbed international attention in new ways, meeting with a wide range of people—from the bottom up—including those in trouble with the governments whose policies the White House hoped to influence. On a recent tour of Asia, Clinton displayed her talent for navigating potentially explosive situations that could damage US relations with important countries, as in the case of the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had taken refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing on the eve of her arrival in China. Forget for the moment the mainstream media’s attempts to make this a “who won, who lost, who got humiliated” story. There were large policy issues at stake, and both sides worked from that base.
The long-planned talks in Beijing, in which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also took part, were billed as a broad review of strategic and economic questions of global concern to these two powerful permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. On the American agenda were devising common policies on Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea’s potential for troublemaking in East Asia, the lingering crisis in Syria and China’s role in Sudan and South Sudan.
Coincidental to the talks was the presence of Chen in the US Embassy, and the negotiations in which American diplomats and Chinese officials were deeply engaged to find a way to end the incident satisfactorily for both sides, and for Chen himself. He left the embassy with American assurances that he would be protected, and later was given Chinese promises that he could leave the country for the US – after he had given conflicting signals about what he wanted to do. For the time being at least, a full-blown dispute was averted, and Chen arrived in the US with his family over the weekend.
While in Beijing, Clinton talked publicly in general terms about human rights in China, but was not inflammatory, and obviously did not care what about the reaction of Republicans in Congress, who demand more open criticism. Clinton may have angered those in the US who wanted tougher statements on human rights in China, and on the Chen case in particular, but she weighed that against the need for some practical successes in discussions on pressing global issues with the Chinese, and struck a productive balance.
After China, Clinton went on to Bangladesh, where she stood beside the Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who has been forced out of the Grameen Bank, a much-praised lending institution for the poor that he founded. Yunus could also lose control of other parts of the Grameen network to the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; his “crime” was to consider entering politics, now controlled by two dysfunctional, antagonistic parties.
The Indian government has been a strong supporter of Hasina and her treatment of Yunus. His critics, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, chided him publicly after the Grameen founder derided Indian microcredit as being commercialized and not true to its anti-poverty mission and vision. Clinton's gesture would not have been lost on Indians, and news reports in India made a point of calling her a "close friend" of Yunus.
In India, Clinton sought out Mamata Banerjee, now the sharpest thorn in the side of the ruling national coalition government. Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, is one of the few women in South Asia to reach the heights of politics on her own, not because of a dynastic succession. Clinton noted Banerjee’s accomplishment approvingly, sparking tough criticism from Indians who accused the secretary of interfering in Indian politics. (She had also come to ask the Indian government to cut back its purchases of oil from Iran.) A blogger in the Hindustan Times online, Dr. Amit K. Maitra, took a longer view. Clinton, he wrote, is “a force to be reckoned with.”
Frances Zwenig, a progressive trade expert at the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington, is trying to bring Myanmar (which the US still calls Burma) out of sanctions and into the global economy. She has watched Clinton maneuver between the Burmese military leadership and Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader with whom the secretary of state has built a personal relationship.
“She’s in her element and she’s going to be missed,” Zwenig said of Clinton.
Clinton’s visit to Myanmar early last December was the first by a high-ranking American official in more than half a century. After talks with the country’s president, Thein Sein, Clinton announced that she planned to upgrade the US diplomatic representation to ambassador level and would consider other measures if the government stuck to its reform agenda. Since then, Burma has released prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to Parliament and Clinton has announced other measures, including a relaxing of sanctions. Underlying these US actions, of course, is the hope that China’s overwhelming presence in Myanmar can be tempered by an end to its isolation from the West, It is all part of the Obama strategy of restoring a larger American presence in East Asia and the Pacific.
Since taking office, Clinton has traveled nearly 780,000 miles to 96 countries. She has held more than 50 “town hall” events, some with women in places as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Kosovo, Nigeria or Oman, where she was asked to talk to Arab women about how she balanced her public and family lives.
At the State Department, she created the position of ambassador-at-large for women’s global issues. Clinton also held the department’s first conference bringing together heads of US diplomatic missions around the world to share ideas.
Paradoxically, Clinton’s effusive demeanor on the campaign trail in 2008 – those contrived expressions of undiluted delight at meeting yet another crowd or voter, which rang false – works very well in international diplomacy, where niceties still count. Now she is reaching out with that same eager smile and firm handshake to some odious interlocutors. In town halls in Pakistan, for example, she has put down combative comments from media with frank retorts.
In July 2010, Clinton was criticized in Islamabad for the “negative connotations” of US aid in Pakistan. “I’m aware of the fact that in some parts of Pakistan, U.S. aid is not appreciated,” she said, “and that bothers me a lot because you’ve got to understand that from an American perspective, especially during the economic crisis that we all have encountered and a higher than usual unemployment rate in the United States, the idea to, say, an unemployed autoworker or a laid-off secretary somewhere in the United States that the aid we provide to a country may not be appreciated, raises the question in their minds, well, why are you sending money to a country that doesn’t want it.”
A year later, she was asked why Pakistan is demonized in the American media. “I would respectfully say, I think that there’s been press articles on both sides that have been wildly inaccurate and wildly accusatory, to the detriment of the seriousness of what we are trying to do together,” she said, adding that the media in Pakistan can be dangerously off base a lot of the time. “When I became secretary of state, I was told by our embassy in Islamabad that they had just given up trying to respond to all the wild stories.”
“Look,” she said, “I’m here in part because I don’t think that’s useful.”
Let’s start with a backhanded compliment: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn’t a neoconservative. But if you like the job she’s doing at Foggy Bottom, then you probably liked Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, and Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, too. Here’s the book on Hillary: hawkish and pro-military, skilled at using human rights as a cudgel against regimes she doesn’t like while glossing over human rights abuses by allies, a liberal interventionist who’s on the wrong side of the administration’s internal debates on Afghanistan, China, Libya, and Syria.
Let’s hope that Clinton’s next war isn’t Syria, where the United States is coordinating weapons delivery to rebels, including Islamist militants.
Though she isn’t a neocon – if “neocon” means someone addicted to the unilateral use of hard power to impose the American will overseas, regardless of the views of America’s allies, the United Nations, and international law – Clinton isn’t averse to hiring one as her spokesperson. That would be Victoria Nuland, a polyglot diplomat who previously served most prominently as Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser from 2003 to 2005, during the peak moment of neoconservative influence in the administration of George W. Bush, before becoming the U.S. ambassador to NATO. She was appointed as Clinton’s spokesperson in 2011.
Little remembered now, three years ago Clinton also shocked some supporters of Barack Obama by hiring Dennis Ross, a neocon-linked official from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy – itself founded in the 1980s by a former research director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – for in a vaguely defined role as special adviser on something called “the Gulf and Southwest Asia,” meaning Israel and Iran. (Ross later moved to the White House, where he led a confrontational phalanx of Obama advisers on the tangled issue of Iran’s nuclear program.)
With Ross handling Iran, Clinton then managed to slough off the other two biggest foreign policy issues to so-called special envoys: Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan and Pakistan and George Mitchell on the Middle East. But her hawkish views on issues such as Afghanistan and Libya, expressed frequently inside the White House, often pushed Obama to the right.
It’s impossible, of course, to precisely define Clinton’s role as distinct from Obama’s own views. As secretary of state, Clinton carries out whatever emerges as America’s chosen foreign policy, and what happens inside the administration’s national security debates is hard to unravel. One day, perhaps, we’ll know whether Clinton and Obama agreed on everything, on most everything, or hardly anything at all. But Clinton’s history as a hawk, including her obsequious deference to the Israel Lobby as senator from New York, allows us to make some judgments, and here and there enough has leaked out that it’s crystal clear that Clinton is rarely, if ever, on the side of the doves.
On Afghanistan, thanks to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars and other reported accounts, it’s widely known that Clinton twice pushed Obama to escalate that bungled adventure. In March 2009, when Obama ordered more than 20,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Clinton opposed Vice President Joe Biden and other doves who argued, presciently, that more troops wouldn’t solve the problem. The exact same alignment in late 2009 had Clinton siding with the generals once again in pressing Obama to add 30,000 more U.S. forces, once again overriding Biden’s objections. Perhaps influencing Clinton’s resolute hawkishness on Afghanistan is her self-styled role as advocate for Afghanistan’s women. Again and again, her advocacy for the women of that war-scarred nation has seemingly steeled her against the necessary and inevitable reconciliation with the Taliban-led insurgency, even though some Afghan women themselves argue that women are suffering intensely from a war without end. To her credit, though, when the Obama administration decided to wind down the war in 2011, it was Clinton who delivered an important speech signaling a major softening of U.S. preconditions for talks with the Taliban.
Her views on Afghanistan, and many other issues, so dovetailed with those of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a centrist Republican appointed by President Bush and retained by Obama, that Clinton and Gates were something of a tag team during the Obama administration’s first three years. Especially on Afghanistan, Clinton and Gates joined General David Petraeus and other uniformed officers to demand a tough line on the war.
But her alliance with Gates also draws a distinct line between Clinton and the neoconservatives. Like Gates – and like Obama himself – Clinton is a fierce advocate for multilateralism. She is a strong partisan of NATO, of the U.S. alliance with Israel, of building UN and international consensus to support American military action. As senator, and then as secretary, she strongly backed an expansion of the Army and the Marines, and she supported Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s opposition to cuts in the bloated Pentagon budget. However, Clinton doesn’t favor go-it-alone actions, a la Cheney. She does, however, often see human rights as a handy way to create a rationale for war. (Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, agrees. Not long ago, before taking office, Rice called for air strikes of or a naval blockade of Sudan over the ongoing civil strife in the western region of Darfur.)
Case in point: Libya. In that case, one of the few on which she differed with Secretary Gates, Clinton (along with Rice) was a strong advocate for the use of American military power against the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi (Gates later supported intervention). And Clinton went far beyond the UN’s support for limited action, using U.S.-coordinated air power backed by France and the UK to support ground actions by anti-Qaddafi rebels. President Obama’s rationale for the action – namely, that the city of Benghazi was about to be slaughtered by the Qaddafi forces, which now appears to have been exaggerated—was a clear instance of supposedly humanitarian justification for a war in support of American interests.
On Syria, too, Clinton has backed the UN and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s diplomatic mission to find a peaceful solution through talks between the government of President Bashar Assad and Syrian rebels, but has warned that if Syria does not cooperate, it will face increasing pressure and isolation. Clinton has denounced Assad and lent her support to anti-regime dissidents. And now, alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar – two oil-rich kleptocracies that gleefully suppress human rights – the United States is reportedly coordinating the delivery of weaponry to anti-Assad fighters, including hard-core Islamists inspired by the Saudi regime.
Clinton has hardly distinguished herself during the so-called Arab Spring. First, in deference to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Clinton backed the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Shortly before it was toppled, she called for “real democracy,” but has joined Gates and the Pentagon in working with Egypt’s military to preserve what’s left of the Mubarak era. A footnote to her close relationship with the king of Saudi Arabia is her utter lack of support for the rebels in Bahrain, a strategic linchpin in the Persian Gulf that was invaded by Saudi troops in 2011 to protect its thievery-minded Sunni monarchy. Apparently, to Clinton, the human rights of Bahrainis are far, far less important than those of, say, Syria or Libya. Perhaps the U.S. naval base in Bahrain, the ongoing U.S. confrontation with Iran, and the intemperate desires of the Saudi king have something to do with her preferences. Recently, Clinton met with visiting senior officials from Bahrain to announce the resumption of U.S. arms sales to the island kingdom.
On China, too, Clinton has a mixed record at best. In 2009, during her first visit there, she seemed to back away from an aggressive, pro-human rights stance in favor of a sensible view that U.S.-China ties were far too complex and important for the United States to meddle in internal Chinese affairs. But she’s moved away from that more “realist” view, more recently. And the saga of the blind Chinese dissident and lawyer Chen Guangcheng raises concern that Clinton is now willing to anger China on this volatile front, even if it means provoking China’s own militant, anti-American contingent in the Communist Party there. Why, exactly, was Chen given asylum in the U.S. embassy in Beijing days before crucial U.S.-China talks? And did President Obama know about the decision to shield Chen? According to the New York Times, Obama was informed only after Chen was in the embassy.
Clinton has meddled, too, in China’s relations with various neighbors, bluntly supporting several countries that challenge China in disputed areas of the South China Sea. She’s backed military aid to a controversial, human rights-violating Indonesian paramilitary group, and she’s generally supported a stepped up U.S. military presence in the area around China, backing the Philippines and Vietnam against Beijing and supporting the deployment of U.S. forces in Australia. If this isn’t designed to “contain” China, it’s hard to see what it is.
Clinton isn’t afraid to play hardball. She believes that the United States can assert its primacy through military means. Her supporters call that using “smart power,” but the conventional definition of smart power really means combining soft power (such as economic might and diplomacy) with hard power, i.e., guns, battleships, aircraft carries and drones. Not smart, in my opinion.