Hillary Clinton, State Feminist?

Hillary Clinton, State Feminist?

She vowed to make women’s rights a cornerstone of US foreign policy. How did she do?


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on US diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya, during a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 23, 2013. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Hillary Clinton stood at a podium at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and began her speech, one of the last she would make as secretary of state. Wearing rectangular-framed glasses, pale pink lipstick and tapered heels, she looked out on a crowd of foreign-policy wonks, lawyers and journalists. She directed some of her remarks to members of the media—“the pundits,” as she calls them, who see women’s issues as “a bit soft”—and wondered aloud, imitating those selfsame pundits, “What about the hard stuff?”

“Well, that is a false choice,” she continued, explaining the need for an American foreign policy that encompasses so-called soft issues, like the advancement of women, economic development and energy diplomacy, as well as the usual “hard power” concerns. At various times during her speech, she held her right hand aloft and lightly touched her index finger and thumb together, as if to illustrate the concept of something that was both delicate and precisely calibrated. Her approach to the job of secretary of state—a four-year effort to balance military might, women’s issues and diplomacy—as well as her overall investment in a career that spans more than two decades in Washington, have also been exercises in patience, balance and fine-tuning. 

On this day, at least, she got things right. Her speech was a virtuoso performance, a thirty-three-minute discourse on “American leadership,” done without notes, in which she riffed on “smart power” and name-checked Frank Gehry (foreign policy needs a new architecture, “highly intentional and sophisticated”), as well as Osama bin Laden and current Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Martin Dempsey. Then she sat down and waited for questions. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, later told the audience that Clinton’s successor at the State Department, John Kerry, had “some fairly large Manolo Blahniks to fill.” (In fact, Clinton told me later, her shoes were designed by Miuccia Prada.)

Despite the inescapable fixation on Clinton’s brand of femininity (right down to the designer of her shoes), as well as her claims concerning her women-oriented policy priorities, the balance of her work as secretary of state has actually favored muscle over soft power. Clinton pressed to send additional troops to Afghanistan, lobbied for military intervention in Libya and supported a more aggressive targeted-killing program. 

Still, many see in Clinton a secretary of state who was attuned to the needs of women. “Having a female secretary of state is sometimes a game changer in itself,” says Shelby Quast, a senior policy adviser at Equality Now. Perhaps more than her predecessors (some of whom were, of course, female), and certainly more than Obama, Clinton has been able to charm political leaders, both men and women, because of her warmth, her deep knowledge of the issues people are facing, and a genuine curiosity about the world and the people around her. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, told me at a breakfast in Washington that Clinton has reached out to women in Pakistan, leaving behind “a legacy that will endure.” 

During her first five months as secretary, Clinton mentioned women 450 times in the speeches she gave, according to columnist Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian. Later, in a Newsweek interview, Clinton said, “I have been working hard to integrate women’s rights as a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Women are key to the success of the Obama administration’s major development and economic-growth initiatives.” 

“They are often discriminated against, even brutally enslaved, or simply not able to contribute to society or realize their potential,” Clinton added. “We have an obligation to stand up for their rights.” And she has worked hard to create programs that will help create gender equality, promoting women’s right to education and addressing problems like the high rate of female fetuses aborted in China. 

In one of her most important achievements, Clinton shined a spotlight on the dangers women face in war-torn countries. She went to the Democratic Republic of Congo during her first year as secretary, for instance, and met with women who had endured sexual violence. She also pushed for United Nations Security Council resolutions that “have put real teeth into tackling the issue,” Bunting wrote, including the appointment of a special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and the creation of a team of experts responsible for tracking down its perpetrators. 

But some view Clinton’s impact in a different light. “There were moments with Hillary Clinton when I felt like we were getting too close to a rescue narrative: ‘Here’s Hillary Clinton and here’s the United States. We are going to save the women of the world,’” says Mallika Dutt, the president of Breakthrough, a human rights organization. 

As Dutt points out, the situation for Clinton is complicated. “There are aspects of US foreign policy that have created that situation in these countries. We supported the mujahideen” and helped to create the conditions that led to the Taliban. “We’ve supported Saudi Arabia for decades,” she says. “Here we are, strong advocates for women’s rights, and we’re going to rescue women in the global South, while we are creating circumstances that allow these things to occur.”

During Clinton’s tenure, for example, expanded US counter-terrorism operations have made parts of the countries where she was attempting to help women, such as Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, more volatile. Pakistani Ambassador Rehman is a fan of Clinton’s, but she has denounced the US drone program, which is “creating an entire community of future recruits and radicalizing people who were standing up against militancy and terrorists.” Rehman refuses to talk about the role Clinton has played in expanding the drone program, but those efforts have been well documented. 

* * *

“One of the first things I did as secretary was to elevate the Office of Global Women’s Issues under the first ambassador at large, Melanne Verveer,” Clinton said during her speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Verveer was sitting in the audience, and so was the office’s deputy, Jennifer Klein, who told me earlier that helping women and girls around the world was “not only the morally right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.” 

At the Office of Global Women’s Issues, Verveer and her staffers have assisted women in countries around the world who are fighting sexual violence and other crimes. In July, for instance, officials announced that the United States would contribute $5 million to a public-private partnership, Together for Girls, that works to reduce sexual violence in Kenya, Haiti and other countries. 

The office also funds workshops through the Small Grants Initiative, such as the one-day conference for the Female Lawyers Association in Gambia in August 2011, and helped lead the China-US Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue program, which brought together female leaders from both countries.

As secretary of state, Clinton has “mainstreamed” women’s issues, just as President Jimmy Carter once did with human rights, says Alan Henrikson, a director of diplomatic studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. The State Department’s annual human rights report now includes information on the legal age of marriage in every country, showing the places where girls are routinely forced into early marriage. In Yemen, for instance, there is no minimum age, and girls as young as 8 can be forced to marry.

Aside from helping draw attention to the plight of women and girls in Congo, Clinton has led a widely publicized cookstove initiative to raise awareness of the dangers of primitive stoves in the developing world. Cookstoves, which cause diseases and illnesses such as pneumonia, kill 2 million people a year. These stoves also produce black carbon, one of the biggest causes of global warming. In 2010, Clinton said that the United States would commit $50 million toward the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an organization that aims to convince people in 100 million households around the world to switch to cleaner stoves. Since then, that figure has increased to $105 million, with yet more funding to come.

“She was genuine about the stoves, as it turned out,” says New York University’s Richard Gowan, an expert in international cooperation. Critics argue, however, that the new stoves don’t make a difference: in fact, some of the new models cause more pollution than the old ones. In addition, as one study by Harvard and MIT researchers showed, families who received the new stoves did not use them properly, or stopped using them altogether after a few months. In that study, they essentially gave the stove away and did not find great results. “I’m like, ‘Big surprise,’ says the State Department’s Jacob Moss, director of the US Cookstoves Initiative. He explained that the study showed that technology alone, or simply giving away better stoves, is not enough. Instead, experts have to look at the problem holistically, which, he says, is what he and others at the State Department are doing. 

* * *

Others who appreciate Clinton’s dynamic leadership on women’s issues question whether she has always followed through with commensurate resources. “She was good at making statements and getting policies in place,” says Equality Now’s Quast, “but they didn’t necessarily come with the money.”

Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, recalls how she and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and other activists waited in an anteroom on the seventh floor of the State Department to meet with Clinton in October 2012. “The doors swung out,” she recalls, and Clinton, dressed in a gown of reddish-pink African cloth, stepped out to greet them. “She’s very charismatic,” says Girard. “There’s a lot of wattage.” Tutu bowed toward Clinton and said, “Oh, I am so honored.” 

Girard, Tutu and the other activists in the room were hoping that Clinton would support their efforts to fight child marriage by creating a coordinated approach to the problem—and also by investing $100 million in US funds in a public-private partnership. They all sat together in a meeting room. Tutu “was really pressing for a commitment,” Girard says. “Instead, we got a couple of programs,” such as the ones in Bangladesh and Congo that were designed to help girls stay in school and avoid early marriage. “Some commitments,” Girard allows, “but not at the level we’d hoped for.”

Girard and her colleagues have also attempted to help HIV-positive women in developing countries have access to contraceptives, which would reduce unwanted pregnancies and minimize the risk of mother-to-child infections. US government officials could approve money for contraceptives at HIV clinics. 

“The secretary of state could sit down and take a look at this and say, ‘It would be a lot more convenient for women in Gambia, when they go to an HIV clinic, to also get access to family planning,’” Girard says. “We got no action on that.”

In addition, Clinton could have allowed funds to be used for abortions for women in serious need overseas. The 1973 Helms amendment states that foreign-aid money may not be used for abortions, but it provides exceptions for when a woman’s life is in danger and in cases of rape or incest. “That’s something Hillary Clinton could consider doing,” Girard says, but she did not. “We expect more from our friends.” 

Still, many experts believe that Clinton has done a great deal for women. “She’s made the issues for women much more central,” says Anju Malhotra, principal adviser on gender and rights with UNICEF. “Those things are no longer these little dinky side projects.” Still, it’s hard to measure her achievements in this area, since even with her ample support of women’s issues, progress is slow. “You can’t turn around things that are very embedded and that are wrong for women in four years,” Malhotra says. “Global rates on things take ten years to change.” 

Data on child marriage, which is measured by the percentage of 20- to 24-year-old women who were married by age 18 in a particular country, show how long it takes to improve the lives of women and girls. In Nicaragua, for example, the decline in child marriage over a five-year period from 2001 to 2006 was just three percentage points, from 43 to 40 percent, according to Malhotra. The next review of trends will not be released by UNICEF until 2014; at that point, the impact of Clinton’s efforts to fight child marriage will be easier to measure.

Meanwhile, some changes in the world have made the situation harder for women. “US foreign policy creates conditions for enormous amounts of violence against women,” says Breakthrough’s Mallika Dutt. “It is ironic—I don’t think [Clinton] would have been able to get much traction on women’s issues if she hadn’t been seen as being tough in these other spaces.” Many believe that Clinton has struck the right balance overall as secretary, achieving enough good in the world for women and girls to offset the harm America is inflicting. But it may be years before her real legacy becomes known, as the fate of people in Libya, Pakistan and other countries makes it clear whether she managed to help women and girls and also promote US interests through her brand of realpolitik, or whether the US interventions set the whole society back. 

Today, one thing is certain: Clinton has commanded the global spotlight. During the Bush administration, people were barely aware of America’s top diplomat. At the time, Donald Rumsfeld and other defense officials took center stage. That dynamic has changed, says the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright, adding: “I don’t think anyone’s overshadowed Hillary.”

“We felt as if there was no daylight between Obama, [Defense] Secretary Panetta, Admiral Mullen [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and Secretary Clinton,” says Ellen Tauscher, who served as under secretary of state for arms control and international security during Obama’s first term. “When they sat in the Situation Room and made decisions, they listened respectfully. And that sense of cooperation projected to the rest of the two buildings, State and Defense.”

Not everyone is sold on Clinton’s approach, though. “There is no question that the close relationship between State and the Defense Department has been good for Hillary Clinton,” says Gordon Adams, a former Office of Management and Budget associate director who is now a professor at American University. “The question is whether it has empowered State—and the jury is still out.”

For Clinton, the emphasis on hard power was strategic. Colin Powell floundered in his dealings with Rumsfeld and soon found himself marginalized. In contrast, Clinton cultivated friendships with defense secretaries and became one of Obama’s most trusted advisers. I ask Ellen Tauscher if she thinks there might be a downside to the current close relationship between State and Defense. She laughs loudly. “No,” she says. “There can’t be anything bad to having a secretary have such an important voice. She brought enormous credibility to the mission and helped to project the power of the State Department.”

With boundless enthusiasm, Clinton has shaken things up in Washington, at least stylistically. And she certainly put her listeners at the Council on Foreign Relations in a good mood. After her speech, she made her way through the room, gossiping with old friends and shaking hands with other people. Smiling and waving, she looked like someone on the campaign trail.

Robert Dreyfuss bids “Good Riddance to Warmonger Hillary Clinton.”

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