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.
A Secretary of State for the Twenty-First Century
In an age where advisors compete for influence and women’s and LGBT rights are of critical importance, Hillary Clinton has performed admirably.
by Barbara Crossette on June 12, 2012
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.