Hillary’s sunset or the one last race?

Hillary’s sunset or the one last race?

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s detractor’s argue that all her travel, engagement and energy as US secretary of state delivered very little in specific, measurable achievements – at least in the way traditional foreign policy success can be measured. J BROOKS SPECTOR finds there is little question, though, that serving in Barack Obama’s first administration has done her chances of success in the 2016 presidential election a world of good.

There was a time when it was common for a nation’s foreign minister to serve in that post for years, even decades. Men like Talleyrand, Palmerston, Metternich, Abba Eden, Bismarck and Gromyko could hold their positions (or similar ones) for years, sometimes even decades, providing long-term stability (or at least continuity) to a country’s international relations and a sense of deep historical grounding. Gromyko eventually carved out a record as the longest-serving foreign minister of a major country, serving in that position 1957 to 1985. In America, even with its routine electoral churn of presidents and their appointees, a man like Henry Kissinger could effectively serve as the country’s primary figure in foreign affairs for two full presidential terms – and as a significant force outside of a formal position for years afterward.

One element for such longevity, historically, of course, was a sense that foreign relations were divorced from the day-to-day, rough and tumble turmoil of domestic politics. As a result, foreign policy was a topic best left to an elite, experienced, expert class of officials who divined their nations’ international interests. The foreign services, the diplomatic corps, of almost all nations still retain traces of that sensibility. While they are no longer those derided “striped pants cookie pushers” of populist scorn and diplomats often deal with tough, hard-edged issues that put those same diplomats into harm’s – and even death’s – way, they still sometimes deal with topics that only tangentially enter a nation’s electoral discourse.

In the US, in the first 70 years of the country’s existence, five secretaries of state – Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Buchanan – eventually became president, and John Adams also had had major diplomatic experience for the colonies in revolution, before independence. But, as the nation became consumed, more and more, by its domestic growth and development instead of securing and insuring national independence and territorial expansion, the post of secretary of state receded in importance as an incubator of presidential capabilities.

In recent years, geo-strategically adept generals like George Marshall or Colin Powell, or foreign policy academic specialists like John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger have frequently been appointed to the post. And senior politicians like Cordell Hull, Ed Muskie or John Kerry have also been selected for this job. Hull, in fact, became the country’s longest serving secretary of state. But perhaps the more usual alternative in recent years has been for presidents to pick politically adept lawyers or business leaders who also have the absolute trust of their respective elected chief executives. Figures in this latter group included Edward Stettinius, William Rogers, George Shultz, Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Cyrus Vance, Warren Christopher and James Baker.

In many ways, James Baker became the model for the politically connected, sensitive to domestic issues, bureaucratically adroit secretary of state who could manoeuvre effectively and easily between domestic political calculations and international affairs. Perhaps this was because such an appointee had fully internalised the concept that there are rarely foreign affairs issues truly divorced from American domestic politics anymore. Virtually any trade dispute has conflicting domestic constituencies and political ramifications in the same way as the tangles of Middle Eastern relations or changing immigration policy.

In that sense, Hillary Clinton’s appointment four years ago as Barack Obama’s first secretary of state was the apotheosis of this trend. Here was a politician who had almost become her party’s nominee for president, had already lived in the White House for eight years, had served two terms as a senator, been deeply involved in most her party’s most contentious issues, had already travelled the world before her ascension to the big office in Foggy Bottom, and had become one of the most instantly recognisable politicians – and indeed person – on the planet. Her personal journey had started with her role as a student Young Republican and culminated in being a virtual advertisement for disciplined, committed feminism in public office. It also ran through moments when she had delivered a nationally noticed university valedictory speech, campaigned for George McGovern in his doomed run for the presidency in the company of the man who became her husband, spent her time as the wife of the governor of Arkansas, participated in her husband’s intense campaign for the White House, underwent the national humiliation of having to act out Tammy Wynette’s Stand by Your Man on national television, served two successful terms as a senator from New York, and then carried out an ultimately unsuccessful reach for her party’s presidential nomination.

And then all of these dramatic events eventually became a preamble to being tapped by the election’s eventual winner, Obama, to become his secretary of state. In joining his Cabinet, Hillary Clinton became his foremost rival joined in common purpose in a contemporary version of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Civil War Cabinet of rivals that had brought together such powerful Republican leaders as Edwin Stanton and William Seward into service as secretaries of war and state respectively.

By the time she left office on 1 February 2013 to make way for her newly appointed successor, John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton had become the most travelled secretary of state in US history at just shy of a million miles on her personal odometer and her passport showing 112 countries visited. Her supporters could point to her successes in rebuilding morale in the State Department after the degradations of spirit as a consequence of its officers’ forced defence of those non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during the Bush II administration. Moreover, her enthusiasts could point to her championing of bringing “women’s” issues to the centre of more traditional foreign policy concerns –  and women’s aspects of many other issues, as well as successes such as the growing rapprochement with Burma/Myanmar as it moves towards democracy.

Still others would point to her active use and encouragement of an engagement with the globe’s youthful population as well as other population sectors via her department’s vigorous use of the full range of social media as tools for connecting with audiences around the world. In fact, whenever and virtually wherever she travelled, audiences responded enthusiastically to her form of personal engagement – a style that had sometimes seems to have had much more in common with her decades of political campaigning than it did with traditional diplomatic practice.

On her final day in office, as reported by The Telegraph and so many other newspapers, “The US Secretary of State addressed a cheering crowd of staff in Washington, telling them that while the world remains ‘very complex and even dangerous’ she was ‘more optimistic today than I was when I stood here four years ago. I’m proud of the work we have done to elevate diplomacy and development, to serve the nation we all love, to understand the challenges, the threats and the opportunities that the United States faces,’ she said.”

On the other hand, her detractors have argued that all her travel, engagement and energy have delivered very little in specific, measurable achievements – at least in the way traditional foreign policy success can be measured. On the eve of her departure from office, the AP could write, for example, that while “successes also included a tenuous oil deal between Sudan and South Sudan, persuading China and others to implement crippling oil sanctions against Iran and elevating gay rights — much like she did with women’s rights in the 1990s — to a new level of global credibility. Yet Clinton leaves with many international crises unresolved, such as Syria’s civil war and Egypt’s democratic future. The US-Israel alliance is on shaky ground, terrorism is on the rise in North Africa, there’s an unclear endgame to the Afghanistan war and Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a two-state peace solution than they were four years ago. And, despite endless warnings, Iran’s nuclear program has moved closer to weapons capacity.”

And the Financial Times would add to the criticism, “there are few of the distinctive accomplishments that defined the legacies of Henry Kissinger or James Baker. She leaves office with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process languishing. The engagement with Iran and North Korea that Mr Obama promised has produced no results, while the political reconciliation that might prevent another civil war in Afghanistan remains a distant prospect. Syria is in flames, Egypt not far from collapse and Libya, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed last year, is flooded with weapons that are destabilising its neighbours.”

However, the former secretary’s supporters have retorted, as the Financial Times also noted, this simply “reflects the hand she was dealt. After the body blow to US credibility and image from the Iraq war, one of her main tasks has been to repair the damage, even if opinions about Washington have not improved in the countries subject to drone strikes. ‘She has done a fantastic job of rebuilding America’s image and standing in the world,’ said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution think-tank. ‘She is a rock star in her own right.’ ”

Moreover, regarding this litany of problems, her defenders would almost certainly answer this roster largely defines the intractable nature of the country’s foreign policy challenges more generally. No one, after all, has managed to bring peace to the Middle East, although many have tried.

Now that she has left the office she had not sought but enthusiastically embraced once she was in it, the big question is what’s next for her. In her final comments as she wound up her tenure at the State Department she jokingly made it clear she wants to make up for the “sleep deprivation” that came with all that foreign travel and her 24/7 commitment to the job. She will undoubtedly go off to some wonderful beach spot for some healing sun, long walks and gentle snoozing, then begin to sketch out an eagerly awaited volume or two of her memoirs, and then, slowly, begin a re-engagement in public life through speeches on behalf favourite causes and issues and – eventually – in support of favourite Democratic politicians in the coming mid-term election.

But then the siren call to run for the presidency again may be increasingly audible as well. Virtually every observer of American politics agrees that until Hillary Clinton unequivocally takes herself out of the running for 2016 in the manner of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman when he famously said, “If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve”, she is the default Democratic frontrunner. As such, one word from her of her intentions to go for it after all will be all it takes to clear the field of potential challengers – even someone like Vice President Joe Biden – a man who, after all, has sought the nomination himself two times. And her recent joint appearance on television with the president was about as much of a presidential endorsement of her successor “frontrunnerness” as is possible within days of a president’s own second inauguration.

If she chooses to go for it, depending on the state of American foreign relations and the nature of its international difficulties four years hence, Republican opponents can be counted upon to bring up the deaths in Benghazi and the resulting confusion of messages to explain those deaths, the eventual circumstances of the Arab Spring six years hence, the nature of Arab-Israeli relations in 2016, the eventual circumstances of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the competition with China and Russia, the global economy and the survivability of the euro zone. Of course, if things go well for the US, it will simply add lustre to Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy legacy and further burnish her credentials as the first female candidate for the presidency from a major political party. And right by her side will be the closest thing American politics has to a primal force of nature – the “Big Dawg” himself, Bill Clinton. Either way, Hillary Rodham Clinton is almost certainly not – yet – a spent force in American life and politics. And, like poet Robert Browning wrote, she may yet to tell her supporters, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.” DM

Read more:

  • Hillary Clinton Bids the State Department Farewell in the Washington Post
  • Hillary Clinton: ‘I am more optimistic today’ at Politico
  • The kinetic Hillary Clinton takes a break from decades of ‘living history’ to ponder future in the Washington Post (AP)
  • Backstage Glimpses of Clinton as Dogged Diplomat, Win or Lose at the New York Times
  • John Kerry sworn in as US secretary of state after Hillary Clinton stands down at the Guardian
  • Hillary Clinton Formally Resigns As Secretary Of State at the NPR
  • Clinton leaves without big breakthroughs at the Financial Times
  • Derided by foes as a flip-flopping grandee, the new secretary of state may yet do vital service at the Economist
  • Lexington’s notebook – Barack Obama’s foreign policy – Will Obama let Kerry be Kerry? at the Economist

Photo: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answers questions from the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas 


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options