Hillary Clinton Wasn’t a Horrible Secretary of State
With the release of yet another autobiography, this one focusing on her stint as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is once again in the spotlight, successfully launching a public discussion about her accomplishments.
Back in November 2008, when speculation that she would get the job hit a fever pitch, I wrote a post titled “Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State?!” in which I stated flatly that, “She’s simply not qualified. Aside from some dog-and-pony show trips as First Lady and Senator, she’s got no foreign policy credentials whatsoever. Her training, experience, and demonstrated interests are in domestic issues.” A few days later, when her appointment was imminent, I wrote a follow-on post for New Atlanticist titled “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton!” expressing my consternation that the choice was being widely hailed across the spectrum. Aside from her lack of experience, I worried that her rather prickly temperament ill suited her to be America’s top diplomat.
Over time, I softened my view. As she had in the Senate, she impressed me with her dogged work ethic and ability to work with others. Still, I would be hard pressed to name a singular major achievement during her tenure at Foggy Bottom and have little difficulty listing some rather spectacular boondoggles, notably the Russian “reset,” the Asian “pivot,” and the Libya intervention.
Walter Russell Mead offers a balanced and overall relatively positive assessment. His parameters are fair and help dismiss many of the most popular criticisms of HRC:
The conventional indicators — landmark treaties, a new doctrine, signature deals — are actually poor guides to assessing the caliber of American diplomats. Just as the best lawyers aren’t the ones with the most famous courthouse victories but those who quietly keep their clients out of trouble and litigation, belt-notching in diplomacy has led presidents and secretaries of state into trouble. When American diplomats restlessly roam land and sea, desperate for that Nobel-worthy moment, the national interest is rarely served.
Remember that secretaries of state don’t control U.S. foreign policy. Clinton wasn’t following her own grand strategy when she reigned in Foggy Bottom; her job was to implement President Obama’s ideas. To make a fair and useful assessment of Clinton’s record in office, one must consider some complicated questions:
How did Clinton understand the interplay of America’s power, its interests, its resources and its values? Was she able to translate that vision into policies that won enough support throughout the government to be carried out? Was she able to gain or keep the president’s confidence, and was the State Department under her leadership able to hold its own in the bureaucratic battles of the day? To the extent that her policy ideas were adopted, how effective were they? How well did she manage on the inevitable occasions when things went horribly wrong?
Framed that way, it’s hard to deny that she was a pretty effective manager. Mead lays out the case in several paragraphs that she was an excellent steward of Obama’s vision and played extremely well with her counterparts in the National Security Council. Additionally, Mead praises her Realist, Hamiltonian instincts, her vision for the US-China and US-Russia relationships, and her emphasis on policies impacting women and girls. He’s persuasive on all counts.
Judging her on results, however, one comes to mixed conclusions. Here, Mead neatly encapsulates views I’ve articulated more messily over the years.
She weighed in hard and strong in favor of the president’s risky but ultimately justified decision to attack Osama bin Laden’s last refuge. The focus on Asia — relabeled a “pivot” before it became a “rebalancing” — reinvigorated America’s Pacific alliances but also elicited a more aggressive China, which has taken a harder line with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam since the pivot began. The “reset” with Russia enabled concrete cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program and at the United Nations (notably on the resolution authorizing intervention against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi), but it would be hard to argue that Washington and Moscow have ended up in a good place. Here again the rhetoric of the “pivot to Asia” may have encouraged Putin to think that the United States was taking its eye off Russia’s revisionist ambitions.
In her new memoir, Clinton highlights her attempt to reorient U.S. foreign policy around “smart power” — the integration of military, political and economic tools with grass-roots outreach and efforts to strengthen civil society — but this approach also yielded mixed results. The outreach to Burma led to political reforms and helped move one of China’s closest regional allies closer to Washington. This was an important success, but continuing problems in Burma, including brutal violence against the country’s Rohingya minority, demonstrated the difficulty of integrating human rights with classic geopolitical strategies.
If Burma was a success of the Clinton approach, Egypt and Libya were sobering failures. Except in Tunisia, U.S. efforts to promote democracy after the Arab Spring were largely unsuccessful, with Egypt a particularly dramatic case. But the greatest problem for Clinton’s legacy is likely to be the miserable aftermath of the U.S.-backed overthrow of Gaddafi. Here, advocates of the Libya mission failed to take seriously one of the most important lessons of Iraq: When you overthrow a dictator in the Arab world, expect chaos and violence to follow. The mess in Libya — besides leading to the Benghazi attack that has entangled Clinton in congressional investigations and conspiracy theories — strengthened the voices in the administration opposing the more activist Syria policy Clinton promoted. It also deepened public resistance to more use of American military power abroad. This is not the legacy Clinton hoped to leave behind.
Of course, some of the problems U.S. foreign policy encountered during Clinton’s tenure cannot be laid at her door. There was a constant tug of war within Obama between his desire to transform the world and his strong sense of the limits to American power and will in a post-Iraq age. That struggle often made U.S. policy look indecisive and at times, notably on Syria, created a damaging gap between tough American words (“Assad must go”) and flabby American deeds. That led to questions about U.S. resolve as friends and foes struggled to understand Washington’s intentions. Moreover, the economic and social problems of the Arab world are beyond the abilities of any American government to solve, and the jihadist movement is powered by rage and ideology that Washington can, in the short term, do very little about.
Yet, some of the policies Clinton advocated have exacerbated challenges we now face. Her embrace of transformational diplomatic goals probably undermined her realpolitik efforts to reset relations with Russia and work out a modus vivendi with China. And when American advocacy of an open Internet goes hand in hand with revelations of National Security Agency surveillance, U.S. high-tech policy looks less like a philanthropic venture in supporting human freedom and more like an effort by a powerful state to dominate the world’s communication networks.
The verdict? Clinton brought a clear vision of U.S. interests and power to the job, and future presidents and secretaries of state will find many of her ideas essential. Yet she struggled to bring together the different elements of her vision into a coherent set of policies. The tension between America’s role as a revolutionary power and its role as a status quo power predates Clinton; the struggle to reconcile those two opposed but equally indispensable aspects of American foreign policy has survived her tenure at the State Department.
I would, however, caveat much of this.
The chief consistent failure of Obama foreign policy has been one of rollout. Stunning for an administration that came to power partly on their unprecedented skill at messaging and information management, they’re frequently been rank amateurs at those tasks in office.
It was absolutely worth taking a shot at improving relations with Russia, both because of Russia’s importance in the region and because the attempt itself bolstered our credibility with our European allies. But calling it a “reset” and making a big show of bringing a giant button (with an embarrassing mistranslation, no less) created absurd expectations that were bound to be dashed.
Relatedly, shaking up a NATO missile defense system in East and Central that was a source of tension with Russia made sense. Substituting different technology and basing that provided similar protection for our allies while being less threatening to Moscow was a reasonable move. Announcing it without first getting buy-in from those allies, some of whom had accepted basing in their country at considerable political cost, was ham handed.
Rebalancing our foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific is similar a perfectly reasonable response to a changing geopolitical landscape. Making a big to-do about it—much less giving it the stupid name “pivot”—was stupid. The messaging simultaneously antagonized China while signaling our allies and partners in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere that we were abandoning them. That was all avoidable and doubly unfortunate in the it wasn’t true.
For that matter, while I opposed military intervention in both Libya and Syria, the rationale for action in the former is certainly more justifiable than in the latter. But the high highfalutin rhetoric used to sell the former came across as an Obama Doctrine that not only led to extreme puzzlement when we didn’t follow through in Syria but actually created substantial pressure to advance empty rhetoric in Syria. That the president has managed to nonetheless be sober in his actual Syria policy has been to his credit; but the messaging has been a mess.
Finally, while not exactly a novel insight, it’s worth remembering that the balancing act that Mead correctly calls for in that last sentence is extremely difficult to pull off. While this administration, like the last, committed some own goals that could have been avoided, carrying off the responsibilities of The World’s Sole Remaining Superpower is next to impossible. Failing frequently is likely a given.