Hillary Clinton Wasn’t a Horrible Secretary of State

Yet another autiobiography invites public discussion about her accomplishments.


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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Despite some obvious, and inevitable, mistakes I felt that she was largely “OK” as SoS, which in my view is just fine because as Mead says,

    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.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    As with much of the Obama Presidency you have to look at the starting point and evaluate from that baseline.
    Our standing in the World is not a tangible thing that you can point to as an accomplishment…but given a choice between now and January 2009…I’ll take now.

  3. Scott says:

    Seems like the overall issue with Clinton (as well as Obama) is that there seems to be a perverse need to be visible in your dealings internationally. This is hardly unique to this current administration but there have been multiple times where the answer is to just shut up and stop talking. Kerry also has this problem. Some of the best SOS have been just as described as a great lawyer. James Baker comes to mind.

  4. Grewgills says:

    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.

    I guess that depends upon the audience. For the American audience the messaging was a mess, but largely because of domestic divisions that had nothing to do with Syria. If we look at Syria as the audience I think it was a part of why Assad backed down on chemical weapons. Absent our action in Syria it might have taken more than threats to get Assad to give up his stockpiles.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Grewgills: Obama’s president of the United States, not of Syria. His primary audience is always the American people, for whom he works.

  6. Grewgills says:

    @James Joyner:
    That depends on the goal. If his goal is getting the Syrian regime to give up their chemical weapons stockpiles, his primary audience should be the Syrian regime. That will mean he has to deal with domestic repurcussions, but that doesn’t make the messaging wrong if it accomplishes its intended goal.

  7. dazedandconfused says:

    I think Hillary has proved herself competent and getting what she wants done done, and that makes here a “good” SoS, but what about what she wanted done?

    Obama running an organized election can’t be taken as evidence he has a clue about foreign policy. Looking at his resume, I’d assume he would try to delegate that to an experienced team, and he chose the Clintons. I think he did that, but it turns out they are something like neocons in drag. Liberal interventionists, featuring the same crusade to prove the rest of the world is just like us but with a less paranoia.

    It appears to me her State Dept repeatedly tried to guide him into interventions and, sometimes sooner or sometimes later, he has balked a lot of the time. I suspect they do not share identical views.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Obama’s president of the United States, not of Syria. His primary audience is always the American people, for whom he works.

    What a bizarre notion.

    I take it you don’t believe in foreign policy at all, then? It’s all just a sham designed to manipulate opinion at home? We don’t care what any of them damned furriners think?

    I’m beginning to see why Republicans make such crappy diplomats these days…

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Grewgills: @DrDaveT: I’m talking in the context of public speeches and, in this case, speeches made to the American people from home. Most messaging to foreign governments should be made privately. Public diplomacy is typically aimed at foreign publics, but that messaging should be in keeping with what the president is telling us at home.

  10. Grewgills says:

    @James Joyner:
    If the private messages to Assad (and Putin) had varied too much from the public messages he was delivering elsewhere then it wouldn’t have been near so effective. He, for instance, could’t tell us he was bluffing Assad to get him to back down then be taken seriously by Assad when he threatened action. That simply would not work. If the president thinks something is important enough, he has to be willing to take the heat domestically because, yes we are his audience too.
    In the instance of Syria I don’t think that there was a better likely outcome than what we got. Obama had to suffer some domestic heat as a ‘tyrant’ or whatever from the usual quarters, but Assad now has substantially less chemical weapons and is much less likely to use them. The damage to Obama was superficial and it didn’t harm our international standing wasn’t harmed in any measurable way. All in all, I call that a win.

  11. Pinky says:

    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.

    At your home poekr game, you can make a few mistakes and get away with it. When you’re playing against pros, they’re going to take advantage of every little opening you give them. They got to the big table by being able to spot every weakness and exploit it.

  12. bill says:

    good point, next time i update my resume ill be sure to say “i wasn’t horrible” at my last job. i can just see them throwing money my way….not.

  13. Anonne says:

    The chief consistent failure of the Obama administration has not been rollout, but the need to appease AIPAC, neocons and chicken hawks like John McCain – saying too much with big promises and little action in affairs that did not need American intervention, like Syria, and messing around in small scale conflicts that we didn’t need to intervene in, like Libya.

    When Obama has shook off the critics he made headway – the Russian Reset, the deal with Iran. But because Republicans control the messaging, he too often follows their framework in discussing these ideas with the American people. Hence the insane fixation on the deficit, when private debt overhang was the problem.

    As the saying goes, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  14. James Joyner says:

    @bill: It wasn’t intended as high praise.