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Looking Ahead to 2016, Hillary Clinton’s State Problem
After four years as Obama’s chief diplomat, does the leading Democratic candidate have a record she can run on? By James Rosen
Photo-illustration by John Ueland.
Comments () | Published December 23, 2013

Take a minute to play communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. Your task: come up with a 30-second spot to run in the early primary states about your candidate’s four years as Secretary of State.

What part of the world do you start with? Iran? John Kerry now owns, for better or worse, the effort to bar the mullahs from getting the bomb. The “pivot to Asia”? The pushback on China in the Pacific has yet to take any visible shape beyond President Obama’s patented phrase. The “reset” with Russia? Really? Putin’s a pal now?

Anyone putting together a brag clip about Clinton’s tenure at State faces the question a Democratic strategist put to me in a recent e-mail: “Can she translate her record into accomplishments that are meaningful to Iowa farmers and flinty New Hampshire Yankees?”

An equally important requirement for you, the messaging guru, will be to erase from voters’ minds the footage—currently running nonstop in opponents’ negative ads—of Clinton angrily responding to Republican senators probing what she knew, and when, about the 2012 Benghazi terror attacks that killed four Americans: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

Suddenly it dawns on you, the communications director: This isn’t going to be so easy after all . . . .

More than 150 years have passed since a Secretary of State ascended to the presidency. There’s just something elitist—a little too think-tanky—about diplomats for ordinary folks’ tastes. When Obama handed Clinton the office after he kayoed her in the 2008 Democratic primary, though, he allowed her a dignified hand up from the canvas. It was understood that by enhancing her global stature and keeping her on the front pages, Obama was also positioning her as frontrunner to succeed him. But five years later, the office looks less than ever like a steppingstone to the presidency.

• • •

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last January, Clinton pushed back on questions about the fatal attack in Benghazi, providing one of her most memorable moments as Secretary. Photograph by UPI/Newscom.

While Clinton is the most welltraveled diplomat in American history, having visited 112 countries, her legacy is thin. Her one clear-cut triumph—a dramatic improvement in relations with Myanmar—won’t elicit huzzahs on the hustings.

“She left office without a signature doctrine, strategy, or diplomatic triumph,” liberal analyst Michael Hirsh wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“When it comes to issues of war and peace, or matters of high strategy, she really hasn’t left a mark,” Aaron David Miller, a Mideast scholar and an adviser to six Secretaries of State, wrote on ForeignPolicy.com.

Miller admits that Clinton never had much of a chance to make an impact— perhaps because, as has been well documented, the White House never fully shed its distrust of her from the ’08 campaign. “The war on terror was run out of the [Central Intelligence] Agency and the White House,” he says. “All the big strategy with respect to managing the US-Israeli relationship, and the big bilaterals with Russia and China, again, I think were primarily shaped by the White House.”

Even after Clinton proved she was a team player, campaign veterans remained wary of her popularity.

“Do I think that, because she’s Hillary Clinton, people think she’ll maybe have more stroke, and that makes people nervous? Probably,” says Tom Nides, former deputy Secretary of State for management and resources under Clinton. But given the “White House-centric” nature of modern foreign policy, Nides says, “this team exhibited the least psychodrama of a national-security team in a decade and a half.” He estimates that Clinton’s team got its way on “80 percent of what we cared about.”

“She and the President were not deep intimates,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, State’s director of policy planning under Clinton, “but they had a good relationship. Her voice was listened to.”

Yet ask Clinton’s closest aides to identify her greatest accomplishment as Secretary and the answers immediately plunge us into some deathly lunch-hour foreign-policy panel at Brookings or CSIS.

“She provided leadership in reorienting American foreign policy and reshaping global perceptions of US foreign policy after the eight years of the Bush administration,” says James Steinberg, Clinton’s deputy Secretary of State.

“She was the first person who really realized that we have to do diplomacy differently in the 21st century,” Slaughter says. “She realized that we can’t act as if diplomacy is just a bunch of nicely dressed gentlemen in dark-paneled rooms. She appointed ambassadors to the tech community, youth, women, the entrepreneurial community. She knew we can’t just do government-to-government, that we also have to do government-to-society and society-to-society.”

Slaughter credits Clinton with elevating “economic statecraft”: “In an age of non-state actors, she was the first person who knew how to adapt to that world.”

In Myanmar, she scored a diplomatic victory, but not one likely to sway many voters. Photograph by Saul Loeb/AP Photo.

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Posted at 11:48 AM/ET, 12/23/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles