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Hillary's influence in Team Obama

Hillary Clinton has found her voice but finding her place in the top-down foreign policy apparatus that is the Obama administration has proven more elusive. The former first lady, senator and presidential candidate has, by her own and others' accounts, transitioned well into the role of secretary of state.

world Updated: Oct 24, 2009 19:42 IST
Jeff Mason

Hillary Clinton has found her voice but finding her place in the top-down foreign policy apparatus that is the Obama administration has proven more elusive.

The former first lady, senator and presidential candidate has, by her own and others' accounts, transitioned well into the role of secretary of state.

She says she loves her job, gets along well with President Barack Obama and wants to rebuild the US relationship with the rest of the world.

But how much power does she have? Some nine months into her tenure, that is an open question.

With no clear signature policy issue of her own and a team of special envoys handling hot spots such as Afghanistan and the Middle East, Clinton has had to fight off suggestions that she has been sidelined.

Other eminent foreign policy players such as Vice President Joe Biden and a White House National Security Council run by a tightly knit team of former Obama campaign advisers have made it harder for Clinton to make her mark.

Still, the politician-turned-emissary has established a rhythm and unique style in addressing the world as Obama's top diplomat.

On trips to Asia, Africa and most recently Russia, Clinton has brought notable star power to meetings with leaders while holding meetings with local citizens to give voice to Obama's policy of engagement with civil society and government.

She hits the road again to visit Marrakech, Morocco, on Nov. 2-3 for a meeting designed to spur reforms and growth in the Arab world and to hold talks with Arab foreign ministers about the stymied Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Back in Washington, she spends significant periods of time at the White House, among the most of any of Obama's cabinet members noted on his public schedule.

"Her voice is respected and heard and she is a strong, strong part of his overall cabinet and a leader within the foreign policy team," senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told Reuters, dismissing reports Clinton has been sidelined.

"They meet, if she is in town, every week. She is a part of every single foreign policy meeting that he has with the rest of his foreign policy team."

Clinton herself dismisses any suggestion that she is marginalized within the administration.

"I find it absurd," she said in an interview with NBC television. "I find it beyond any realistic assessment of what I'm doing every day."

NATURAL TENSION

Analysts paint a more nuanced picture of Clinton's role in the foreign policy team.

She has a seat at the decision-making table but her lack of a signature issue could be a liability.

"The challenge has been ... the defining of her subject areas," said Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.

Noting the White House and the special envoys held sway over big items such as Iran and Afghanistan, Conley said Clinton had to show which issues fell under her direct purview.

"She needs to identify those issues where she's the lead," Conley said. "I think they're still working those kinks out."

This week, for example, the most delicate diplomatic work conducted by the United States may have been Senator John Kerry's helping to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a run-off in the fraud-marred August election.

Asked if he felt eclipsed, Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters: "I'm not sure how to answer that. I'd like to make a joke and say I'm always happy to be eclipsed by John Kerry but then you'll take it seriously and then I'll cause more problems."

Clinton's past rivalry with Obama notwithstanding, analysts also pointed to a natural tension between the White House and the State Department on foreign policy leadership.

"Every secretary of state has competition for influence on foreign policy and that's especially true in administrations like Obama's where other senior officials such as Vice President Biden have expertise in the area," said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia.

"No secretary of state gets to be 'president for foreign affairs.' Even Kissinger couldn't pull that off," he said, referring to Henry Kissinger, the powerful top diplomat in the Nixon administration.

Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, said Clinton has had some successes, signature issue or not, in rekindling relations with US allies after low points reached under former President George W. Bush's administration.

"Clinton has been taking some big steps in repairing US relations in other parts of the globe," he said. "She is on the front lines of opening dialogue with allies and adversaries."