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Hillary, rockstar diplomat

Hillary Clinton will soon finish four years as US secretary of state, forging her own brand of diplomacy.

world Updated: Jul 01, 2012 01:11 IST

What has been most striking about Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is at once how suited for the job she has proved to be and how improbable it once seemed, even to her. “Not in a million years,” she replied by e-mail in November 2008 when a political aide told her that President-elect Barack Obama was considering her appointment.

Clinton lacked the foreign-policy experience of recent secretaries like Condoleezza Rice or Colin L Powell. Nor was she personally close to Obama. What she possessed was energy and, not insignificant, her fame. Clinton vacillated, at one point deciding to decline. Ultimately, said an aide, “when asked to serve, she does. And her president asked.”

Obama and Clinton have, despite expectations to the contrary, led the least discordant national-security team in decades. Clinton set the tone from the start, enforcing respect for the man who bested her. "We work for the president," she once said.

Not that Obama and Clinton have not disagreed. Some of their points of difference:


Clinton strongly advocated keeping more troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a senior White House official. But publicly, she unwaveringly supported the president’s determination to bring to an end America’s increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The re-election of Vladimir Putin, after a campaign orchestrated to produce only one possible winner, prompted one of the sharpest internal debates. In December, Clinton denounced parliamentary elections that were fraud-tainted. “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” she said in Germany.

But after Putin won re-election to the presidency on March 4, the White House did not want to make relations with Russia any worse by questioning the legitimacy of his victory. And so three days later, Clinton dutifully voiced the administration’s accommodating line, even as thousands of Russians took to the streets. “The election had a clear winner and we are ready to work with President-elect Putin.”


Clinton joined the Pentagon in having doubts about intervention in Libya, including proposals to enforce a no-fly zone over the country. As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pressed in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, though, Obama gathered his advisers on a Tuesday afternoon and decided the US could not stand by while Benghazi was overrun. “This is not what we do,” Obama said. Obama, not Clinton, led the country into the war. But she played her part, forging an unwieldy diplomatic and military alliance, a motley crew that included France and Qatar, and held it together for seven months.

A truth often overlooked is that in any administration, the president ultimately determines foreign policy. This was true even under George W Bush, despite Dick Cheney’s best efforts to create a separate foreign-policy apparatus. The job of the secretary of state is to help shape and then carry out the president’s policies, something Clinton took seriously.

“It’s a relationship that has evolved, as you would expect, and it’s one where — and I don’t say this lightly — the president has total confidence and trust in secretary Clinton, in her advice, in her policy views and in her representation of the United States,” said Obama’s National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. “It’s a total trust, and that, by the by, is also historically not always the case.”

Clinton was the first elected official to become secretary of state since Edmund S Muskie in the Carter administration. Whatever she might have lacked in scholarship or experience, she has made up for with a politician’s touch, inside the state department and around the world. She has an acute attention to detail, remembering names and personal details. Both politicians, she and Obama are guided by pragmatism, a nonideological, case-by-case approach. It’s one reason that no one can really define an Obama or Clinton doctrine.

These gestures and her advocacy for the budget at the state department have re-energised the American Foreign Service, which felt beleaguered under George W Bush. She uses her political skills to fulfil the first law of diplomacy: get other people to want what you want.


Relations with Pakistan have been one of the administration’s failures. Following the Abbottabad raid that began the downward trend, Clinton has laboured to get the relationship back on track — twice visiting Pakistan last year — only for new crises to erupt.

During a recent conference in Chicago, Hillary Clinton pressed Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to reopen the supply lines to Afghanistan and act more aggressively against Islamic insurgents. When Zardari complained that his hands were tied, she rebuffed him. Clinton said: “You can’t hide behind: ‘Oh, it’s too difficult. The politics is too difficult.’ ” She offered ways for him to overcome the most contentious issue for Pakistani politicians. Still Zardari demurred. US drone strikes that were briefly suspended leading up to the meeting then resumed in earnest, even before Zardari returned home.

Personal touch

After three and a half years in office, Clinton’s greatest legacy has been the remaking of US diplomacy in her own fashion, shaped as much by her own personality and fame as by a guiding philosophy.

Clinton dismisses failures like Pakistan or Syria. In “21st-century statecraft,” though, “the general understanding, which cuts across parties, is that the United States can’t solve all of the problems in the world,” she said. “But the problems in the world can’t be solved without the United States. And therefore, we have to husband our resources, among which is this incredibly valuable asset of global leadership, and figure out how we can best deploy it.”

Clinton’s is a humbler view of foreign policy in tune with US sentiment. Not many Americans are clamoring for a war in Syria. To the extent foreign policy influences voters at all, Obama has a record of successes abroad — from ending the war in Iraq to killing Osama bin Laden to overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi — as well as failures, including the early effort to jump-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Clinton says she has not yet made specific plans for her future, but then revealed some. She intends to write another book and to pursue philanthropy, championing women and girls, as ever. She sounds sincere when she says she simply wants rest after four decades of public life.

New York Times

First Published: Jun 30, 2012 22:49 IST