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O'Hanlon writes: "As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?"

Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State. (photo: Reuters)
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State. (photo: Reuters)

Assessing the Resiliency of Hillary Clinton

By Michael O'Hanlon, Reuters

14 January 13


s Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state's contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job's importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton's unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history - at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

My bottom line is this: Clinton has been a very good secretary - if more solid than spectacular. Pick your cliché or sports metaphor - she is more work horse than show horse, more an indefatigable marathoner (despite the setback last month) than a sprinter.

For someone who almost won the presidency before becoming a subordinate to her rival in his Cabinet, and who was already among the world's most famous women before taking the job, this is a remarkable testament to her work ethic, her humility and her selflessness. It does not necessarily place her in the top tier of U.S. secretaries of state of all time - but even if not, she is certainly in the very next level.

No assessment of Clinton, of course, can be considered complete now. The issues she labored on hardest are works in progress. It will not be possible to gauge her contribution until we see more about where a number of key issues - concerning China, Russia, Iran and Syria - as well as broader matters - like the fight against global poverty and nuclear weapons proliferation - wind up in a few years' time.

But some provisional conclusions are now clear, beginning with her relationship with President Barack Obama. Here, Clinton must be given outstanding marks.

She understood that she was a part of Obama's administration, not a co-president. Where Obama had strong views or made overall decisions on the nation's priorities, she did not complain, leak countervailing views, wind up in publicized spats or even allow any space to emerge between them.

There are some issues worth having major disagreements over. But, in general, a secretary of state is carrying out the foreign policy developed throughout an administration. It is the president's job to determine what that policy should be, and no good can come of public disagreements, since they distract from an administration's efforts to pursue a clear strategy. Clinton got this much better than most other people in the same situation.

Clinton's work ethic was also remarkable. She will not overtake Condoleezza Rice's travel record during a four-year stint as the nation's top diplomat. But virtually all the people around her have been impressed by her level of preparedness. I know assistant secretaries of state who were stunned, even in Clinton's fourth year in office, at her willingness to stay up until 3 a.m., mastering, for example, the complexities of an opposition political movement in a mid-sized foreign country. The assistant secretaries themselves admitted they mostly just wanted to go to sleep.

I once had the chance to meet with her in a small group at midnight in Qatar to discuss Gaza. Stories like this are legion.

This work ethic leads to another, even more important, point - Clinton did not make many mistakes as secretary. The reason was her thoroughness and preparedness.

Foreign policy priorities, of course, can always be debated. I do not mean to suggest Clinton always had the most imaginative or creative idea, or the most effective strategy.

But she rarely made gaffes. She did not embarrass allies by failing to understand their constraints and concerns when trying to forge a common position. She did not needlessly antagonize neutrals or enemies by letting words slip that later needed to be retracted. She did not have to backtrack on statements or positions that she took initially, but later recognized to be unwise.

This is not to say that Clinton was an historic secretary of state. Even an admirer, such as myself, must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch, few big victories achieved. There was no equivalent of success in the Cold War, or Henry A. Kissinger's work on President Richard M. Nixon's opening to China. There is not likely to be a Clinton Doctrine to rival George Kennan's containment policy, or the various doctrines associated with Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Signature issues that Clinton staked out a decade ago as important, when she was senator or first lady - global poverty or the plight of women around the world, for example - showed limited movement due to any idea of hers while secretary of state.

These conclusions were formed not only from personal observation but in conversation with many Democrats and Republicans, some friendly to her, some less so. Even critics often respect her a good deal. But what of her actions and achievements bear them out? Here is quick survey of key regions, noting not only what the Obama administration has done there to date but what Clinton's contributions may have been.

Europe: Obama entered the White House after inspiring huge hopes across the Atlantic. Four years later, Europeans are generally still favorable toward his administration. This is Largely due to Clinton.

To be sure, it was Obama's vision of a more multilateral world, restoring classic diplomacy and greater attentiveness to the interests of others, that grabbed Europe's attention in the first place. His biography, race and rhetorical skills had a lot to do with it. But once he was in office, Europeans wanted results. And these were delivered by Clinton.

She was the one who flew to see the Europeans (nearly 40 times). She was the one who worked with them to fashion tighter sanctions on Iran, or a new missile defense strategy that would antagonize Russia less and provide greater protection against ballistic missiles. Or a path forward in the war in Afghanistan. Obama was considered sound in his thinking, but often not the warmest or most personable. Clinton, helped by her key aides, such as Assistant Secretary for Europe Phil Gordon, made up for that in spades.

The Middle East: Alas here things have not gone great overall. U.S. popularity is back to Bush-era levels; there is no movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Syria is a mess. Even the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, while still a success, has now been tainted by the Benghazi tragedy - for which Clinton bears at least some indirect responsibility. The goal of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq past 2011, as attempted by the administration, was not realized either. Iran continues a gradual march toward nuclear weapons capability.

Despite all this, there is reason to give Clinton credit for some policies that have ameliorated the situation. Iran sanctions have never been stronger. They provide at least a chance of helping diplomacy work. The Arab Spring brought hope, not only to Libya but to Tunisia and Egypt, where the administration was wise enough not to try to prop up aging autocrats like President Hosni Mubarak when it became evident two years ago that they could not survive.

It is the president, and not Clinton, who bears considerable responsibility for at least two mistakes in the region. Obama raised hopes that his presidency could lead to a better rapport with Iran - hopes dashed by the stolen 2009 Iranian elections. He also sought to get Israel to freeze settlement activity as a precondition for peace talks. That idea was reasonably motivated, but ineffective.

I must, however, acknowledge Clinton's shortcomings in at least two policy debates. On Syria, we remain at a loss for what to do. The administration's caution, while understandable, has become counterproductive in light of the tragedy there. A more forward-leaning U.S. support for the opposition looks warranted.

On Afghanistan, while the overall policy of more robust engagement and counterinsurgency was preferable to accepting a defeat by the Taliban, as could have happened, the Obama administration did not develop a strong partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or even signal long-term plans clearly. That uncertainty led to hedging behavior by Pakistan, which has at times condoned the insurgency, and to corruption by Karzai's cronies, since our challenging relations with the Afghan leader made him less willing to discipline allies when we demanded it.

East Asia: Here, Clinton may have made her greatest and most memorable contribution. Working with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and others, she orchestrated the administration's "rebalancing" or "pivot" toward Asia. This was a diplomatic achievement more than a military one. We added only limited forces to the region but got a lot of attention and mileage out of modest changes.

First, give credit to diplomacy. Clinton's key interventions at various regional forums led the way - for example, by firmly and consistently opposing Chinese bullying of other countries. Beijing, increasingly assertive until the rebalancing, took notice. As did U.S. allies.

This approach alone is not a long-term strategy for handling the world's fastest-growing power. But the growing perception of imminent U.S. decline, and distraction, was largely countered on Clinton's watch. This has had a generally good effect on countries around the globe that had begun to doubt America's ability to remain resolute and effective in the 21st century.

Put it all together and you have one of the most solid track records of any modern secretary of state. But you do not yet have a historic legacy - a major bending of history.

Perhaps Clinton will be able to take much-deserved pride from her record as a public servant without such a signature achievement, and spend the rest of her career using her charisma, energy and public voice to work on those issues of greatest concern to her in a more indirect way.

Or, if I am right, perhaps this is one more reason that the lure of running for president in four years may prove irresistible. It would still be desirable, not only for the world but for her, if we could someday point to a Clinton Doctrine.

For all her hard work and achievements, such a doctrine does not yet exist. Yet she has been a remarkable public servant and public figure, who served the country well and helped keep it safe on her watch. your social media marketing partner


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-7 # Activista 2013-01-14 22:19
"The Middle East: Alas here things have not gone great overall. U.S. popularity is back to Bush-era levels; there is no movement on the Israeli-Palesti nian peace process; Syria is a mess. Even the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, while still a success .."
is this parody ... Middle EAST hates USA -- Clinton is RESPONSIBLE for civil war in Libya, expanding war in Africa, another invasion of Gaza and On Syria,....suppo rt for the opposition looks warranted.
Reuters like Clinton are pawns of Bibi Netanyahoo ("our friends") perpetual war (Iran) and genocide (Gaza). Clinton is a war criminal.
-24 # patriot9878 2013-01-15 00:24
It's a wonder some relative of the people her and her husband had killed. They are Commies 100% Her husband should have been executed for treason and of xourse scores he had murdered and the women he raped. He goes to colleges and speaks to children Why would any institution would want this piece of shit rapist prostitute breeding filth on their property
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-17 13:15
They are the opposite of commies, they are soulless, practical and cold-blooded fascists.
-10 # RMDC 2013-01-15 05:53
"Put it all together and you have one of the most solid track records of any modern secretary of state. But you do not yet have a historic legacy - a major bending of history."

Yes, solid criminality. Hillary was a horror as secretary of state. Really she only continued the conversion of the State Department into an asset of the CIA and Pentagon. She promoted wars. A secretary of State should be agianst war and use diplomacy to resolve international problems. For Hillary as for her predecessors -- Rice, Albright, Powell -- war was always the first option.
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-17 13:18
The more thumbs down you get, the more you know you're correct in your assessment of Clinton. She is worshiped here because she has climbed higher than most and possesses a uterus. The fact that she's a cold-blooded criminal is of no consequence to these people.

There ARE admirable female role models, but realpolitik being what it is, they enshrine the worst of the worst.
+1 # Rita Walpole Ague 2013-01-15 10:49
Sorry, but Hill is naught but a shill.

And, how did I come to the 'shill' conclusion? It was Hill who entered a formal objection to entry into evidence of a deposition of Iceland's the Hon. Brigitta Jonsdottir, M.P.. And, no big surprise, since Hill was caught by Wikileaks with her political panties down.

Jonsdottir, one of the plaintiffs in the 'case of the century': Hedges, et. al. v. Obama, et. al., was and is a supporter/prote ctor of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, and Jonsdottir was begged by countless Icelanders, in March of 2012, to not travel to the U.S. for the initial hearing on the above case, for fear of her being subject to arrest, particularly given Obama's signing v. vetoing, as the Pres. initially said he planned to do, of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes an article that allows for military arrest of civilians, and with no charges or due process, indefinite detention. And, insofar as Assange has been labeled a terrorist for his brave and determined whistleblowing, his also brave and determined truthtelling M.O. Jonsdottir could be in danger of such 'rule of law gone bye bye' arrest/indefini te detention. So, instead, a most typically accepted deposition, with both sides doing examination and cross exam of the M.P., was the usually non-contested approach selected by plaintiffs' attorneys.

Support Hill I can't, nor won't.
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-17 13:20
Also, read Hillary's "explanations" of her votes against the Levin Amendment and against the banning of cluster-bombs and land-mines for use on civilian populations. She is depraved trash.
+1 # tbcrawford 2013-01-15 11:33
No matter your opinion, at least Hillary didn't trash talk. Invective is not helpful, and for some of us, it is repulsive.
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-17 13:21
I'm betting you find invective far more repulsive than Clinton's truly repulsive crimes... I can picture you as a victorian biddy, sniffing disapprovingly into her lace hankie...
+3 # Edwina 2013-01-15 11:46
Work ethic is well and good, if you are going in the right direction. A good soldier can only be as good as the strategy and organization of his/her military. The Obama administration, contrary to the rhetoric, has not changed direction from the Bush administration. His Nobel Peace Prize speech was a rationalization for the wars we were in, and some that we were yet to engage in. (Libya, where the violence is now spreading south; Yemen, where drone strikes have increased under Obama.) To give credit where it is due, the Obama administration has been slightly more cautious in obeisence to Israel, which so far has kept us out of war with Iran. Let's hope that continues.
0 # reiverpacific 2013-01-15 11:54
Depends on which side of the Global status-quo one is on.
+2 # Artemis 2013-01-15 14:29
Very weak article with little evidence to support his assertions.
People seem generally blind to Clinton's fundamental faults, even here on RSN. It's inevitable, however, that the why's and wherefore's will surface, and although there are a few points in her favor, the seriousness of her mistakes will outweigh them.
+3 # frederico 2013-01-15 17:45
It's writers and commentators and journalists like Michael O'Hanlon who are as much responsible as our slimy politicians for the hoax of amErikA. Clinton and her husband came out of the same factory that produced the Bushes, Cheney, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Nixon, Reagan, J.E. Hoover, etc. The list of traitors and criminals is seemingly endless. Obama is hammering the final nails into the coffin, as we speak. The human race is in rapid decline. America was presented as the great hope of the future. Not with leaders like these, and pundits like you.
+4 # Dale 2013-01-16 10:01
Assesment of Clinton? Easy, diligent servant of imperial power.
+1 # Michael_K 2013-01-17 13:22
You forgot: "bereft of any perceptible conscience"

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