She can use the reminder: Hillary Clinton has been even less of a factor at the Department of State than her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
My colleague Deborah White astutely picks up on the current dynamics of Obama and Democratic Party politics (see “Hillary Clinton Rising as Obama, Pelosi Falter”). I do, however, have to offer a different perspective about Clinton’s rise, which seems to me more the soufflé kind (whose yeastiness is Belway hot air) than the substantive kind.
Deborah’s analysis is dead on from a political perspective. But Clinton is shining politically only in relation to the missteps and cynicism Deborah describes, not, I think, because Clinton is inherently a positive force at the State Department. Aside from intramural progress, which again Deborah points out (Clinton’s more earnest furtherance of gay rights than Obama’s prevarications), one has to ask: what has she done in foreign affairs, particularly in that cauldron of catastrophes from Pakistan to Israel-Palestine, that has made a whit of difference? She is the chief foreign policy mover and shaker of this administration, or ought to be, but she's not only been behind the scenes. She's been MIA.
The shake-up in Pakistan (getting the Pakistani army finally to move against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, and thus preventing what might have been a Taliban sweep over Islamabad) was actually Obama's, Gates's and Petraeus's doing. She, like McCain (god help us) wouldn't have known her swat from a fly. With Iran she's principally the reason why the administration's policy is so muddled, with Obama brashing up a New Year opening one day then sending in Dennis Ross (whom Iranians have every reason to mistrust for his cynicism and fundamental belief that dealing with Iran is a non-starter) the next. Obama was stupidly accommodating Clinton, and mostly Bill for Hillary's sake, when he hired Ross.
In Afghanistan all hell is breaking loose and again, Clinton is nowhere to be seen except as a shadow of the worst person the US could be propping up anymore--Karzai, the Afghan “Being There” president. And in the Palestinian-Israeli mess, Clinton might as well be Benjamin Netanyahu's door mat (you can bet she calls him "Bibi"). Enough said.
I should specify that in most respects I admire Clinton and consider her a potent and necessary force—but not in foreign affairs, where she’s an eyelash to the left of Bush, and considerably to the right of Obama, who was pretty right-wing on foreign affairs to start with. Clinton’s strength is domestic. It’s not State. I considered her appointment there a concession and a weakness on Obama’s part, and not a “country first” sort of thing. (Look at me, sounding like a McCainite, Shame on me, though Clinton can often be mistaken for McCain.)
So in sum if the Obama administration is flailing (though not flailing any more, and probably quite a bit less, than any first-year presidency from a party out of power for nearly a decade), it's in good part a team effort, with Clinton's absence at or mis-maneuvering of the reins doing its part to help muck things up. I'm not so cynical to charge, so early in the term, that she's doing exactly what, as that baron of smug Michael Barone foresaw, a 2012 candidate would want to do, but it's looking awfully like above-the-fray self-preservationism, with the added bonus that the less she does as her colleagues fail, the better she looks.
- Hillary Clinton's Falafel Stop in Lebanon
- Hillary Clinton's West Bank Blind Spot
- Hillary Clinton, Secretary to the Predictable
- Why Hillary Clinton Would Make a Lousy Secretary of State