Clinton in Kabul: At least she's not telling stories about dodging sniper fire. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)
Domestic political brownie points aside, there is next to no value to a president or a member of his cabinet corkscrewing in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan, as President Bush did with regularly primed drama beginning with his 2003 Thanksgiving drop into Baghdad, and as Barack Obama's people are now doing. The visits aren't designed to advance diplomacy, let alone policy, but to massage impressions. A presidential visit to the war zone, however flashy, secretive and bunker-like, somehow is designed to project a mix of daring and caring. The shows are calibrated to match up with enough public gullibility to make them apparently worthwhile, because they keep happening.
Hillary Clinton flashed into Kabul today on her way back from Shaghai, though whatever she did in Kabul she could have video-conferenced from Westchester County: she spoke, not quite bracingly or interestingly, to the U.S. embassy staff ("We need your feedback about what works and what doesn't work") then met with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the current incarnation of the Army of One in Afghanistan before telling Hamid Karzai, the fraudulently re-elected and increasingly corruption-ridden president of Afghanistan, that it was time he did something about corruption.
This is the Karzai whose brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a member of the provincial council in Taliban-infested Kandahar province, is both reportedly a drug lord and on the CIA's payroll. Maybe Clinton, as a guest of honor at Karzai's inauguration on Thursday, will be seated next to Ahmed. Better yet: maybe she'll return to the United States boasting that Karzai promised her, Captain Renault-like, to get a handle on things. Really. (Cue "Really with Seth and Amy.")
A loyal fan of Clinton as First Lady, Senator and presidential candidate, I've not been a fan of hers as secretary of state, a job she was neither prepared for nor capable of carrying out with the kind of force and wiles it requires, especially (and most of all) in the Middle East, where the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, minor authoritarians and even Karzai are turning her into an embarrassing figurehead of impotence. Her greatest value to the Obama administration so far has been to spare Obama the embarrassment of looking impotent himself.
But he is. Nothing of substance, but nothing, has been achieved anywhere in the Middle East since Obama took over. Not in Afghanistan, where matters have worsened measurably in the past year, not in Iraq, where deterioration lurks in the wake of every American redeployment, not with Iran, which has simply scoffed at Obama's well-meaning offer of a new start (and Obama had no reply to that cold shoulder), certainly not in the Plestinian-Israeli conflict, which looks primed for a third intifada. The Bush clock of ineffective caretaking, tirelessly wound up by Condoleezza Rice (Clinton's predecessor at State) might as well still be ticking. Clinton's ineffectiveness, her blandness on the world stage and torpor-inducing lack of imagination has a lot to do with it. She's not been a policy maker but a speech-maker, and pretty lousy speeches at that.
I'm glad my new colleague, Foreign Policy Guide Barry Kolodkin, is still giving her an outside chance at notching off a Nobel (not the hardest feat in the world these days). She can use a few friends, though I'd prefer she grew a pair of brass knuckles. Ultimately the fault lies with Obama and his own rubbery spine, as well as his decision to give Clinton a consolation prize to neutralize her.
This is a great disappointment for admirers of both Obama and Clinton (I counted myself among them). It's been a shattering disillusionment in the streets of the Middle East, where the Clinton-Obama surrender to Netanyahu on the settlement freeze said it all: the Obama administration speaks well, raises hopes, but is unwilling to stand by its promises.
For Clinton to attend Karzai's inauguration is one more disillusionment. It's one thing to concede that the Afghan president's bogus re-election can't be reversed. It's another to endorse it with a secretary of state's presence at the inauguration. This, too, is caving in to circumstances instead of leading them.
There was a hint of hope on Wednesday that Obama might not be caving entirely to McChrystal's folly of escalating the Afghan war. "My preference would be not to hand off anything to the next president," Obama said. "One of the things I'd like is the next president to be able to come in and say, 'I've got a clean slate'." If he's finally talking exit strategy, good. It's about time. But Obama has given no other indication of being so decisive.
It's doubtful that he's about to start being so with Afghanistan, though that's precisely where he should start. The stakes are nowhere higher in his foreign policy, and Hillary Clinton is certainly not going to be of any help there. She proved it again today.
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