Monday, February 04, 2013


"For someone who once attracted furious and even unhinged criticism from all sides of politics and the press, Mrs Clinton left office to adulation from Democrats, near-fawning from the media and respect from many Republicans. The problem with Mrs Clinton’s adulatory send-off is that it invites the question of what she has achieved in her four years at the state department. Barack Obama, in as near to an endorsement as it is possible from a president only a few days into his second term, described her in a joint interview as “one of the finest secretaries of state we have ever had”. The praise also came from abroad. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, flew to Washington to hold a dinner for Mrs Clinton, and arranged a video message for her by members of the cast of Downton Abbey. “There is a wonderful stillness that descends on large halls full of diplomats and foreign ministers the moment Hillary enters the room,” Mr Hague told the dinner. But while she has scored high marks for stamina (956,733 air miles clocked up), competence and for winning positive press for her country, there are few of the distinctive accomplishments that defined the legacies of Henry Kissinger or James Baker. She leaves office with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process languishing. The engagement with Iran and North Korea that Mr Obama promised has produced no results, while the political reconciliation that might prevent another civil war in Afghanistan remains a distant prospect. Syria is in flames, Egypt not far from collapse and Libya, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed last year, is flooded with weapons that are destabilising its neighbours. Mrs Clinton’s supporters say the absence of big breakthroughs partly reflects the hand she was dealt. After the bodyblow to US credibility and image from the Iraq war, one of her main tasks has been to repair the damage, even if opinions about Washington have not improved in the countries subject to drone strikes. “She has done a fantastic job of rebuilding America’s image and standing in the world,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution think-tank. “She is a rock star in her own right.” Mrs Clinton also demonstrated she could be a loyal team player in an administration with a tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the White House. “This has been a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said Robert Kagan, an author and foreign policy commentator. “You have to actually give cabinet officers some room to work.” Her imprint is most clear in Asia, where the US has the most latitude to set the agenda. Mrs Clinton moved swiftly to support signs of a political thaw in Myanmar, and was one of the main architects of the “pivot” – the opportunistic effort to take advantage of regional disquiet about China to re-engage in Asia. If those bets pay off in the coming years, her reception by historians could become yet more positive".
Geoff Dyer & Richard McGregor, "Clinton leaves without big breakthroughs." The Financial Times. 1st February 2013, in
The changing of the guard at Foggy Bottom has inspired some rather silly talk about the 'legacy' and the historic place of now former Secretary of State Clinton. Leaving aside the more idiotic point-scoring / rating that one sees in the Financial Times story of last week, what can one say about Mme. Clinton as Secretary of State? Obviously, as even her most ardent advocates like Mr. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, will agree, Mme. Clinton has not been by any means a 'great' (George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker) Secretary of State. Or even a first-rate one (John Foster Dulles, George Schultz). But more akin to what one may characterize as 'a safe pair of hands' 1. Which per se, is no bad thing. One can of course well imagine worse outcomes to her tenure at the State Department. As has been recently noted, in 2012, Mme. Clinton and General Petraeus at the CIA endeavored, thankfully unsuccessfully to involve the USA in assisting the Syrian rebels with military and other forms of assistance. The proposal was vetoed by the President. No doubt for reasons more related to domestic American politics than anything else 2. Au fond, as Mr. O'Hanlon correctly notes, the fact is that the American President for the last four years, has basically run foreign policy out of his office, something which Mme. Clinton should indeed be commended for understanding perfectly well:
"She understood that she was a part of President Barack Obama's team, not a co-president, as some might have once worried she would try to be coming out of the bruising 2008 election season. When Obama had strong views, she did not publicly dissent or allow any distance to open between her position and that of her boss. She understood that secretaries of state carry out the foreign policy determined by the president and that little good can come from public disagreements of the kind that plagued the Carter administration and the George W. Bush administration 3."
In short, Mme. Clinton, whose practical experience of the ways of statecraft were limited in the extreme, prior to her becoming Secretary of State, did no real harm. She of course did little in the way of good either. However, in the long run, perhaps that all that could possibly be expected of her. In an ideal world, it would have been quite splendid, if it could be said of her (or indeed of any American Secretary of State), that in the mots of Sir Charles Arthur Evelyn Shuckburgh, describing the future Earl of Avon (Anthony Eden) circa 1951, she was "a professional diplomat as Secretary of State" 4. Such of course is not to be. As for former Senator Kerry, now Secretary of State, one may indeed hope for more, much more, from someone possessing a good deal more experience and knowledge in the field of foreign relations than his predecessor when she first came to Foggy Bottom in January 2009. If not quite of course the Eden level. We shall of course wait and see what time will indeed tell...
1. Michael O'Hanlon, "State and the Stateswoman: How Hillary Clinton re-shaped U.S. Foreign Policy-but not the world." Foreign Affairs. 29 January 2013, in
2. On this topic, see: "White House rebuffed a Clinton-Petraeus plan to arm Syrian rebels: A report." Syria Comment. 3 February 2013, in
3. O'Hanlon, op. cit.
4. Sir Charles Arthur Evelyn Shuckburgh. Edited John Charmley. Descent to Suez: Foreign Office Diaries, 1951-1956. (1987), p.11.


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