The question being asked in the blogosphere and occasionally in a press conference is what Hillary actually accomplished during her “frequent flyer” tenure at State. The official Foggy Bottom response – the press office couldn’t think of anything. In her own words, the best that she has been able to come up with is “setting the values and standards.” The better question is: to what extent is Hillary Clinton to blame for the increasingly obvious foreign policy failure of the Obama administration? (Even Maureen Dowd is now criticizing Obama for trying to be a singles hitter.)
Let’s put the foreign policy record of the Hillary Clinton era into three categories: Subjects for which the Secretary of State had primary responsibility; subjects where the Secretary had a major seat at the table, but may not have been listened to; foreign policy subjects where the president or another cabinet member rolled over her.
1. Primary responsibility:
– Benghazi. Obama and Clinton may be successful in stonewalling official investigation into who told the military to not attempt a rescue, or who came up with the “peaceful demonstration” malarkey, but the Ambassador was her guy, operating in a known unsafe environment with security procedures which did not meet State Department guidelines. The petulent “what difference does it make” testimony was the lowlight of her tenure – to be replayed ad nauseum.
– Iraq exit. Any question of State Department facilities funding should begin with the question of the $750,000,000 spent on the new Baghdad embassy in 2009-2010. The primary responsibility for negotiating a “Status of Forces” agreement (wanted by Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and the US) to ensure post-American stability rested with State. No agreement; total withdrawal; escalating sectarian conflict.
– Russia reset. Clinton famously presented the big red “Reset” button to Foreign Minister Lavrov in 2009, with a mis-translation of “reset” as “overcharged”. It was an embarrasing joke at the time, but a premonition as we cancelled missile defense plans in eastern Europe, and invited Putin’s Russia into the western economic system – only to be met by Putin’s plans to recapture as much of the former Soviet Union as he can get away with.
2. Major seat at the table
– XL Pipeline. On paper, and probably in the early stages of debate, the decision about the XL Pipeline belonged to Hillary’s State Department since it crossed national borders. (The EPA and the Department of Transportation had no objections.) For four years the disrespected government of Canada has watched American environmental politics block one of its major economic initiatives.
– Asian pivot. The Administration’s code phrase for “the war on terror is won and Russia is pacified” was the “Pivot to Asia” in American foreign policy. Years later we have been unable to negotiate a trade agreement with Japan, the pan-Pacific free trade area has not gotten off of the ground, and an expansionist China is bumping into our allies in the South China Sea and the Philippines. North Korea has been delegated to Dennis Rodman to handle with his “basketball diplomacy”.
– Libya – Egypt – Syria – Palestine. All major foci at points in time. No progress during Clinton’s years. Some opportunities lost while “leading from behind”.
– Iran. TBD. Time will tell if economic sanctions will be sufficient to convince Iranian leadership to terminate their nascent nuclear weapons program with necessary verification. If so, Hillary, Obama, and others deserve the credit that they will claim.
3. Tertiary role
– Fast and Furious. Most American discussion has been about the border patrol agent who was killed with weapons sold to a Mexican cartel as part of a sting operation. From a Mexican perspective, they were not notified of the operation, over 100 Mexicans were killed, there has not been an adequate explanation, and the Gringos don’t care about them. Mostly Eric Holder’s issue, but State had some role other than offering platitudes.
– Economic bailout. The response to the 2008 financial collapse was led by Hank Paulson (later Tim Geithner) at Treasury and Ben Bernanke at the Fed. One of the key decisions was to use the Troubled Asset Relief Plan (TARP) to backstop the global banking system – primarily by covering nearly 200 billion in AIG insurance obligations on mortgage instruments held by foreign banks. Sometime in 2015 the Clintonistas will probably realize that this was actually Hillary’s idea, and that all of the funds have been recovered.
– Communications security. The 2010 Wikileaks disclosure of millions of classified State Department communications was a major embarrasment to the government and the largest-ever inhibitor to diplomatic dialogue – at least until Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the domestic and global operations of the National Security Agency. Hillary deserves neither credit nor blame, but things certainly went south on her watch.
As 2015 and 2016 unfold it will be interesting to see what Clinton tries to take credit for and how she distances herself from the administration’s central theme of reducing American global leadership. Joe Biden – still a competitor for the nomination – deserves credit as lead champion for the program of killing terrorists with drone strikes, and has been a major globe-trotter himself. In fairness, John Kerry’s ambitious beginning and subsequent failure in Israel/Palestine, Syria and Ukraine offers Clinton some cover – better for her that he fails. The Clintonistas will claim that nobody could have done better than Hillary did, given the hand that she was dealt; the Republicans will blame the Obama/Clinton “leading from behind” strategy for ceding the world to the Assads, the Putins, and the Xi Jinpings. Hopefuly nothing will blow up before January 2017.