Rupert Cornwell: The curious case of Hillary Clinton, the missing Secretary of State

Out of America: While Barack Obama is shining on the foreign stage, his former rival has been conspicuous by her absence

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A question fascinates Washington. Where's Hillary Clinton? Not physically, of course – for the Secretary of State, having given what was officially billed as a major foreign policy speech in the capital last week, is at the time of writing on a week-long visit to India and Thailand – but in the metaphorical sense that most obsesses this power-obsessed city: her place in the hierarchy of power by which its ruling caste is defined.

Not long ago, the former First Lady, the woman who would now surely be president but for the once-in-a-lifetime obstacle of Barack Obama, was supposed to be the other dazzling star of the new administration. And would not the Clinton name and the Clinton connections reverse the gradual decline of the State Department, long starved of resources, and losing clout to the Pentagon and the White House, a trend most recently exemplified by Colin Powell's endless losing battles with the Pentagon's Donald Rumsfeld and former vice-president Dick Cheney?

But it hasn't quite worked out like that. Indeed, to the unpractised eye, she has been the invisible lady, her plight summed up by Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, who now publishes the news website the Daily Beast. It was time, Ms Brown wrote in a much-noted column the other day, "for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa".

Think foreign policy under the Obama administration, and you think of Obama in Moscow talking missile defence and arms control, of Obama in Cairo offering a new partnership with the Muslim world, of Obama the first African-American president making a historic visit to Ghana ... Obama, in short, everywhere. Even Clinton's own turf, it seems, is under steady erosion. The vastly experienced Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell have been appointed high-profile envoys for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Middle East respectively. And some even see Vice-President Joe Biden, a former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, muscling in on what should be Clinton's patch.

Then there are smaller perceived slights, such as the switch of Dennis Ross, the lead official on Iran policy, from the State Department to the National Security Council at the White House, and the reported refusal of Obama to countenance the appointment of Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton loyalist and sometime hitman, as one of her special advisers. She has also lost out, it is said, on several important ambassadorial appointments. And since power in Washington is a zero sum game, if Clinton is a loser, then someone else is a winner: in this case Barack Obama.

Ah, what a masterly game the Obama camp has played, purr the connoisseurs of such struggles. The President has managed to lock his former rival into a diminished office, both keeping a tight leash on her potentially disruptive husband, and neutralising any ambitions she might have of challenging him in 2012.

But such theories are based on false assumptions. The first is that Clinton's celebrity would automatically make her a star within in the administration. In fact, a female secretary of state has become the norm rather than the exception. Three of the past four have been women, while her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, was an African-American to boot. Not since 1996 has a white male, in the person of Warren Christopher, been at the helm of US diplomacy.

The second mistake was to believe that this new administration would differ from the ones before it, and not make the running in foreign policy. The often overlooked reality of the American system (as Obama's present uphill battle to reform healthcare is proving) is that a president's ability to shape domestic policy is highly limited; in foreign affairs by contrast he has a virtually free hand. This is especially true now, when Obama still commands enormous international goodwill, simply by not being George Bush. It is hard to believe Hillary Clinton was not aware of all this when she took the job. True, the prospects of rapid advancement on Capitol Hill for the junior senator from New York were not great. But no one forced her to take it.

Fate hasn't helped either. Last month she fractured her elbow, and had to cancel two foreign trips, including the one to Moscow with the President. The worst may now be over. Her injury is still mending and requires much physiotherapy, but the plaster cast is off. "I broke my elbow, not my larynx," she joked to reporters before embarking on her visit to Asia, dismissing any notion she had been sidelined by the White House.

And there is no reason to disbelieve her. The battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination taught Obama respect for her qualities. If his governing circle has been compared to Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals", that is because he genuinely wants the best people around him even if they are not 100 per cent, lifetime loyalists. Hillary, moreover, is not to be confused with Bill. She is a workhorse, not a show pony. Clinton the lawyer shares with Obama, the legal scholar, the belief that you must first master a brief before holding forth about it. At State, she is behaving as she did in her first term as a senator despite being the most famous woman in the land: learning the ropes before asserting herself.

As for the supposed dispersal of her power, that is more of a reflection of the hideous complexity of US foreign policy. Not even Henry Kissinger, perhaps the most powerful secretary of state of the modern era, had to deal with an array of problems as critical as Hillary Clinton faces now: Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention Russia and China, and at a moment when America's relative power is declining. No single person can be daily master of all those topics simultaneously – even the formidable Mrs Clinton. But rumours of her decline are greatly exaggerated. Or to put it another way, the burqa may soon come off.

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