Hillary Clinton: She stoops to conquer

The Monday Essay: Hillary Clinton may have lost her bid for the US presidency – but even her critics admit she has shone as Secretary of State. Rupert Cornwell on the real comeback kid

Monday 26 April 2010 00:00

For a brief moment, you imagined that history had taken a different course.

There was Hillary Clinton, stepping up to the rostrum in the White House press room one day last month, to expound on the virtues of the new nuclear arms limitation treaty between the US and Russia. She performed with her customary authority and command of the facts, as well as the sense of humour, often overlooked, that is another of her trademarks. Might there be problems over ratification in the Duma, the Moscow parliament, a reporter asked. Well, she replied with a giggle, the US had offered to send White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel over to use his legendary (and foul-mouthed) powers of persuasion on recalcitrant Russian legislators. "If President Medvedev wants to take us up on it, we're ready."

Hillary, in other words, looked a president. But as we all know, she wasn't one. Rahm Emanuel was not her man, he was Barack Obama's. Hers was no more than a supporting act, filling in the details after the man who defeated her in that epic battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination had made the big announcement himself, before leaving the room without taking a single question. Yet in a way, it was remarkable she was there at all.

If Barack Obama had not come along and rewritten history, the passage of Hillary Clinton from brilliant lawyer to controversial First Lady to admired United States senator to the woman who went on to win the White House in her own right, would have been the most astonishing story of modern American politics. However, no less remarkable is her current incarnation as America's 67th Secretary of State, an office first held by Thomas Jefferson between 1790 and 1793.

The surprise is not that, by common consent, she's doing the job pretty well. The truly astounding thing, when you remember the length, intensity and ferocity of that 2008 primary struggle, was that Obama offered it to her in the first place.

It was Obama after all who had condescendingly and crushingly remarked during one primary debate that, "you're likeable enough, Hillary", sneering that her sole foreign policy experience consisted of tea parties with the wives of foreign heads of state. And Hillary had given as good as she got, accusing her opponent of being criminally naive in his offer of unconditional talks with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez, and suggesting that his only claim to expertise lay in his having spent a few childhood years in Indonesia.

What was going on, everyone wondered, when word of the appointment first surfaced. Was Obama trying to recreate the "Team of Rivals" whom his idol Abraham Lincoln had put in his cabinet almost 150 years earlier? What about the national psychodrama of the Clinton marriage, and what about Bill, with the ego of a man who had been president and a reputation as a loose cannon? Surely a new president would not let a former one near the wheel room. And how could Hillary's pride allow her to subordinate herself to the man who had bested her?

In reality, the calculations on both sides were more complicated. In fact, the really hard feelings were held by their staffs, not the candidates. Once those were set aside, a deal had considerable attractions. With Hillary, Obama was enlisting one of the world's most famous and popular women to promote the tarnished Brand America. At the same time, he was largely neutralising a potential re-election threat, should the lady have plans of picking up in 2012 where she left off in 2008.

For Hillary too, the change made sense. A failed presidential campaign wins no points in the Senate. She might have been its best-known member and one of its most assiduous. But in the tradition-bound Senate, hard work and celebrity are no substitute for seniority. She was already 61, but would have had to wait years, maybe decades, before one of the plum Senate posts opened up. The most prestigious post in the cabinet was therefore not one to be turned down lightly.

Most striking, perhaps, has been the harmony within the Obama national security team – a sea change from the administration of George W Bush, when the dour Dick Cheney became the most powerful vice-president in US history and, during its first term especially, public feuds between Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Colin Powell's State Department made constant headlines.

Some feared a variation on the theme under Obama, with the Clintons stirring the pot. Nor was Hillary's presidential campaign a good omen, handicapped by clashes of egos, by sometimes less than helpful intrusions by her husband, and the Praetorian Guard of loyal retainers known as "Hillaryland", that kept the most well-intentioned outsider at arm's length. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Apart from his trip to North Korea to bring home two jailed American reporters last summer, Bill has scarcely been a factor. Certainly, he was not to blame for the supposedly mistranslated question, while his wife was visiting Africa last summer, which asked what Mr Clinton thought of a Chinese trade deal with the Congo. To which Hillary snapped: "My husband is not Secretary of State, I am."

The walls of Hillaryland are less forbidding these days. Unusually, she did demand the right to pick her own people for the 200-odd political appointments at State, as a condition for taking the job. In reality, far from cloistering herself off, she has opened her doors to senior career officials and become deeply involved in internal management.

She has set out to rebuild the State Department from within, boosting its budget and expanding its staff in an effort to recapture the clout lost to the Pentagon under George W Bush. The only hint of discord has been reports that her deputy, Jim Steinberg, whose ambition was to be Obama's National Security Adviser at the White House, wants out.

In fact, Hillary has been the model team player, in a team bristling with foreign policy heavyweights. These "competitors" include Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming Vice President, as well as his successor as chairman, John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 White House candidate, not to mention the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, a top national security adviser to the first President Bush and the sole holdover from the administration of the second.

Then there are two special envoys, either of whom would have made a plausible Secretary of State: Richard Holbrooke, the former UN ambassador, for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and George Mitchell, former Senate majority leader and Northern Ireland peace-broker, working on the Middle East.

Many wondered how much influence Hillary wielded, especially during her first six months, when she kept a low profile. Interestingly, in its August 2009 survey of the world's most powerful women, Forbes magazine ranked her only 36th, compared with the fourth and seventh places occupied by her predecessor Condoleezza Rice in 2007 and 2008. But that has always been Hillary's way. In the Senate too, she made a quiet start. Where Bill was the improviser who left everything to the last minute, she has always been disciplined and formidably prepared – the lawyer who wanted first to master her brief before holding forth in court.

Now she is visibly more assertive, but few signs of infighting have emerged. As anyone who has seen them testify together on Capitol Hill can confirm, she and Gates get on splendidly, while Biden is an old friend from Senate days. As for Mitchell and Holbrooke, Hillary maintains that so many and so complicated are the claims on her attention that even a Kissinger or a modern Bismarck could not keep abreast of every twist in Afghanistan and the Middle East, on a day-to-day basis. Instead she operates, in the words of one top official, "as a closer" with the envoys.

Most important of all, though, are Hillary's relations with her boss. Plainly, they get on well, if only from a mutual respect born of the shared trial of the 2008 campaign. Clearly Obama and Clinton do not share the bonds of affection and long co- operation that existed between The first President Bush and his old retainer James Baker, or between the younger Bush and Rice.

In public, Hillary is always deferential. Privately, the 44th President and his Secretary of State meet once a week for 45 minutes, every Thursday afternoon. So important is the session for her that when her plane ran into mechanical problems during a February visit to Saudi Arabia, she abandoned her travelling entourage and hitched a ride home with General David Petraeus, who had also been in Riyadh, in order to keep her White House date.

And whatever her power, her popularity is indisputable – her approval ratings are better than Obama's. One reason, of course, is that her job keeps her at a safe distance from the President's bitterly contested domestic agenda, and from a polarised, staggeringly unpopular Congress. Another is that Democrats and Republicans are basically agreed on key foreign policy issues. Take it from none other than Chavez, Venezuela's President and a constant thorn in Washington's flesh, who recently described Hillary as "a blonde Condoleezza Rice".

If he were still in the Oval Office, George W Bush would now probably be running things much as Obama: extricating troops from Iraq, ramping up the war in Afghanistan, trying unsuccessfully to shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to prod Israelis and Palestinians in the direction of peace. Indeed, apart from diehard neo-cons, the loudest critics of the administration are from the left, complaining that foreign policy is not liberal enough.

That, too, may be thanks in part to Hillary. Candidate Clinton was more hawkish than Obama; as President, he has moved in her direction. As Secretary of State she has shown herself to be a tough-minded pragmatist with no qualms in talking about war. On Afghanistan most notably, Obama took her advice rather than Biden's, going for an across-the-board troop increase, rather than narrowing the US mission to purely anti-terrorist operations, as the Vice-President recommended.

If her first year was a crash course in global affairs, Hillary has stepped up the pace during her second year. In 2009, she made 15 foreign trips, visiting 44 countries; as of yesterday, she had already made 11 this year, travelling to 19 countries and spending 30 days on the road. What this gruelling schedule has achieved is open to debate. The most frequent criticism is that in her ubiquity, she has made no issue recognisably her own.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars probably should not be counted, since they have been run out of the White House. But Iran has ignored every overture and every warning from Washington, pressing ahead with its nuclear programme regardless. Thus far at least, her labours have not brought the US much closer to securing UN "sanctions that bite". As for China, divisions have if anything grown, on issues ranging from trade and currency policy to human rights and nuclear proliferation – though blame can hardly be laid at Hillary's door.

Where she did make a gaffe was in the Middle East. Progress towards peace was the tallest of orders, given the intransigence of Benjamin Netanyahu and the weakness of the Palestinian leadership. But she and the President allowed the Israeli Prime Minister to call their bluff over US demands for an outright settlements freeze, then Hillary compounded the error by describing Netanyahu's vague promise to suspend construction as "unprecedented" – a remark that enraged the Arab world. Since then, US relations with Israel have gone from bad to worse.

This year, she set off a mini-storm in London when she declared her readiness to mediate between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands. But the reaction reflected less US clumsiness than the tender sensibilities of sections of the British press over the "special relationship".

Her most concrete achievement has been the "resetting" of relations with Moscow, culminating in the new Start treaty, cutting the countries' nuclear arsenals. A contributory factor is the better personal relationship she has developed with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who could barely abide Condoleezza Rice.

Ultimately though, the success or failure of America's foreign policy is ascribed to a president. Only rarely does a secretary of state leave a lasting individual mark: Henry Kissinger, certainly, in the Seventies, and before that George Marshall and Dean Acheson under Harry Truman, but who else? Hillary, moreover, must toil in the shadow of the biggest global superstar in the White House since John F Kennedy.

But she too is not short of star wattage. She may be a diplomat now, but remains a politician too – a very accomplished one. Unlike her predecessors, with the possible exception of Powell, Hillary has a global name recognition that enables her to speak not just to her peers in the chancelleries, but the population at large.

In fact an informal "Clinton Doctrine" is discernable. She is the ideal exponent of "smart power", of the US leading by the example of what is most attractive about that country, not because of its military might. The fight against poverty, the struggle for human rights and in particular women's rights, are Hillary issues. Her fame and gender put her in an extraordinarily strong position to promote these issues, which may prove her most enduring legacy.

One day, of course, Hillary will no longer be Secretary of State. So what then? The surprising answer may be: not a great deal. Political disclaimers should normally be taken with a generous pinch of salt. But in Hillary's case there is no reason to disbelieve her when she insists she will not run for president again – and when she says she does not see herself sticking in her present job beyond the end Obama's first term.

Naturally those words have been taken by the irredeemably conspiracy-minded as leaving the door open to a challenge to Obama in 2012, should his presidency unravel. But that now looks a good deal less likely, after his victory over healthcare and the arms treaty with Moscow. And Hillary the student of presidential politics knows that a primary challenge to a sitting President results in two things: the defeat of the challenger in the primaries, and the subsequent electoral defeat of his or her party.

By the time election day 2016 rolls around, she will be 69; only Ronald Reagan was as old when he took office. She maintains that she plans a future of writing and teaching. Enoch Powell once said all political careers end in failure. But in Hillary Clinton's case the observation is true only in that she failed to crack America's ultimate glass ceiling. As for the rest: high-powered lawyer, First Lady, senator, Secretary of State – if that's failure, who needs success?

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