It’s been challenging trying to figure out what role, if any, Hillary Clinton plays in the Obama administration. But if her performance in Africa this week is any indication, then President Obama likes to send in his secretary of state to quietly lower expectations after he’s swept through a region on a big PR wave of lofty rhetoric.
Bret Stephens rightly called Barack Obama’s speech in Ghana the best of his presidency. During the July oration, President Obama emphasized the importance of democracy to a degree we’ve seen nowhere else in his approach to foreign policy. He said:
No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.
Obama waxed so Dubyaesque, you can just about hear a Texas twang in the very words he spoke:
In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success—strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples’ lives.
Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.
America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation—the essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance—on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice.
Powerful stuff. Far too powerful, as it turns out, for Obama to play around with outside the confines of showbiz speechifying. Here’s how Secretary Clinton followed up on Obama’s pro-democracy, anti-corruption message today in Nigeria:
When it came time to address corruption—and Nigeria is notorious for corruption, from the top ministers in the government to the police officers on the street—Mrs. Clinton’s message was muted. She simply said, “We strongly support and encourage the government of Nigeria’s efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption,” and prepare for a clean national election in 2011, after a problematic one in 2007.
“Problematic” is a cute New York Times way of describing an Iranian-style “election” that resulted in 200 deaths and a 70 percent victory, while “support and encourage[ment]” for Nigeria’s nonexistent efforts to increase transparency is a shameful dodge on the part of the American secretary of state.
Hillary Clinton was there to make sure that none of that democracy hooey spewed by Obama got taken seriously by Nigeria’s oil-exporting antidemocratic government. It’s “smart power,” you see. As the secretary of state put it in January, “We must use what has been called “smart power,” the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” So there’s no need to feel bad. Turning our backs on long-suffering Nigerians is just a tool—not a sin. The same goes for supporting dictators.
In Ghana, President Obama said, “history is on the side of these brave [democratic] Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power.” Sure hope so. But while Obama speaks for history, Hillary speaks for Obama, and no one gives voice to the victims of institutional corruption and abuse all across the continent of Africa.