Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.
Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.
Clinton’s achievements at the State Department have been few and far between. She can take some credit for the outcome in Libya, where the U.S. joined the rest of the West in ousting the Qaddafi regime. But even that was tainted by the spectacle of the U.S. “leading from behind” and the lack of a capable follow-up to the fighting in which the chaos in Libya has now spread to Mali.
But the Arab Spring protests have otherwise been an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Clinton’s much ballyhooed ability to make nice that stems from her eight years as First Lady hasn’t done much to advance American interests. Indeed, her faith in her schmoozing skills may have actually been a drawback to U.S. efforts to deal with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Being Clinton’s friend may be what some foreign leaders aspire to, but it didn’t do much for Suzanne Mubarak, a point few in the Middle East missed.
As Senator Lindsey Graham has said, Clinton may be both “classy” and “hard-working,” fine attributes for a middle-level bureaucrat. But her approach to U.S. foreign policy has been all about process and less concerned with tangible results. The international coalition she has assembled on behalf of sanctions against Iran that she often boasts about doesn’t mean much when you consider it took three years to assemble (during which Iran was able to continue working toward its nuclear goal while laughing at the administration’s attempt at “engagement”) and has done nothing to actually stop the Iranians.
Elsewhere, she has presided over foreign policy during a period where American influence over events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region declined. In particular, her sporadic attempts at reviving the Israel-Palestinian talks were disasters. Here again, the president’s “good soldier” loyally did his bidding in picking fights with Israel’s government that only served to reinforce Palestinian intransigence.
But of course, we don’t know what Clinton could really have accomplished if she had her way because as Myers is forced to point out, she has subordinated her own views to those of the president despite differences on keeping a strong American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need to resist Putin and to promote human rights. In each case, Clinton’s instincts seem to have been on the right side of the issue, but as a dutiful servant of the president, she wound up being the public face of bad policies.
Of course, the president’s views ought to prevail as a matter of principle, but Clinton’s inability to get her way on most issues and willingness to go along to get along tells us a lot about why he won in 2008 and she didn’t. Her “rock star” status has to do with her fame and long stay in the public eye as well as having the smarts to suck up to the press. But for all of her intelligence and abilities, this is not the profile of someone who was ever likely to be president. Though Barack Obama has been a terrible president in most respects, even reading the most flattering coverage of Clinton reminds us why he’s sitting in the Oval Office and she never will.