In my earlier post on the Obama White House turf wars that continually impede the administration’s ability to form coherent and thoughtful policy prescriptions, I mentioned Vali Nasr’s piece in Foreign Policy and his evident sympathies for the Hillary Clinton wing of the administration over the Obama wing. If Clinton does indeed run for president in 2016, as many expect her to, stories like these will serve as the building blocks of her campaign: she shared in the administration’s successes, the storyline will go, but the failures only occurred because nobody listened to her.
That storyline is bunk, and no one should read the administration’s foreign policy failures as stemming from an unwillingness to let Clinton run the show. Though Clinton undoubtedly showed better judgment on some issues–Syria comes to mind–her time as secretary of state was punctuated by two telling episodes. The most famous was the Benghazi tragedy, which arose in part because Clinton’s management and organizational abilities at Foggy Bottom were atrocious, and she left the State Department a mess. But the other incident was what many considered to be a success: the release by Chinese authorities of the dissident Chen Guangcheng after Clinton intervened. Yet as I wrote last June, we subsequently learned that Clinton’s negotiations had failed, and that what spurred Chen’s release was the public hearing congressional Republicans held on the case, which brought unwanted attention to Chinese human rights abuses. Clinton’s “smart diplomacy,” or “quiet diplomacy” as it’s sometimes called, was a dismal failure.
The most interesting aspect of her failures, however, is that to her supporters–not only Nasr but also the press–they actually count as achievements. That’s because the end result isn’t what matters to them nearly as much as the process used: humble American innocents abroad trying not to ruffle feathers. This attitude is nicely critiqued by COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari in the Wall Street Journal this afternoon in his review of a BBC correspondent’s new book on Clinton’s tenure at State. Ahmari points out that that to Clinton’s supporters, her brand of diplomacy is an end in itself, even when it’s ineffectual:
In practice, the administration’s “nuanced diplomacy” meant downgrading the promotion of freedom and human rights, viewed suspiciously as Mr. Bush’s policy rather than a long-standing bipartisan commitment. On her first trip to China as secretary of state in February 2009, Mrs. Clinton said that criticism of Beijing’s abhorrent rights record can’t be allowed to “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.” To Ms. Ghattas, the fact that the secretary’s statement drew widespread outrage at the time was merely proof that “the world was not ready for her new style of diplomacy.”
The author also approves of Mrs. Clinton’s many apologies for the actions of the previous American administration. One particularly distasteful episode the author recounts came during an October 2009 “town hall” with Pakistani journalists in Islamabad. Mrs. Clinton answered a question regarding U.S. support for Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf by saying: “Musharraf and Bush are gone. I’m very happy about Bush being gone. You’re apparently happy about Musharraf being gone.” Such statements, the author says, “went a long way to buy goodwill.”
Actually they didn’t. As a June 2012 Pew poll revealed, in much of the Muslim world, where the administration’s humble posture was supposed to have had its greatest effect, U.S. popularity generally declined during Mr. Obama’s first term. (Only 12% of Pakistanis, for example, held a favorable view of the U.S., down from 19% at the end of Mr. Bush’s presidency.) Meanwhile, the administration’s obsession with multilateralism and the hectoring of traditional allies like Israel have yielded few concrete gains. But Ms. Ghattas plays down or elides the Obama team’s most serious foreign-policy setbacks. The now-forgotten Russian “reset” and the administration’s ludicrous faith in Bashar al-Assad’s reformist potential get far less attention here than Mrs. Clinton’s willingness to acknowledge “American excesses of power abroad,” which, the author claims, has made the U.S. a “palatable” presence around the world.
What those on the left celebrate as a “palatable” American presence simply means a weak American presence, or an apologetic one. But as Ahmari writes, and as James Kirchick pointed out in COMMENTARY in October, it didn’t work. The world didn’t suddenly respect an American elite power that didn’t respect itself.
This myth of Clinton as a successful diplomat because she flew to Asia a bunch of times is utter and complete nonsense, and her record speaks for itself. But that her record doesn’t matter to those who simply want a more “palatable” United States tells us much about those who hope Clinton returns to the White House in a few years.