Commentary Magazine


Hillary’s Best Defense: She’s Not John Kerry

Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

“We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had two wars, we had continuing threats from all kinds of corners around the world,” Clinton said. Obama told her his top priority had to be dealing with the economic crisis, so he asked her to “represent us around the world.”

Clinton’s job was to “make it clear to the rest of the world that we were going to get our house in order.” But what did “in order” mean? Clinton described it this way: “We were going to stimulate and grow and get back to positive growth and work with our friends and partners.”

On the basis of that “stimulate and grow” policy, Clinton continued, the United States returned to strength and can now deal with foreign crises like the Ukraine without having to worry about a world economic collapse. “I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense,” she said. “That, you know, once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as, you know, setting the values, setting the standards.”

Clinton, then, has no idea what she accomplished at State. But the answer offers an important clue as to how Clinton must manage the perception that she didn’t really do anything as secretary of state. In many ways, this was by design. Clinton knew she was considering a run for the presidency, and so didn’t want to take any risks at Foggy Bottom. She wasn’t there to accomplish big things; she was there to pad her resume and bide her time.

For this reason, you’ll recall, she lobbied against Susan Rice’s nomination as her successor in favor of the current secretary of state, John Kerry. Clinton’s caution as the nation’s chief diplomat meant she couldn’t afford to be followed by someone with competence and clear vision. She needed to be followed by someone like Kerry.

And the strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Not every secretary of state has to be Dean Acheson, and there’s something unfair about expecting greatness–and something dangerous in promoting it–in every secretary of state. Had Clinton not experienced major failures, such as the “reset” with Russia and collapse of security in Libya following her administration’s “leading from behind” intervention, she wouldn’t need any major accomplishments to justify her time there. It’s just that she could really use a better resume to at least offset the damage she did.

Kerry, however, doesn’t believe in diplomatic pacing or modesty; he wants to be present at the creation–of something. Hence his disastrous stream of diplomatic crises, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran to Syria to Russia. Kerry’s approach to American diplomacy is best understood as the Foggy Bottom version of the broken windows theory of economics. He will stimulate a demand for American diplomacy, whatever it takes. If there isn’t a four-alarm diplomatic fire–well, Kerry happens to have a box of matches on him.

It would be more helpful to Clinton if she could run against Kerry’s record as a contrast to her own. That’s tricky, but she’ll probably have to do so in some form. She might cast herself as more cynical toward Russia’s intentions, skeptical of Iranian “reform,” and supportive of Israel, for example, in a subtle but intentional way of responding to questions about her success by hinting that, at least, she did not set any raging fires. It’s not particularly compelling, but it’s the best she’s got.

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