- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
After missing two overseas trips due to surgery to repair a broken elbow, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to deliver a major foreign-policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington next week before departing for India and the ASEAN conference in Thailand on Friday, July 17, aides say.
Guiding the speech are Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of the State Department’s policy planning office, and Derek Chollet, her deputy, among others. In a “smart power” oriented address, Clinton plans to discuss ways the United States can promote nuclear nonproliferation, combat violent extremism, and improve food security, along with other themes. “She will highlight the … goals of U.S. policy (not her goals — the country’s),” one official familiar with the preparations stressed on condition of anonymity.
But Clinton’s planned speech is clearly meant to raise her own profile as well. In her first six months as Barack Obama‘s top diplomat, the secretary has faced something of an underappreciated challenge: proving that she is a loyal lieutenant to her former presidential primary rival while projecting that she owns the Obama administration’s diplomatic portfolio.
At a press conference Tuesday after meeting with ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, Clinton jokingly showed off the State Department seal on her black arm sling (her hard cast was removed last week), and mentioned the intensive physical therapy regime she is subject to — six times a week, for the next six to eight weeks.
Although Clinton displayed typical understated good humor, the elbow that kept her from going with Obama to Moscow is just the latest in a set of circumstances and dynamics that have caused some to observe that the secretary hasn’t yet fully come to dominate her foreign policy turf. But it’s a perception that Clinton seems set to challenge.
“Goals and opportunities are in clearer focus, and coming off a lull because of the elbow, [she’s] ready to get back at it,” an administration official said on condition of anonymity, responding to the observation that Clinton seems to be moving to raise her profile.
Clinton and Obama aides alike say the administration has one of the most effective secretary of state-White House relationships and balanced national-security teams of the past several terms. They note that Clinton has excellent relationships with the other national-security principals, a strategic investment that could pay dividends down the road.
She breakfasts frequently, as she did on Tuesday morning, with Vice President Joseph Biden (her neighbor), meets with the president privately at least once a week in the Oval Office, has a regular monthly meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and attends multiple Principals Committee meetings at the White House with Obama, Gates, National Security Advisor James L. Jones, and CIA director Leon Panetta each week. Aides also note that getting many senior State Department appointments confirmed and their teams in place in the past few weeks, in particular assistant secretaries in charge of the State Department’s regional bureaus, has helped accelerate getting the engines moving and connecting Foggy Bottom’s seventh-floor bigwigs with its civil service and bureaucrats who now have intermediate leadership to guide their work.
Perhaps more than any other member in Obama’s “team of rivals,” Clinton has had to walk a fine line: to prove to the president and his loyalists (to say nothing of a rapacious press corps) that his former primary opponent would be a trustworthy team player, restraining her own foreign-policy inclinations to bolster and never undermine his. Channeling Obama’s vision while making the secretary of state job her own has required impressive self-restraint amid a host of foreign leader powwows, interagency meetings, and appointments. Not lacking for opportunities to seize the megaphone, Clinton appears to have carefully calibrated the amount of individual voice, vision, and volume she has projected so far, perhaps with an eye to gaining a measure of trust that will ultimately enhance her effectiveness.
So far, Clinton has arguably succeeded in proving her team-player bona fides. Several initially somewhat wary Obama aides and holdover State Department officials who have traveled with her abroad have confided genuine admiration for Clinton’s professionalism and decency — citing her preparedness for meetings with foreign leaders and her thank-yous to bureau staff who worked on her trips. Clinton loyalists and White House aides, moreover, vigorously insist that the secretary is a critical and indispensable voice in Obama’s national security team.
“The President and General Jones value Secretary Clinton deeply,” NSC Director of Strategic Communications Denis McDonough said in an e-mail. “She is a tireless advocate for the national interest and a key player on the national security team. Hers is a key voice – in the situation room, on the Hill and overseas.”
But the task of raising her profile is not without hurdles. Although many sources say relations are genuinely harmonious between Obama and Clinton and the other principals, a legacy of bruised feelings lingers among some loyalists in the former rival camps. Late last month, for instance, White House aides quietly nixed plans to bring on journalist and longtime Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal as a State Department consultant and speechwriter, an aide confirmed, after the planned appointment was reported. Blumenthal, said by one friend to be one of Clinton’s best speechwriters, is an ardent Clinton loyalist who is identified with some of the more intense antagonisms of the Democratic Party primaries.
Clinton has encountered other obstacles. Perhaps more than other national-security agency heads, Clinton may have faced a longer lag in getting key senior appointments confirmed and in place, due to the fact that the State Department had a greater percentage of political appointee slots to fill. (Gates, in contrast, was able to keep half of the Defense Department appointees.) The sheer fact that a new administration has come into office with a foreign-policy vision sharply different from its predecessor’s, moreover, has meant that more energy and direction are naturally coming out of the White House, rather than Foggy Bottom.
Then there is another factor: Obama himself. Clinton is “one smart, tough, extremely capable secretary,” said Aaron David Miller, a former aide to six secretaries of state who is now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But the president, Miller said, is the nation’s chief diplomat: “an incredibly powerful physical and intellectual persona” who is traveling everywhere from Cairo to Moscow. “It’s not like the conventional wisdom that said he would be bogged down with the economy and wouldn’t have time for foreign policy.”
A former Clinton administration foreign-policy hand who spoke on condition of anonymity said that other presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton among them — also had international star power and still had effective secretaries of state, particularly Bush’s James Baker. He added that with Obama’s numbers sinking in key battleground states, Obama will need to be spending more time domestically helping reassure Americans on the economy (as well as nervous House Democrats) and less time on long trips abroad. But to raise her profile, Clinton needs to take on some of the key issues that had been tasked to envoys and not be seen dealing only with “small bites,” as he called it.
“There is plenty of time for her to do it,” the former Clinton administration official said. “[But] after the six-month mark is crossed, you start wondering if there is time to convince foreign leaders that she is the person to deal with.”
Aides say the charge that Clinton has allowed too much of her portfolio to be outsourced to high-profile envoys like Af-Pak Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell is nonsense. “The envoys report to her,” the administration official said. Her appointment of a second deputy secretary, Jacob Lew, has contributed to long-term efforts to bolster the State Department’s money, personnel, and resources, he added.
Then, of course, there is coping with plain bad luck. Just as many assistant secretary nominees to head the State Department’s regional bureaus were moving toward confirmation, Clinton broke her elbow on her way to a meeting at the White House last month, requiring surgery and intensive physical therapy, and forcing her to cancel two planned foreign trips, including Obama’s current one.
But even though Clinton had to send Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns to Moscow as her stand-in, Obama appointed her to cochair the U.S.-Russia Commission. Aides say she will focus on Russia and China as key parts of her brief, along with development, nonproliferation, and combating violent extremism. She will also step in to bring high-profile support to George Mitchell’s Mideast peace efforts when he needs her, they say.
The Wilson Center’s Miller said that in his experience, the trust of the president is essential for a secretary of state to prove effective. “You needed a president who trusted you and in whom you could trust and who covers your back at home and covers the rest of you,” Miller said.
Time will tell if Clinton has been wise to do the initial, low-profile diplomatic prep work at home to be an effective and consequential secretary of state, with the ear and confidence of the president, especially when crisis erupts.
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