Shadow Government

Hillary’s war

By Peter D. Feaver An intriguing article in today’s New York Times addresses a favorite Beltway party game: Where is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on important policies? This game, which was temporarily suspended for a weekend so insiders could play another game (“What is the best Nobel Peace Prize joke you have heard?”), really ...

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By Peter D. Feaver

An intriguing article in today’s New York Times addresses a favorite Beltway party game: Where is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on important policies? This game, which was temporarily suspended for a weekend so insiders could play another game (“What is the best Nobel Peace Prize joke you have heard?”), really matters and, if the NYT piece can be believed, it may prove dispositive in determining President Obama’s Afghanistan decision.

Secretary Clinton has largely sailed under the radar and contented herself with high-profile actions on low-profile issues like trips focusing on women in Africa and efforts to promote peace in Northern Ireland. She has won some oddly effusive plaudits, but few people not directly on her payroll would credit her as a driving force in President Obama’s foreign policy thus far.  Indeed, the pattern has been unmistakable: The more important the issue, the less prominent the activity and voice of Secretary Clinton.

The thesis of today’s NYT story is that this pattern may obscure her real influence. Secretary Clinton’s power may come by way of serving as an amen corner for Secretary Gates, the most powerful member of President Obama’s cabinet. By endorsing Gates’s view on Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and other issues, Secretary Clinton guarantees that the issue will not be framed internally as an us vs. him issue, where the “us” is Team Obama and the “him” is the holdover appointee from the Bush administration. She has thus played a crucial role in forging the most important, if most often misunderstood (cf. the curious convergence of views between former Vice President Dick Cheney and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee) fact about President Obama’s national security policy thus far: its dramatic continuity with President Bush’s national-security policy.

Ironically, however, that continuity may have played out its course.  As the NYT story also suggests, Clinton and Gates appear to be teaming up to do something that Bush did not do: Stick with an incremental policy rather than embrace a surge. The reporters seem confident that Clinton and Gates favor a middle course between Biden’s abrupt shift in mission and McChrystal’s Iraq-like (Bush-like) surge in military and civilian resources.

Even without Clinton and Gates recommending it, most observers probably would bet that President Obama is going to split the difference in this fashion. The politics of the Afghanistan decision are such that a split-the-difference option is almost inescapable. Having the two most important cabinet principals endorsing it would make it virtually a foregone conclusion.

It would also do one more thing, which thus far has not happened: It would put Secretary Clinton’s imprimatur on an important policy. The war in Afghanistan has already become President Obama’s war. If he adopts Secretary Clinton’s recommendation, it will also become her war. What comes of that war may well determine a key part of how history rates both of these political leaders in the foreign-policy arena.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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