An expert's point of view on a current event.

Debating Hillary

Has Hillary Clinton -- the subject of a major new profile in Foreign Policy -- been a good secretary of state? Seven top foreign-policy watchers assess her legacy.


David Ignatius

Martin Indyk

Ken Adelman

Danielle Pletka

James Dobbins

Kori Schake

Aaron David Miller

David Ignatius:

When Barack Obama announced that he would name Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, I was one of the skeptics that Susan Glasser mentions in her article. I wrote at the time that I worried the collection of high-voltage personalities in the new administration’s foreign-policy space would crowd out the unique opportunity Obama had to be a leader for a world in transition.

Sadly, I do think the president has largely missed that shot for global leadership — but it’s not, as I feared, because Secretary Clinton has been hogging the limelight. Indeed, it turns out this president is most comfortable out of the limelight altogether, running covert action. His view of the public hand-shaking aspect of foreign affairs turns out to be the same line he scribbled as a first-term senator watching the showboating Joe Biden chair the Foreign Relations Committee: “Shoot me now.”

Which is why Clinton has turned out to be a good stand-in for our shy president: She is willing to go anywhere, meet anyone, travel to the most remote, god-awful conferences, press the global flesh at town-hall meetings and in the local media. Sometimes she looks as beat-up as a UFC fighter who’s been a victim of “pound and ground,” but she’s all the more lovable for it. As far as I’m concerned, she has significantly strengthened her credentials to be president by working so hard as a journeyman secretary of state.

But what has she actually accomplished, beyond logging all those miles so dutifully? Her three high-visibility appointees for what were expected to be the key backroom negotiating positions — Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, and George Mitchell — never really had anything to negotiate. They each had high public profiles, much as Clinton did, and each made the White House nervous partly for that reason. But their negotiating moments never really arrived. Indeed, it was only when Clinton selected as her key confidante Jake Sullivan — a brilliant young analyst but the ultimate “gray man” — that she seemed to operate more strategically.

My biggest knock on Clinton is that she didn’t find a way to get more done in her role as the president’s diplomatic emissary, broker, and fixer. Comparing anyone to Henry Kissinger is unfair for lots of reasons — even Kissinger doesn’t measure up to the mythic portrait we’ve inherited of the modern Machiavelli. But sadly, Glasser is probably right when she says of Clinton’s bargaining in Beijing over the fate of a relatively unknown and low-impact dissident, Chen Guangcheng: “This had been the most intense high-stakes diplomacy of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.”

Can this really be true? Was the Chen negotiation as good as it will get for Clinton? I fear the answer is yes.

David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post and author most recently of the novel Bloodmoney.

Martin Indyk:

Shimon Peres, Israel’s only remaining statesman, had a penetrating insight last week when he spoke at a Brookings event about Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.  He noted that all her predecessors had to deal with international relations, but Clinton has to deal with “global responsibility.” Peres observed that we live in a world that has a global economy without global government and Clinton has been filling the gap by constantly engaging with people as well as governments with her passionate commitment to improving the world, one trip at a time.

Susan Glasser captures well these peripatetic requirements of the first global secretary of state and the impressive way that Clinton handles them. It accounts for her popularity at home and abroad, in contrast with her president’s standing in both arenas. She is after all “the principal implementer” of policies decided in the White House, as Denis McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, describes her in Glasser’s article. But Clinton is turning up for a president who prefers to remain as aloof as possible in a world that demands engagement. At a time when the United States can no longer dictate the way and has to try to lead by consensus, it’s the secretary of state who is out there working at it every day.

It paid off in Libya, and it will eventually pay off in Syria, where Obama delegated the heavy lifting to her from the outset while the political dictates of his re-election campaign left her without the tools of coercive diplomacy. Her unenviable task is to split the Russians from Bashar al-Assad using the unlikely combination of diplomatic deftness, a ringmaster’s whip, and a verbal sledgehammer.

The “pivot” to East Asia will probably be Obama’s most lasting strategic achievement, as we argue in Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (written with my colleagues Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon). But as Glasser points out, it is Clinton’s too. She laid the groundwork, built the relationships, and developed the complex architecture of the new strategy — and she turned up at that pivotal moment in Vietnam in July 2010 to declare the U.S. commitment to the region.

Of course, there were failures too. Diplomacy is really hard, especially these days.  Clinton so wanted to finish the job of Middle East peacemaking that her husband had been unable to do at the end of his presidency. Skeptical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions, she used her envoy George Mitchell to test the waters. But in the summer of 2010 she weighed in and by the fall she was spending eight hours straight with Bibi negotiating an agreement to extend the settlement moratorium that might have given the peace negotiations more time to succeed. We will never know what she might have achieved. The White House pulled the plug on that agreement and then the president walked away from the larger effort, leaving his “implementer” without a “decider.”

Martin Indyk is director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and author of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy with Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon.

Ken Adelman:

Hillary Clinton has done a fine job as secretary of state — so much better than I, conservative by ideology, ever expected. While not attaining the level of Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger, she will sit securely in the second rank. Secretary Clinton has had two outstanding attributes, and two notable deficiencies.

First, she was outstanding in showing up. Being secretary of state is not a desk job but a plane job. She climbed aboard and jetted off to meetings with her counterparts in their home towns. As a former politician — helping to manage her husband’s unending campaigns in and out of office, her own campaign-like role as first lady, and then running for and serving as senator from New York — she learned that there’s nothing like being there, wherever “there” is.

Second, related, and more importantly, she understood the modern role of secretary of state, and indeed of all diplomacy nowadays. It’s no longer private diplomacy — the hushed messages and secret cables between top officials — but public diplomacy, the full-voiced pronouncement of a clear policy explained both to elites and publics abroad and at home.

Despite what the State Department professionals and their colleagues in the Council on Foreign Relations and the like maintain, little of importance happens behind closed doors. Most everything important nowadays happens behind open microphones, and in town meetings. At this, again because of her political campaign background, not any professional foreign policy experience, Hillary Clinton has excelled.

On to her deficiencies. It’s frequently said but nonetheless true that there’s no overarching concept, thought, even bumper sticker for Obama-Clinton foreign policy.  “Leading from behind” was foisted upon it via an anonymous quote in the New Yorker rather than flaunted by the administration. Otherwise, nothing much sticks.

This reveals that all their policy was fairly makeshift. While flying by the seat of your pants is necessary for a lot of foreign policy-making, it shouldn’t be all of foreign policy-making. I sense it has been over the past four years.

Second and related, on the most momentous events of her time in office — the misnamed Arab Spring — she was too traditional and not sufficiently revolutionary. The administration’s stance — from the outset of the Green Revolution in Iran to Tahrir Square in Egypt to early stirrings in Libya and now to Hama-like resistance across Syria — has been, in the words of that great American philosopher Gene Autry, “Whoa, big boy!”

Imagine the historic achievement Secretary Clinton could have made had she actively pushed and succeeded in fostering home-grown regime change (the best type there is) in key Middle East countries. Imagine if she had helped reform such dreadful places, all vigorously opposed to U.S. interests in the region, in Iran, Libya, and Syria. That, had it happened, would have placed her solidly in the first rank of secretaries of state.

Ken Adelman was a U.N. ambassador and arms control director under Ronald Reagan, and now conducts leadership development for corporations using scenes from Shakespeare.

Danielle Pletka:

Give Hillary Clinton credit: She’s not a leaker, not a drama queen, not a credit stealer.  Then again, there’s little to take credit for. The United States is in retreat, our profile lower across the globe. We’ve hightailed it out of Iraq, ignored the Arab Spring and its aftermath, appear to have little policy on the euro other than prayer, are drawing away from Afghanistan, Pakistan is a shambles, and China’s shadow looms ever longer over the Pacific. There’s no Middle East peace process; a disaster is coming in Yemen; the reset with Russia’s a bust. Negotiations with Iran are going nowhere fast and North Korea keeps threatening to detonate yet another nuclear device. South America is drifting.

What’s Hillary Clinton’s greatest success? That this mess is none of her doing. She has focused small, and succeeded small, looking at under-the-radar initiatives and targeted projects. To put it another way, she succeeded in Burma because the White House didn’t care. Could she have been a great secretary of state? She might have been, had she not been overshadowed and squashed, edged out and talked down, dismissed and derided by the most insular, politically vicious White House in recent memory.

Nothing that matters is in State’s purview, even if it seems to be. Decisions come from the White House. Assistant secretaries of state … who are they? What do they do? How many have prospered in this administration? Risen up, moved over, gone anywhere? Even in Susan Glasser’s fine profile of the secretary, White House enforcer Denis McDonough refers to Clinton as “the principal implementer” of foreign policy. Not the president’s chief advisor? His trusted secretary of state? Nope, McDonough implies — the White House says “jump” and Foggy Bottom asks “how high?”

Like this president or hate him, like Hillary Clinton or hate her, the marginalization of the State Department to the National Security Council is a development to be regretted. NSC staff can’t do it all; indeed, it seems they can’t do most of it. Foreign governments complain incessantly that State doesn’t know what the White House is thinking and, in turn, they can’t get a meeting at the White House. Ironically, much of State’s apparat is inclined to be sympathetic to a Democratic president, but can’t get a word in edgewise because they’re not in the political inner circle. Centuries of professional experience have become irrelevant to a foreign policy fashioned around the question “What will this do for me in November?”

Surely Hillary Clinton knew it was politics that dictated her appointment as secretary of state; ironically, it will be politics, personal and otherwise, that relegates her to a minor role in the Obama saga. Given the foreign-policy disasters the next president will face, we can only wonder what might have been had she been allowed to be more than an “implementer.”

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

James Dobbins:

Absent further developments or revelations, history will judge Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state as solid if unspectacular. Circumstances have denied her opportunities for the transformative accomplishments of Dean Acheson (designing a new world order), George Marshall (rebuilding Europe), Henry Kissinger (opening to China), James Baker (reunifying Germany) or Madeline Albright (pacifying the Balkans). Neither, however, has she been associated with signal failures, like the Vietnam peace accord, the Iranian hostage crisis, or the nonexistent Iraqi WMD that blighted the records of some of her predecessors. She is reportedly not an intimate confidante of the president, like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, or Condoleezza Rice before her. But nor is she ignored by the White House, as was Richard Nixon’s first secretary of state, William Rogers; repeatedly undercut, like Colin Powell; led to resign in protest, like Cyrus Vance; or fired, like Alexander Haig.

The Arab Spring may well presage changes as great and as beneficial as some of those earlier turning points that Acheson, Marshall, Baker, and Albright helped shape. Unfortunately, the United States has been poorly placed to lead or take much credit for changes in the Middle East by virtue of its support for the former regimes, its failure for more than 40 years to broker an Arab-Israeli peace, and its effort to democratize Iraq via invasion and occupation. Given all this negative baggage, the decisive American contribution to Libya’s successful revolution must be seen as a major achievement, one that has begun to validate America’s democratic credentials in the Arab world. American diplomacy was particularly adept at putting together and maintaining the broad international coalition that conducted this intervention, for which Hillary Clinton and her team deserve considerable credit.

Syria now presents a much harder test, however. There, as elsewhere, diplomacy can be an alternative to more forceful action or a necessary prelude. It is still possible, although increasingly unlikely, that Bashar al-Assad can be forced out of office by a combination of internal resistance and external political and economic pressures. It is going to be hard to continue to play this hand for the remainder of President Obama’s term as the world watches casualties continue to mount, abuses proliferate, genocide threatens, and extremist elements gain ground. If such is the legacy Clinton leaves her successor, then this failure to stem an escalating civil war at the center of the Arab world may mark her record as much as any of her many achievements.

James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and special envoy under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.

Kori Schake:

Secretary Clinton has done a reasonably good job: She conducted the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), traveled relentlessly to represent the United States and engage both governments and societies, and is often a vocal advocate of human rights and political liberties.

But it is difficult to think of a major achievement for which she was a motive force. The possible exception is the 2009 decision to surge troops in Afghanistan, which Secretary Clinton supported; it may not have gotten White House approval without Defense and State in lockstep, given the White House’s enmity toward the Pentagon during the Afghanistan reviews.

Still, the policy was poorly thought through, most particularly on the diplomatic grounds that are her responsibility. Announcing a time-limited surge virtually ensured the major regional actors started hedging against our withdrawal. Our relationships with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan — on which the success of our war efforts fundamentally relies — are a shambles, and those, too, are the secretary’s responsibility (even if other cabinet members complicate her work, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently did in India).

The QDDR was not carried through to changing either the culture or the practices of the department. Both architects of the review left just after it was concluded. Working groups chartered to implement its decisions are still considering what needs doing. Indeed, all that has been achieved is the reorganization of senior responsibilities in the department (sample: the Under Secretary of Global Affairs was renamed the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights). Clinton’s State Department has no management plan for implementing the QDDR, and institutional change cannot succeed without attentive leadership at the top.

And leadership is essential in this job. Whether it was her choice or a White House decision to appoint numerous special diplomatic representatives (Holbrooke, Ross, Mitchell), the effect was to distance the secretary of state from the most important foreign-policy problems.

Clinton’s judgment seems particularly lacking with respect to democratizing countries.  From her early statement that there is more to U.S.-China relations than human rights, to her insistence during the Arab Spring that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer,” to last month’s unconditional waiver on assistance to the Egyptian military, she has been slow to recognize change occurring and more tied to the status quo than I would have expected.

Still, the difficulties are not entirely of her making. President Obama seems to exclude his cabinet and military leadership from major national security decisions; journalistic accounts of this administration routinely describe NSC meetings at which Secretary Clinton and others speak, then the president retires with political aides to make decisions. When prompted by Foreign Policy to describe Clinton’s contribution, deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough called her the “implementer in chief,” which is pretty faint praise. This is simply not a president who likes to share the limelight.

Kori Schake is fellow at the Hoover Institution and associate professor at the United States Military Academy. She has previously worked in the Pentagon, National Security Council, and State Department. She is author of State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department.

Aaron David Miller:

Almost four years in, what can we say about — and how do we judge — Hillary Clinton as a secretary of state? Great, consequential, average, below average?

The cruel nature of the world America now inhabits and the president’s style of keeping control of the big issues never really gave her a chance to reach for, let alone achieve greatness as the nation’s top diplomat. She may never have wanted to. The big issues –Iran, Arab-Israeli peace, even the Arab Spring — have loser written all over them, and Secretary Clinton may yet have the final chuckle. Still, we can’t admit her into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame (John Quincy Adams; Thomas Jefferson; George Marshall; Dean Acheson; Henry Kissinger; James Baker, to name a few) on political smarts and luck alone.

So what can we say?

Most Popular Woman on the Planet

Given the depths to which America’s stock in the world had fallen, we really did need a superstar to try to buck things up. The main thing was to at least try talking instead of shooting. Hillary talked. She worked to strengthen America’s partnerships with regional organizations and to bolster the organizations themselves. New dialogues were created and old ones improved in the Persian Gulf, in East Asia, in Africa, and in the Arab world. And she charmed America, too. Earlier this year her personal approval ratings stood at 62 percent.

Foggy Bottom May Not Be As Foggy

Of special note was the introduction of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). I know it sounds like a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. But for the Department of State, an organization that’s risk adverse and conservative, with a culture that doesn’t reward planning and discourages change, this kind of coordination and strategizing was monumental. The notion of a blueprint for highlighting America’s civilian power by coordinating the resources of the nation’s civilian agencies and better partnering with the military in advancing the national interest abroad is critically important. We can only hope that many of the changes it has ushered in get institutionalized in the department’s policies and practices.

Planetary Humanism

OK, so Hillary didn’t negotiate a deal on Israeli-Palestinian a conflict or preside over  a breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear issue. She did, however, begin the process of adapting the State Department’s structures, processes, and personnel policies to the demands of 21st-century diplomacy; (e.g. the use of new social media to modernize U.S. diplomacy) and brought much greater attention to nontraditional or soft security issues, notably gender integration in U.S. development and security policies, food security, management of natural resources (e.g. water), and dealing with youth problems in the Arab world and beyond. That stuff doesn’t get you headlines, but it matters.


Legacy is important, and that includes negative legacy. Syria is melting down. If the final six months of her tenure as secretary of state are marked by civil war, with sectarian killings on a large scale, and America remains on the sidelines, history will judge her unkindly. It may not be fair or right. (The last thing America needs right now is owning Syria, which would cost billions of dollars and require thousands of peacekeepers.) But she will take the hit along with the president. Syria isn’t Rwanda. It’s a political uprising, not a genocide. Still, Clinton may someday regret not acting in the face of violence and atrocities.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year. “Reality Check,” his column for Foreign, runs weekly.

Adrienne Klasa is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

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