Suddenly we’re supposed to believe that Hillary Clinton is a great secretary of state.
Eric Schmidt of Google calls her “the most significant secretary of state since Dean Acheson.” A profile in the New York Times runs under the headline “Hillary Clinton’s Last Tour as a Rock-Star Diplomat.” Another profile in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine is titled, wishfully, “Head of State.” The two articles are so similar in theme, tone, choice of anecdote and the absence of even token criticism that you’re almost tempted to suspect one was cribbed from the other.
The Hillary boomlet isn’t a mystery. She never lost her political constituency. In the cabinet she looks good next to Janet Napolitano and bright next to Joe Biden. She looks even better next to her boss. Democrats belong to the party of hope, and Barack Obama is hope’s keenest disappointment.
So Mrs. Clinton is back, resisting appeals for her to run in 2016 the way Caesar rejects the thrice-offered crown. No doubt she would have made a better president than Mr. Obama. But is that saying much? No doubt she’s been a hard-working and well-briefed secretary. But that isn’t saying much, either.
What would make Mrs. Clinton a great secretary of state is if she had engineered a major diplomatic breakthrough, as Henry Kissinger did. But she hasn’t. Or if she dominated the administration’s foreign policy, the way Jim Baker did. But she doesn’t. Or if she had marshaled a great alliance (Acheson), or authored a great doctrine (Adams) or a great plan (Marshall), or paved the way to a great victory (Shultz). But she falls palpably short on all those counts, too.
Maybe it’s enough to say Mrs. Clinton is a good secretary of state. But she isn’t that, either.
Mrs. Clinton is often praised for her loyalty to her boss, even when she loses the policy argument—as she did over maintaining a troop presence in Iraq.
Loyalty can be a virtue, but it is a secondary virtue when it conflicts with principle, and a vice when it’s only a function of ambition. Cyrus Vance resigned as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state when the president, facing a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, authorized a disastrous rescue operation in Iran. Would that make Vance a lesser public servant than Mrs. Clinton?
Mrs. Clinton is also given high marks for her pragmatism. But pragmatism can only be judged according to the result. Is the reset with Russia improving Moscow’s behavior vis-à-vis Syria? Has a “pragmatic” approach to China moderated its behavior in the South China Sea? Is the administration’s willingness to intervene on humanitarian grounds in Libya but not Syria a function of pragmatism or election-year opportunism?
What about the rest of the record? It would be nice to give Mrs. Clinton full marks for the Libya intervention, except she was an early skeptic of that intervention. It would be nice to give her marks for championing the Syrian opposition, except she has failed to persuade Russia, China or Mr. Obama to move even an inch against Bashar al-Assad. It would be nice to give her marks for helping midwife a positive transition in Egypt. But having fecklessly described Hosni Mubarak as a “friend of my family” in 2009, it’s no wonder Egyptians take a dim view of the Obama administration.
Then there’s Iran. In the administration’s fairy tale/post-facto rationalization, the U.S. was getting nowhere internationally with Iran under George Bush. Then Mr. Obama cunningly offered to extend his hand to the mullahs, knowing that if they rejected it the U.S. would be in a better position to act internationally.
Nearly everything about that account is false. The Bush administration was able to win three U.N. Security Council votes sanctioning Iran, against only one for this administration. The “crippling” sanctions Mr. Obama now likes to brag about were signed against his wishes under political duress late last year. Since then, the administration has spent most of its time writing waivers for other countries. Even now, negotiations with Tehran continue: They serve the purposes of a president who wants to get past November without a crisis. They also serve the mullahs’ purposes to gain time.
Now Iran is that much closer to a bomb and the possibility of a regional war is that much greater. The only real pressure the administration has exerted thus far has been on Israel, whose prime minister is the one foreign leader Mrs. Clinton has bawled out. She should try doing likewise with Vladimir Putin.
Ultimately, Mrs. Clinton cannot be held accountable for the failures of a president she understood (earlier and better than most) as a lightweight. But the choice to serve him was hers, and the administration’s foreign policy record is hers, too. It’s a record that looks good only because it is set against the backdrop that is the Obama presidency in its totality.