Hillary's Temper Tantrum

The secretary of state should focus on improving America’s credibility abroad, not lashing out at her husband.

Hillary Clinton has never minced words. Nor has she ever been at a loss for them. During Bill Clinton's presidency, she decried the "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her husband. During the 2008 election campaign against Barack Obama she pummeled him: "Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of ten prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next President will face," Clinton said. "I think we need a president with more experience than that." Now, in a press conference speaking to students in Kinshasa, Clinton let it rip once again, or, if you prefer to use Tina Brown's imagery, tore her Burqa off, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it for good measure.

Thus, when asked about what Bill Clinton might think about a $9 billion deal concerning Chinese financial contracts in the Congo, Clinton went ballistic: "You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I'm not going to channel my husband." Touchy, eh? The British Guardian put it this way: "Usually polished in public, the US secretary of state's calm demeanour [sic] momentarily cracked yesterday when a Congolese student asked her about Bill Clinton's view on a foreign policy issue."

No question it's been a rough couple of months for Hillary. She broke her elbow, which was widely treated as some kind of ominous symbolism about her crippled status as secretary of state. The media has dismissed her as a has-been. Vice President Joe Biden played a big role in ramping up the American commitment to Afghanistan. Like Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four, she had become the Invisible Woman, present but not someone anyone actually noticed. Her trip to Africa was supposed to be the big publicity tour that would show that she's the true comeback kid. But it hasn't worked out that way. Instead, Bill, of course, stole the headlines in North Korea and she has even refused to discuss any details about his trip, claiming a kind of oath of omertà based on the idea that she doesn't retail her private talks with Bill for public consumption. Her temper tantrum discloses a simmering Hillary, furious that Bill has upstaged her.

Who knows what could loom in the future? Are more marital spats forthcoming? Will Bill steal Hillary's thunder once again?

Maybe not. But there does seem to be problem with the approach of Hillary's team. As laudable as the trip to Africa may be, it was never going to revive her public profile. Clinton, for example, is aiming to push for an end to the war in the eastern Congo, which has been raging for over a decade. But this is on the order of trying to settle the Kashmir question-as improbable as it is laudable.

What Clinton should be focusing on is improving America's credibility and power abroad. What may be most interesting about the student's question about Chinese overtures in the Congo, for instance, is that she never really answered the question. If she didn't want Bill to upstage her, she should have said what she thought about rising Chinese influence, not only in the Congo but elsewhere. It would be interesting to learn if Clinton believes that China's burgeoning influence-it has been investing in properties around the world, including Central America-represents a challenge to America that will have bad implications in the future or if she thinks that a prosperous China that is economically integrated into the rest of the globe will increase stability.

Most of all, she needs a big win. The next crisis needs to be mediated by her. Should Russia and Georgia come to renewed blows, then Hillary needs to be the one who settles it. Or she can aim for a big diplomatic victory. Trading the missile-defense system intended for Eastern Europe for some concessions from Russia when it comes to Iran or Georgia would be a big plus for her.

Right now, Hillary has let the criticism of her performance get to her. It may well be that she's playing a big role behind the scenes. But making world headlines by peevishly lashing out at a student for daring to mention her husband's name isn't the way to demonstrate it.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.