The Lady Vanishes

Hillary Clinton can be assertive when she wants. Why isn’t she a more forceful voice in Obama’s foreign policy?

Where is Hillary Clinton? Oh, I know. For a while, she was nursing the broken elbow. Then Tina Brown told her to rip off the burqa, which put Clinton back in the public eye, earning publicity not for what she was doing but for what she wasn't. But since then, things haven't really changed. Clinton, expected to be an outsized force in Obama's cabinet, has been largely dormant. Her tenure as secretary of state is like something out of the film The Lady Vanishes.

For the past couple months it's looked as though Vice President Joe Biden and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry have carved up Clinton's job between them. Biden made the case against adding troops-which needs to be made-and argued as well for pursuing a kind of low-grade warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Kerry took a somewhat different approach. He ensured that Afghan President Hamid Karzai acceded to a run-off election against Abdullah Abdullah rather than throwing the whole electoral board game onto the floor. But the fact is that both men have been in the spotlight on the biggest issue that confronts the Obama administration: what to do with a kleptocracy that shows few signs of being able to resist the Taliban. The reelection, such as it was, of Hamid Karzai today, who was declared the winner by Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission, only raises the stakes.

And Clinton? Does anyone know what her views are? Or whether she is actually helping to formulate policy, not to mention strategy, as opposed to enunciating it?

Clinton has, in fact, been relegated to the status of delivering messages that nobody believes in about a country that barely remains a unified state. On Afghanistan, she pronounced that the fact that Abdullah was withdrawing was fine and dandy:

We see that happen in our own country where, for whatever combination of reasons, one of the candidates decides not to go forward." She added, "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election. It's a personal choice which may or may not be made.

This is supposed to make it sound as though the consequences of Abdullah's "personal choice"-pulling out of a national election that has the Western democracies wringing their hands and that has brought further disgrace, as though that were possible, to a United Nations that sacked Peter Galbraith from his post as deputy special representative in Afghanistan-were no greater than deciding what brand of toothpaste to use in the morning. Then she threw in a sop to Abdullah. Clinton said Abdullah ran a "dignified and constructive campaign that drew the support of Afghan people across the nation. We hope that he will continue to stay engaged in the national dialogue and work on behalf of the security and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan." Of course, there is no "national dialogue" in Afghanistan, but, rather, a ruthless jockeying for influence that doesn't appear to have the security or prosperity of the Afghan people as its most pressing cause.

It's not as though Clinton lacks the tenacity and acerbity to make her views known when she wants to. She shone in Pakistan this past week when meeting with Pakistani students and journalists. Clinton took off the kid gloves and made it clear that America is exasperated with the Pakistani's benignant approach to terrorism. "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are, and couldn't get to them if they really wanted to," she said. But this Hillary has otherwise been notably absent. No sooner was she standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem at a press conference on Saturday than the older, more demure version reappeared: she claimed Netanyahu had made "unprecedented" moves for peace by providing "specifics" on restraining settlement growth.

There are several possible theories that might explain the new Hillary. One is that she reckons that the Obama's administration's foreign-policy approach is doomed to failure and she wants as little to do with it as possible. On this reading, Clinton, in staying in the background, won't get the blame when Afghanistan goes blooey and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets even nastier. While the White House team will get tagged as the best and the brightest that dragged American further into Afghanistan, Hillary will be the one who stayed aloof.

Another one is that she simply lost her game during the presidential run against Obama. Confronted with failure, she simply cracked and has yet to recover psychologically. Unable to assert herself, she has become a study in passivity. What it would take to jolt her out of this condition is unclear.

The final theory is that the shadow of Bill Clinton continues to haunt her. It seems that Bill was responsible for Obama's decision to pass her over as vice president. According to a new memoir by Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe, Obama vetoed the idea of Hillary as VP by explaining, "I think Bill may be too big a complication. If I picked her, my concern is that there would be more than two of us in the relationship." It was a legitimate concern.

Since then, however, the problem hasn't been Bill. It's Hillary herself. She wanted to make history as the first woman president. But as secretary of state she hasn't been making enough of it.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.