Hillary Rodham Clinton has just concluded four tumultuous years as secretary of state, and already, as though in anticipation of a possible presidential run in 2016 (not announced but assumed by Washington pundits), she faces a groundswell of criticism about her time as the nation’s number-one diplomat.
The basic line is that she didn’t succeed at anything big. She accumulated enough mileage for first class air travel for the rest of her life—and Bill’s. But she didn’t win a ticket to the Foggy Botton Hall of Fame. Her record of accomplishment, it is asserted, is disappointing. No peace agreement in Afghanistan. Failure in Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. Reset with Russia: a big zero. Syria: a frightening disaster. Benghazi: her biggest embarrassment. And Iran? Further negotiations possible, but nothing on the near horizon to suggest a deal to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Yet, though this record may be bleak, I would still give her an A-, which, in graduate school, is not a bad grade. My reasoning follows:
Secretaries of State are not presidents. She worked for a president who managed foreign policy out of the White House and who dominated the decision-making process. Even if she had preferred a more activist policy in the Middle East, for example, she could not have initiated one without the president’s approval and enthusiasm. Last weekend, in a remarkable TV appearance, Barack Obama, with Clinton at his side, praised his secretary of state as one of the “finest” in American history. He cited the fact that, during her time as secretary, coinciding with his first administration, they together ended the war in Iraq, began to wind down the war in Afghanistan, ousted the Qaddafi regime in Libya and dismantled the “core leadership” of al-Qaeda, which included the stunning killing of Osama bin Laden. One could add that the United States has begun, sensibly, to readjust its overall foreign policy from one focused almost entirely on the greater Middle East to one that recognizes the rising importance of China as a potential adversary and India as a potential ally. The U.S. opening to Myanmar falls into this effort.
Also, not to be under-valued in an age of instant communication, Clinton has represented the United States in a thoroughly appealing way, traveling everywhere, meeting everyone, trumpeting human rights and democracy and winning the admiration of women throughout the world. No small accomplishment. In addition, she helped Obama and Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi cool the flames of war in Gaza. That yielded a ceasefire that was the best anyone could have done in that circumstance.
For any secretary of state who served after Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970’s, the comparison with the irrepressible Kissinger has become almost inevitable. Invariably, Kissinger wins. One reason is that Kissinger came to office with an already finely tuned concept of global power. It was a balance-of-power concept drawn from Klemens von Metternich’s nineteenth-century Austrian playbook—one great power offsetting another; the United States pitted against the Soviet Union, with both struggling for advantage and yet recognizing that in a nuclear world some degree of cooperation was important, even essential.
Another reason for Kissinger’s acclaim was that he worked for a president who, early on, understood and appreciated Kissinger’s approach and who, later on, was so absorbed with his own political survival during the Watergate scandal that he gave his secretary a lot of room to maneuver and negotiate and even steal more than a few headlines. Finally, Kissinger loved the machinations and mysteries of modern diplomacy, and his manipulation of the media was clever enough to win their respect while he achieved a meaningful degree of success in the Middle East and in East-West relations. But he failed miserably, in my view, in Vietnam, where the war continued on his watch, with additional thousands of Americans killed, though he and Nixon knew the war was unwinnable.
Clinton, though highly experienced as a First Lady and New York senator, obviously intelligent and globally recognized, assumed the secretary’s mantle without enjoying either Kissinger’s background as a foreign-policy expert or benefitting from America’s undisputed position as the world’s number one power. Therefore, the inevitable comparisons with Kissinger would seem unjustified. By January 2009, the United States was not necessarily in decline, as some scholars have suggested, but it was clearly tired of its involvement in two long and bitter wars. It conveyed the unmistakable impression of a great power eager to cut back on its global obligations. Time and again, the president stressed the need for “nation building at home.”
Consider also the great recession, which greeted Obama and Clinton on their first day in power. The threat of this recession turning into a depression comparable to the 1930s was so great that the Obama administration had to focus first and foremost on domestic problems rather than foreign policy.
In this context, it was Clinton’s job to keep the world in one piece while Obama spent most of his time trying to re-energize the shattered economy. She did a good job.
I sensed that she wanted to out-Kissinger Kissinger on the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, but she never got the chance. A few months ago, having recently returned from one of her exhausting foreign journeys, she stepped out onto the beautiful backyard patio of the French ambassador’s residence during a book party for a friend. I was the only other person on the patio. She seemed to cherish a quiet moment communing with Mother Nature, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a brief chat. I asked if she ever thought about doing a Kissinger-type shuttle in the Middle East. She had tried persuasion, more than a few times, but it hadn’t worked. She nodded and smiled. “Maybe after the election,” she said. I was intrigued. Did she mean she would engage in shuttle diplomacy and try in this way to force an agreement between the two sides? She brushed aside further discussion, but fixing her eyes steadily on mine, she repeated simply, “After the election.” Then she returned to the party.
But then came the election, another trip long-scheduled and impossible to neglect, and then, unexpectedly, a series of infirmities that left her unable to engage any time soon in vigorous foreign travel. During a number of concluding interviews, she hit one point over and over: She needed to catch up on her sleep. She deserves the chance.
Marvin Kalb, a guest scholar at Brookings, was chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC, traveling with a succession of secretaries of state from one trouble spot to another. He imagines Jefferson to be the first secretary he covered.