The Good Soldier: Hillary Clinton As Secretary of State

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How is Hillary Clinton doing as secretary of State? Two recent quotes tell you all you need to know.

On May 27, frustrated by unusually thoroughgoing U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Benjamin Netanyahu complained, “What the hell do they want from me?” They: Clinton and Barack Obama.

A couple of months earlier, Colin Powell, asked to comment on Clinton’s attempt to redirect American foreign policy toward diplomacy and foreign aid, said: “We all know we ought to be moving in this direction, but it takes money.” We: Clinton, Powell, and the foreign-policy establishment.

Just over a year ago, Clinton was bottoming out in her doomed presidential race, telling reporters she was soldiering on against Obama because, after all, "we all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California." Now, she has turned herself into Obama’s greatest asset, on Capitol Hill as much as around the world, in fashioning a national-security policy that has closed off all policy differences between the former Democratic rivals, co-opted many Republicans, and left the rest of the administration’s opponents astoundingly marginalized.

On the inside, Clinton has steadily accumulated power while expending hardly any political capital. For one thing, she has stirred an effective mix of politicos and diplomats into the top tiers of the State Department. Hillary has Cheryl Mills, a lawyer best known for defending Bill Clinton during impeachment, running her staff. And she has divided the position of Deputy Secretary of State into two jobs: supersmart Jim Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser under Bill Clinton but supported Obama in 2008, is her policy maven, while Jack Lew is her management chief. Lew helped Hillary secure a 10 percent increase in the State Department’s budget from Obama while Tim Geithner was still figuring out how to turn the lights on in his office.

Further, Clinton hasn’t made mistakes. There have been no Joe Biden–like gaffes, Tom Daschle–like embarrassments, or Judd Gregg–like turnarounds coming from Hillary. Or from her husband — these days, Bill Clinton would have us believe he spends his time shopping for trinkets, unable even to get Hillary on her cell phone.

Meanwhile, nobody else has developed an alternative foreign-policy power center within the administration. Obama likes Biden, but the vice-president is no match for Hillary in mano-a-mano bureaucratic combat. For example, Clinton favored sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while Biden opposed the move. The result: “She crushed him,” according to Republican Mark Kirk of Ilinois. At the same time, National Security Adviser Jim Jones has been an utter cipher; when Time’s Mark Halperin graded the Obama administration, he gave Hillary an A- (“significant, powerful, worldly, respected”), but had to give Jones an “incomplete.” And Obama’s presidential envoys, such as Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Dennis Ross in Iran, are mostly old Clinton hands who aren’t about to usurp any authority from Hillary.

In public, Clinton has spent the last six months fundamentally realigning American foreign policy away from reliance on military force, toward what she calls (in a wise abandonment of the lefty academic phrase “soft power”) “smart power” — more diplomacy and international economic assistance. She has also been striving to ensure zero daylight between her and Obama on any issue, big or small, whatever positions she might have taken as a New York senator or presidential candidate. If Clinton minds toiling in Obama’s shadow, or representing her former rival as America’s best face to the world, she hasn’t shown it. With Hillary, it’s always hard to tell where duty stops and happiness begins, and her new job has brought out her cheerfulness and indefatigability at the same time; as she put it on her first trip to Asia, “Showing up is not all in life, but it counts for a lot.” And whether it’s laying down conditions for Cuba’s readmittance to the Organization of American States or appearing on the Indonesian teen variety show Awesome, Clinton has been showing up, albeit fairly quietly, all around the planet.

On April 23, Hillary smacked down Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who had tried to scold Obama for “warmly greeting” Hugo Chavez. “We spent the last eight years trying to isolate Chavez, and what has been the result?” Hillary replied. “We want your feedback, but President Obama won the election. He beat me in a primary, in which he put forth a different approach, and he is now our president.” Something similar happened last weekend, when she told George Stephanopoulos that Obama had passed the “3 a.m.” test that she had posed in the primaries. Clinton has become a master of selling Obama simply by stating her support for him. And conversely, by expressing that support as an act of volition, she is demonstrating her power, if not her independence.

The overall effect of Hillary’s efforts has been to bolster her reputation for being smart, effective, and a team player without associating her too strongly with the wrenching policy changes, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Obama has thrust himself far into the spotlight. And the results have been fairly amazing. Clinton’s approval ratings have been consistently above 70 percent — higher than Obama’s — with majority support even among Republicans. And media coverage has been orgiastic, probably peaking so far with Andrea Mitchell calling Clinton a “foreign-policy superstar” on the Today show. Even Obama probably never imagined how much mileage he and Clinton would be able to get out of their "kiss, make up, and go off to work around the globe" routine.

Finally, nobody has enabled Hillary’s rehabilitation like congressional Republicans and their talk-radio allies. Since Obama’s election, the neocons have doubled down on full-throated Cheneyism, pushing torture and preventive if not endless war. And from William Kristol and Newt Gingrich calling for an attack on North Korea to John Bolton wanting Israel to bomb Iran to Daniel Pipes saying, “I would vote for Ahmadinejad,” the leading lights of today’s GOP are pushing George H. W. Bush–type Republicans, such as Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and a large chunk of the country straight out of the Republican Party. There’s nothing but upside in that dynamic for Clinton: Already established in the public mind as less multi-culti and quite possibly tougher than Obama, she now also appears to be a sane, sober alternative to the crazies running the GOP.

And for the moment, the opposition doesn’t realize how much it should care. “I realized today that I’d be a happier person if Hillary Clinton were president,” a financial contributor to National Review Online wrote last week. “That scared me enough to make a donation.” Keep sending those $100 checks, pal, and your fantasy could still come true.