Now Clinton has a different role and a different set of dilemmas: If she speaks too forcefully about human rights, she'll be chided for letting wild-eyed activism get in the way of America's economic interests. If she fails to bash the Chinese over their harsh treatment of dissidents like Chen and brutal suppression of free speech, she'll be called a sellout. Her shape-shifting career guarantees that Clinton will be criticized at every turn, but it also gives her the opportunity, as she noted about Aung San Suu Kyi, "to put into practice everything she's been thinking about and working on her entire adult life."
WHEN BARACK OBAMA SHOCKED everyone -- including his own campaign team -- by asking Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state in late 2008, many of the new president's foreign-policy advisors were furious. "She was the enemy," one of them recently recalled. "People rightly worried that the Clintonistas would all come back in force.… We didn't know if we could trust them."
On the campaign trail, Obama had laid out a series of idealistic foreign-policy promises, many of them derided by his rival Clinton, when he optimistically vowed to open direct talks with enemies like Iran and North Korea, make a major push on a long-term peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and forge new global diplomacy on climate change -- all while winding down the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and closing the Guantánamo Bay prison and other leftover excesses of Bush's "global war on terror."
It wasn't at all clear at first where Clinton factored into that ambitious list. In addition to the hostility from Obama's White House team, Clinton was a novice in international affairs; she had no background in diplomacy, speaks no foreign languages, and was mocked during the campaign for claiming that her foreign trips as first lady qualified her as a bona fide internationalist. And from the start, she appeared to be marginalized after Obama named a series of czars designated to handle most of the toughest issues of their shared agenda: diplomatic heavy-hitters like her old friend Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, seasoned envoy Dennis Ross for Iran, and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell for the Mideast peace talks. Even some of her advisors told me it was a steep learning curve -- the carefully calibrated language of diplomacy, said one, was a "dialect she wasn't fluent in."
Besides, Clinton was still personally reeling from the embarrassing defeat to Obama in the Democratic presidential primary. Not only had she squandered a frontrunner's lead -- and more than $13 million of her and husband Bill's money -- but sordid accounts of her campaign's self-destructive infighting and poor management seemed to reflect directly on Clinton's leadership abilities.
So Washington was primed and ready for the fireworks to start as soon as Clinton and Obama took office in January 2009.
But the explosion never happened.
Three and a half years later, there have been remarkably few accounts of feuding between Obama's White House and Clinton's State Department -- and virtually none between the president himself and his celebrity diplomat. The two meet privately each week -- Tuesday afternoons, usually -- and "check signals," as Obama's deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough put it, whether on matters of grand strategy or just getting through that week's tactical battles. "It doesn't mean they always agree," he told me. "You can see them influencing each other's views."
But for all that, no one asserts that Clinton and Obama have forged more than a solid professional relationship. If there's an inner circle of Obama decision-making, she's not in it. "It's fair to say the conceptual framing of Obama foreign policy has taken place within the White House and not within the State Department," one close Obama advisor told me. When I asked McDonough to characterize the division of labor between Obama's White House and Clinton's State Department, he replied: "She's really the principal implementer."