When Barack Obama announced that he would name Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, I was one of the skeptics that Susan Glasser mentions in her article. I wrote at the time that I worried the collection of high-voltage personalities in the new administration’s foreign-policy space would crowd out the unique opportunity Obama had to be a leader for a world in transition.
Sadly, I do think the president has largely missed that shot for global leadership -- but it’s not, as I feared, because Secretary Clinton has been hogging the limelight. Indeed, it turns out this president is most comfortable out of the limelight altogether, running covert action. His view of the public hand-shaking aspect of foreign affairs turns out to be the same line he scribbled as a first-term senator watching the showboating Joe Biden chair the Foreign Relations Committee: “Shoot me now.”
Which is why Clinton has turned out to be a good stand-in for our shy president: She is willing to go anywhere, meet anyone, travel to the most remote, god-awful conferences, press the global flesh at town-hall meetings and in the local media. Sometimes she looks as beat-up as a UFC fighter who’s been a victim of “pound and ground,” but she’s all the more lovable for it. As far as I’m concerned, she has significantly strengthened her credentials to be president by working so hard as a journeyman secretary of state.
But what has she actually accomplished, beyond logging all those miles so dutifully? Her three high-visibility appointees for what were expected to be the key backroom negotiating positions -- Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, and George Mitchell -- never really had anything to negotiate. They each had high public profiles, much as Clinton did, and each made the White House nervous partly for that reason. But their negotiating moments never really arrived. Indeed, it was only when Clinton selected as her key confidante Jake Sullivan -- a brilliant young analyst but the ultimate “gray man” -- that she seemed to operate more strategically.
My biggest knock on Clinton is that she didn’t find a way to get more done in her role as the president’s diplomatic emissary, broker, and fixer. Comparing anyone to Henry Kissinger is unfair for lots of reasons -- even Kissinger doesn’t measure up to the mythic portrait we’ve inherited of the modern Machiavelli. But sadly, Glasser is probably right when she says of Clinton’s bargaining in Beijing over the fate of a relatively unknown and low-impact dissident, Chen Guangcheng: “This had been the most intense high-stakes diplomacy of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.”
Can this really be true? Was the Chen negotiation as good as it will get for Clinton? I fear the answer is yes.
David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post and author most recently of the novel Bloodmoney.