Give Hillary Clinton credit: She’s not a leaker, not a drama queen, not a credit stealer. Then again, there’s little to take credit for. The United States is in retreat, our profile lower across the globe. We’ve hightailed it out of Iraq, ignored the Arab Spring and its aftermath, appear to have little policy on the euro other than prayer, are drawing away from Afghanistan, Pakistan is a shambles, and China’s shadow looms ever longer over the Pacific. There’s no Middle East peace process; a disaster is coming in Yemen; the reset with Russia’s a bust. Negotiations with Iran are going nowhere fast and North Korea keeps threatening to detonate yet another nuclear device. South America is drifting.
What’s Hillary Clinton’s greatest success? That this mess is none of her doing. She has focused small, and succeeded small, looking at under-the-radar initiatives and targeted projects. To put it another way, she succeeded in Burma because the White House didn’t care. Could she have been a great secretary of state? She might have been, had she not been overshadowed and squashed, edged out and talked down, dismissed and derided by the most insular, politically vicious White House in recent memory.
Nothing that matters is in State’s purview, even if it seems to be. Decisions come from the White House. Assistant secretaries of state … who are they? What do they do? How many have prospered in this administration? Risen up, moved over, gone anywhere? Even in Susan Glasser’s fine profile of the secretary, White House enforcer Denis McDonough refers to Clinton as “the principal implementer” of foreign policy. Not the president’s chief advisor? His trusted secretary of state? Nope, McDonough implies -- the White House says “jump” and Foggy Bottom asks “how high?”
Like this president or hate him, like Hillary Clinton or hate her, the marginalization of the State Department to the National Security Council is a development to be regretted. NSC staff can’t do it all; indeed, it seems they can’t do most of it. Foreign governments complain incessantly that State doesn’t know what the White House is thinking and, in turn, they can’t get a meeting at the White House. Ironically, much of State’s apparat is inclined to be sympathetic to a Democratic president, but can’t get a word in edgewise because they’re not in the political inner circle. Centuries of professional experience have become irrelevant to a foreign policy fashioned around the question “What will this do for me in November?”
Surely Hillary Clinton knew it was politics that dictated her appointment as secretary of state; ironically, it will be politics, personal and otherwise, that relegates her to a minor role in the Obama saga. Given the foreign-policy disasters the next president will face, we can only wonder what might have been had she been allowed to be more than an “implementer.”
Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.