Aaron David Miller:
Almost four years in, what can we say about -- and how do we judge -- Hillary Clinton as a secretary of state? Great, consequential, average, below average?
The cruel nature of the world America now inhabits and the president's style of keeping control of the big issues never really gave her a chance to reach for, let alone achieve greatness as the nation's top diplomat. She may never have wanted to. The big issues --Iran, Arab-Israeli peace, even the Arab Spring -- have loser written all over them, and Secretary Clinton may yet have the final chuckle. Still, we can't admit her into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame (John Quincy Adams; Thomas Jefferson; George Marshall; Dean Acheson; Henry Kissinger; James Baker, to name a few) on political smarts and luck alone.
So what can we say?
Most Popular Woman on the Planet
Given the depths to which America's stock in the world had fallen, we really did need a superstar to try to buck things up. The main thing was to at least try talking instead of shooting. Hillary talked. She worked to strengthen America's partnerships with regional organizations and to bolster the organizations themselves. New dialogues were created and old ones improved in the Persian Gulf, in East Asia, in Africa, and in the Arab world. And she charmed America, too. Earlier this year her personal approval ratings stood at 62 percent.
Foggy Bottom May Not Be As Foggy
Of special note was the introduction of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). I know it sounds like a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. But for the Department of State, an organization that's risk adverse and conservative, with a culture that doesn't reward planning and discourages change, this kind of coordination and strategizing was monumental. The notion of a blueprint for highlighting America's civilian power by coordinating the resources of the nation's civilian agencies and better partnering with the military in advancing the national interest abroad is critically important. We can only hope that many of the changes it has ushered in get institutionalized in the department's policies and practices.
OK, so Hillary didn't negotiate a deal on Israeli-Palestinian a conflict or preside over a breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear issue. She did, however, begin the process of adapting the State Department's structures, processes, and personnel policies to the demands of 21st-century diplomacy; (e.g. the use of new social media to modernize U.S. diplomacy) and brought much greater attention to nontraditional or soft security issues, notably gender integration in U.S. development and security policies, food security, management of natural resources (e.g. water), and dealing with youth problems in the Arab world and beyond. That stuff doesn't get you headlines, but it matters.
Legacy is important, and that includes negative legacy. Syria is melting down. If the final six months of her tenure as secretary of state are marked by civil war, with sectarian killings on a large scale, and America remains on the sidelines, history will judge her unkindly. It may not be fair or right. (The last thing America needs right now is owning Syria, which would cost billions of dollars and require thousands of peacekeepers.) But she will take the hit along with the president. Syria isn't Rwanda. It's a political uprising, not a genocide. Still, Clinton may someday regret not acting in the face of violence and atrocities.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year. "Reality Check," his column for Foreign Policy.com, runs weekly.