Analysts: Hillary Clinton’s record as top U.S. diplomat falls far short of greatness

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pounds her fist as she testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pounds her fist as she testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday. AP

When Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration’s famed “team of rivals,” political observers were abuzz with the possibilities of a secretary of state who was already a powerful global celebrity, a former first lady and a hardened presidential candidate.

Despite the star power and political savvy, however, analysts say four years later that they can’t identify an enduring diplomatic approach that would add her to the list of the all-time greatest secretaries of state.

Beyond Clinton’s far-reaching popularity and well-documented dedication to the job, there’s simply no standout moment or stance that would define her tenure, the analysts say. And there are important missteps involving Pakistan, Russia and Syria.

Steve Coll, a prize-winning investigative journalist and author who serves as the president of the New America Foundation research center in Washington, said a secretary of state should be judged on three main criteria: as a crisis manager, as the public face of an administration and as an innovator of ways to keep the State Department relevant in a digital world.

Coll said Clinton deserved high marks on the latter two, but that she was hamstrung on crisis management by a controlling White House that was singularly focused on a second term and therefore risk-averse when it came to foreign policy. When the administration finally did cede some ground, offering a bigger State Department role in Afghanistan, he said, the Pentagon was frustrated to find that the State Department simply didn’t have the capacity to deliver.

“While she was a very strong voice in the war Cabinet and decision-making on foreign policy, she was not an example of a secretary who wrote the president’s foreign policy, either by delegation or by force of will,” Coll said.

Clinton, often as polarizing as she is popular, is sure to face debates about her legacy long after Friday, when she ends her term and leaves the State Department to the incoming secretary, John Kerry, the veteran Democratic senator from Massachusetts. The topic is sure to come up if she enters the 2016 Democratic contest to succeed Obama.

Her supporters credit her with no small number of diplomatic feats. She worked tirelessly to bring attention to the rights of women and girls worldwide, calling such issues “the cause of my life.” She orchestrated a historic warming of relations with longtime pariah state Myanmar as part of a bolstered American presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance Chinese influence.

And wisely, analysts say, Clinton didn’t try to save allied Arab rulers from popular uprisings, although those revolts ended up presenting the thorniest policy questions of her time in office.

Fans also note that Clinton was a strong proponent of “digital diplomacy,” shaking up the calcified State Department by putting young people in charge of online initiatives and giving diplomats in the field unprecedented autonomy in social media. That move allowed the embassy in Cairo, for example, to publicly challenge the Muslim Brotherhood’s statements before thousands of followers on Twitter in a way that obviously wasn’t scripted in Washington.

Clinton also won praise for handling the public diplomacy surrounding the covert U.S. raid that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. She was forthright once the mission came to light, analysts said, and firm in her defense of the decision not to tell the Pakistanis in advance.

Individually, such accomplishments are the fruits of a hardworking secretary who surrounded herself with smart advisers and held her own in Obama’s war Cabinet.

But taken as a whole, the successes just don’t add up to an overarching doctrine that will shape the department for years to come.

“Even an admirer, such as myself, must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch, few big victories achieved,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution research center, wrote in a recent assessment.

Clinton’s performance, he said, doesn’t compare with Henry Kissinger’s work on the opening to China, George Kennan’s containment policy or even the successes of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan in their stints as president. O’Hanlon added that Clinton has “one of the most solid track records of any modern secretary of state. But you do not yet have a historic legacy.”

Clinton suffered her share of embarrassments, missteps and outright policy failures, first and foremost in the Middle East, but also in other parts of the world.

Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert and assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, gave kudos to Clinton for her role in the bin Laden raid and for being among the first U.S. officials to publicly call out Pakistan for supporting militant groups.

However, Fair said, Clinton also made some “vexing and appalling” decisions in her Central Asia policy, such as refusing to apologize for a U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers or “throwing Cameron Munter under the bus,” a reference to the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who went into early retirement after a public fallout with Washington over the intensity of the administration’s drone program.

Even worse, Fair said, was Clinton’s finding in March 2011 that Pakistan was in compliance with five criteria – such as uprooting al Qaida and cracking down on terrorism financing – that made the country eligible for continued U.S. security assistance. Fair said that any close observer of the region would know that the opposite was true – that Pakistan was quietly fueling the Taliban insurgency.

“They thought they could win in Afghanistan by placating the Pakistanis. And the Pakistanis, of course, are driving the Taliban,” Fair said.

Another embarrassment was the collapse of the administration’s much-touted “Russia reset,” which was designed to warm relations with Moscow but instead has seen the Russian government terminate three bilateral agreements with the United States in the past year. The most-publicized rupture was Moscow’s decision to stop American families from adopting Russian orphans, a huge blow to up to 1,000 families that were already waiting for children.

The chilly relations with Russia have only made it harder to reach an agreement on a political solution to the bloody Syrian civil war, which was one of many unintended consequences of the Arab Spring uprisings that have bedeviled Clinton for the past two years.

Some of Clinton’s stances that were praised initially were later cause for hand-wringing, most notably the U.S. support for NATO’s military intervention in Libya, which some claim saved thousands of lives, but which also ended up giving wide berth to extremists and causing a ripple effect that includes the current French-led war on Islamist militants in northern Mali.

Analysts say Syria represents a far more egregious U.S. policy failure.

The bloodshed is just shy of the two-year mark, and many are turning against the United States for its reluctance to give rebels the direct military assistance they claim could’ve spared countless lives by hastening the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime.

The bigger problem is that Clinton didn’t use her stature in the administration to push back against the national security specialists who’ve dominated foreign policy crafting for years, said Leila Hilal, the head of the Middle East Task Force for the New American Foundation research center.

She and other analysts described Clinton and her team of “liberal interventionists” as bigger risk-takers than the defense community, which was pushing a more hands-off approach to the Arab Spring conflicts, especially for Syria.

“She didn’t take on how national security dominates policy toward the region,” Hilal said. “She ended up concentrating more on women’s and girls’ programs and other initiatives instead of trying to pull back more power for the State Department.”

The Obama administration, after seeming to encourage the anti-Assad revolt, left building Syria’s rebels to Persian Gulf allies, and soon Saudis and Qataris were arming allies of the Muslim Brotherhood and, more disturbingly, al Qaida-linked Islamist extremists.

One of those groups, the Nusra Front, performed extraordinarily well on the battlefield and soared in popularity, creating yet another Syria policy conundrum for Clinton’s State Department: how to support Syrian rebels when the most skilled among them turned out to be jihadists.

The State Department decided the answer was to blacklist Nusra by declaring it part of al Qaida in Iraq, a designation that only rallied support for the fighters among Syrians, who charged that the United States had no right to decide the makeup of rebel forces when it was refusing to help in the fight.

“At the end of the day, if you’re going to align with the opposition against a brutal dictatorship, and then do little to ensure that the opposition succeeds, then you should stop talking about the righteousness of the cause,” said Coll, the journalist and author.

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