Hillary Clinton At State: Toward A Weak Foreign Policy

It is now reported in the media as universal truth that Hillary Clinton is "on track" to be Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Apparently Clinton has made her anti-Shermanesque statement on the issue: something to the effect, according to "Clinton insiders", that if offered she will accept, if confirmed she will serve. It is not clear whether the job has been offered, but it has publicly been asserted that she is ready to accept.

I think Hillary Clinton as our next Secretary of State is an exceedingly bad idea.

It is argued, as justification for why Clinton is ideal for the job of chief diplomat of the United States, that she brings instant stature to the job – that she is a rock star and would have immediate presence on the world stage. However, it should be noted that what brings stature to the position of Secretary of State of the United States is not the person who occupies the job but the job itself. The Secretary of State represents the President of the United States. As such, the job comes with instant stature. In foreign capitals those wishing to do business with the United States do not let a call from the Secretary of State go to voicemail regardless of who occupies the position. As long as the Secretary of State is seen to represent the President of the United States, that representation brings stature.

The problem with Clinton as Secretary of State of course is the drama surrounding such an appointment. As is evidenced by the chatter in the media and the many leaks of this public courtship, it is not clear who Hillary Clinton will be serving and with how much vigor. To the extent Hillary Clinton is seen to represent herself, and not President Obama, she will diminish the effectiveness of the position she aspires to hold. As noted by others, the perception of daylight – even if they manage to actually be on the same page – between Clinton and Obama will be enough to undermine American diplomacy. It is worth recalling how another "rock star" Colin Powell fared as Secretary of State while representing a president who he was perceived to disagree with. At least publicly, Colin Powell was a loyal soldier to George W Bush, but no foreign government ever took Powell’s words as fully representing his President. In the end, diplomacy in the Bush era came from the Office of the Vice President and the Defense Department. Foggy Bottom was ineffective and an afterthought.

Diplomacy is about nuance. The President of the United States has a firm hand on the tiller of diplomacy when his messages are delivered faithfully (and perceived to be so on the receiving end), with the right emphasis, to foreign capitals by his chief diplomatic surrogate. Without such nuance and without such control from the chief executive, only a weak foreign policy is possible. That signals a weak presidency. Diplomacy then becomes a blunt instrument where the imprecise becomes easy and the heavy lifting of diplomacy takes a back seat. Blunt decisions like the "shock and awe" of Iraq are easier to execute than those requiring more finesse such as the business of securing the peace and rallying allies.

Barack Obama faces immediate challenges in foreign policy the day he takes office. Among them are sure to be how to secure the least painful exit from Iraq, how to shape a more effective foreign policy toward Pakistan (beyond simply financing Pakistan’s military and extremist machine), and the real possibility of a strategic realignment vis a vis Iran. All of these challenges call for sustained diplomacy headed by the president. The perception of twin power centers in Washington will undermine all of these efforts, and two of these may not even get off the ground. It seems to me that a call to "obliterate" Iran is a call for furthering the status quo (much to the joy of neoconservatives) – a launching pad for a grand strategy it is not. On all these fronts, it can be argued (and it has been argued), that it will take a person hostile to these ideas such as Clinton to give Obama political cover to accomplish these tasks. That, it seems to me, is just silly. An unwilling diplomat is like an unwilling salesman – both end up not closing the sale.

What is left is the cynical argument that putting Hillary Clinton at Foggy Bottom will defang her from doing political damage to Barack Obama from her perch in the Senate. I am not sure though why the price of a defanged Clinton should be a weak American foreign policy.

It seems to me that the Hillary Clinton pick would be very little reward with an enormous amount of risk. To me it signals a status quo foreign policy. It does not signal big things. It promises to be entertaining. I am sure the press will be filled with articles about who really is in charge of American foreign policy. The pundits will relish the chance to begin the 2012 or 2016 race early. It is sure to bring drama. I am just not sure that it will bring much diplomacy.


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4 Responses to Hillary Clinton At State: Toward A Weak Foreign Policy

  1. Judy says:

    I truly and completely agree with your assessment of Clinton as Secretary of State.

  2. Gritty Kitty says:

    What do you say about the argument that her appointment will create some balance, precisely because she and Obama disagree on some foreign policies?
    Remember, a huge portion of the Dems wanted her on the ticket. Yes there was racism in play, but a group of them supported her policies better than Obama’s.
    I have faith in Obama that he can keep Hillary in control.
    Clinton is not on my top 3 of candidates for SOS, but I also do not think it will undermine Obama’s credibility as a strong global leader.

  3. Mash says:

    Judy, thanks. I was taken to the woodshed at DKos for my heresy 🙂

    Gritty, The SecState is not supposed to balance the president. If the SecState, the president’s chief diplomatic surrogate, is known to disagree with the president then you have a serious problem in diplomacy that foreign leaders will exploit.

    If Obama wanted to keep Hillary in control, he should have made her veep. If you want to neuter a political rival, you put him on the ticket in a job that is totally at the mercy of the president. You dont give them the soapbox of Foggy Bottom. If there is one cabinet post that must march in lockstep with the president, it is the Secretary of State.

    For examples on how it is normally done, see Reagan and Bush. For a bad example, see Bush and Powell.

    If Obama has to spend time babysitting Clinton at State, it will damage his foreign policy. Specifically, with Iran and Pakistan Clinton is way to the right of Obama. Clinton’s votes, her public statements, etc. need to all be reconciled with Obama’s expressed foreign policy goals. Why bother with it? Seems like a lot of drama for no gain.

    For added bonus, can you name both of Bill Clinton’s secretary of states (the second one is more famous)? And did either run for political office? This “team of rivals” stuff makes for a good book but is not so great on the world stage.

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