With rumors circulating that Joe Biden will be dumped in the summer and replaced with Hillary Clinton as President Obama’s vice-presidential running-mate (as predicted here two years ago), Mrs. Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State deserves some analysis. In the media, she regularly receives “high marks” for her tenure, and is “immensely popular” among the American public. So how has she performed?
The Secretary of State is the face of American diplomacy, and is responsible for setting and implementing policies that advance American interests across the globe. We should concede that Clinton is not solely responsible, that Obama has in many cases seized the diplomatic initiative himself, that Obama may not (or may) be taking her advice, and that other nations have interests as well that they promote that might be antithetical to the USA’s interests that even the most sophisticated diplomacy cannot reverse. But as she is the responsible party for American diplomacy, her real record deserves scrutiny.
What is most fascinating is to recall how America’s standing in the world allegedly declined to new depths during the Bush presidency, all of which would be undone by the new, more Third World oriented black president and female Secretary. Yet, America’s popularity in the world is even lower today than when Obama took office.
What is the Obama diplomatic record for which Hillary’s talents have been so touted?Let’s examine countries and regions.
RUSSIA: Clinton began her diplomacy by handing her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, a “reset” button. (Actually, she handed him a button that translated from the Russian really meant “overloaded;” no wonder he was puzzled.) Since then Russia has slid back to authoritarianism and even Cold War rhetoric, and US-Russia relations remain strained. If there has been a “reset,” it is to suggest that Russia need not fear or even consider American interests in the region or across the world. And the US’s precipitous withdrawal of its “missile shield” over Eastern Europe dismayed allies that Bush had cultivated, and was perceived by the Russkies as weakness. Consequently, at almost every opportunity, Russia has thwarted joint activities and even diplomacy to rein in Iran, North Korea or other threats. A new cold war looms. Grade: D.
ISRAEL: The more Obama supporters trumpet how the President has been “Israel’s best friend ever,” the more desperate and detached from reality they sound. Hillary’s involvement has been limited to photo ops, and the infamous 45 minute tongue-lashing she gave to Netanyahu when (how nervy!) the Interior Ministry announced during a Biden visit that tenders for new apartment buildings would be offered for construction in Ramat Shlomo in northern Yerushalayim – to add to the other 50,000 people already living there. Besides the rudeness, the repeated references to “settlements in East Jerusalem” showed ignorance of geography and policy.
The “peace process” could not be deader, and trust between erstwhile allies and friends Israel and the USA is perhaps at an all-time low. The military exercises currently underway are a continuation of past policies, but are more a Pentagon initiative than a Foggy Bottom production. There is no ongoing diplomacy worth its name (probably the best thing for Israel – perhaps the only proof that Clinton is pro-Israel). But both Israel and the PA essentially ignore her. Grade: D-
ARAB WORLD: Obama’s Cairo speech (June 2009) was roundly ridiculed in the Muslim world, who measure America’s standing by its capacity to pressure Israel to act against Israeli interests. It was quintessential Obama – all words, little substance, much fanfare and symbolism. It would be natural to expect that Clinton played a large role in drafting that speech, but that is unknown.
What is known is Clinton’s role in the comically-named “Arab Spring.” Hillary pronounced Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt a “stable ally” just weeks before he was deposed (echoes of Jimmy Carter’s declaration that the Shah’s Iran was an “island of stability” months before he was toppled). American diplomacy was always late to the game – the US could have either defended and propped up Mubarak as a valuable US ally, or sided with the protesters in the hopes of positively influencing the outcome of the riots. Clinton did neither – siding with Mubarak too long but not providing him any support, and then half-heartedly and diffidently lauding the protesters who are in the process of forming a radical Muslim state.
The US was “leading from behind” in Libya, and is not leading at all in the continuing unrest in Syria. Is it in America’s interest that the entire Muslim world becomes radicalized – that dictators from Tunisia, to Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, etc. be overthrown and replaced by rabid, anti-American fanatics? It must be, because that is what the Obama foreign policy is bringing about. The other possibility is that there is no coherent foreign policy and that the Clinton State Department has not the slightest clue how to advance America’s interests in the region beyond the spouting of clichés. In other words, we are witnessing a
comprehensive and ongoing diplomatic failure. Grade: D-
IRAQ: Perhaps the greatest failure to date was Clinton’s inability to negotiate a continuation to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that necessitated America’s withdrawal of most of its military forces from that country – albeit, fulfilling an Obama campaign promise. But Iraq has already descended into the mass violence that was predictable, has further divided that already-splintered society, and given Iran a precious opening. Simply put, the US currently has few resources through which it can protect its interests and advance its diplomacy in Iraq. That is a failure whose consequences are not yet fully known. Grade: D+
IRAN: Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been slowed, not thwarted, and slowed only through the Stuxnet virus that set them back a year and the untimely demise of several nuclear scientists who apparently contracted car-bomb-itis. The steady drumbeat of “sanctions,” “harsh sanctions,” and then “severe sanctions,” and most recently “really, really, tough sanctions” have failed to dissuade Iran, which, after all, is a dictatorship not responsive to its people’s economic woes. Most egregious was the abject failure of American diplomacy to support the nascent revolution in Iran in 2009 that was summarily crushed. There was not even an expression of support for the rebellion, much less material aid, something that was noticed and lamented openly by the protesters. The Obama administration goal seems to be just to stop Israel from doing anything, and then proclaiming that we will learn to live with a radical-Islamic bomb. One hopes there is some movement behind the scenes – an October surprise? – but I would not hold my breath for any American strike. Grade: F
AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN and other STANS: These have been such troubled alliances for the US for quite some time that one would be reluctant to attribute any diplomatic failures to Obama/Clinton – except for the fact that Obama campaigned on the premise that only he could establish warmer relations with these countries that are, unfortunately, primitive and hostile, but critical in the sense that they have been used for staging grounds for aggressive actions against the United States. But the failures have been manifest. Kudos to Obama for defying Pakistani sovereignty and killing bin Laden, even if the hand-wringing over the prelude to that strike was over-the –top. But that relationship is awkward and troubled, and if Obama/Clinton have not made it worse, they have certainly not made it better.
And the American’s foray into brokering negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban – the original hosts of al-Qaeda – is a grotesque admission of failure, even notwithstanding the unreliability of Hamid Karzai as an ally. Negotiations? The point was to defeat the Taliban. That was the original goal of the war of President Bush; that was the “good war” that Obama promised to wage until a successful conclusion. This is an abandonment of responsibility for which we will all eventually pay a steep price. Where is Hillary? Grade: D
ASIA: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are proceeding apace, even as it transitioned from Kim Jung Il to Kim Jung Dead. China – all the overheated rhetoric notwithstanding – is today a leading creditor of the United States, made even stronger by Obama’s borrowing trillions from the Chinese to partially pay for his social programs. (Repayment is impossible.) But the US capacity to influence or pressure the Chinese, or to more closely coordinate the diplomacy of the two countries, is greatly diminished. Grade: C-
LATIN AMERICA: Obama’s embrace of Hugo Chavez was laughed off by that tin pot dictator, who has been even more derisive of Obama than he was of George W. Bush. The left-wing strongmen of Latin America have been untroubled US diplomacy, and their outreach to Iran (and vice versa) should be worrisome to those who live in the Western hemisphere. Grade: C-
ALLIES: Obama (and this cannot be completely laid at Clinton’s doorstep, although she still is responsible) began his tenure looking to transform America’s relationship with its traditional allies. He succeeded – angering in succession the British, the Israelis, the Poles and the Czechs, the Australians, and most recently the Canadians (delaying the Keystone pipeline deal). There is no ally of the US with whom relations have improved during the last three years, and none with whom relations have not deteriorated. The interests of all those countries still remain somewhat aligned, so the fallout is not that great and recovery under a new administration likely – but the world has suffered as a result of America’s decline from superpower influence to one nation among many. Grade: C-
The major events of American diplomacy in the last three years have been Obama’s, good or bad (mostly bad). Hillary Clinton has played a subordinate role to the extent she has played any role at all. Again, while not all failures can be attributed to her alone, it is difficult to think of a single achievement that merits the accolades for her performance as Secretary of State. She does give speeches, still smiles and giggles at the wrong times – especially in answering uncomfortable questions – and clearly is not fully control of American foreign policy. And certainly, the US’s ability to influence other nations is determined by those nations’ interests and not exclusively American wishes. But the US’s unreliability as an ally, and its unwillingness to use force as a tool of diplomacy, has greatly marginalized America’s influence and weakened its power in the world. And that is a failure of both policy and diplomacy.
Evidently, Hillary Clinton is being graded on a curve. And by the standards of the Obama White House, she is due for a promotion.