March 30 2011

End of the Road for Hillary Clinton

Charlotte Hays

Stick a knife in-she's done.

When Hillary Clinton recently peered from newsstands as the first cover girl of the new, revived (sort of) Newsweek, a casual observer might have thought that the secretary of state had reached the apex of her career.  But even a fawning article in a Newsweek issue devoted to "women who shake the world" couldn't quite conceal the slowly congealing truth:  Hillary is a spent force in American politics.  Her tenure in Foggy Bottom has accomplished what legions of conservative activists tried to in vain: stopping Hillary.

The world is shaking-but Hillary Clinton does not shake it.  She is the least influential secretary of state in recent memory, say many experienced observers.

A secretary of state is not, of course, a free agent.  The job is to represent the President's foreign policy.  But it is also a policy-making job and, other than standing up for the rights of "girls and women," Clinton has found nothing to make her own.  "Just limiting the discussion to the Middle East, what's so remarkable is how little of a presence she has had.  She's been a cipher," said Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum. 

"She can't disagree with the President in public," said Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the Middle East, "but it's not clear that even in the interagency process she's arguing a point.  She seems to be just taking what is put on her plate and not leading.  What sort of response to a 3 a.m. call can she brag about?  She's attended a lot of conferences in Africa while serving as secretary of state.  She's doing the off-Broadway circuit of diplomacy.

"In the old days," Rubin added, "it was the vice president who was going to funerals but not conducting foreign policy.  Under Obama, it seems that the two most entrusted foreign policy advisers are Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John Kerry.  What Obama tried to do with Clinton was neuter her, and he has succeeded.  Ultimately, she's been stuck doing third-tier policy work."

Watching Hillary flail about has been curiously uncomfortable.  Julie Gunlock of the Independent Women's Forum jokes that Clinton has acquired the "Alfred Dunner, old-person look."  No, Mrs. Clinton hasn't taken to wearing Mr. Dunner's elastic-waistbanded slacks, sold at such outlets as the Vermont Country Store, but she has the Alfred Dunner look down pat: a look not of gravitas but of extreme fatigue.  At a recent Capitol Hill hearing on the Middle East, the secretary's puffy eyes darted frantically from side to side-always just above the heads of her interlocutors-as if she has become so much an appendage of her boss that she has taken to reading from an imaginary teleprompter.  She did say something interesting, though: that we needed to know more about the Libyan rebels. 

No kidding.  Certainly Clinton's State Department needed to know more about Libya in general:  the September 2010 issue of the State Department's in-house magazine featured Libya as its "post of the month," hailing that country's "bold past, promising future."  Splashed with dazzling photos of Roman ruins (since joined by more recent ruins), the article celebrates the news that the U.S. Defense Attache's Office was "cultivating a growing relationship with the Libyan military."

Although in the 1980s and '90s Libya "existed almost in a time warp" because of the "devastating effects of sanctions and global isolation," the article says, "Libya today is booming, with constant roadwork and myriad new construction projects led by Korean, Chinese, Turkish, and Brazilian companies."  Of course, anybody who took up the offer of a posting to this garden spot has long since vacated it on a rickety ferry to Malta.

Clinton might have resigned her job, as many predicted she would, and distanced herself from the Obama administration's Lilliputian foreign policy in time for 2012.  But it's too late now.  The Middle East caught her unaware, and unlike Hosni Mubarak, she has no place to go.  Clinton has once again had to stand-literally-by her man.  The photos of her standing silently at Obama's side won't help if she ever runs for anything again.  Nor have her own remarks been distinguished:  "Absent international authorization," she said, "the United States' acting alone would be stepping into a situation the consequences of which would be unforeseeable."  Let's see:  Acting alone is acting alone, and we do not know the future.  Got that?

In a way, it is fitting that it is the Middle East that has finished Clinton's chances of greater glory.  It is a region of the world that has long bedeviled her.  It was her initial 2002 vote in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq that gave Barack Obama his initial opening to steal the Democratic Left.  Giving him even more ammunition, Hillary biographers Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. reported that Clinton cast this fateful vote without having read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.  Obama had made it the stuff of Sunday talk shows within days of Gerth's and Van Natta's report in the New York Times in the spring of 2007.  (The authors also revealed that Clinton had made the decision on authorization of force with advice from Bill.)

Still, it must be acknowledged that a whirling dervish has nothing on our globe-trotting secretary of state.  Indeed, fully half the import of the Newsweek article was that she keeps busy.  The other half was her work on behalf of the rights of "girls and women."  "A recent 19-hour ‘day trip' to Mexico," we are informed, "landed her at Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base well after 2 a.m., which left approximately six hours to get home, sleep, and make her first meeting of the day that would culminate in President Obama's State of the Union address."  Yeah, I was tired, too, that day.  But it didn't really matter, because I wasn't delivering a State of the Union address-just like Clinton. 

While not flying around the globe, Clinton has found time to carve out a niche with such statesmanlike activities as participating in an "energetic discussion" of current events on Masrawy.com, an Egyptian news site.  "The Web chat was only one of dozens of personal exchanges Clinton has committed to during the three months since Tunisia's unrest set off a political explosion whose end is not yet in sight," Newsweek gushed.  Okay, but can you really imagine James A. Baker III or Dean Acheson frittering away his day in Web chat rooms?   If all it took was keeping busy, Clinton would go down in history as a great secretary of state.

"She works extremely hard-no question about it-but to no great effect.  For slow, dogged labor, she gets high marks.  But she has no achievements to show for her labor," said Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.  Rosett does not rule out Clinton's trying to run for President in 2016, when she will be only 68 and can maneuver to distance herself from or claim credit for-whichever pantsuits her better-Obama's foreign policy.  Other observers believe she has set her sights on moving over to the Department of Defense before 2012.  After all, there has never been a female secretary of defense.

But-it hardly needs to be said-you can never count out a Clinton.  Journalist Michael Tomasky of the UK's Guardian, who wrote a book on Clinton's race for the Senate, for example, thinks she has a future in electoral politics.  "It wouldn't surprise me if she still holds the presidency in the back of her mind, and I see no reason why she shouldn't.  At the same time, what we learned from her 2000 campaign and her senatorial tenure is that she's a real nose-to-the-grindstone type.  She grinds out wins slowly and unglamorously.  If there's a second term and if she stays, it wouldn't surprise me to see her score some breakthroughs."

Although Clinton has always been in the forefront of the women's movement, she seems to be giving it renewed focus right now, especially with regard to the Middle East, where women's rights have long been trampled.  The Newsweek cover was part of a package deal.  Editor Tina Brown-who also put Clinton on the first cover of her dearly departed Talk magazine (we know how that ended, don't we?)-was hosting a women's summit in New York, at which the secretary spoke.

The Independent Women's Forum's Gunlock thinks that Clinton is doing this with renewed fervor because "that's her safe place: women's issues."  And speaking at the summit, Clinton did seem revived, exhibiting flashes of the old Hillary, the drive and ardor.  Still, she seemed a little behind the times.  She is sponsoring a program to bring women from the Seven Sisters colleges to learn policy at the State Department-this at a time when women outnumber young men in colleges and the real problem may be the feminization of education, not the opposite.  And hasn't Clinton heard-there are only six sisters now?  Vassar takes guys.

She was, however, with her own crowd, the older feminists, and some women from the developing world, and she was loving every minute.  Still, with her weight gain (certainly we can understand this!), swathed in black pants and with odd camera angles, she often looked like a face and pudgy hands reaching out from a Bedouin tent and, moreover, one couldn't help wondering whether Bill Clinton, who also spoke at the summit, wasn't Tina Brown's real "get" of the event.

Poor Hillary.  Bill always has his eyes somewhere else.

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