In some ways, Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t changed. When the U.S. secretary of state gears up for her major diplomatic forays, she does it the same way she prepared to run for the Senate seat from New York, and for her presidential bid: with a listening tour. The former senator who used to nod earnestly and have her aides take copious notes at county fairs as farmers in upstate New York waxed on about the complexities of the local apple trade, prefaced her 11-day trip across Africa this month with a similar bout of listening. Shortly before leaving, she brought together some 15 Africa specialists from in and out of Washington to a ceremonial room on the eighth floor of the State Department headquarters. “It was extremely well organized, a very pleasant dinner in which she did most of the listening and had a number of questions,” recalled attendee Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa under presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Lyman said he was surprised by how little Clinton interrupted. “She did not moderate the meeting and that allowed her to be a real listener. She seemed to want to hear what people thought,” he told Maclean’s. “Interestingly, she is not flashy. She is very organized and substantive.”
But that lack of flash has been a big change for a woman who only recently stood on the brink of a historic presidential nomination, and whose every move made news. The focused, nose-to-the-grindstone approach she has brought to the job after the centre-stage political rivalry with Barack Obama caught many observers off guard. Those looking for good political theatre were almost disappointed by the absence of a clash-of-titans power struggle, complete with gender politics, psychodrama and embittered aides leaking stories of backstabbing-on-high. To some, it could only mean one thing: Clinton had been muzzled. No less a student of power and celebrity than former New Yorker editor Tina Brown kicked off rounds of chatter in July, when Clinton was absent from Obama’s meetings at the Kremlin (she cancelled several trips due to a broken elbow) and seemed to be sidelined by a clutch of special presidential envoys assigned to top hot-spots like South Asia and the Middle East. “It’s time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burka,” wrote Brown, in a critique that apparently got under Clinton’s skin. “I broke my elbow, not my larynx,” was Clinton’s tart retort to reporters who asked whether she was lacking a voice in the administration’s foreign policy. “I have been deeply involved in the shaping and implementation of our foreign policy,” she said, defensively. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the discussion as “silly Washington games.”
The same criticism of keeping a “low profile” has also been levelled at National Security Advisor Jim Jones, suggesting either that the circum-planetary star power of the President himself makes it hard for any individual underling to shine, or they are all simply too busy doing their jobs to preen.
But complicating Clinton’s situation, of course, is her husband, the charismatic former president, who recently made headlines of his own by bringing home two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea, after a three-hour sit-down with Kim Jong Il in what was billed as a “private humanitarian mission,” on planes provided by Dow Chemical and Hollywood producer Stephen Bing, two major donors to Bill Clinton’s non-profit foundation. Hillary Clinton had encouraged her husband to take the trip after the journalists’ families let it be known that Pyongyang had said it was a condition of their release. While her State Department had laid the groundwork, the rescue was greeted as his victory. More speculation about her feeling sidelined emerged when in a question-and-answer session with university students in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she was asked what her husband thought about a trade deal with China. It later turned out the translator erred—the student was asking about President Obama’s views—but not before Clinton could snap defensively, “Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state. I am. So, you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I’m not going to be channeling my husband.” The comment, and the opportunity for cable TV psychoanalysis it offered up, competed for worldwide press attention with Clinton’s efforts to highlight the atrocity of mass rapes of women and children in eastern Congo. (She visited the dangerous city of Goma, which required hitching a ride from the UN, because there was no infrastructure big enough to allow her official plane to land).
One source of the fretting was the carving up of her portfolio into files for heavy-hitting envoys that report not to Clinton, but directly to Obama. Richard Holbrooke took on the merged file of Afghanistan-Pakistan, perceived in Washington as the single biggest threat to American national security. George Mitchell got the Middle East, another mainstay of U.S. policy. Dennis Ross, Clinton’s advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf, was moved to the White House as a special assistant to the President. While the perception was that the secretary was sidelined from the sexiest parts of her portfolio, the truth was less stark. “If you look at who they are, they all have close ties to Hillary Clinton,” notes Hamilton. Holbrooke, for example, was the top foreign policy adviser in her campaign. Managing several envoys is a real challenge, but so far it appears to be working well. “I have seen friction in previous administrations, but I have not picked that up so far. So there seems to be a good working relationship and good communications,” said Lyman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who also served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
In fact, foreign policy analysts don’t buy the assumption that something is wrong. “Is she being overshadowed? I would say she’s just being a team player. She has surprised a lot of people with her ability to be a team player and I don’t think you see any daylight between her position and that of the President,” said Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
There is no question that Obama has laid out the direction and the tone on foreign policy. But it’s an approach Clinton largely shares. “If I had to put a label on the approach, it’s very pragmatic. It has not been captured by the left wing of the Democratic Party or tinged by ideological flavours. I think they’ve been looking at things pretty coolly,” said Hamilton.
Clinton has emphasized three “D’s” in her foreign policy: defence, diplomacy and development. A key focus has been to elevate the status of development to an enhanced, if not equal level. For much of the Bush era, the Pentagon, not the State Department, had the lead role on reconstruction in Iraq, something the Obama administration believes is better left to civilians. As a former senator, Clinton could help work Congress to achieve a permanent change in the funding of reconstruction. It helps that the defense secretary, Robert Gates, is also in favour of the move.
“Perhaps her greatest contribution potentially is to restructure the foreign affairs and defence budget allocations so that the State Department could take the lead in many of the issues associated with reconstruction and stabilization,” says Hamilton, not just in Iraq or Afghanistan, but “in all the unorthodox conflicts we have around the world.” Certainly that would provide a boost to departmental morale that had plummeted during the Bush years—a time when many posts went unfilled, diplomacy was underemphasized, and the focus was overwhelmingly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clinton has already endeared herself to the diplomats by splitting the job of deputy secretary in two—putting one of them in charge of management issues inside the bureaucracy that tend to get ignored when the top leadership focuses mainly on policy. “It was something that was badly needed. It has increased morale,” said Lyman.
She has also broadened the State Department’s role to issues beyond terrorism. She inserted her department into a dialogue with China that had until recently been run by the Treasury department, in an effort to recognize the broad range of issues that now concern the two countries—from climate change policy to China’s investments in Africa and Latin America. She took the pragmatic if controversial position that lecturing the Chinese on human rights was not having the desired effect, and that broad-based engagement was the preferred course. “Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis,” she told reporters in Seoul in February during her first overseas trip as secretary.
In her travels, she has continued the “listening tours” and town hall meetings that are in part her personal style, and in part a calculated move to send the message that the unilateral days of the Bush administration are over, and America wants to engage on a host of issues of importance to the world. She auditioned her approach on that first trip in February. “My trip here today is to hear your views, because I believe strongly that we learn from listening to one another,” Clinton told students at Tokyo University in February. “And that is, for me, part of what this first trip of mine as secretary of state is about.”
On a visit to Asia, she attended regional meetings that included the Burmese foreign minister, sending the signal that she is willing to talk to regimes with which the U.S. disagrees. Occasionally, her diplomacy with those regimes has devolved into name calling. After she compared the North Korean regime to unruly teenagers demanding attention, Kim Jong Il said of her, “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
Her recent trip to Africa has been one of her most ambitious efforts. It allowed her to pursue longstanding personal interests, such as development, maternal and infant health, and violence against women, as well as Obama’s broader goal of lifting Africa to the centre of U.S. foreign policy. In a way the trip was a case study in Clinton-Obama teamwork—a combination of his celebrity power and her grit. Obama himself arrived for a brief visit with his family in July, gave a sweeping speech and visited a slave outpost. He chose his destination, Ghana, carefully, to highlight the west African country as a model of democracy on the continent. He notably avoided his father’s ancestral land of Kenya, which is beset by corruption. This month, Clinton followed up with a wide-ranging trip to build alliances with important countries such as South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria, and to press for change in the most troubled spots, from eastern Congo to Kenya. “Obama’s trip was a very short one and set as a first pillar of the new administration’s policy of the issue of governance and responsible leadership,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Hers is a much more arduous trip. It’s not an easy, good-news trip. She’s going to the big, tough problematic places, all of which are extremely complicated and require sustained diplomatic attention.”
“I think it went quite well,” Cooke added, in an interview from Kenya. “The headline on the day of her visit was ‘Prime Minister Odinga says don’t lecture us about politics.’ But many people realize that the Kenyan leadership does need to be cajoled and lectured to in ways. On a popular level people were excited to have her here,” she said.
Of course, on the big foreign policy questions facing this administration, it is still too early to judge. Will North Korea extend its nuclear reach to the U.S.? Will Iran make progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapon? Will there be progress or regression in Middle East or in Afghanistan? There are many obstacles to overcome both internationally and domestically. Clinton has expressed frustration, for example, that there is still no confirmed appointee to lead USAID, the main development agency. There is also a longstanding effort to move it from within State to a separate agency.
But so far there is no question that Clinton has made her peace with her new role and with the results of the hard-fought election. At the same session in Congo where the husband question touched a nerve, she showed she can answer tough questions with diplomacy—and gave perhaps a little insight into her thinking. A young man cheekily asked Clinton if he, a Congolese student, would be assassinated if he became president of Congo and followed a course independent of the West. He was referring to the CIA’s role in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister. “I can’t excuse this past and I won’t try,” said Clinton, who acknowledged Congo’s “history of colonialism and abuse.” Then she posed a question to the student that may apply equally to Congo and to herself: “Will I be dragged down by the past, or will I decide to do something to have a better future?”