The dream job from hell

The U.S. faces foreign crises everywhere. It’s Hillary Clinton’s job to fix them.

The dream job from hell

The most memorable television ad that Hillary Rodham Clinton ran during the Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama was the one with the red telephone that rings at 3 a.m. “While your children are safely sleeping,” the announcer intoned, “something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.” That Obama was dangerously unprepared to deal with a foreign crisis was a key Clinton campaign theme. She pronounced herself and Republican candidate John McCain as passing the “commander-in-chief threshold”—and pointedly refused to say the same of Obama.

Their fiercest campaign clashes involved foreign policy: Obama wanted to sit down with leaders of rogue nations such as Cuba, North Korea or Iran “without preconditions,” an idea Clinton dismissed as “irresponsible and frankly naive.” She voted for a Senate resolution asking the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Quds force a terrorist organization—something Obama said was playing into a Bush administration ploy to lay the groundwork for war against Iran. And Obama boasted of superior judgment in opposing the Iraq invasion (she voted to authorize the use of force), while implying Clinton’s foreign policy experience as first lady consisted of having tea with ambassadors. “What exactly is this foreign policy experience?” Obama said mockingly of the New York senator. “Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no.”

Now is her chance. By making Clinton America’s 67th secretary of state, Obama has shrewdly given his biggest political rival a stake in the success of his administration. It’s a risk for both of them. There is no doubting Clinton’s international stature, work ethic and tenacity. But her closeness to Obama remains a question mark in a job where she needs to be seen as speaking for the man in charge. And there have been the concerns about her husband’s possible role behind the scenes—and the potential for an appearance of conflict of interest emanating from foreign donations to his international charitable projects which, under an agreement with the Obama transition team, he agreed to disclose publicly, but not to halt.

But Clinton is known for being disciplined and tailoring her message to the politics of the moment, so there is little risk of her running afoul of Obama. Still, in a rapidly shifting global political environment, the dream job could easily turn into a nightmare. The Gaza crisis, the mess in Afghanistan, an unstable Pakistan, the promised drawdown in a fragile Iraq, a near-nuclear Iran and a bellicose Russia are only some of the things on the agenda. The easiest thing would have been to watch from the Senate as the new guy made mistakes. Instead, Clinton was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 94-2, and is plunging into one of the toughest jobs—under the strictest scrutiny.

“Hillary Clinton has been one of the most polarizing figures in American politics in the last 15 years,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Even though she’s had a good year politically, she is not guaranteed to enjoy strong support. If people think they see something they used to not like about her re-emerging and causing problems for American diplomacy—they will be all over her.”

Two days after Obama’s inauguration, Clinton arrived at Foggy Bottom, the massive concrete headquarters of the State Department in Washington, and received a rock star welcome. She wasted no time in proclaiming a “new era for America” and a new day for American diplomacy. She signalled an end to a decade in which diplomats were given second billing to generals, and pledged to elevate “diplomacy and development” to a stature alongside “defence.” “We are not any longer going to tolerate the kind of divisiveness that has paralyzed and undermined our ability to get things done for America,” she said.

She arrived with a new mantra too: “smart power,” a concept of combining “soft power” with “hard power” that had been gaining currency among foreign policy thinkers who considered the unilateralist and militarist approach of the last eight years something other than smart. Clinton told the State Department her approach will mean using persuasion through “the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural—picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.”

Obama himself has wasted no time demonstrating his seriousness about changing the image and role of America abroad. On his second day in office, he issued directives to shut the detention center at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay within a year, ordered secret CIA prisons shut down, renounced torture, and invalidated all Bush administration legal opinions authorizing aggressive interrogation techniques. On Jan. 26, he gave his first televised interview as president not to a major U.S. network but to Dubai-based Al Arabiya, in which he followed up on his inauguration speech promise of friendship to any regime that “unclenched” its fist, and spoke directly to the people of Muslim nations. “Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said, noting that he has Muslim family members and has lived in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”

It was a startling performance that was alternately hailed as game-changing diplomacy or dismissed as naive blather. But whether Obama’s outstretched hand and other elements of Clinton’s “smart power” mantra will add up to more than rhetoric or a bumper sticker slogan remains to be seen. Smart power adherents in the Washington foreign policy establishment say it signals a major shift in U.S. foreign policy. The concept dates back to a 2004 article in Foreign Policy by Suzanne Nossel, now the chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch. It was picked up in 2006, when the Center for Strategic & International Studies convened a commission of prominent figures to rethink American’s approach to the world. That was chaired by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, the champion of “soft power,” and Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush. They looked at how the U.S. could reverse the negative trend of its declining image and influence around the world, and “smart power” was their solution that they then tried to sell to all the leading presidential candidates. “It’s meant to suggest that the U.S. needs to be more thoughtful in a strategic way and not always rely on hard power first but look at other tools—diplomacy, aid, economics,” says Carola McGiffert, director of the commission. “Protecting U.S. interests will always be our first priority—but also promoting the global public good.”

What smart power seems to amount to in Clinton’s conception is a new emphasis on diplomacy and spending on foreign aid, more engagement coupled with carrots to match the sticks so familiar from the Bush years. And the first test of the new approach will be with the country that is emerging as a top agenda item for Clinton: Pakistan.

It is arguably the most dangerous country in the world today—on numerous fronts, from international terrorism to nuclear proliferation and the future of democracy in the Islamic world. As long as Pakistan persists as a sanctuary for groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it will be difficult if not impossible for NATO to stabilize Afghanistan. Pakistan has one of the fastest-growing nuclear programs in the world. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to launch predator drone attacks aimed at killing top terrorist leaders, but which have also killed innocent civilians, upsetting the Pakistani population and helping fuel a drift toward Islamic militancy.

“I would put Pakistan at the top of the list,” says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a think tank in Washington. “The trick in all this is that there is no unilateral or military solution to the problem. We can’t invade and occupy Pakistan if we wanted to.” So Clinton’s job will be to get more co-operation from the Pakistani government. “The challenge for Secretary Clinton is to find incentives and leverage that encourage Pakistan to become a full partner in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda instead of the half-hearted partner they have been in the last couple of decades,” Riedel says. But another huge problem is the fact that the new civilian government headed by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007, is very weak and has only nominal control over the Pakistani army and intelligence system. “So in addition to looking for ways to get them to work with us, she has to find a way to empower them in their own country,” Riedel adds.

This is where smart power could potentially come in. Clinton’s leverage can include increasing economic and military assistance to the civilian government. Clinton and her husband are both popular in India and can also try to address some of the problems between that country and Pakistan—heightened in the wake of the Mumbai massacre in November that killed at least 173 people. And as a sign of the top priority the administration is assigning to Pakistan, it has brought in Richard Holbrooke, one of Clinton’s most trusted foreign policy advisers, as a special envoy for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Holbrooke is a seasoned diplomat who orchestrated the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended three years of war in Bosnia. His hard-charging manner has drawn comparisons to bulldozers and bulldogs. “The appointment of Richard Holbrooke is a very powerful suggestion that this is a big complicated matter that won’t be dealt with in a business-as-usual manner,” says Frederick Barton, a former foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign and transition team who also served on the smart power commission. “He’s a diplomat with a large appetite for complex problems and is at his best when he is in the middle of one. It was done at the front end of the administration, which says this is a big one and we have to give it extra-special attention.” Barton says Clinton’s smart power approach will be to look at Pakistan as part of a regional diplomatic effort. It will mean helping provide economic opportunities for young people, encouraging the construction of cross-border energy pipelines to deal with energy challenges, and other “positive co-dependencies” in a region where people aren’t inclined to trust each other.

The emphasis on diplomacy and development will also be quickly tested in Afghanistan, where the new administration plans to almost double the U.S. troop presence to 60,000 but also ramp up spending on rebuilding the country. “The Bush administration always treated Afghanistan as second place,” says Riedel. “Iraq got all the best and brightest, more money, more troops, and more intelligence. Barack Obama has pledged since he started running for president that he would reverse the priority. The good news for him is that Iraq is moving in the right direction and it will be easier to redirect American priority toward Afghanistan than it might have looked a year ago.” Iraq remains fragile, though, and a lapse in conditions there could pose problems for Obama’s ability to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Still, the dual Pakistan-Afghanistan mandate for Holbrooke is a promising start, Riedel says. “In the 1980s, we at the CIA came up with ingenious ways to make life miserable for the Soviet army occupying Kabul,” he notes. “Now we find ourselves occupying Kabul and insurgents are making life miserable for us. We can learn from that experience that the key to victory is how you manage Pakistan. The Russians never came up with an answer.”

Another front-burner issue is the Middle East, thanks to the crisis in Gaza. On Jan. 26, Clinton sent a second envoy, George Mitchell, to the region. Mitchell is a former senator and diplomat credited with arranging the peace accord in Northern Ireland during the Clinton administration. Mitchell’s trip took him to Europe, Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Among Mitchell’s goals was to hammer the strained ceasefire in Gaza into something more permanent, to help prevent Hamas from using smuggling tunnels to rearm, and to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. Oh . . . and reinvigorate the peace process. It’s been a slow start. Mitchell did call for the border crossings to Gaza to be reopened to allow the free flow of goods, but the Israelis have so far refused.

“What I’ve told him is start by listening,” Obama said on Al Arabiya. “All too often the U.S. starts by dictating—in the past on some of these issues—and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.”

The envoy is, at the very least, a world-class listener. “I know George well and my sense is that the quality he brought to the Northern Ireland conversation is clearly one he’ll bring to this situation,” says Barton. “He is a true American statesman and has a high level of patience. He indulges people their favourite arguments until they start to be embarrassed by their own behaviour—and there is a lot of opportunity for that in this one, too. They look around and realize the most important guy in the room is the one that is not talking.”

But one group Mitchell won’t be listening to is Hamas. At her confirmation hearing, Clinton ruled out direct talks with Hamas until the group renounces violence. (Egypt is brokering indirect talks between Hamas and Israel.) “When it comes to non-state actors like Hamas, there are conditions,” she said. “Hamas must renounce violence. They must recognize Israel, and they must agree to abide by all previous agreements. There are conditions that are usually part of the preliminary discussion that would lead to any kind of negotiation.”

Clinton’s staunch support of Israel in the U.S. Senate and during her campaign may enhance her currency with Israelis, while Obama’s appeal to Arab public opinion could grab attention there. But Mitchell’s task remains a daunting one. There are two Palestinian rivals for power—the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank led by Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas, who is recognized by the U.S. and Israel, and Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel is preparing for an election on Feb. 10, resulting in a power vacuum now and the potential for a change in government that could further complicate matters. And on key issues, from borders to refugees to control of Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians remain far apart.

“We are nowhere,” says Aaron Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator and author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. “Israel has no decision-maker for the next weeks and there is a dysfunctional Palestinian house with two armies, two polities, and two negotiating positions.” Add to that other elements, such as needing the Egyptians to take a lead role in a permanent ceasefire, and Mitchell is facing “a lot of moving pieces—none of which will be bolted down for some months,” says Miller, now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington. “We are at the beginning of a long movie.”

Another pressing issue facing Clinton is how to deal with Iran, which continues on its nuclear trajectory. Obama elaborated on a theme from his inaugural address, telling Al Arabiya, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Clinton quickly let it be known that the first move was up to Tehran. “There is a clear opportunity for the Iranians, as the President expressed in his interview, to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community,” Clinton told reporters. “Whether or not that hand becomes less clenched is really up to them.”

Asked in her Senate confirmation hearing about the prospect of high-level negotiations with Iran, or whether the U.S. would send some kind of diplomatic presence to the country with which it broke off relations in 1980, Clinton said only that the policy was under review and no options had been ruled out. “We will pursue a new, perhaps different approach that will become a cornerstone of what the Obama administration believes is an attitude toward engagement that might bear fruit,” she said.

Barton says part of that new “smart power” approach advocated by Clinton could lead to a search for common ground with Iran on issues other than its nuclear power: its acceptance of Afghan refugees on its border, the interdiction of narcotics, easing Iran’s access to energy markets. But the Obama administration has also made clear that any talks about Iran’s nuclear program will require Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment. “The dialogue and diplomacy must go hand in hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters. “And its continuing refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase.” Neither Rice nor Clinton has said whether the administration would consider offering to temporarily suspend existing sanctions against Iran in exchange for an enrichment suspension—a simultaneous halt that would allow both sides to sit down and negotiate over the future of the nuclear program.

“It’s very clear how the diplomacy is going to shape up. The obvious Iranian position is we’re happy to talk to you, and while we’re talking about all these many complicated issues—nuclear and Iraq and Afghanistan and Arab-Israeli and so forth—we’re going to keep building our centrifuge machines and expanding our enrichment capacity,” said Gary Samore, vice-president of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) and former director of non-proliferation for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, at a recent CFR discussion in Washington. “I think early on the Obama administration is going to need to propose to Iran that both sides suspend their hostile actions as a way to create space for a truly comprehensive effort to resolve issues. I think we’ll actually find out pretty soon whether or not the Iranians are prepared to accept that offer.”

There is also a hope in Washington that any effort to engage Iran could also strengthen the international willingness to impose tougher sanctions if Iran does not co-operate, said Brookings scholar O’Hanlon. “You have to think several steps down the road. You negotiate with these regimes not because you think talks will work—they might, but they also set you up for the next steps that show other countries that have leverage that the fault lies squarely with one party.” But if Iran gains a nuclear weapon, he warned, Obama will wear the blame regardless of the progress Tehran made under Bush.

And of course there are other fronts, in a world in which each day brings new shifts. Russia, which was increasingly belligerent last year, has reportedly made a U-turn on its threat to deploy missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave next to Poland, while Obama reviews plans to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. On Tuesday, Clinton spoke with her Russian counterpart about strengthening bilateral co-operation on arms control, Afghanistan and the world financial crisis.

But Russia’s recent standoff with Ukraine—now teetering on the verge of economic collapse—over natural gas has shown that Moscow is still inclined to flex its muscles. As is Turkey, the lone Muslim ally in NATO and a strategic linchpin in relations with the Muslim world. Its relationship with the West is becoming increasingly strained as its bid for EU membership stalls. On Jan. 29, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily walked out of a debate on the Middle East at the annual economic forum at Davos, Switzerland, after telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, “you are killing people.”

With envoys covering Pakistan and the Middle East, and the military still taking the lead in Iraq and Afghanistan, Clinton appears to be staking out personal turf in Asia, and is expected to make her first official trip to the region. She has talked about expanding the dialogue with China, which she said had been overly focused on economic matters under Bush. She told reporters she is also considering high-level bilateral talks with North Korea. With news that the reclusive regime is getting ready to again test a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, North Korea might move up Clinton’s “to do” list.

So far, the new administration’s efforts at turning the foreign policy page have captured world attention. Some of it has been negative: in an audiotape that surfaced before Obama’s inauguration, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden pledged to fight “for seven more years, and seven more after that, and then seven more.” But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who once called Bush a devil, said, “I am very happy and the world is happy that this young president has arrived. We welcome the new government and we are filled with hope.” And former Cuban leader Fidel Castro lauded Obama’s honesty and “noble intentions.”

Clinton has seemed energized by her first few days in office. She recently told reporters, “There is a great exhalation of breath going on around the world. We’ve got a lot of damage to repair.” But these are early days. Everyone is eager to give the new administration “the benefit of the doubt,” says Riedel. “But the devil is in the details and the follow-through.”