After several days of speculation, it is being reported that Hillary Clinton has been offered the post of Secretary of State and will accept it. While intrigued by Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” concept, my initial reaction was unease with Clinton’s credentials for the office.
Writing at Politico, Pejman Yousefzadeh issues the strongest comments along those lines:
Senator Clinton has no original or pathbreaking insights on the issue of foreign policy and the conduct of American diplomacy. She has uttered nothing beyond the usual nostrums and bromides when it comes to discussing current foreign policy challenges–from how to deal with Europe, to how to counteract Russia’s renewed efforts to establish a hegemonic presence in Europe and Asia, to how to deal with the Chinese challenge to America’s superpower status, to what to do about the issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process in general.
Senator Clinton has shown no penchant for managing large enterprises; her disastrous experience as the quarterback for the Clinton Administration’s efforts to reform health care is still surprisingly fresh in the public mind. Indeed, it is amusing to note that as one of Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers during the Presidential campaign, soon-to-be White House Counsel (and longtime Hillary Clinton friend) Gregory Craig lambasted Senator Clinton for her claims to superior foreign policy and national security experience during the Presidential primaries.
We seem to be virtually alone in that view. To the extent Clinton’s credentials are at issue at all, the consensus seems to be that she’s being lauded from all sides.
Ewen MacAskill, reporting Clinton’s acceptance for The Guardian, writes,”Since being elected senator for New York, she has specialized in foreign affairs and defense. Although she supported the war in Iraq, she and Obama basically agree on a withdrawal of American troops.”
She’s got the neocon vote. The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb, late of the McCain campaign, enthuses, “On the issues, Clinton’s a hawk. Not only did she vote to authorize the war in Iraq, she delivered her vote in style — her floor speech on October 10, 2002, went so far as to connect Saddam to al Qaeda.” Why being spectacularly wrong about foreign policy twice in one speech qualifies one to be Secretary of State is not immediately clear to me but one can understand why Goldfarb likes her instincts.
Commentary‘s Daniel Halper is less effusive, arguing mostly in the negative.
On the question of whether Hillary Clinton would be a good Secretary of State, I must say one thing: She’s better than those other guys. Which other guys? Well, consider these advisers Obama kept close during the presidential campaign. Zbigniew Brzezinski—Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor. Robert Malley—who was supposedly fired after he met with Hamas. Samantha Power—who famously made egregious statements about Israel’s actions, yet was only fired after she called Clinton a “monster.” As Eric [Trager] has noted, Clinton offers a more centrist approach to foreign policy than what one might expect from an Obama administration. Additionally, Clinton—more so, probably, than the others who are being considered for this position—has largely been able to stand opposed to the worst segments of her party, the moveon.org crowd. It is true, of course, that she lacks the credentials one might expect from a Secretary of State. And, as Justin [Shubow] pointed out, the historical precedent does not suggest that she will be particularly effective. But could she be less effective than, say, Condoleezza Rice, who is an academic expert on Russia?
Hmm. Lacking in credentials, ineffective, and lacking the good sense of Brzezinski. Somehow, I’m not yet sold.
More impressively, Republican foreign policy legend — and Atlantic Council board member — Henry Kissinger has offered a ringing endorsement: “She is a lady of great intelligence, demonstrated enormous determination and would be an outstanding appointment.” It’s hard to brush aside Kissinger’s judgment on an office he held with such distinction. Still, it’s rather thin. She’s smart — but trained as a lawyer and having focused her career on domestic politics, particularly women’s and children’s issues, until launching her Senate career/presidential bid. And determination is a mixed asset, indeed, as Don Rumsfeld’s tenure at DoD demonstrated.
The Senate’s number two Republican, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, added, “It seems to me she’s got the experience, she’s got the temperament for it” and predicted, “I don’t think she would have difficulty in the Senate. She’s worked across the aisle, has good bipartisan relationships.” That “she’s got the temperament” to be the nation’s chief diplomat is an assessment directly counter to mine. I’ll readily concede, however, that Kyl’s in a better position to make that call, since he works with her on a regular basis and I’ve only seen her on TV.
I’m somewhat reassured by Kissinger and Kyl’s endorsements, as well as the fact that she’ll presumably get confirmed by the Senate without fuss; one can’t imagine Obama appointing her if he’s not assured of that fact in advance. If the Republicans can’t even muster a filibuster against someone who was once their favorite fundraising poster girl, how bad could she really be?
Also in her favor is the fact that her chief opposition seems to be coming from the most radical elements of the Democratic Party. Politico’s Ben Smith quotes “a Democrat close to Obama’s campaign” as saying, “These are people who believe in this stuff more than Barack himself does. These guys didn’t put together a campaign in order to turn the government over to the Clintons.”
It’s worth noting, too, that extensive foreign policy experience is not a prerequisite for excellence as Secretary of State. James Baker, for example, was mostly a politico and domestic policy operative. Then again, he’d demonstrated tremendous diplomatic skill as Treasury Secretary, notably in negotiating the Plaza Accord and the Baker Plan.
Regardless, one wonders how Clinton will manage to get through the 63 question vetting process. She and, especially, her high profile husband have said a thing or two that might be embarrassing to the administration. As Slate‘s Emily Yoffe observed Friday,
There are so many questions that might be troublesome, from No. 6, concerning “whether you or your spouse” ever received money from any foreign entities (See Bill’s amazing Kazakhstan adventure), to No. 8, asking for a description of the “most controversial matters you have ever been involved in,” to No. 12, “Please identify all speeches you have given” to my favorite, No. 13, in which the candidate is asked to describe any electronic communication they have ever sent that might be “a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect.” There isn’t enough bandwidth in the world for Hillary to attach all the documents that answer these questions.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Clinton’s appointment is not yet a done deal. As Alex Massie reminds us, we’ve been burned before on these premature reports of appointments.
UPDATE (Nov. 21): NYT and numerous other authoritative sources are now saying unequivocably that Clinton has accepted the offer.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.