“It doesn’t mean they always agree,” he told me. “You can see them influencing each other’s views.” – Denis McDonough in “Head of State”
“It was a standoff,” [Secretary Clinton] told me, “for 24 difficult hours.” – Old-Fashioned Diplomacy in the Twitter Age, by Susan B. Glasser
HEAD OF STATE aptly names Hillary Rodham Clinton’s power and position, an interview conducted in the days after a diplomatic crisis was averted. The quote at the very top is a perfect example of Pres. Obama’s “team of rivals” strategy from the start. Says Denis McDonough, “She’s really the principal implementer,” leaving there no doubt where policy is conceived, which is at it should be, at the President’s door.
One of the most interesting and important aspects in the Foreign Policy interview, which is also one of the first to review Clinton at State in her last year, is what Secretary Clinton said during the diplomatically dangerous conversations over Chen Guangcheng. An astute politician and knowing China’s policies well, Clinton took advantage of media information she knew her counterparts didn’t have and let the reality just sink in.
Still, the Chinese did not give in. At one point, an advisor who was present recalled, Clinton finally seemed to catch their attention by mentioning what a political circus the case had become — with Chen even dialing in to a U.S. congressional hearing that Thursday by cell phone from his hospital bed to say he feared for his safety if he remained in China. The Chinese team was visibly surprised. Eventually, Dai agreed at least to let the negotiations proceed. A few hours later, exhausted U.S. officials announced a deal.
By the next morning when we met, it was already clear this had been the most intense high-stakes diplomacy of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. She had worked hard to rescue Chen without blowing up the American relationship with China, but it was not yet obvious whether she had accomplished either goal. The Chinese were furious about the embarrassing attention to their human rights abuses. Clinton and her aides were being pilloried at home by everyone from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to the human rights community for abandoning Chen at the hospital. And the secretary was still worried about the deal. “Until he’s actually out and up with his family,” she told me, “it’s still touch and go.”
It’s the first time the story’s been unpacked like this, a moment which could have roiled Clinton’s prowess, while handing Pres. Obama an international diplomatic disaster in a presidential election year.
It’s the Hillary Effect, which simply is, whether you equate it to a good or evil.
Where her job as secretary of state is concerned, it gets more complicated, as Glasser notes.
But then came her comment about the limited role human rights would play on her agenda with the Chinese.
She had done it on purpose, in part to signal that this was no longer the first lady of the Beijing human rights speech they were dealing with — but it was immediately termed a gaffe, both by her old human rights allies and, privately, by some of her new colleagues in the Obama administration. “I didn’t realize it was going to be controversial as much as it turned out to be,” Clinton said in our interview. “I also needed to send a signal to them saying, ‘Look, I’m now secretary of state, I carry this whole portfolio, and human rights is an important, essential part of it. But there’s a lot of other business we have to get done.’ So yes, am I going to raise human rights? Absolutely, but I’m also going to be raising economic issues and Iran and North Korea and all the rest of it.
At the time, the Obamans were not amused at this perceived “gaffe.”
In the White House, the Obama advisor told me, there was much concern. “After the mistake in China — even though what she had said, lots of people actually agreed with — it was just worrying. Can she do this job?” he recalled. What this aide and others termed the intense “micromanagement” of the celebrity new diplomat did not end for some time.
[...] By the time the Chen case exploded, though, the White House was little in evidence. The blame, or credit, would be all for Clinton.
The issue of what exactly has Hillary done now begins to surface, as her last year winds down and her tenure is assessed.
In the rarefied circles of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, where they’ve been paying closer attention, Clinton gets big points for style and for taking her brand of “people to people” diplomacy international at a time when America desperately needed just her kind of star power to revive an image tarnished by a near decade of George W. Bush’s cowboy unilateralism. Aside from that, as one of the city’s mandarins put it to me recently in one of numerous nearly identical conversations, “What has she done?” The poohbah reeled off a long string of Important Global Issues, from Middle East peace to negotiating a political end to the long-running war in Afghanistan, from which Clinton appears to have been sidelined by the Obama White House or is simply out of the picture. To those traditionalists, Clinton is something of a puzzle; clearly, she’s a success in the “soft power” department, a relentless cheerleader for Brand America. But they can’t help disdaining her focus on issues such as women’s rights and development economics — surely not the stuff of real diplomacy — and see her attention to them as proof of how marginalized she’s been by the Obama White House on the geopolitics that count.
One wonders how the Chen situation would have been resolved without the Hillary Effect. Would Libya have happened without Clinton’s ability to cajole the Arab League? Afghanistan remains a mess, with women in peril, but what would their plight be like without Clinton’s leadership, even if she’s been sidelined for quite some time, as Joe Biden’s plan moves forward? How can we get a fair assessment of Clinton’s tenure with some “disdaining her focus on issues such as women’s rights and development economics,” both of which are 21st century solutions that demand a shoulder-leaning push to get us beyond the militarism the embroils us in never ending disasters?
Anyone deeming women’s rights as a secondary diplomatic issue will never get Clinton, the same goes for development economics, both of which is where Clinton and I agree, because we don’t on Libya or drones, but it does help explain why we don’t have a female president.
The celebrity power she brings and the massive support she’s earned across the globe, which at home amounts to Hillary Clinton at her most popular, equates to massive U.S. currency in whatever arena she enters.
Maybe, I ventured, that’s why they had in the end been willing to accommodate her on Chen; they were investing in a future with a possible President Clinton. She wouldn’t answer. At least not for the record. – Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy
Clinton’s official portrait, reminiscent of candidate Hillary, is all that remains of what almost was, but also acts as a subtle reminder that the question of what could still be is very much up in the air for everyone but Hillary, at least for now.