WASHINGTON -- When Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration’s famed “team of rivals,” political observers were abuzz with the possibilities of a secretary of state who was already a powerful global celebrity, a former first lady and a hardened presidential candidate.
Despite the star power and political savvy, however, analysts say four years later that they can’t identify an enduring diplomatic approach that would add her to the list of the all-time greatest secretaries of state.
Beyond Clinton’s far-reaching popularity and well-documented dedication to the job, there’s simply no standout moment or stance that would define her tenure, the analysts say. And there are important missteps involving Pakistan, Russia and Syria.
Steve Coll, a prize-winning investigative journalist and author who serves as the president of the New America Foundation research center in Washington, said a secretary of state should be judged on three main criteria: as a crisis manager, as the public face of an administration and as an innovator of ways to keep the State Department relevant in a digital world.
Coll said Clinton deserved high marks on the latter two, but that she was hamstrung on crisis management by a controlling White House that was singularly focused on a second term and therefore risk-averse when it came to foreign policy. When the administration finally did cede some ground, offering a bigger State Department role in Afghanistan, he said, the Pentagon was frustrated to find that the State Department simply didn’t have the capacity to deliver.
“While she was a very strong voice in the war Cabinet and decision-making on foreign policy, she was not an example of a secretary who wrote the president’s foreign policy, either by delegation or by force of will,” Coll said.
Clinton, often as polarizing as she is popular, is sure to face debates about her legacy long after Friday, when she ends her term and leaves the State Department to the incoming secretary, John Kerry, the veteran Democratic senator from Massachusetts. The topic is sure to come up if she enters the 2016 Democratic contest to succeed Obama.
Her supporters credit her with no small number of diplomatic feats. She worked tirelessly to bring attention to the rights of women and girls worldwide, calling such issues “the cause of my life.” She orchestrated a historic warming of relations with longtime pariah state Myanmar as part of a bolstered American presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance Chinese influence.
And wisely, analysts say, Clinton didn’t try to save allied Arab rulers from popular uprisings, although those revolts ended up presenting the thorniest policy questions of her time in office.
Fans also note that Clinton was a strong proponent of “digital diplomacy,” shaking up the calcified State Department by putting young people in charge of online initiatives and giving diplomats in the field unprecedented autonomy in social media. That move allowed the embassy in Cairo, for example, to publicly challenge the Muslim Brotherhood’s statements before thousands of followers on Twitter in a way that obviously wasn’t scripted in Washington.
Clinton also won praise for handling the public diplomacy surrounding the covert U.S. raid that killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. She was forthright once the mission came to light, analysts said, and firm in her defense of the decision not to tell the Pakistanis in advance.