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Hillary Clinton Was a Mediocre Secretary of State

Here's why that's not her fault

AFP/Getty Images

The release on Tuesday of Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Hard Choices, has sparked a debate about Clinton's tenure as secretary of state during the Obama administration. According to Clinton's critics, such as Charles Krauthammer, she accomplished little of note in the job, and has no major accomplishments to her name. According to her admirers, Clinton was a successful secretary of state who did much to enhance America's reputation in the world. The problem with this debate is that it misses the larger point about Clinton's four years running the State Department. Her critics are correct in the sense that her record isn't particularly impressive. But that is the fault of the way administrations, especially the Obama administration, now function. And her time running the State Department doesn't tell us much about what sort of president she would be—with one exception. 

The problem with making a broader judgement about Clinton from her tenure is two-fold. The first is that it isn't clear that any of her decisions were drastically wrong, or that there were strong alternatives to the opinions and policies she put forward. The second, more important reason not to judge Clinton too harshly is that it isn't clear her opinions mattered that much. Cabinet government has declined to such an extent that most secretaries of state do not make major policy decisions. Those that do—such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Condoleezza Rice—are known to have had very close personal relationships with their respective presidents, so much so that they are essentially White House staff members. Clinton may have been right about certain things and may have been wrong about others, but I haven't read many accounts of decision-making in this administration where her opinion caused the scales to tip one way or the other. (For more on Clinton's role, it is worth reading Robert Gates's excellent memoir.)

If you want to get a sense of how puny Clinton's accomplishments at State were, you should read not her haters but her admirers. On Sunday in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof devoted a whole column to praising Clinton's record, and yet was unable to list anything that wasn't a broad generalization. Kristof began by noting that, "Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy—just not the traditional kind." What was this legacy, you might ask?

Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations. She didn’t fully deliver on this 'pivot'—generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them—but the basic instinct to turn our ship of state to face our Pacific future was sound and overdue.

So Clinton "recognized" what is surely the single most noted thing in every discussion of American foreign policy, and even in Kritstof's opinion wasn't really able to do anything about it. What else? 

A couple of times I moderated panels during the United Nations General Assembly in which she talked passionately—and bewilderingly, for some of the audience—about civil society, women leaders and agricultural investments. Pinstriped foreign and prime ministers looked on, happy to be considered important enough to be invited. They listened with increasingly furrowed brows, as if absorbing an alien language, as Clinton brightly spoke about topics such as “the business case for focusing on gender in agricultural development.”

This is all well and good but it isn't much of a legacy. When he tries to turn to specifics, the best Kristof can come up with is that Clinton mentioned Muhammad Yunus in a speech. Kristof's piece peters out after a few more moist, unspecific paragraphs.

The reason I quote Kristof at length is because his case is essentially the same as that of her opponents, who claim that she served without much distinction. It's true that she put an admirable focus on women's rights, and played a role in isolating Iran. But the Afghanistan surge didn't seem to have a huge effect; Syria policy has been a failure, even if the alternatives were all bleak; Iraq has collapsed since our departure (again, good alternatives did not clearly present themself); she was probably too cautious about the Egyptian people's overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, although that didn't keep him in power; she backed the Libyan campaign, which currently must count as a mixed bag; and she did a lot of what Kristof describes, in terms of trying to streamline and broaden American diplomacy, and repair our relationships with the world. Even if she had some relative successes in these areas, America's global popularity has declined since she took the job. (Of course that isn't her fault, which just goes to show you that our secretary of state doesn't determine our global image.)

On none of these issues, moreover, was her view decisive, at least as far as we know. (Michael Crowley, in a report for Time, wrote that Clinton's push for a Libyan intervention "may have been decisive.") And on none of these issues was there a clearly "right" course that she failed to advocate for. As for the Russia reset, which she urged Obama to abandon six months before he actually did: Does anyone think the world would look any differently if he had followed her advice?

Still, even if you want to argue that Clinton had no huge successes, her tenure had no gigantic managerial failures either. Her competence has rarely been called into question by anyone except those on the extreme right still frothing at the mouth over Benghazi. (She could have handled the fallout more adeptly, it is true.) If it seems odd that her most high-profile job tells us so little about what sort of president she would be, remember that Obama's Senate career told us very little about his presidency.

There may be one exception, but it doesn't relate to ideology or managerial competence. My best guess is that her high degree of caution on most matters would also be a feature of any future White House tenure, for better or worse. But that is just speculation. Hillary Clinton was a cabinet secretary in an extremely insular, twenty-first-century administration. If her record doesn't tell us much, that isn't her fault.