Can Hillary Clinton succeed as Obama's secretary of state?

Can Hillary Clinton succeed as Obama's secretary of state?

Can Hillary Clinton succeed as Obama's secretary of state?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 25 2008 5:02 PM

Can Hillary Clinton Succeed?

Only if she can overcome a lot of problems.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

She could be like Philander Knox, who served as secretary of state from 1909-13 and returned to the Senate in 1917. Or she could be more like Ed Muskie—the last senator to serve as secretary of state. Muskie ended his political career in 1980, when Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan forced him out of the position just seven months after he had accepted Carter's offer.

But the closest parallel to someone like Hillary Clinton becoming secretary of state is the case of James Byrnes. Although he wasn't a senator when he was picked by Harry Truman—he had served in the Senate earlier in his career—Byrnes had been a close adviser to Truman's predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (not unlike Clinton to President Clinton), and he was also Truman's rival, not for the presidency (as was the case for Clinton and Obama) but for the VP slot.

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As President Barack Obama's foreign-policy agent, Hillary Clinton will have the problems all these secretaries faced—and then some. Only a true believer can envision Obama and Clinton making a good team. You have to believe in Obama's ability to control Clinton's independence, believe in Clinton's capacity to execute someone else's policies, believe in the ability of these two rivals to suddenly become close, believe that knowledge and experience are not crucial for the job, believe that the complicated Clinton family drama will not be a problem, believe that policy differences can always be bridged, and believe that it's possible to be both an ambitious politician and an honest-to-God civil servant.

Most of all, you have to believe that "change" can come not to nations alone—but also to people, even to politicians.

As Truman's secretary of state, Byrnes was not a great success. "Maddeningly independent," as David McCullough described him in Truman, Byrnes sometimes forgot that Truman was president. He eventually resigned, clearing the way for the more successful, more submissive George Marshall. Will Clinton always remember that Obama is president and that she isn't? Can she also forget, for a while at least, that she wants to return to the White House someday?

It has been a very long time since an active politician was able to overcome his ambition and become a truly effective secretary of state. The last to make the switch successfully was Cordell Hull, back in 1933, but Hull never returned to politics. It's doubtful whether Clinton plans to follow that path, just as it's hard to imagine her serving as secretary for 11 years, the way Hull did. In four years, or even eight, Clinton will still have plenty of time and energy. She'll want to do something with it.

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Clinton might have more foreign-policy experience than Obama, but her record is still skimpy. Her most impressive achievement in this field may be the speech she gave in Beijing at the United Nations' fourth world conference on women. That was in 1995. In these days of celebrity culture, it's easy to forget that the most successful secretaries of the era were either knowledgeable experts (Henry Kissinger), experienced practitioners (James Baker), or both (Marshall, Dean Acheson). And they all had one advantage that Clinton will not enjoy: They served under presidents (Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, and especially George H.W. Bush) whose keen interest in foreign affairs long preceded their decisions to run for president.

Clinton is also unique because she has a husband with baggage of his own. Earlier this week, Christopher Hitchens raised important questions about the obvious problem of the Clinton money machine—and the possible conflict of interest between her role as secretary of state and his role as someone who has spent the last couple of years raising funds in all kinds of countries and from all kinds of people with all manner of agendas. But while Hitchens focused on the past, it is worth asking the same questions about the future: Will the Clinton Foundation cease to exist when Hillary Clinton becomes secretary of state? And if not, how likely is it that Bill Clinton's future adventures will complicate Hillary Clinton's job?

But the most obvious downside to Clinton's selection is the possibility that she will not be a close confidante of Obama's. Two weeks ago, writing in the Los Angeles Times about the six secretaries of state he worked under, former State Department official Aaron David Miller noted that "only one—[James] Baker—had a truly close relationship with his president." Not surprisingly, Baker is one of two secretaries Miller considers "great." The Lincoln-era "team of rivals"—popularized to exhaustion by Doris Kearns Goodwin's book—might ring nicely. But a long interval has passed since Lincoln's day, and the role of secretary of state has changed a great deal. In today's world, as Miller wrote, you "cannot expect to do serious diplomacy abroad, or in the sometimes even more perilous world of Washington, without knowing that the president has your back, will not allow domestic interest groups to undermine you or permit his other advisors to do so."

Can you imagine a Clinton secretaryship that isn't undermined by Obama advisers—or an Obama who isn't heavily pressured by "interest groups" to rein in his secretary—unless you are a true believer? And how can this work if we assume that the two of them still disagree on many of the issues they debated during the campaign?

Take Iran, for example. Obama wants to engage—as does Clinton, though she is a latecomer to this view. But he was soft, cautious even, when speaking about Iran, and she was forceful—some even described her attitude as "saber rattling." Will she be his emissary for preparatory work prior to a higher-level meeting? Will he trust her to explore the possibilities for negotiation the way he wants them to be explored? And how long will it take for Obama's other supporters to start complaining that it is her fault—not, say, the Iranians'—that the talks have not succeeded?

According to his own testimony, Obama thinks the American people—Clinton included, I presume—are "pragmatic." And in selecting Clinton, Obama sends a signal that he wants a pragmatic—not a "fundamentally ideological" type of foreign policy. Of course, the assumption that there's a pragmatic solution to every problem is quite absurd—but it tells us something about Obama: He is not much different than the Clintons. A year and a half ago, criticizing (in retrospect too harshly) the appointment of Tony Blair to be Middle East peace envoy, I wrote that Blair shares "the hubris of Clinton and the Clinton era. The idea that all the Israelis and Arabs need to solve their problem is a good-enough lawyer."

Now Obama is displaying the same hubris. With all the obvious difficulties surrounding Clinton's appointment, with all the baggage she brings, with all the clear disadvantages she will have as secretary—Obama nevertheless wants her at his side. They're both good lawyers, so clearly they believe that there's no problem that doesn't have a "pragmatic" solution.