What is Clinton’s legacy at State — and her future?

January 31, 2013

After nearly a million miles of travel to 112 countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is closing her term on the familiar home ground of partisan politics and crackling fascination with the ambitions of a woman almost no one thinks is really leaving public life.

Friday is Clinton’s last day as America’s top diplomat, a plum job but still a runner-up to the presidency she sought, unsuccessfully, four years ago. No matter how often she says she isn’t running again in 2016, Clinton walks out of the State Department a presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Noting her pending departure in a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, Clinton said: “And though it is hard to predict what any day in this job will bring, I know that tomorrow, my heart will be very full. Serving with the men and women of the State Department and USAID has been a singular honor.”

Clinton leaves with a mixed record: She has garnered wide admiration around the world but has no major diplomatic achievements on par with those of other well-known secretaries of state, such as Henry Kissinger or George C. Marshall.

She oversaw a diplomatic opening to Burma and the difficult birth of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. She helped hold together a fragile world coalition opposed to Iranian nuclear development but saw the U.S. partnership with Russia disintegrate. It’s too soon to score her stewardship of U.S. interests in the fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings, but she was unable to stop Syria’s slide into civil war and the resulting deaths, 60,000 and counting.

Friday may be Hillary Clinton’s last day as Secretary of State, but there has been no shortage of Clinton on the national stage in the past 20 years. (NowThisNews)

Rand Corp.’s James Dobbins, a former ambassador and longtime troubleshooter for both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Clinton was denied big diplomatic breakthroughs but also leaves without “catastrophic failures.”

“She turned out, perhaps rather surprisingly given her reputation for sharp elbows, to be a very competent and even quite popular manager of a large, complex bureaucracy and a highly collegial player on a ‘team of rivals,’ ” Dobbins said.

Clinton accepted responsibility but not blame for the deaths of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya last year. It was the biggest debacle of her term and became a white-hot political issue for Republicans. A former Clinton Senate colleague, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said she “got away with murder.”

Many of Clinton’s successes appeared to be due largely to her personal popularity and famous work ethic — attributes that were on display in her final days in office.

Still recovering from a concussion she suffered in December, Clinton barreled through high-wire testimony about her handling of the deaths in Libya, a dozen ceremonial appearances, a flurry of media interviews and a parting gala dinner in her honor hosted by the British foreign secretary.

There was also one final “townterview,” a Clinton creation featuring questions — often softballs from foreign students — in a town-hall setting.

The event Tuesday showcased Clinton’s ready command of policy and obscure facts (seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa, she noted at one point) and her signature cause, the bettering of women’s lives.

Clinton’s most passionate response was to a young man who rose to question her via satellite from New Delhi. Why, he asked, must women in “supposedly progressive societies like the United States” conform to a masculine ideal of a statesman?

“Although it is better than it was, having been in and around politics for many years now, there is still a double standard,” Clinton said. “It is a double standard that exists from the trivial, like what you wear, to the incredibly serious, like women can’t vote, women can’t run for office, women are not supposed to be in the public sphere.”

She told another questioner that she isn’t thinking about running for office right now and just wants to get some sleep, but she added that she wants to help women “compete for the highest positions in their countries.”

Clinton hands off to John F. Kerry, leaving the Obama Cabinet without a woman among the premier posts.

Robert Schmuhl, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality,” said Clinton’s “personal stature helped open doors, but her diplomatic skills kept them open.”

“In most places, there’s a higher regard for the United States as she leaves her post,” he said. “That in itself is a significant achievement, proving that her endless travel had consequence.”

That travel took Clinton from Afghanistan to Zambia, an odyssey that led Foreign Policy magazine to dub her the “secretary of schlep.”

Clinton, 65, has said that her sudden illness in December was a shock to her, because she has always been healthy. She was absent from the State Department for a month, forcing the cancellation of what would have been at least one more long foreign trip.

Like so much of her tenure, Clinton’s last days in office were carefully scripted. A “60 Minutes” broadcast of a joint interview with President Obama set the tone. Obama treated his former rival with friendly deference, and each hurried to give credit to the other.

Clinton “was already a world figure,” Obama said of the reasoning behind his choice to offer Clinton the State Department job. “There was great uncertainty in terms of how we would reset our relations around the world. To have somebody who could serve as that effective ambassador in her own right without having to earn her stripes, so to speak, on the international stage, I thought, would be hugely important.”

Clinton and former president Bill Clinton also represented a powerful base of Democratic support and political money that Obama needed, and the genuine partnership he forged with Hillary Clinton helped bridge a political gulf. Bill Clinton was a prodigious fundraiser for the president last year, a role that also served to flex the muscles of the old Clinton network.

Hillary Clinton salted the State Department with campaign aides and longtime citizens of “Hillaryland” and ran the place a bit like a permanent campaign. She immersed herself in the wonky minutiae of American diplomacy as well as the more glamorous travel and told aides still bitter about the 2008 primary loss to get over it.

The lengthy “60 Minutes” appearance was the first side-by-side media interview Obama has given with anyone other than his wife. The nod to Clinton’s unique place in Obama’s Cabinet was obvious, as was the current of political possibility that ran through the CBS broadcast.

Commentators on the right and left called the session tantamount to an Obama endorsement of Clinton as his successor in 2016, despite the presumed ambitions of Vice President Biden. Obama and Clinton brushed off direct questions about her plans for 2016, but the warm visuals and easy equality between the two was striking.

“You guys in the press are incorrigible,” the president protested. “I was literally inaugurated four days ago, and you’re talking about elections four years from now.”

Clinton jokingly scolded that she is still secretary of state and thus “forbidden from even hearing these questions.”

If Clinton’s choice as a member of Obama’s staff was improbable, the notion that she now will quietly pen her memoirs and dabble in charity work seems more so.

“I am looking forward to the next chapter,” Clinton told State Department employees at a farewell event Wednesday. “It’s like one of those books you buy that has blank pages.”

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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