AS FIRST LADY
Clinton's Experience Is Debated
Friday, March 21, 2008
On March 22, 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the Itihadiya Palace in Egypt for what her schedule said was a "courtesy call with President Mubarak." Aides blocked out 9 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Then she embarked on visits to a mosque, museum, clinic, bazaar, youth center, groundwater project, university and the Temple of Luxor.
Almost exactly nine years later to the day, Clinton's trip to Egypt offers a case study of her foreign policy role during her husband's presidency. While traveling across North Africa, she devoted little time to heads of state and negotiated no agreements, but instead met community leaders, explored local issues and culture, hit major tourist sites and gave speeches on women's rights and other topics important to her.
Whether that has made her "tested and ready" to be president from the first day, as she now claims, is a burning issue on the campaign trail. Clinton's camp has depicted her as a virtual secretary of state, circling the globe to bring peace to troubled lands and open borders for refugees. Sen. Barack Obama's camp has presented her as a glorified USO officer, entertaining troops and having tea with crown princesses. More than 11,000 pages of her schedules released this week, along with interviews with former diplomats and administration officials, present a more mixed picture.
"Representing the United States around the world is a serious piece of business," said a former senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating friends in both campaigns. "She wasn't representing the United States as secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs or U.S. trade representative. But she was representing the United States, and she did have specific assignments."
Clinton was given the mission of speaking out for women's rights at a conference in Beijing. She was sent to meet with refugees in forbidding places. She was dispatched to extend friendship to parts of the world where the president did not have time to go. But the former senior official expressed irritation at both sides for mischaracterizing her role. "They made a mistake to exaggerate it," he said of Clinton's aides, "and I think it's a mistake to underappreciate it."
While Clinton's advertisements have boasted that she is best prepared for a 3 a.m. crisis phone call, the schedules contain no evidence that Clinton was at the table during major national security decisions. They do not list her as attending National Security Council meetings or joining briefings in the Situation Room. She did not have a national security clearance. And the documents make clear that at moments of major crisis, Clinton was often busy with her own agenda.
What remains uncertain is how she might have influenced events in less visible ways. The schedules do not record whom she called on the telephone, what spontaneous conversations she may have had in the West Wing during the day, or what positions she conveyed through her top aide at daily senior staff meetings. And they certainly do not disclose what she may have advised her husband in the privacy of their living quarters.
"The schedules are just that," her campaign said in a statement. "They cannot and do not speak to the substance of her meetings with staff, advisers, administration officials, citizens, activists, foreign leaders and others with whom she worked on policy issues. That should be no surprise -- it's not what they were created to do."
Clinton herself, in citing her experience as first lady as evidence of her preparation for the presidency, has distilled a complicated record into sound bites dissected by critics. She has claimed that she "helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland" and "negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo." She described a harrowing flight into war-torn Bosnia and said she advised her husband to intervene to stop the Rwanda genocide.
All of those claims have been called overstated. While she traveled to Northern Ireland and met with its leaders, she was not a direct participant in peace talks. The borders she talked about were opened the day before her visit, although she pressed to keep them that way. She took her daughter, singer Sheryl Crow and comedian Sinbad with her to a USO show in Bosnia on the flight in question. And no one who served in the Clinton administration has publicly recalled that she weighed in on Rwanda.
Some of her husband's top foreign policy officials, including former national security adviser Anthony Lake and former assistant secretary of state Susan E. Rice, now work for Obama, and the Rwanda claim in particular has infuriated them.
Gregory B. Craig, a friend of Clinton's from Yale Law School who served as a top State Department official and now also advises Obama, wrote a damning appraisal of her record last week. "There is no reason to believe . . . that she was a key player in foreign policy at any time during the Clinton administration," he wrote. "She did not do any heavy-lifting with foreign governments. . . . She never managed a foreign policy crisis."
Yet she lived through those episodes with a vantage point few get. "I would not say she was sitting there planning cruise missile attacks," said former White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who supports her candidacy. "But you're there and you see and you understand the requirements of leadership. . . . Having lived through it even as a spouse, you absorb a lot."
And while it does not equate to brokering deals, her travel through 82 countries certainly exposed her to more of the world and its leaders than did cutting ribbons as a state senator in Chicago. She was considered one of the administration's top surrogates and she devoted enormous energy to particular interests, such as women's issues, education, health care and international development.
When she took trips abroad, the first lady's office checked in with the NSC to see what sorts of messages she could carry, former officials said. She was a quick study. "What you need . . . is the nuance about the politics of the situation, what is the psychology of the people you're going to meet and that sort of thing," said former deputy national security adviser Mara E. Rudman, who advises her now.
The Northern Ireland episode captures the complexity. Several major players have said she was hardly instrumental in forging peace in 1998. But James B. Steinberg, then deputy national security adviser, said she was part of multifaceted strategy that included reaching out to women's leaders in Northern Ireland to help end the decades-old conflict. "She wasn't the only one," he said. "But I think her role and the obvious personal stake . . . were significant. You can't parse out each contribution."