By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008
There is possibly no person President-elect Barack Obama considered for secretary of state who is more reliably pro-Israel than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the woman to whom he appears likely to give the job sometime after Thanksgiving.
During the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton said the United States could "obliterate" Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. She said the United States should not negotiate with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, unless it renounced terrorism. "The United States stands with Israel, now and forever," Clinton told AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, at its conference in June.
Yet Clinton is also the former first lady who famously broke with her husband's administration in 1998 and said Palestinians should have a state of their own. Ten years later, the comment seems unexceptional, but at the time it prompted the White House to make clear she was speaking only for herself.
Clinton's foreign policy views will be scrutinized closely in the weeks ahead, but as her past statements on the Middle East illustrate, she has a considerable track record that provides evidence for several plausible explanations of how she might try to focus U.S. diplomacy.
Arabs, particularly Palestinians, are nervous that Obama seems prepared to give the job of top diplomat to a senator from New York who has spent eight years cultivating her pro-Israel constituency and would continue, they think, a lack of U.S. evenhandedness in refereeing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Because of what they regard as her bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and her initial support for the Iraq war, some see her selection as a sign that Obama intends to conduct a more hawkish foreign policy than he suggested during the campaign.
Other diplomats and foreign policy experts say Clinton would bring to Foggy Bottom one of the leading voices in the Senate for a new U.S. commitment to more aggressive diplomacy. They say she would push hard for a Middle East peace deal, in keeping with the activist approach taken by President Bill Clinton in the final years of his administration.
Some who have worked closely with Hillary Clinton during her years as first lady and as a senator say that these predictions miss the point that she would be looking to fashion practical solutions to the issues of Middle East peace, Iran's nuclear program, Iraq's political future and other problems that would confront her and Obama next year.
"The first thing you need to know about Hillary Clinton is she is a pragmatist -- she wants to know what works," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has traveled with Clinton on fact-finding trips for the Armed Services Committee. "She believes in diplomacy and multilateral solutions but is not averse to using force when that is the only opportunity to protect our national security interests."
What Clinton believes will be somewhat beside the point come Jan. 20: In her new post, she would be vying with other powerful figures -- including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. -- for the president's ear, and she would be responsible for implementing a foreign policy established in the end by Obama.
The biggest determinant for Clinton's success, according to former State Department officials, is the kind of working arrangement she is able to establish with Obama, with whom she had a testy relationship during the primaries that seemed to warm up during the general-election campaign. Many foreign policy experts are privately baffled that Obama would deliver such a key job to someone from outside his close circle of supporters.
"She has a strong physical and intellectual presence that she can project, and she's plenty tough," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator who advised six secretaries of state. "What we don't know is: Does she have the negotiator's mind-set? And we know she doesn't yet have the kind of trust and confidence of the president that's critically important."
Leon Billings, who served as chief of staff to Edmund Muskie, the last senator to become secretary of state, said Clinton's "success will be less a function of her own skills and capabilities than how much confidence the president places in her and the extent to which he demands, not just insists, that his inner circle give her the support she will need to do the job that he needs her to do."
Obama's decision to turn to Clinton as his point person on foreign policy is somewhat ironic, given the intensive effort of some of his aides during the campaign to disparage her foreign policy experience. But the reality is that Clinton has immersed herself deeply in foreign affairs since the collapse of the health-care plan she spearheaded in the first two years of her husband's administration.
As first lady, Clinton acquainted herself with the elements of American "soft power," making dozens of trips around the world to promote women's rights and the work of nongovernmental organizations, and to endorse micro-credit as a way of stimulating development in the Third World. Her interest in these issues continues to this day: She recently wrote a letter to the U.N. secretary general calling for greater protections for women and girls after a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death in Somalia.
During her recent time in the Senate, Clinton focused more on "hard power" as a member of the Armed Services Committee, gaining knowledge of Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO -- all subjects likely to occupy her attention as secretary of state. She acquired a reputation as someone sympathetic to the needs and concerns of the military while initially supporting President Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although Clinton later came to criticize the conduct of the Iraq war and called for a U.S. withdrawal, her vote in favor of a bill authorizing Bush to go to war became a flash point in her battle with Obama for the Democratic nomination. Obama was a much earlier opponent of the war and used the issue to sow doubts about Clinton's judgment.
Clinton also clashed with Obama over Iran, ridiculing his stated willingness to sit down with Iran's leaders without preconditions. She sought to paint Obama as naive and unprepared for the commander-in-chief job, while Obama's team portrayed his rival as reckless, pointing to her support for a measure calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Many people close to Clinton say that the actual differences between the two are minimal, and that as secretary she would have little problem carrying out his policies. Both have made clear they would like to redeploy forces from Iraq and focus more intensively on the struggle in Afghanistan. Like Obama, Clinton has indicated she would like to see stepped-up diplomacy and engagement with Iran, though not necessarily at the highest levels, to determine whether a deal can be struck to eliminate Tehran's nuclear enrichment program.
"Their arguments were about tactics, not about objectives," said Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who has consulted with Clinton about the Middle East but emphasized that he was not speaking for her. "Obama will probably launch an initiative toward the Iranians, and it will be very important for his secretary of state to be on board, because she would have to implement that. I think she would be comfortable with that."
Amjad Atallah, who formerly served as a legal adviser for the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with the Israelis, said the prospective Clinton nomination is being watched warily in the Arab world, given her unstinting support for Israel in recent years and hawkish comments on Iran. Some worry that her selection is a possible indicator that Obama may not be as aggressive as Palestinians hope in pushing for a peace deal.
"Nobody has a negative opinion of Senator Clinton, except maybe that her opinions are closer to the neoconservatives than they might wish," Atallah said.
Others close to Obama and Clinton say such fears are misplaced. Obama, they say, is extremely interested in an early push on the Middle East, while Clinton has made clear that she sees much more aggressive U.S. engagement as critical to success in the region. "Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region," she wrote in Foreign Affairs last year.
Clinton would enter the world of diplomacy benefiting from the high esteem for her husband around the world, where many associate Bill Clinton's presidency with aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East and elsewhere. In an interview with a small group of journalists Friday, Javier Solana, the top diplomat for the European Union, said he hoped that Obama would "move very fast" to engage in the Middle East peace process and made clear that he thought Clinton would be an enthusiastic proponent of such an approach.
"The name 'Clinton,' " Solana said, "is well taken, well appreciated."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.