A Team Player Who Stands Apart
Tension Between Leading or Blending In Marks Clinton's Tenure at State

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

With the exception of former senator Edmund S. Muskie's brief turn as secretary of state at the end of the Carter administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first politician in the job in six decades -- the rest have hailed from the fields of foreign policy or the military.

By all accounts, she is the consummate team player and is often the best-briefed, most prepared person in the room. President Obama's aides say he values her advice and appreciates her dedication, dampening speculation that he and his erstwhile rival would not work well together.

But after eight months in office, Clinton, 61, sometimes seems torn between her inclination to lead and her need to function effectively within the administration, creating a certain tension between her aspirations and her status.

She has been prone to making pronouncements and blunt comments that have put her ahead of, or out of sync with, the rest of the administration. She maintains a robust public persona -- her lengthy overseas trips are filled with town hall meetings and softball television interviews -- but she is largely invisible on the big issues that dominate the foreign policy agenda, including the war in Afghanistan, the attempt to engage Iran and efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She and her aides say she is deeply involved in policymaking and has inserted herself at important moments. But the impression of many foreign policy experts is that she has her own agenda, such as her focus on women's rights.

The portrait that emerges from interviews and from the observation of Clinton's early tenure is one of an intensely political figure who wants to remain above the fray of day-to-day diplomacy and to work well with her fellow Cabinet members, but who also wants to stand alone from time to time. She has had the self-awareness to know that she is not an expert in diplomacy: One senior aide was assigned to spend the first six months listening to Clinton's public comments in an effort to discern her foreign policy philosophy.

"I consider myself the president's chief foreign policy adviser, the country's chief diplomat and the State Department's chief executive," Clinton said in an interview this week, sitting on a sofa in the plush expanse of her State Department office. "That's how I see my role, and I'm working in all three of those areas."


Clinton arrived at the department with a large and loyal staff collectively known as Hillaryland. At times, it fits uncomfortably within the State Department establishment, which views the influx as a jobs program for her campaign acolytes. Some close aides still privately harbor hopes she will run again for president.

State's director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is not a longtime Clinton adviser, said her main job in the first six months was to help the new secretary root her thinking into a foreign policy paradigm.

"I could listen to her and travel with her and listen to her respond at press avails [news conferences] and get a real feel for the constants, what were the north stars," said Slaughter, a former dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. "A large part of what I did for the first six months was to work with her and work with other members of her senior team to identify those themes, and then help bring them together in a more coherent way."

Slaughter would write memos, Clinton would respond whether she was in the ballpark, and then Slaughter would refine and sharpen the memos, resubmitting them to Clinton. The result was Clinton's earnest and thoughtful speech in July, before the Council on Foreign Relations, saying the United States would exercise leadership through partnership with other countries and organizations.

But if Clinton's retinue has grated, her skills as a politician and her contacts in Congress and elsewhere have helped her attract accomplished talents and win substantial increases in funding for State in a time of soaring deficits.

She persuaded two Cabinet members from her husband's administration, Richard C. Holbrooke and Jack Lew, to accept sub-Cabinet positions and enticed another possible secretary of state, former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, to serve as special envoy for Middle East peace.

The bevy of high-powered envoys has led to commentary in and out of State that she has left the heavy lifting to others while she tours the world holding town halls in obscure places, a criticism she and her aides shrug off.

"She is collaborative by nature and totally secure," said Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said she was instrumental in heading off the breakup of the Pakistani government this year by using contacts she had developed as first lady.

Both Mitchell and Holbrooke said she oversees their work closely and has been helpful in bluntly assessing the personalities of the people they deal with. "I know there has been a tendency to disparage this as source of experience, but it certainly is a source of knowledge," Mitchell said, referring to her years in the White House. "She knows all of the parties, she knows what happened on this issue [Israeli-Palestinian peace] for the last 15 years."

Clinton maintains her loyalties. When State Department officials objected to her meeting with Japanese families whose children had been abducted by North Korea, she brushed aside any concerns about diplomatic repercussions. "I made a promise to Senator [Daniel K.] Inouye, and I intend to keep it," she said, referring to the Hawaii Democrat, who heads the Appropriations Committee.

Clinton has also used charm, humor and an unfailing work ethic to forge close relationships with peers such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser James Jones.

Gates said that during his lengthy government career, there has been "more time when secretaries of state and defense weren't speaking to each other than [when] they were." By contrast, he said, he and Clinton speak by phone frequently and "seem to take up permanent residence in the White House Situation Room."

Clinton is "tough-minded," said Gates, a Republican and holdover from the Bush administration. "Her general approach on issues is that anytime we make a concession on something, that we get something for it. . . . . Which is very much in tune with my view."

Jones, a retired Marine general, marvels at Clinton' s level of preparation. "I have never seen her not come to meeting prepared with something in her hand that has been well thought out and well written," he said, adding that she keeps pressing for meetings not only on day-to-day crises. "She has actually beaten me up a bit to say we need more strategic dialogue."

Clinton said her years in the White House, where she watched conflicts among President Bill Clinton's advisers spill out into the open, have influenced how she operates. "You can disagree with the president, you can argue for different policies, but at the end of the day you have to be part of a team that is there to serve the country and the president who the country elected," she said. "It may sound very old-fashioned, but that is sort of how I view it."

'You Don't Really Know'

Clinton has earned the most headlines for saying things that were either ahead of their time or lacked diplomatic nuance. She likened North Korea to an unruly child and said it was "implausible if not impossible" to believe the country would return to disarmament talks. She accused Pakistan of "abdicating to the Taliban." She said human rights concerns in China could not interfere with efforts to reach a deal on climate change.

Her language is unadorned, often without the soothing phrases that obscure differences and smooth over disputes. After her comments on human rights, made on the eve of a flight to Beijing, worried officials and aides traveling with her engaged in a late-night discussion about whether her truth-telling was fresh and provocative, or whether she had given away the store to the Chinese.

In an interview with al-Jazeera in May, Clinton said about Israel: "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth -- any kind of settlement activity." Some experts have questioned whether the position should have remained private, since it led to such a breach in relations with Israel.

Mitchell, who in public has refused to utter the phrase "natural growth," the Israeli term for the incremental expansion of settlements, defends her comment as "consistent with policy." He said: "One of the reasons she is so effective is because she is so direct. She is able to state in simple terms complicated issues."

Clinton, in the interview, said she was trying to get the negotiations going by setting a bright line in the sand. "It's been against the backdrop of that very strong statement that we've been moving," she said, vowing that "we will end up in a place that no Israeli government has ever gone before."

Jones suggested that she might have jumped the gun. "There are some adjustments in the first few months to your environment," he said. Indeed, when Obama met with Jewish leaders in July and was asked about a perceived imbalance toward Israel, he responded: "We have been trying not to do this through the press, and other than my comment to the prime minister and a couple by Hillary, we have been disciplined," according to the contemporaneous notes of one participant.

Some at State have questioned whether Clinton's proclivity for throwing verbal bombs has undercut her public authority. "When Condi spoke, you knew that was policy," said one senior State Department official, referring to Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. "When this secretary speaks, you don't really know."

Ironically, the press operation at Clinton's State Department is so constrained that virtually every public statement issued by its spokesmen must be reviewed by James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state. He said that is an effort to ensure the government speaks with a single, carefully vetted voice.

"I'd say she likes plain speaking," Slaughter said. "She is impatient with language that obscures rather than tells you what she means, and she is impatient with symbolism for symbolism's sake."

With her political hat on, Clinton said she feels an urgent need to help explain to Americans -- "somebody who is an unemployed autoworker or a family worried about losing their home or a small-business person struggling with health-care costs" -- why it is important to spend money on curbing maternal mortality or improving girls' education overseas.

"We have got to take a hard look and be very honest about what we do right and what we don't do so well," Clinton said. "I don't want to be sitting here talking to you in a year or two years or how ever long I am around . . . and say we saw these problems, we deplored them, we regretted them, we fulminated about them and we are still living with them."

Clinton said she loves being secretary of state, but conceded, "It is a really hard job . . . a 24-7 job," and "I feel the weight of it pretty significantly." Asked if she would be sitting in the same office for eight years, Clinton shuddered.

"Please! I will be so old," she said with a shake of her head.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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