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Analysis & Opinion
27.01.09 Welcome Secretary Clinton
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the third woman in U.S. history and in the last fifteen years to be sworn in as Secretary of State. Her predecessors – Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice -- were both women of great intellect, discipline and personal charisma. But somehow they failed to achieve greatness – which is what this job is all about. Does Clinton have what it takes to do the job?

A U.S. Secretary of State is the only executive officer in the administration who is in a position to rival and even surpass his or her boss – the president – in historical greatness, as Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Henry Kissinger and Jim Baker did in modern times. It was not Albright or Rice’s fault – they both served lame duck presidents with huge political albatrosses around their necks (Monica, impeachment, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Wall Street crash).

Secretary Clinton’s fate could be different. For one, she is an outstanding personality in her own right, with an unrivaled diversity of career experience – a two-term First Lady, a popular and influential U.S. Senator, a Democratic presidential contender who came within striking distance to becoming the first female nominee in a presidential election. The set of political skills she brings to the job is unmatched in the history of the State Department.

Secondly, she serves at the pleasure of a highly popular President – Barack Obama, whose standing in the world today is rivaling that of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. Obama and his Secretary of State – Hillary – have all but a blank check to engage the world. Obviously, they face a gargantuan task of restoring U.S. global leadership on major international issues, badly damaged and in parts discredited by George Bush’s policies.

Some analysts in the United States have questioned the wisdom of Obama’s decision to nominate Clinton as his Secretary of State, arguing that they do not enjoy a close personal relationship which has certainly been damaged during the tough presidential battle, and that Hillary might be tempted to use the high-profile Secretary of State position, a fourth in line in the presidential succession, as a springboard for her new presidential campaign.

Indeed, Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton is political – by giving such an important position to his formal campaign rival, he has moved to heal the political rifts within the Democratic Party and neutralize a potential rival. It is better to have someone as forceful and energetic as Hillary Clinton implementing your decisions as part of your team than to have her as an outside critic itching for your job.

But Obama might also have seen larger added value in Clinton as Secretary of State. She is a tough cookie, which is a quality that comes in handy in international diplomacy.

Obama needs someone who will manhandle the foreign leaders, who, in some case, are quite unsavory characters. And he needs someone in this job who will go for the jugular on the world stage - translating his cerebral rhetoric and grand visions into the nuts and bolts language of diplomatic trade-offs and deliverables. He also needs someone who will act as a pit-bull dog to attack the president’s foes on foreign policy at home and abroad – a task that Hillary is well suited for and that Vice President Joe Biden could well help her with. Clinton could be a match for Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozi, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, you name it. I do not envy the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – he is up for some tough mud wrestling with Clinton in a month or so.

It is still too early to say what impact secretary Clinton will make on Obama’s foreign policy. Her first priority, as she indicated during the confirmation hearings and in her first public appearances since taking the oath of office, will be to restore the Sate Department’s role and prominence in running foreign policy, a role that in many regions has been taken over by the U.S. Defense Department (commanders of American units in Iraq, for example, can spend money at will from a special budgetary authority to build a country school, a hospital, a sewage system or pave a road, while their State Department colleagues go through miles of paperwork to write out a $500 check).

Her first moves to appoint Special Envoys to the Middle East (former Senator George Mitchell) and to Afghanistan/Pakistan (Richard Holbrooke) are positive, as they indicate the president’s and the secretary’s priorities that deserve special, centralized management.

Perhaps, we would soon see the appointment of an arms control and non-proliferation czar to drive the administration’s efforts to prevent the spread of deadly weapons and engage some of the worst proliferators like Iran and North Korea. Gary Samore, a former non-proliferation director for President Bill Clinton, or Rose Gottemueller, a former undersecretary of energy and a well-liked and respected director at the Carnegie Moscow Center, would be great candidates for the job.

What organizational vehicle would secretary Clinton and president Obama use to handle Russia is less clear. Some argue that a Russia policy czar like Strobe Talbott or Stephen Sestanovich in the Bill Clinton administration would be necessary. Others think a higher level platform, something like a Biden-Putin Commission, might be in order. Both approaches do not square off with the reduced importance of Russia on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. There are simply not enough issues on the bilateral agenda to warrant such high-level management.

Another danger for secretary Clinton on Russia is to fall prey to the assumption that effective Russia policies could be picked up where the Clinton administration left them in 2000. Not any longer. The Russian leadership looks upon the Bill Clinton-Boris Yeltsin camaraderie and American lecturing of that period with ill-concealed dismay and anger, and would do anything to prevent direct American involvement in Russia’s internal matters.

But secretary Clinton will also find the Kremlin ready and willing to engage the new team in Washington, and if she plays her cards wisely she could have quite a productive new start in relations with Russia. Unfortunately, the history of the U.S.-Russian relations shows that the period of the Kremlin’s irrational exuberance over the new American administration usually lasts no more than a year or two, during which major agreements (mostly on arms control) could be reached. After that it gets dicey and usually goes downhill.

Hillary Clinton likes to quote one of her all-time favorite movies, “A League of Their Own,” which has a great scene involving the Geena Davis character, a housewife baseball player in Women’s League. Her husband having come home from the war injured and her team in the playoffs, she goes to Tom Hanks, the broken-down, drunkard coach, and says, “You know, I’ve got to go home. I just can’t do this anymore. It is just too hard.” And Tom Hanks replies, “Well, it’s supposed to be hard. If it weren’t hard, anybody could do it.”

Hillary Clinton can. Welcome to the diplomatic stage, Madame Secretary.
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