Watching TV this week I was entertained by the various liberal factions debating whether or not Hillary would make a good secretary of State. Christopher Hitchens held down the no-way position on various shows. And you know, everything he said about her foibles — her ridiculous lying about coming under fire in Bosnia during the campaign, her lack of real experience, and the fact that Clinton Inc, is wholly indebted to multitudinous foreign interests for its $100+million bank balance, which would render her actions quesitonable at best — seemed true on its face.
Nor did any of the Hillary defenders (Begala, Caputo, Beinart) attempt to dispute those facts. They merely suggested that she is tough, realistic, and seasoned, and has learned to be a team player willing to work for the good of the administration and the nation.
Oddly enough — I found myself agreeing with both, having become one of those conservatives with a “strange new respect” for Mrs. Clinton. Some of this respect is personal — I personally admire the true grit that she personally displayed during the campaign. Much of it, however, is relative. Of course she has no foreign-policy experience to speak of — but then, Barack Obama has no governing or even serious legistlative experience. So the new standard is: talented amateur. The bottom line rule in all of politics is and always must be: compared to what? Kerry the fop? Some figurehead who might defer to VP-Elect Biden, whose “expertise in foreign policy” is a joke that, repeated often enough, is starting to convince those say it? There are worse things than the new (Amy Poehleresque) Hillary, of the “grow a pair,” and “time to man up” approach. Those are real enemies out there, and it would be a bad idea to send someone who shares the Pres-Elect’s view that “personal charisma will make dictators see reason,” to chat with them.
Part of the “strange new respect” formula (which was, of course, traditionally applied to right-wingers heading left) was the “growing in office” aspect. And Hillary has certainly grown. We have watched her deep desire for power totally edge out whatever remained, 16 years ago, of her youthful attraction to radicalism. (A path the Pres-Elect will hopefully now follow, though having gotten power without relinquishing his old ideology may hamper the process.) And exposure to/experience with power has forced her to prioritize. I am sure she cares more about raw geopolitics now than she did in 1992 — and less about, say, abortion.
But would she make a good secretary of State? Who knows? When was the last time we had truly first-class secretary of State? (Hint: The only possible answer is: Kissinger.) And the fact is, Kissinger was wrong about a lot at the time. It helps his reputation that he has acknowledged his mistakes — on the inevitablility of Communism, to name but one big one, and continually revised his thinking. But partly, Kissinger was a noted thinker on the subject before he joined Nixon’s Cabinet — as few working pols ever are. (That is different than merely being an academic, who are a dime a dozen, and, like Madeline Albright, often clueless about the real world.) And partly Nixon had thought longer, harder, and more intelligently about international relations, geopolitics and strategy than any president this past half century.
And yes, that includes Ronald Reagan — though in the end Reagan was far more successful. Reagan had one big idea — rolling back Communism. By force of will, and the luck of timing, (i.e. — the advancing rot within the Soviet Union), and the economic growth his domestic policies engendered, he succeeded. He had an excellent foreign-policy team in place — though it’s hard to recall what, specifically, Alexander Haig did. George Shultz, a very smart, very capable Secretary of State, is not widely remembered apart for his own doctrines or actions — but rather for executing the Reagan doctrine. Will Hillary be in that tier? Baker? Rice? Powell? All smart people and undistinguished secretaries — though not abject failures, like some of the recent Democrats in that office.
Will Barack Obama be a great foreign-policy president? Unlikely. Aside from his instinctual, and at the time professionally inconsequential opinion that the war in Iraq was “wrong,” it is unclear that he has given 15 minutes worth of thought to geo-politics. Yes, he wants to “restore America’s image” abroad. But that is a marketing cliche, not a foreign policy or an indication of any kind of deeper and more complicated thought about the various levels of threat and the ultimate goals and positioning useful for the U.S. as the century evolves. Is he going to fix what’s wrong in the Middle East, or between the Afghans and the Paks? Win the war on terror? Outsmart the Chinese? Contain the axis of evil?
Given his lack of depth, he does not need someone who will adhere to his views strictly. He needs someone who is a reliable reporter and who can evaluate what she sees with harsh clarity, and work with him — and bring in people with substantive experience — to devise appropriate responses. That would be a more mature relationship than one where the SoS is merely an emissary, or someone who, as pundits keep saying, “has his back.”
Hillary may or may not run for president again. Either way her execution in office matters — as a credential or for the sake of history. That gives her an incentive to see things clearly and to help P-E Obama do the same. In the Middle East, for instance, whatever sympathies she had, years ago, for Arafat and his pals, must have evolved as she watched the Palestinians devolve into terror factions in Gaza and the West Bank. She knows what they did to her husband’s hopes of brokering that chimera of a “peace agreement.” Tough and realistic is better than arrogant and naive. And I don’t see a third choice.