If there is one thing that Hillary Clinton owes Barack Obama a “thank you” for, it is his decision to appoint John Kerry as her successor as secretary of state — if only because the decision allowed her to avoid the indignity of being known as the worst secretary of state of the Obama administration.
Not that that’s saying very much.
Hillary’s accomplishments as America’s top diplomat have so far eluded the most meticulous investigators. Judging from what her defenders most often say, it seems her most celebrated feat is traveling a million miles. But history does not rank secretaries of state by the number of air miles they accrued.
Perhaps Hillary’s new memoir, set for release Tuesday, will shed light on the hereto unforeseen richness of her record. But the early reviews suggest otherwise.
“In Clinton’s description, virtually every foreign policy problem presents hard choices: the intractable Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Libya, the Arab Spring and on and on,” the Washington Post Dan Balz wrote in his review of the memoir. “And if she believes that in most cases the administration tried to pursue the right course, there are enough chapters that end with issues unresolved or problems even worse today than at the beginning of the administration to raise questions about what should have been done instead.”
Asked in April to explain her proudest accomplishment as secretary of state, Hillary offered up some world-class pablum. “I really see my role as secretary, in fact leadership in general in a democracy, as a relay race,” she said. “When you run the best race you can run, you hand off the baton.”
That’s the type of thing you say when you don’t have a record to stand on.
Looking for something more substantial, some of Hillary’s more seasoned defenders have offered her role in opening up Burma as a signature achievement. But as liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out earlier this month, all is not exactly going well there. The country now “imposes on the Rohinya Muslim minority,” Kristof wrote, “an apartheid that would have made white supremacists in South Africa blush.”
Don’t mistake Kristof for a Clinton hater, however. A week after writing his Burma column, he argued that Hillary’s tenure at Foggy Bottom was indeed consequential. On what grounds? Kristof pointed to Hillary’s push for State Department officials to use more social media in their diplomacy and how she “expanded the diplomatic agenda” to include advocacy for things like women’s rights.
Out of respect for his dignity, let us forget that Kristof even mentioned Hillary’s advocacy of Twitter as a noteworthy achievement. As for her supposedly strong stand for “soft” issues like women’s rights, I’m not sure Clinton’s advocacy of these issues was any greater or more successful than previous secretaries of state. It’s not like the State Department under Condi Rice was more likely to avoid pushing human rights issues in meetings abroad, much less promote foot binding. In fact, I would venture to say that the Bush administration cared more about “soft” issues than the Obama administration.
What was actually noticeable during Hillary’s time at the State Department was her caution. She didn’t seem to want to personally involve herself in too many international conflicts, probably because she feared failure would tarnish her 2016 presidential ambitions. And yet, the issues she did involve herself in sure seemed to often turn out badly. Take Libya, where Hillary was a strong advocate for American intervention. Today, the country is a basket case that has destabilized North Africa while becoming “a major hub” for terror organizations. And this is to say nothing of Benghazi, which isn’t exactly a shining star on her resume.
Now, you can’t blame Hillary for everything bad that happened in the world during her tenure as secretary of state — America is not responsible for all the world’s ills. It is also true that President Obama is ultimately responsible for shaping American policy abroad, not his chief diplomat. But the question persists: what did Hillary do to secure America’s interests abroad? Even she and her supporters are having problems articulating an answer.
But Hillary comes across as John Quincy Adams when compared to her successor.
Finally given the prize he sought from the moment he decided to endorse Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, Kerry came to the State Department in 2013 seeking to redeem himself with history. If he couldn’t be president, he would force an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and forge an Iranian nuclear deal, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and etching himself as a diplomat for the ages.
But these delusions are not cost free. The Middle East continues to burn while he pursues a quixotic Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which predictably appears to have fallen apart whether Kerry realizes it or not. But the mere pursuit of a peace deal could end up precipitating another conflict in the Holy Land because it set expectations for peace that couldn’t possibly be met under the current circumstances.
In Iran, Kerry’s peace gambit is only likely going to succeed in slowly weakening the sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic. As for Syria, Kerry’s deal to eliminate the rogue regime’s chemical stockpiles has only legitimized Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Sure, Assad will also end up with fewer chemical weapons. But don’t fool yourself, he will not end up with none.
As foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead wrote in a recent assessment of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state in the Washington Post, “When American diplomats restlessly roam land and sea, desperate for that Nobel-worthy moment, the national interest is rarely served.” He was saying Hillary avoided this error. John Kerry certainly hasn’t.
So given the option of Hillary or Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state, I would choose neither. But if you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick one, I would say Hillary. Kerry has entangled America’s credibility in a series of no-win diplomatic expeditions — all the while ignoring smoldering hotspots. Hillary’s failure was more one of inaction. Kerry, in contrast, has been energetically disastrous.