When President Obama chose Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state, skeptics foresaw trouble: a clash of ego and ambition, a conflict of policy priorities between former campaign rivals.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
He has taken the lead on foreign policy and she has dutifully followed. Rather than light her own torch, she has chosen to be a team player, deferring to Obama in public while keeping her advice strictly private. The cohesion suggests the two share a common view of how best to put foreign policy tools to work.
Of course it’s still early. The toughest choices – and gravest crises – in foreign affairs likely lie ahead.
So far Clinton not only has stayed in sync with the president’s agenda, she has ceded the public spotlight on some issues to designated diplomats. And inside the White House, Obama aides say she has taken care to offer well-prepared advice without any of the friction that some had feared she would bring.
Presidential aides say the former first lady is seen as an effective champion of Obama’s foreign policy priorities and is a regular inside the White House. Clinton’s own aides point out she has met with Obama on 32 of the 46 days that she and he both were in Washington, as of Tuesday. They have traveled together on two foreign trips – to Europe in early April and to a Latin America summit meeting last week.
Clinton has tended to leave the heavy lifting in the world’s most volatile hot spots to seasoned special envoys like Richard Holbrooke, who is tackling the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, and Dennis Ross, special adviser on Iran and the Persian Gulf. That has allowed Clinton to focus instead on Europe, Asia, Latin America and Mideast peace.
On Wednesday, Clinton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a session meant to delve into the administration’s foreign policy priorities – and her own assessments of Obama’s agenda.
Obama has made clear that he is his administration’s chief diplomat, setting not only the priorities but also the tone for how Clinton is expected to interact abroad, said James F. Collins, a former ambassador to Moscow and now a leading Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It is a fair judgment that this is not going to be Hillary Clinton foreign policy. He is clearly setting the approach,” Collins said in a telephone interview.
“That said, I think she is complementing it,” Collins added. “I don’t detect a lot of space or differences between them,” either on specific policies or broad themes.
Both Obama and Clinton emphasize that the U.S. role in international affairs should be as a partner rather than a pusher. Or, as Collins puts it, both Obama and Clinton think the U.S. should be “in position to lead rather than command.”
At its core, Obama’s foreign policy is shaped much like his predecessor’s. The goals are familiar – curbing the menace of nuclear arms and combatting Islamic extremism, for example. Where the approach differs, it is mainly in the route rather than the destination.
Iran is a good illustration. Obama and Clinton have stuck to the Bush policy of insisting Iran not get a nuclear weapon, but Obama has approached it differently by taking pains to offer a diplomatic dialogue with Tehran. Bush called Iran part of an “axis of evil,” along with North Korea and Iraq under the late Saddam Hussein.
Obama has struck a softer tone, referring to Iran by its official name, the Islamic Republic of Iran; producing a video appeal to the Iranian people; and including Iran in consultations on Afghanistan. And Clinton, who spent much of the 2008 presidential campaign questioning Obama’s willingness to talk with Iran, is now his partner in holding out hope for dialogue.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Obama and Clinton have stuck to the Bush administration’s stance that the most viable solution is to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. And the Obama administration insists – as did President George W. Bush – that North Korea must not only halt its nuclear weapons program but roll it back and verifiably rid itself of the weapons it has created in recent years.
Aside from her own history as Obama’s defeated Democratic presidential primary opponent, Clinton brought to the State Department another source of potential controversy that has not yet stirred a whiff of trouble: her husband, in particular his post-presidential business deals and fundraising abroad.
The concern expressed during her Senate confirmation hearing in January was that foreign government donations to former President Bill Clinton’s foundations would create conflicts of interest. But thus far the matter has not resurfaced.
As Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton drew a brief burst of criticism on her first trip overseas, in February, for saying in Beijing that a continuing debate over human rights with the Chinese government was not necessarily productive. She has largely avoided diplomatic missteps.
But she has not yet established a signature issue as part of her own foreign policy portfolio, still a work in progress.
Some of the most vexing policy challenges for Clinton’s State Department are still under official review. And among those that have been publicly outlined, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, the specific path forward is still unclear.
One of the earliest Obama decisions, championed by Clinton, was to select special envoys to spearhead U.S. policy coordination on complex problems like North Korea, the Mideast peace process, Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That allowed the administration to start quickly in those areas because envoys – unlike officials in the upper echelon of the State Department bureaucracy – do not require Senate confirmation.
Terry Snell, a foreign affairs adviser at the King & Spalding law firm and a retired 30-year diplomat, said the decision to rely on high-profile special envoys like Holbrooke and Ross – plus former Sen. George Mitchell as Mideast peace envoy – may explain in part the absence of drama between Obama and Clinton.
“I know it’s kind of a paradox to say that the ego challenge between the two of them would be resolved by bringing in more egos, but in a way I think that’s part of the balance” they have achieved, Snell said.
Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.