The most memorable television ad that Hillary Rodham Clinton ran during the Democratic primary campaign against Barack Obama was the one with the red telephone that rings at 3 a.m. “While your children are safely sleeping,” the announcer intoned, “something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.” That Obama was dangerously unprepared to deal with a foreign crisis was a key Clinton campaign theme. She pronounced herself and Republican candidate John McCain as passing the “commander-in-chief threshold”—and pointedly refused to say the same of Obama.
Their fiercest campaign clashes involved foreign policy: Obama wanted to sit down with leaders of rogue nations such as Cuba, North Korea or Iran “without preconditions,” an idea Clinton dismissed as “irresponsible and frankly naive.” She voted for a Senate resolution asking the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Quds force a terrorist organization—something Obama said was playing into a Bush administration ploy to lay the groundwork for war against Iran. And Obama boasted of superior judgment in opposing the Iraq invasion (she voted to authorize the use of force), while implying Clinton’s foreign policy experience as first lady consisted of having tea with ambassadors. “What exactly is this foreign policy experience?” Obama said mockingly of the New York senator. “Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no.”
Now is her chance. By making Clinton America’s 67th secretary of state, Obama has shrewdly given his biggest political rival a stake in the success of his administration. It’s a risk for both of them. There is no doubting Clinton’s international stature, work ethic and tenacity. But her closeness to Obama remains a question mark in a job where she needs to be seen as speaking for the man in charge. And there have been the concerns about her husband’s possible role behind the scenes—and the potential for an appearance of conflict of interest emanating from foreign donations to his international charitable projects which, under an agreement with the Obama transition team, he agreed to disclose publicly, but not to halt.
But Clinton is known for being disciplined and tailoring her message to the politics of the moment, so there is little risk of her running afoul of Obama. Still, in a rapidly shifting global political environment, the dream job could easily turn into a nightmare. The Gaza crisis, the mess in Afghanistan, an unstable Pakistan, the promised drawdown in a fragile Iraq, a near-nuclear Iran and a bellicose Russia are only some of the things on the agenda. The easiest thing would have been to watch from the Senate as the new guy made mistakes. Instead, Clinton was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 94-2, and is plunging into one of the toughest jobs—under the strictest scrutiny.
“Hillary Clinton has been one of the most polarizing figures in American politics in the last 15 years,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “Even though she’s had a good year politically, she is not guaranteed to enjoy strong support. If people think they see something they used to not like about her re-emerging and causing problems for American diplomacy—they will be all over her.”
Two days after Obama’s inauguration, Clinton arrived at Foggy Bottom, the massive concrete headquarters of the State Department in Washington, and received a rock star welcome. She wasted no time in proclaiming a “new era for America” and a new day for American diplomacy. She signalled an end to a decade in which diplomats were given second billing to generals, and pledged to elevate “diplomacy and development” to a stature alongside “defence.” “We are not any longer going to tolerate the kind of divisiveness that has paralyzed and undermined our ability to get things done for America,” she said.
She arrived with a new mantra too: “smart power,” a concept of combining “soft power” with “hard power” that had been gaining currency among foreign policy thinkers who considered the unilateralist and militarist approach of the last eight years something other than smart. Clinton told the State Department her approach will mean using persuasion through “the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural—picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.”
Obama himself has wasted no time demonstrating his seriousness about changing the image and role of America abroad. On his second day in office, he issued directives to shut the detention center at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay within a year, ordered secret CIA prisons shut down, renounced torture, and invalidated all Bush administration legal opinions authorizing aggressive interrogation techniques. On Jan. 26, he gave his first televised interview as president not to a major U.S. network but to Dubai-based Al Arabiya, in which he followed up on his inauguration speech promise of friendship to any regime that “unclenched” its fist, and spoke directly to the people of Muslim nations. “Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said, noting that he has Muslim family members and has lived in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”