How Did Hilary Clinton fare as Secretary of State?
Last week Hilary Rodham Clinton stepped down as the US Secretary of State, being replaced by John Kerry, who unsuccessfully stood against George W Bush in 2004. As Secretary of State, Clinton was responsible for how the world’s sole superpower engaged with the world. With the possible exception of Angela Merkel, she was the most powerful woman in the world.
By her own admission, she had a formidable “inbox” on her first day in the imposing State Department Building in the heart of Washington. The economy was in freefall, Afghanistan showed no sign of improving, the depth and extent of the Euro Crisis
were just becoming apparent, and Iran remained as implacable as ever.
So how did she fare? The answer depends largely on what one thinks the role of a US Secretary of State is. Should the US be scaling back its commitments and responsibilities in order to concentrate on domestic issues? Should the spread of freedom and democracy take precedence? Or is geopolitics simply a zero sum of power, whereby the US should try to maintain its dominance by any and all means?
Let’s look at the salient world events and see how she fared with each.
The Arab Spring
The pace of events in what has become known as the Arab Spring took everybody by surprise, not least the United States. Like all Western Powers, the US had enjoyed a fairly comfortable relationship with Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadaffi, and continues to maintain strong links with the Gulf Kingdoms. Whether or not you judge Clinton’s handling of the Arab Spring as a triumph or a failure depends greatly on your world view. Neocons and classical liberals would have rejoiced at seeing the kleptomaniacs and bloodthirsty tyrants swept away by people power. It was a validation of their view that history is on the side of freedom, and that its only a matter of time before all tyrants are toppled. For them, Clinton backing off and letting events take their course was the best course of action. Intervening to quicken the pace would have left the protesters open to charging of being American stooges, and tainted the revolutions. For the Realists, the Arab Spring has been a far less cheerful period. Order and stability has collapsed. Constructive working relationships have been destroyed, as have business contracts and intelligence networks. The region is far more volatile and far less conducive to control. For Realists, Clinton should have learned lessons from the fall of the Shah in 1979, when Iran went from being a bulwark of stability and pillar of Western grand strategy, to a hostile terrorist supporting viper with nuclear ambitions. Though to be fair, even though I count myself as a Realist, Clinton had very few tools to work with. Even armed with US weapons, money and intelligence, there was little the former leaders could do to halt the tide. Things were moving too quickly and the fear that had kept people down was no longer there. Any attempts at supporting a violent crackdown would have failed and made the US even more hated in the region than it is already.
That being said, Clinton has turned a blind eye to Barhain, were pro democracy protests have been quashed with the help of other Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. For that I have to giver her credit. Score: 7/10
Although linked to the Arab Spring, Libya gets its own look at because Western Forces actively intervened. Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, Gadaffi decided to dig his heels in and sent in the tanks. The country descended into civil war, with all the horrors that come with it. Western viewers watched as the tanks rolled towards Benghazi, the cradle of the rebellion. Britain and particularly France took the lead in calling for a No Fly Zone. But the US was more cautious. Clinton was rightly wary of being dragged into shooting war in yet another Muslim nation. Instead, she and Obama agreed to let the Europeans to the leg work, whilst quietly providing intelligence and some munitions.
Although I would have liked to have seen Gadaffi remain in power, Clinton handled this one as well as she probably could have. There was no appetite for US bombing runs over Tripoli, but doing nothing was not an option either. A prudent middle ground was found, and Clinton went further by helping to persuade Qatar to join in the coalition, adding much needed diplomatic cover.
*Yet there was more to the Libyan conflict. The US Ambassador and two guards were killed when an angry mob broke into the compound. The details of the attack, and how much warning Clinton had of the risk are still unknown at the time of writing. It remains to be seen how much damage this incident could do to her reputation.
Of all the Arab Spring related conflicts, Syria has to rank as the most bloody. The numbers of dead run into tens of thousands as Assad and his mafia style regime stubbornly refuses of quite. Yet Syria is different. It enjoys support and protection from Iran, and more importantly from Russia. Syria, Iraq and Libya used to for the three pillars of Russian influence in the region. Yet in the space of a decade Saddam and Gadaffi have fallen. Its therefore no surprise that Russia is determined to cling to Assad. And this complicated matters for Clinton. Although she followed the correct approach and attempted to out manoeuvre Moscow by shamming them in the UN, she failed to make the most of their vetoes. In addition, she’s failed, publicly at least, to engage with Russia and assure them that their interests would be secured if only they would help bring the conflict to an end by removing support for Assad. There are signs that Russia is beginning to budge on this, but progress is painfully slow.
The Iranian Question seems to have come no closer to resolution over the last four years. Though this is less Clinton’s fault and more to do with the fact that the fundamentals of the equation haven’t changed; Iran feels that it needs a nuclear weapon. The Western Powers, including Israel, are unwilling to countenance such a position. End of story. With this rather grim outlook in mind, the job of a Secretary of State has two roles; firstly stop Israel launching a surprise attack, and secondly to increase the economic pressure on Iran to such an extent as to make the cost of acquiring nuclear weapons too high. Well, the first objective has been met, but who knows for how long. The second objective is harder to judge, It’s nearly impossible to accurately gauge how effective sanctions are. There seems no let up in the pace of progress on the nuclear plants, yet there are protests from ordinary Iranians angry that the economy is faltering.
Of course the Russian have refused to see Iran the S300 Surface-to-Air missiles that Iran wants, though that has less to do with Clinton and more to do with Israel threatening to retaliate by selling their own air defence systems to Georgia.
How the US and China interact with each other will shape the 21 st Century. There is no more significant bilateral relationship in the world that Beijing and Washington. Yet the US, and subsequently Clinton, have a fine line to walk. As much as they want engagement and friendship with China, they are also keenly aware that US allies in the region look to the US to remain a permanent presence in the region, countering Chinese hegemony. Clinton seems to have had mixed results in this respect. Fears of a currency war have simmered down, though its unlikely Clinton had much to do with that. South Korea and Japan feel more confident of US backing, although this has meant a more belligerent approach to territorial disputes. The ‘pivot’ towards Asia happened under Clinton’s watch, but this would have happened regardless of who was Secretary of State.
Critics will point to a lack of emphasis on human rights in China. This is a reasonable enough charge, though its worth noting three things. First, there’s precious little the US can do on this front. Reagan could put he squeeze on the Soviets because their economy was crumbling. That’s clearly not the case in China. Secondly, Clinton can take some credit for continuing to open up Burma and improve human rights conditions there. And thirdly, Clinton has worked tirelessly for womens rights across the world during her four years for which she deserves credit.
As has been the trend since the end of the Cold War, Europe features less and less in US foreign policy calculations. The European Union’s integration is supported by the US, and its economy is liked to that of Europe, however the US has refreshingly little to do here. The Eurozone Crisis has a detrimental effect on the US economy, though all Clinton could really do is offer advice and pressure national leaders to get together for yet another summit meeting. One area Clinton has had little success on is in persuading European’s to keep defence spending respectable. Even at the best of times, Europeans are far too quick to slash defence, confident that the US will
always be there to pick the slack for Nato.
Arguably, Russia was the thorniest relationship Clinton had to deal with on arriving in office. A much vaunted ‘reset’ papered over some of the cracks, though Russia is still deeply suspicious of the US missile shield, as well as perceived US ‘meddling’ in Russia’s sphere of influence. Georgia and Armenia both enjoy US support, as do several former Soviet states in Central Asia. Both through circumstances and through choice, Clinton has avoided picking a fight with Russia. Both sides continue to be wary of the other, but frankly both have more pressing things to worry about.
All in all, the Clinton years were above average. They weren’t a calamity, but they weren’t a runaway success either. This was partly to do with Clinton, but a larger picture is at play. The US continues to be the pre-eminent power on earth, but its ability to shape the world on a whim is waning. Much like Britain at the start of the last century, it’s not that the US is getting weaker, it’s that others are getting stronger. Whether or not this multi-polarity is a good thing remains to be seen.