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As President Barack Obama swears his oath of office for his second term, one of the most prominent names who served under him during his first four years shall not be joining him – Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bested in the Democratic primaries by the President, Clinton served Obama in one of the most powerful positions in the US government, the Secretary of State. Yet as she leaves office, what is the legacy Clinton leaves behind?

It is not an easy task to make such evaluations, particularly in the era of the imperial presidency. Furthermore, the public at large has an inflated image of the SecState owing to the preponderance of American military and economic power. Yet international leaders are also focused nationalists, brazen manipulators, and opportunists willing to use world crises for their own ends. Clinton also enjoys tremendous popularity, voted by Americans as the most admired woman in the world 12 years in a row and 17 times since she became First Lady in 1993. In many eyes, her achievements are magnified and her failures diminished. Another factor is that some policies bear fruit only in the long run, and it is too soon to be speaking of Clinton’s legacy. Thus, any judgement must be taken with a grain of salt.

Clinton’s term has been beset with many challenges – some inherited from the previous administration such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and a few new ones such as the Arab Spring, Iran, and Pakistan. In an era of receding US influence, Clinton has had to rely more on persuasion than economic or military inducement than her predecessors did. The results have been somewhat lacklustre. To be fair to the SecState, however, social media, terrorism, and cyber attacks have dispersed threats and created a far more complex world for the simple exercise of 20th century state power.

Clinton is largely credited with persuading the President to intervene militarily in Libya in support of the rebels against Muammar Qaddafi. Yet much of her efforts were tarnished when Islamists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and killed the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, among three other US citizens. As revolution swept across the Middle East, it was evident that the Department of State had no strategy to handle the situation. On the one hand, many observers saw it as yet another sign of US hypocrisy when Foggy Bottom chose to ignore the unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq; Syria and Yemen only saw a delayed and mild response. On the other hand, Washington incurred the suspicion of its traditional allies too, who perceived the US reaction to the Egyptian conflagration as an abandonment of a long-time ally, Hosni Mubarak. “We were perceived to have thrown Mubarak under the bus,” said Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State under Bill Clinton.

Moving across the region, Clinton has not been able to report any positive movement in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The ayatollahs remain intractable as ever and have brought more centrifuges online as they maintain 19.5% uranium enrichment. The Taliban remains a potent force in Afghanistan and the US hopes to abandon the country for the second time in 25 years; Pakistan has seen a spike in anti-Americanism and extremism, while the state of its nuclear arsenal gives many officials sleepless nights.

In perennially problematic zones, Clinton has seen no more success than her predecessors. North Korea conducted yet another nuclear test in 2009 as well as several missile tests, and successfully launched a rocket in 2012. The peace process between Israel and Palestine is not stagnant but has actually taken a step backwards with increased Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and Israel’s launching of Mivtza Amud Anan in response. Clinton has not been able to make any headway in either of these areas.

Clinton admirers argue, however, that the State Department has broken new ground in engaging with civil society. Clinton’s department has close to 200 Twitter accounts and almost 300 Facebook pages with over 15 million subscribers and many millions more visitors. The SecState created a new position, Ambassador for Women, to pursue women’s issues across the globe. Clinton embraced the notion of soft power and used her embassies and consulates to promote US exports, sports ties, educational and other exchanges. She has also encouraged working directly with non-governmental organisations in the distribution of aid for development. The core theme of the Clinton State Department was developing dialogue and relationships with the US’ international partners that would last much after she had left the office.

It is not clear how much of this will truly survive Clinton’s term. Engagement with social media has amorphous benefits, and the constant re-invention of the medium requires a serious commitment to it. More tangibly, the progress on women’s issues that Clinton pursued has already begun to unravel – in Afghanistan, women have yet again been subjected to barbarous practices in areas controlled by the Taliban, and the situation is expected to get worse as the US plans its exit next year. The  reversal illustrates strikingly for any in doubt that soft power not supported by hard power is meaningless. Lastly, the relationships Clinton forged with foreign leaders will evapourate with her departure. Diplomacy is a human activity, and it will be influenced by its practitioners – it would be foolish to believe that John Kerry will not create his own relationships, none of which need be the same as his predecessor’s.

Clinton has certainly not affected the fate of a continent as George Marshall did with his eponymous plan; nor has she defined an era as Dean Acheson did the early Cold War. Clinton’s term does not even boast of major events, such as Nixinger’s opening of China in 1972, or for that matter, Condoleezza Rice’s nuclear overtures to India. While these standards seem stratospherically high, so were these events unimaginable until they occurred. Clinton’s term could certainly have been better, but to be fair, it could also have been much worse. Her failures have befuddled many before her and will likely do so her successors too; after all, it is not everyday that a Bismarck is born.


This post appeared on Tehelka on January 21, 2013.

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