Why would Barack Obama invite Hillary Clinton into a serious discussion of her potential appointment as secretary of state without reaching his own conclusions about the risks and benefits of that possibility? That seems frivolous and foolish, neither of which describe the manner in which the president-elect is conducting the transition. Unless he has made his first big mistake, the likelihood is that he and his team were prepared to make the offer before they contacted her.
Certainly Mr. Obama has had plenty of time to mull over the issues surrounding that appointment, including the role of the former president who happens to be married to Senator Clinton. On several occasions over the past two years, the Obama campaign called attention to Bill Clinton’s global foundation work, his worldwide speech-making, and the financing of those activities. Then again, he and his surrogates also cast doubt on Senator Clinton’s foreign policy credentials during the campaign.
In the post-election world, those ancient issues became inoperative, so to speak — just as the Clintons realized at some point over the past few months that they were no longer worried by Mr. Obama’s short résumé.
Senator Clinton’s qualifications and competence are not at issue any longer, if they ever were. Her disagreements on foreign policy with Mr. Obama were exaggerated by her campaign and his, as well as by the press. Meanwhile, she worked hard to elect Mr. Obama – far harder, in fact, than any previous defeated rival in a Democratic primary that I can recall. Between the unity rally in New Hampshire last June 27 and Election Day, she undertook roughly 130 separate campaign events, including speeches, fund-raisers, press interviews and conference calls all over the country. According to a Clinton aide, she brought more than $10 million into the Obama coffers — while her own debt remains unpaid.
The concerns about the Clinton Global Initiative and Bill Clinton’s other activities seem slightly overblown (as I’ve noted before). Every paid speech he has delivered over the past eight years is recorded in his wife’s Senate disclosure forms. Nor have donors to CGI been concealed, either, as any journalist who attends its meetings or examines its Web site should be able to determine. The countries that have donated funding to the Clinton H.I.V./AIDS Initiative are also a matter of public record.
When such questions arose during the campaign, he promised to publish the names of all future donors if his wife were to be elected president – and presumably he will now make any reasonable disclosures requested by the president-elect as part of the vetting process.
Yet it is still necessary to consider the potential for conflict between U.S. foreign policy and the Clinton foundation’s relationships around the world. Like any international philanthropic executive, Bill Clinton cannot operate in other countries without the cooperation of their governments, some of which are controlled by dubious figures. There may be times, as there have been in the past, when he will say something nice about a government that the U.S. officially disdains.
But those realities have never stopped Senator Clinton from upholding U.S. policy and criticizing those same governments whenever she saw fit to do so. Nor would a foreign government assume that it could influence U.S. policy — which would be made by President Obama, not the secretary of state — because it gave money to help the Clinton foundation provide medicine to AIDS victims in Africa. Should she become secretary of state, a competent liaison between her office and her husband’s foundation should be able to avert any embarrassment.
A working relationship between the new president and the former president promises significant benefit for the restoration of American influence, no matter who ultimately takes over the State Department. As the world’s most popular statesman and one of the most respected, Bill Clinton could become an important asset to Mr. Obama – in places where we like the people in power and even in some places where we don’t.
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