Why, if you’re Barack Obama, would you choose Hillary Clinton to be your secretary of state?
Yes, since it was first reported last week that the two had met to discuss the possibility, there has been no shortage of theories in the press: He wants her out of the Senate and into a pliant administration post; he’s paying her back for conceding graciously and then campaigning for him; he wants to score points with women voters.
But if you ask some of the most prominent members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, the consensus about her appeal as a potential secretary of state is much simpler: She’ll deliver.
“She is tough,” said Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank that advocates a muscular foreign policy. “Lingering doubts about Democratic resolve on national security questions are put to rest with Hillary in the job. She has a demonstrable quotient of backbone.”
More dovish experts are also excited about the prospect of Secretary Clinton, albeit for slightly different reasons.
“Her top, top, top advisers told me, ‘Steve, she will animate things in the Middle East—she will deliver a Palestinian state. Gold-plated,’” said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. Mr. Clemons also noted the irony that Mrs. Clinton potentially would be tasked with preparing the road for the direct negotiations with antagonistic foreign leaders that she excoriated Mr. Obama over during the primary. “She criticized him so much for going to meet foreign leaders without preconditions; now she is the one who is going to have to go and get all the preconditions sorted out.”
The idea, essentially, is that Mrs. Clinton, by virtue of her worldview and independent public profile, would be able to expand the purview of the office and become an unusually powerful surrogate for Mr. Obama’s foreign policy ideas.
“He’s got to concentrate the first couple of years on the economy, and he needs a very high-profile secretary of state to handle the stuff abroad,” said Les Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
If her rhetoric on the campaign trail this year was anything to go by, her strong views about the rest of the world would almost certainly precede her. (Obviously exaggerated claims about dodging sniper fire in Bosnia and bringing peace to Northern Ireland notwithstanding.)
On the Middle East, for example, she criticized the Bush administration for allowing peace negotiations to falter. On Iran, though, she excoriated Mr. Obama as “naïve” for declaring that he would meet unconditionally with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And on the administration’s dealings with Russia, she said, “This is the president that looked in the soul of Putin, and I could have told him, he was a K.G.B. agent. By definition, he doesn’t have a soul.”
“I think she combines new security and old security, by which I mean she is not afraid of the use of force, and she understands great-power politics and will be plenty prepared to be tough where necessary, either on nonstate issues or on states like Russia if need be,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and an often-mentioned candidate for secretary of state during the primaries. “But at the same time, she really gets the transnational issues. I think she is much less about democracy per se than she is about human rights. In that sense she was influenced by the Clinton Global Initiative.
“The promise of her being secretary of state,” added Ms. Slaughter, “would be to unite those two worlds.”
Or as Representative Pete King, a Republican hawk, admiringly put it: “She is from the very realistic wing of the Democratic Party. I don’t think she is going to have any delusions about trusting her enemies.”
The question now is whether it will actually happen and, if a firm offer was made, whether Mrs. Clinton would give up her unassailable hold on a U.S. Senate seat to take the post.
Certainly, to the extent that she still aspires to the presidency, secretary of state hasn’t exactly been a good way to get there for a while. (The last secretary of state to be elected president was James Buchanan.)
At press time, things were still in the air.
A source familiar with Mrs. Clinton’s thinking said that Mr. Obama did indeed offer the job to her and that she was weighing the decision with her husband, who returned home on Nov. 17 from a speaking engagement in Kuwait. But, the source said, reports that she had decided to accept the position were premature and wrong. (The Obama transition would not comment as to whether any position was or was not offered. Mrs. Clinton’s referred questions, once again, to the Obama transition team.)
According to the Democratic source with knowledge of the Clinton’s thinking, the Obama transition team and Clinton team were, as of the afternoon of Nov. 18, still “working through” the parameters of Bill Clinton’s charitable activities to check for real or perceived conflicts of interest, and that the process was going “smoothly.”
“She is still weighing it,” said another source, a close associate of Hillary Clinton, who added that the sticking point of the negotiations was not Mr. Clinton’s willingness to be vetted, which the source said had been overblown in importance, but rather “a question of whether she wants to give up her Senate seat.”
The associate said that at this point, there was some concern among Clinton’s supporters that all the talk about the job has forced her hand, because declining it would create suspicion about her husband’s finances. But “that is no reason to take the job,” the associate said.
One Obama foreign policy adviser on the transition team, who is not involved in the negotiations, said on background: “Obviously, she has tremendous skills and it would be up to Senator Obama to make that decision in the end on how he feels comfortable with integrating her in. I’m totally confident that he is going to be able to manage his team to get done what he thinks needs to be accomplished.”
Ms. Slaughter said that if Mrs. Clinton did end up becoming secretary of state, it would be only natural that Mr. Clinton give up some of his activities.
“He’s going to operate within more constraints,” she said. “They will find a solution, but there is no question he will be less free to do the kinds of things ex-presidents can do in terms of boards and speeches and businesses deals. It’s a fair exchange.”
For Mr. King, who, though a Republican, is fond of telling people about his good personal relationship with the Clintons, it would make sense for the former first lady to move back into the executive branch.
“From where is she is sitting right now, it looks like Obama is going to be there for at least the next four years, maybe the next eight,” he said. “He is going to be the dominant force in the political scene for the next eight years. She in the Senate is not the chair of any committee or any major subcommittee. She will be less of a political force in a day-to-day sense, but she will be much more of a national force in an international sense. I think she is making the decision to go for history. Also waking up in the morning as secretary of state in the world in which we live is more exciting than being the junior senator from New York.”
Ms. Slaughter said that plucking a secretary of state from among the ranks of elected officials was a tradition that went back almost to the founding of the republic.
“But honestly,” said Ms. Slaughter, “if ever there were a time to do it, that time is now.”