Shadow Government

How is Clinton doing?

The recent glowing profile of Secretary Clinton in the New York Times coupled with an earlier puff piece in the Washington Post suggest that the time might be ripe for a provisional assessment of her performance.

The articles are persuasive (to my eyes) on a couple of items that must be toted on the positive side of the ledger:

  • Secretary Clinton has forged an amicable working relationship with her boss, or at the very least has avoided the kind of friction that has occurred in the past when the Secretary of State had a global celebrity rivaling the President (cf. Powell's relationship with Bush). As Peter Rodman compellingly argued in Presidential Command, this is the most critical factor in the success or failure of a Secretary of State. While the profiles may stray perilously close to narcissistic waters to establish the case, it nevertheless is a valid and important one to make: Secretary Clinton has accomplished this important task.
  • Clinton has forged a genuine partnership with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, again avoiding the kind of friction that has occurred in the past when the Cabinet members were high-octane power players in their own right (cf. Powell's relationship with Rumsfeld).
  • Secretary Clinton also appears to have won over, for the time being, the Foreign Service Officer permanent bureaucracy at State.  This is a less signal achievement, in my eyes, for several reasons. The FSO's are predominantly Democrats and so a natural constituency for Democrats, and most new Secretaries of State start out with similar "boost the FSO's" agendas (cf. similar profiles at the onset of the tenures of Secretaries Rice, Powell, and Albright). Nevertheless, that  Clinton can still get such plaudits over a year into her tenure is much to her credit.
  • According to the NYT, Secretary Clinton apparently deserves some credit for salvaging a fig-leaf exit strategy from the ill-fated Copenhagen conference on climate change. Whether the State Department also deserves some blame for the way Copenhagen ran off the rails, the paper does not say.

But the articles are also persuasive (to my eyes) on a couple of items that perhaps could be toted on the negative side of the ledger, both in what they say and in what they do not say:

  • Secretary Clinton does not appear to be the key foreign policy player on any topic of importance.  On the one hand, this means that she is not primarily implicated in the various missteps: the mishandled Israel-Palestine issue, which is replete with snafus like the initial settlements ultimatum or the empty trip to Saudi Arabia; the serious erosion of relations with key European partners (although she does bear some responsibility for the awkward handling of the Falklands dispute); the gradual slide in the American position in Asia, especially the disturbed relations with the three most significant powers in the region, China, Japan, and India; and so on.  On the other hand, it means that she was apparently not positioned to prevent any of these set-backs and she also was not the pivotal player on any of President Obama's best foreign policy moves, such as the decision to back General Stanley McChrystal's surge in Afghanistan.
  • Secretary Clinton has yet to help the Obama administration forge and explain a coherent grand strategy, or even coherent interlocking mid-level strategies. 

The articles also delicately avoided mentioning topics that shed a less favorable light: the embarrassingly long delay in finding an AID director (which, in Secretary Clinton's defense, probably should be blamed on the White House not on her); the halting progress of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review; the failure to secure key ambassadorship postings; and the missed opportunities of the Iran election crisis.

Where the positives and negatives will ultimately net out depends on whether the Obama foreign policy begins to bear some positive fruit.  But in an Administration that seems afflicted with a bit too much melodrama of late, the absence of melodrama in Foggy Bottom is surely something to applaud.  

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A crisis of his own making

There are two major criticisms of President Obama's foreign policy that, I believe, are beginning to resonate. The first, argued forcefully by Bob Kagan, is of his harsh or negligent treatment of allies, in contrast to his rather more gentle treatment of dictators and adversaries.

The second is that he cares not a wit about foreign policy, especially if it gets in the way of his domestic agenda. Let me focus on the second.

In the case of Asia policy, his preoccupation with his domestic agenda is deleterious in two ways. First, despite all the snarky bragging by Obama officials about how "America is back" (see recent posts by Dan Twining and Walter Lohman), he cancelled a trip to Asia for the second time to deal with a crisis of his own making: health care. I believe this is unprecedented.

It is one thing for a president to cancel a trip because of a domestic disaster, but Obama himself created this mess. When Obama became president there was a long list of economic and foreign policy challenges to which everyone agreed he had to attend. Instead, he launched the country on a long, divisive, and distracting debate about health care. This choice has real consequences as Indonesians and Australians learn that they are not as important to Obama as is his domestic agenda.

The second problem is related to his first: the same commitment to a leftist agenda creates obstacles to an effective Asia policy. Even if he had made it to Indonesia and Australia, he would not have had much to offer. Obama cannot move an inch on the foreign policy agenda items that matter most to Asians: trade and security. Either he is uninterested in these issues or his party will not let him act on them. On trade, even so much as a mention of the South Korea free trade agreement resulted in severe resistance from his party. If Obama cannot ratify agreements already negotiated, how can he possibly offer a free trade, open investment vision to compete with China's more mercantilist one?

On security, Asians already know Obama will not invest in the military resources necessary to assure the region of American staying power. That too would obstruct his domestic spending agenda. This is a president who essentially asked every Department except for the Defense Department to figure out ways to spend more as part of his fiscal stimulus. He did so while America is fighting two wars and dealing with the menace of China's growing military. Some friends get the picture: Australians are already embarked on a military strategy that hedges against American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific.

Here is some hopefully constructive advice: despite the misguided bravado of his lieutenants, President Obama has to repair relations with Asia allies. In order to do so, he'll have to take on the left and show up with something that makes us regionally relevant.