The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Impediment to Clear Thinking

If you supported Barack Obama during the Democratic primary season last year, you learned there was one incontrovertible rule of contemporary politics – never count Hillary Clinton out. Love her or hate her, the woman is a human dynamo who never backs down. She brought a contest that was supposedly a mathematical impossibility to a dead heat, at least in terms of pledged delegates and the popular vote. The more critics dismissed her candidacy, the better a candidate she became.

Therefore, I viewed pronouncements by pundits that Clinton was out of the loop and highly frustrated by her new role of Obama’s Secretary of State with a certain degree of skepticism, even when the cynics included former Clinton insider Dick Morris.

To be sure, many Obama supporters were alarmed and dismayed when the President-elect offered the State job to his former rival. They feared Clinton as too strong-willed and independent to be a team player. Since he could not count on Clinton to clip her own wings, these analysts concluded, Obama would have no choice but to marginalize her once he took office. Indeed, some mused this was the explicit objective of Obama’s much vaunted “team of rivals” approach.

By February 9, Morris apparently had bought into this logic. He wrote a column in The Hill that (mockingly?) fretted Clinton’s “job description is dissolving under her feet.” Pointing to roles being staked out in foreign policy by other Obama officials, ranging from Vice-President Biden to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Morris characterized Clinton as “surrounded by people who are, at best, strangers and, at worst, enemies” and judged her “essential problem is that she is an outsider in the current mix.”

Morris correctly notes, “The power of the Secretary of State is not statutory, nor does it flow from the prestige of the post’s occupant . . . The power of the Secretary of State flows directly from the President.” Since Obama had paid scant attention to Clinton since taking office, Morris concluded Clinton must be ruefully finding herself left “with only a vestige of the power she must have thought she acquired when she signed on to be President Obama’s chief Cabinet officer.”

Consideration of a more rigorous nature might have factored in Obama’s extensive preoccupation with an economic stimulus package and domestic agenda during his first days in office. Yet even if Morris numbers among those who insist an Obama Administration must deal with everything at once, the past week should leave no doubt that Clinton is large and in charge at State.

Clinton’s expedition to Asia has placed her front and center as America’s voice to the rest of the world.

Beginning in Indonesia, Clinton repeatedly hammered home the main message of her trip – the Obama Administration's readiness and willingness to listen and engage the world.
She did so not only by meeting with government leaders but by appearing on TV and radio programs, touring public places, and engaging in town hall-style meetings, all meant to directly engage foreign populations.

Foreign crowds often greeted Clinton with rock-star receptions in the countries she visited. Some of this was due to Obama’s own positive image. However, her own reputation and relationships built from past travel in the region also played a part.

Clinton was far more than merely an agent of goodwill to Asia and she delivered several strongly worded statements while traveling there.

When North Korea used the birthday of Kim Jong Il to claim the right to “space development,” a term it has used in the past to disguise long-range missile tests, Clinton warned against such a launch, saying it would damage that nation’s prospects for improved relations with the United States and the world. She also conceded the U.S. is concerned North Korea may soon face a succession crisis to replace Jong Il.

In Japan, she expressed the Obama Administration’s support for Prime Minister Taro Aso, despite his unpopularity at home, by inviting him to Washington, thereby making him the first foreign leader to visit Obama at the White House. She also signed a historic military accord removing some of the U.S. soldiers stationed on Okinawa to Guam, dealing with long-standing tensions over U.S. military personnel on Japanese soil.

Concluding her tour in China, Clinton tried to sell continued investment in the U.S. despite the recent economic downturn. Pointing out the deeply entwined economies of the two countries, Clinton argued the U.S. taking on more debt was necessary for China to recommence exporting to their largest market.

Yet the candor and bluntness that marked her trip was also on display here. In fact, on the question of human rights, Clinton managed to raise the hackles of progressive advocates with her comments every bit as much as those of her Chinese hosts. While she admitted she would raise the topic with Chinese officials, she shrugged off all expectations for a meaningful response, explaining, “we pretty much know what they're going to say.”

Some saw this as removing pressure from the Chinese and throwing away a U.S. bargaining point. I disagree completely.

The U.S. government has reprimanded China for decades over its human rights violations – sometimes sincerely, sometimes hypocritically – and China has consistently responded we have no right lecturing them about their own internal affairs. This approach tends to leave the ball at least partially in our court.

By suggesting low expectations because we do not believe the Chinese have any real interest in human rights, Clinton is being less diplomatic but she clearly leaves Beijing’s communist government bearing the weight of the moral argument.

“I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking,” Clinton told reporters traveling with her. “And I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious.”

Well played, Madame Secretary.

Yet if Clinton’s trip ought to erase all doubts among the Morris cynics that she is nothing more than window dressing in the Obama Administration, it should likewise lay to rest the worrying and fretting by Obama supporters over her as an uncontrollable prima donna.

Throughout her sojourn, Clinton reiterated repeatedly that she was traveling as the ears, mouth, and brains of the Obama Administration overseas but not its soul.

“President Obama is so focused on our problems at home,” Clinton explained at one point. “He's not going to be able to travel as much as he wants to. So it is important that I get out and do as much travel as possible to send a message that he wants the world to hear.”

At another stop, she complimented her boss, saying, “I think President Obama has an extraordinary capacity to [engage] because of the really positive feelings that he personally engenders.”

“To a lesser degree I have some of the same capacity,” she then demurred.

Clinton is unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell in temperament and training. However, both are high-profile figures, rightly viewed as “outsiders” in their respective Administrations. Yet Clinton is quite like Powell in two aspects. First, she is going to play the loyal soldier and place service to her country ahead of personal ambition, at least for the present. Second, she has the savvy and the will to carry out her mission most capably.

Some of us made the mistake of counting her out too soon last year. Morris committed a similar error earlier this month. Let no one else make the same mistake again, lest they also – in the words of a wise woman – suffer from an impediment to clear thinking.

Hillary Clinton is serving as Secretary of State on her own terms but that is far from the same as insisting that everything related to foreign policy must be done by her or be done her way. Obama is lucky to have her.

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