Be Thankful 2008 Was Not Hillary’s Year

Another Thanksgiving for which to count our blessings – though a new president and administration will be pardoning one turkey and cutting up another on White House china this year.

We also have another year of war, and for that, no one in this readership could possibly be thankful. But perhaps, looking back on foreign events in the last 10 months, we might count our blessings in other regards. Take Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example. A string of dramatic diplomatic gestures overseas has left some observers scratching their heads, or at least shaking them ruefully. Others say she’s positively ballsy, but whether her blunt public rebukes directed at our supposed allies – particularly in the Muslim world – have advanced anything but a ball of confusion and disappointment is questionable.

Unlike the Hillary on last year’s campaign trail, the Hillary of today is often colorless and humorless (though maybe if we were granted a private interview, we’d see a different side), and more than ever, her motivations are a puzzle. We keenly sense she is still a hawk at heart who may very well have ordered those requested 40,000 new troops to Afghanistan months ago – if she were in charge.

In other words, we should be quite thankful this year that it’s Obama and Michelle, not Hillary and Bill, carving up that bird in the White House dining room this Thursday.

Most recently, Clinton’s nearly game-changing comments about Jewish settlements while cozying up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Oct. 31 "baffled even her own aides," wrote The New Republic‘s Michael Crowley in a piece called "Reset Button: The Gaffes of Hillary Clinton." Clinton provoked a tempest when she suggested the Obama administration would be open to compromise on the settlement issue – in other words, the administration would not press for a freeze on new Jewish settlements as a precondition in future Israeli-Palestinian talks – and called the Israeli proposal to limit any new expansion, not settlements currently under construction, an "unprecedented" concession.

Apparently, the White House had not approved this perceived course-reversal for prime time, so Clinton and her aides quickly rushed to cover their tracks. "The Obama administration’s position on settlements is clear, unequivocal, it has not changed," Clinton said later. The U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

Her words were not so easily shaken off by Arab leaders, who are used to seeing the glint of long knives in every shadow. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League and a senior Egyptian diplomat, said "failure is in the atmosphere all over" in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"All of us, including Saudi Arabia, including Egypt, are deeply disappointed" by Clinton’s words in Jerusalem, Moussa told Bloomberg News after her October remarks. She left the impression that "Israel can get away with anything."

This "gaffe" came just days after she took Pakistan – which is currently involved in a bloody civil war instigated and pushed relentlessly by Washington – to task for not being more aggressive in pursuing al-Qaeda on its western border. Apparently annoyed, she told a group of journalists in Lahore on Oct. 29 that she found it "hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to."

She also lectured Pakistani business executives on the government’s low rate of tax collection and weak public services. The U.S. government "taxes everything that moves and everything that doesn’t, and that’s not what we see in Pakistan."

Her "candor" was praised by those who want to see more strings attached to the billions of dollars the U.S. gives to Pakistan in military and humanitarian aid each year, as well as by the milquetoast establishment types who thought it was just so Hillary to get all testy with an audience in Congo last August for conjuring the unwelcome spirit of Big Bill Clinton.

"You know how much I like it when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets her back up," gushed Washington Post columnist and Chris Matthews Show staple Jonathan Capehart:

"She did it in Congo in August. And she did it again in Pakistan on Thursday on what was supposed to be a patch-things-up mission. Brava! …

"Right up to the end of her three-day trip, she faced tough questions on a range of issues from a range of audiences. They came to speak truth to power. And I support Clinton’s willingness to give it right back at them."

Right on! But wait, what did we get out of all of this? Better cooperation from the Pakistanis? Not yet. Good international vibes? Not quite. Strangely, it still feels like 2008 – pre-election, that is.

Michael Scheuer, former CIA agent and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, had one word for Clinton’s recent remarks to the Pakistanis: "appalling."

"She played the part of the school marm… she shamed them," he said in an interview with "The Pakistanis don’t really know what to make of the United States. When [the U.S] says, ‘the Pakistanis need to do more,’ it sounds like ‘make the civil war in your country even worse.’"

It has been widely documented that Pakistan is rife with corruption and that truckloads of U.S. aid have disappeared into a black hole there since 9/11. It has also been well reported that a clash of interests has prevented the Pakistani government from pursuing the enemies of the United States, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, along its border.

But what do we expect when we try to buy Pakistani loyalty, then militarize the relationship, drop bombs on their country, and put our Global War on Terror before any other social and political interests in the region? The bottom line, said Scheuer, is that we need them more than they need us right now, and they know it.

"If we don’t have Pakistan, the game is over. At the end of the day they have the whip hand… they want our money, sure, but at the end of the day, they can go to the Saudis, they can go to the Chinese."

Aubrey Immelman, a professor of political psychology at College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota, believes Clinton’s remarks "were not constructive."

"There’s much resentment in Pakistan toward U.S. foreign policy," Immelman commented to "The task of criticizing Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism is best left to professional diplomats and reserved for private discussions with Pakistani officials."

Judging from an earlier trip to Asia, it would seem that Clinton’s diplomatic GPS might have been off from the beginning. From Crowley:

"The first sign that Hillary’s lips might be surprisingly loose came on her very first official trip – a swing through Asia in February. Aboard her government jet, Clinton spoke with reporters about prospects for the replacement of the ailing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. The longtime diplomatic writers were startled; Clinton had broken what the Times called ‘an informal taboo’ on the subject, which, tellingly, neither she nor top Obama officials seem to have publicly revisited since. More dramatically, on that same trip, Hillary unexpectedly dismissed the role of human rights in U.S.-China relations. Such concerns, she explained, ‘can’t interfere’ with issues like global warming and the economy. ‘[W]e pretty much know what [Chinese leaders] are going to say’ anyway, she shrugged. Human rights advocates were appalled, and State Department officials traveling with her reportedly debated whether she had been refreshingly candid or had committed a colossal blunder."

The "buzz" these days, mostly filtering through right-wing blogs onto op-ed pages and even morning TV talk shows, is that Clinton is being deliberately marginalized by the administration. She denies it, but as Mark Safranski at the Atlantic Council said recently, "the denial itself serves as confirmation of the fact." If so, one wonders what happened to Clinton’s longtime presidential aspirations – and any lingering resentment toward the Boy Wonder – and whether her sometimes curious behavior is just a reflection of all that.

Of course the right wing is smacking its lips at the prospects. Tony Blankley, ever the nimble Machiavellian, wrote about it just this month. According to Blankley, the more Clinton is marginalized, the fewer fingerprints she leaves on Obama’s foreign policy legacy, and that is a good thing:

"It isn’t forgotten that foreign affairs were the major policy disputes between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama during the primary. She accused Mr. Obama of ‘being naïve’ about agreeing to unconditional meetings with leaders of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, and Cuba. She was – and is – a strong supporter of Israel, and, during the campaign, was opposed to forcing Israel to freeze West Bank settlements unconditionally. …

"The worse things get in foreign affairs – and those dark clouds are getting darker and closer – the better Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy will look compared to Mr. Obama’s. Even now, her Gallup poll job approval rating of 62 percent beats her president’s number by about 10 percent.

"In the 2012 Democratic Party primary, we may once again hear Hillary’s advertisement that asked who do we want answering the red phone at 3 a.m."

Hypothesized Immelman, "In my opinion, Hillary Clinton, who’s high on Machiavellianism, has accurately pegged Barack Obama as a conciliator. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Hillary is setting herself up as a tough-talking alternative to Obama in 2012."

It makes for divine political drama, but this isn’t 2008, and it might be argued that Clinton has already "jumped the shark" and couldn’t pull off such an audacious feat of chicanery even if she tried.

Because it’s much less about her curious and seemingly unhelpful actions abroad than the way she carries herself doing it.

Clinton looks completely drained of authentic vim and verve, that mojo that sets all titanic politicians apart from their less ambitious, stuffed-shirt counterparts fighting for the flaky fish food in the little pond. She often seems wan, devoid of whatever it was that relentlessly propelled her through myriad successes at Yale Law School, as counsel in the Watergate committee hearings, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, and junior senator from New York.

Now, Obama isn’t exactly running on full mojo these days, either. But Hillary’s nearly 20 years in the national spotlight have taken their toll – on both her and us. Her bluntness seems to belie this; perhaps she’s just too tired to wade through the bull. That’s fine, even laudable and refreshing sometimes, but only when it’s called for and done right. And it’s not her presidency. Dressing down Pakistani men might be swell for the Capitol Hill crowd, but whether it was a diplomatic master stroke is up for debate.

It’s been 14 years since Clinton was branded "damaged goods" by White House insiders who thought she had become a drag on her husband’s reelection. She was forced then to reinvent herself as the "softer Hillary" by taking It Takes a Village on the road, and, according to Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge (2000), she turned to New Age gurus and motivational coaches to get her out of a deep depression. That’s a long time scrabbling in the political mean streets and a lot of savvy reinvention to stay on top. She’s certainly come a long way, but how much of herself has been lost in the journey?

We may never know, because it seems impossible at this point to gauge who the real Hillary Clinton is, particularly where the political machinations and defense mechanisms end and the earnest public service begins. We don’t even know if she believes what she is saying – is she "going rogue" when she cozies up to Netanyahu and makes clunky statements about settlements, or is she part of an elaborate good cop/bad cop scheme cooked up by the White House? Either way, in appearance and tone, she comes off like flat champagne. So even if Clinton is drawing upon a well of conviction when she tells Hamid Karzai he needs to clean up Kabul, her lack of outward passion leaves us unconvinced and groping for the remote.

Perhaps the Washington technocrats are right – that Clinton has been charging ahead quietly at the State Department, trying to set it on a course for relevancy. Perhaps, as the military has become a colossal Hoover sucking up every mission and resource relating to post-9/11 foreign policy, a more assertive and competent State Department is just what the doctor ordered to bring balance to our fair city.

But far from Foggy Bottom there is a two-front war and tiny fires all over the Middle East and Africa. We might be thankful – at least for this very moment – that there is a tentative rookie rather than a jaded hawk in the Oval Office today.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.