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Assessing Hillary Clinton's Legacy

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 12:04 pm

Hillary Clinton is preparing to leave the Obama administration after four years as secretary of state, earning generally high marks and fueling all kinds of speculation about what she wants to do next.

Her boss, President Obama, has paid tribute to her, calling her "tireless and extraordinary," though illness and a concussion have kept her out of public view for the past two weeks.

"More than 400 travel days, nearly 1 million miles," President Obama proclaimed at a diplomatic reception recently. "These are not frequent flier miles. She doesn't get discounts."

Obama calls Clinton one of the best secretaries of state in U.S. history, saying she restored America's credibility in the world and reached out to ordinary people in the far reaches of the globe. Her aides pack her travel schedules with town halls and meetings with civil society groups.

But that "people-to-people diplomacy" doesn't impress Fouad Ajami of Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"She thought that secretary of state is becoming a global icon," Ajami says, arguing that she has little to show for all her travels. Staining her record, Ajami says, is Syria. He says Clinton "covered" for President Obama's inaction there.

"[President Obama] didn't want to do anything about Syria, and mission accomplished, because he gave her that portfolio," Ajami says.

Limited Room To Maneuver

Part of the problem, he says, is that foreign policy is being made in the White House, not at the State Department.

Aaron David Miller, vice president of the of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, describes Obama as the "withholder-in-chief" and says Clinton didn't have much room to maneuver.

"She has pursued an agenda, which has been highly constrained by both the kind of cruel and unforgiving foreign policy world out there and by the president's own determination to withhold, in my view, the most consequential issues related to national security, war, peace, big-think strategy," Miller says.

What was left, he says, is an agenda that Clinton shaped, one Miller describes as "planetary humanism." That includes women's issues, the environment, press and Internet freedom, and social media.

"And those issues, which may be 21st century, cutting-edge issues aren't terribly risky," Miller adds.

They are also issues that have domestic constituencies if Clinton decides to run for president in 2016.

"She has generated enormous momentum for American foreign policy," which should not go to waste, says Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Nasr credits Clinton with restoring America's image and doing "triage" on key issues. He says Clinton brought relations with Pakistan back from the brink of disaster and made history by visiting Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Clinton also played a key role in the international action in Libya. So far, she has avoided much of the criticism over the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in September.

"She will be leaving this job, in my view, with almost no asterisks and that, it seems to me, in this day and age, is a real accomplishment," Miller says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

India is among the long list of countries that Hillary Clinton has visited as U. S. Secretary of State. And as she prepares to leave that post, we thought it would be a good time to look at how America's top diplomat has spent the last four years. Much of her time has been spent on airplanes, although in recent weeks Clinton has kept a lower profile while recovering from a virus and a concussion.

While some call Clinton one of the best Secretaries of State, others have dubbed her the Teflon secretary, saying she kept her distance from dead-end issues. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The first thing administration officials will say about Secretary Clinton is that she's made history by traveling to 112 countries. President Obama even joked about it at a recent diplomatic reception, which Clinton missed for health reasons.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than 400 travel days, nearly one million miles. These are not frequent flier miles. She does not get discounts. I suspect she's not going to be flying commercial that much after she leaves the State Department, but she is tireless and extraordinary.

KELEMEN: He calls her one of the best secretaries of state in U.S. history, saying she restored America's credibility in the world and reached out to ordinary people in the far reaches of the globe. Her aides pack her travel schedules with town halls and meetings with civil society groups. But that doesn't impress Fouad Ajami of Stanford's Hoover Institution.

FOUAD AJAMI: She thought that being a secretary of state is becoming a global icon, and then there's this ridiculous, you know, emphasis by her staff on how many miles has she traveled.

KELEMEN: Ajami doesn't think Clinton has much to show for all this travel and staining her record, he argues, is Syria where he says Clinton has covered for President Obama's inaction.

AJAMI: He didn't want to do anything about Syria, and mission accomplished, because he gave her that portfolio.

KELEMEN: Part of the problem, he says, is that foreign policy is made in the White House. Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars agrees. He's dubbed President Obama the "withholder-in-chief" and says Clinton didn't have much room to maneuver.

AARON DAVID MILLER: She has pursued an agenda, which has been highly constrained by both the kind of cruel and unforgiving foreign policy world out there, and by the president's own determination to withhold, in my view, the most consequential issues relating to national security, war, peace, big-think strategy.

KELEMEN: What was left, he says, was the agenda that Clinton shaped.

MILLER: She pursued an agenda, what you might call planetary humanism. Women's issues, which is extremely important, the environment, press and Internet freedom, social media. And those issues, which may be 21st century, cutting-edge issues, aren't terribly risky.

KELEMEN: He says Clinton can claim credit for helping to restore America's credibility as a nation willing to consult not just act. Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says Clinton paid attention to regions that felt ignored.

VALI NASR: I think that she does America disservice to try to belittle Secretary Clinton's contributions. I think we should, as a nation, do the opposite of recognize how much she's done, recognize that she has generated enormous momentum for American foreign policy and therefore our primary objective has to be not to let that momentum go to waste.

KELEMEN: Nasr says she deserves credit for doing triage on key issues. He says she brought relations with Pakistan back from the brink of disaster and her policy of engagement paid off when she made a historic visit to Myanmar, or Burma, last year.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: The United States wants to be a partner with Burma. We want to work with you as you further democratization.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton also played a key role in the international response to Libya. So far, she has avoided much of the criticism over the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others. As Aaron David Miller puts it, Clinton has had a fault-free, but also a risk-free tenure at State.

MILLER: She will be leaving this job, in my view, with almost no asterisks. And that, it seems to me, in this day in age, is a real accomplishment.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.