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As Clinton Bows Out, Analysts Debate Her Influence On Foreign Policy

Feb 1, 2013
Originally published on February 1, 2013 7:17 pm



That attack in Turkey came on Hillary Clinton's last day as secretary of state. She says it's another reminder that we live in complex and dangerous times.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: But I leave this department confident, confident about the direction we have set.

CORNISH: Employees crammed the State Department's lobby to see her off, and Clinton appeared wistful.

CLINTON: I am very proud to have been secretary of state. I will miss you. I will probably be dialing up just to talk.


CORNISH: Hillary Clinton had a busy tenure traveling to 112 countries. But her record is still being debated as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting in what she says was one of her favorite rooms at the State Department near Thomas Jefferson's desk and the Treaty of Paris, we talk about her place in history.

CLINTON: The last four years have been ultimately quite important for the United States to demonstrate that we were going to, once again, assume a leadership position that was in concert with our values. That was not how America was viewed when I took this office.

KELEMEN: And Clinton says she brought to the forefront some longer-term issues: the role of the Internet, women's rights and climate change.

CLINTON: I think we set the table for a lot of the difficult issues to be dealt with. There is nothing fast or easy about diplomacy. I have no illusions about that.

KELEMEN: Nor does Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who says his job has been to keep Sudan and the world's newest nation, South Sudan, from going back to war.

PRINCETON LYMAN: That is not a small achievement that this administration has contributed to. They did not go back to war, and I don't think either country wants to anymore. And that, in itself, took a lot of effort.

KELEMEN: He credits Hillary Clinton for playing an important role at key moments, pressing South Sudan to reach an oil-sharing deal with the north, though the deal has yet to be implemented. Clinton leaves office with no major diplomatic breakthroughs under her belt, but a former State Department Middle East adviser, Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations, says these have been dramatic times.

ROBERT DANIN: This has been a period of real unrest in the region and one that the United States has worked to navigate. We haven't driven it.

KELEMEN: Clinton didn't put herself out in front on Middle East policy, he says, but was a team player with the president.

DANIN: And that will be her legacy when it comes to the Middle East, that she worked to support an administration that pulled out of Iraq, that managed through the Arab uprisings, that attempted to forge and make progress on Arab-Israeli peace. It didn't succeed, but very few administrations do.

KELEMEN: It will take time and distance, Danin says, to really judge her tenure at the State Department. Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead agrees, saying he hasn't even tried to rank Clinton as a secretary of state because each administration runs foreign policy differently.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: This White House is very centralizing. It runs a very tight ship. And so I think, in many ways, she was executing rather than originating, but I think in - there are some cases where she executed extremely well.

KELEMEN: Mead, who's the editor of American Interest online, thinks Clinton's biggest achievement was overseeing what this administration calls its pivot to Asia.

MEAD: The recognition that the sort of rise of Asia changes the map of the world and changes the hierarchy of American priority is something that this State Department under Secretary Clinton not only thought about, but moved towards. And I think, diplomatically, it played its hand pretty well.

KELEMEN: Hillary Clinton managed to keep a major meeting with China on track, even as she persuaded Beijing to let an escaped dissident come to the U.S. And she helped promote some dramatic openings in Myanmar, or Burma. At the Council on Foreign Relations this week, Clinton was candid about the problems she leaves unresolved: the bloodshed in Syria and Iran's nuclear program.

CLINTON: I will not stand here and pretend that the United States has all the solutions to these problems. We do not. But we are clear about the future we seek for the region and its peoples. We want to see a region at peace with itself and the world, where people live in dignity, not dictatorships, where entrepreneurship thrives, not extremism.

KELEMEN: Her successor, John Kerry, has said he hopes to pick up where Clinton left off. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.