The Case for Competent Cabinet Secretaries

Clinton in Afghanistan

With John Kerry’s handy confirmation to be the next Secretary of State comes a chance to reflect on Hllary Clinton’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat.

Yet in that reflection an odd meme has emerged: because Clinton, as secretary, didn’t really change the world in some way, she therefore does not deserve praise for her job performance.

Writing for Foreign Affairs, Michael O’Hanlon suggests that because Clinton did not have “imaginative” positions or “big historic breakthrough” she doesn’t really deserve very much praise. Considering O’Hanlon does not mention the most significant advancement for nuclear arms reductions with Russia in two decades – the Senate ratified New START in 2010 under Clinton’s auspices – the claim that she has no imagination or major successes is puzzling.

It’s obviously not on par with James Baker pushing to reunify Germany, a comparison O’Hanlon makes. But the Germans probably had something to do with their decision to reunify as well, and quite unlike the debate in the Senate about strategic arms reductions reunifying Germany did not spark controversy in the U.S. Senate.

Additionally, while the ultimate outcome of the Arab Spring remains uncertain, it would be unfair to give Clinton a mere passing grade for how the U.S. has responded to it. I have been an early skeptic of the decision to intervene in Libya, but Clinton has not overseen a massive over-commitment of U.S. resources to grand nation-building schemes, either. While she has been more eager to intervene in civil wars than I would prefer, she has not been reckless about it – if anything, the model she’s urged has been restrained and limited.

This represents a substantial change from the previous administration’s secretaries of state, and even from the intervention efforts of the 1990s, which were far more expensive and wide-ranging.

Managing a continuing crisis while avoiding catastrophe during a social movement as huge and complex as the Arab Spring is no small accomplishment. It’s also not a single big accomplishment, but rather a series of small ones, which makes it easier to discount in grand historical theories of how to grade a Secretary of State.

At the New Yorker, John Cassidy finds many foreign policy wonks placing Clinton in a somewhat ambitious context:

In foreign-policy circles, the knock on Hillary is that, unlike some of her storied predecessors—John Quincy Adams, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger—she failed to carve out a historically significant role for herself.

John Quincy Adams wrote the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that European powers no longer interfere in the Americas in return for the U.S. not interfering with European politics or colonies. George C. Marshall deserves tremendous credit for his ambitious plan to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II (he also opposed recognizing Israel). Dean Acheson implemented George Kennan’s policy of containment in response to the rise of the Soviet Union and helped to design NATO, and oversaw the diplomatic response to the Korean War. Henry Kissinger had a curious dual role as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Many respect him for his rapproachment with China, for example, or for his books on national security strategy. But he remains deeply controversial for his policies in Vietnam and Latin America.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton never faced the circumstances that these giants of the office did: while she was running the State Department there was no horrible, bloody war on the scale of World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.

But that in and of itself is a real accomplishment. It is far harder to manage a rapidly changing country in a complex world than to stake out sexy, bold ideas in a simpler bipolar world. The world today is far safer than it was during the Cold War, but it also much more complex and difficult to manage without the familiar bipolar competition to guide international politics. Managing America’s place in the world competently surely deserves some measure of praise.

In reality, the entire discussion of judging Clinton’s tenure seems to be a reaction against President Obama saying she’s “among the best” secretaries the U.S. has ever had. It is a bit silly. The demand by foreign policy wonks for world altering grand historic transformational leadership from an appointed bureaucrat is a bizarre and, frankly, destructive impulse. Pushing for massive, historic change was a critical pitfall during the previous administration, and it never fully recovered from early mistakes trying to implement the vision of advancing democracy across the Middle East through invasions and regime change.

For running the State Department competently, managing a huge number of constant and complicated crisis events, and avoiding any huge geopolitical mistakes, Hillary Clinton surely deserves some measure of appreciation from the country. In a real way, by being a bit boring she ensured that American leadership and prominence continues. It’s an instinct we’d be lucky to have in more officials.

comments powered by Disqus