Hillary Clinton, a bold choice

If Hillary Clinton is confirmed as Barack Obama’s choice as secretary of state Democrats and independents who backed the former first lady in the primaries will doubtless applaud loudly. Women’s groups will raise a cheer. Bill, will be happy, too.
But nobody will be more pleased than the Republicans.

For the United States’s defeated right, still licking their wounds after this month’s electoral drubbing, such a choice would be a gift. In their jaundiced view it would be a first encouraging indication that the president elect, who has sometimes seemed to walk on water, is capable of making unforced errors.

The choice of Hillary Clinton would give the Republicans a familiar target—at which they would aim when Senate confirmation hearings began. Her husband’s potentially conflicting business and speech-making activities would also be in their sights. The resulting uproar might quickly become a distraction for Obama just as he tries to seize the political agenda.

Although she brings undoubted qualities to the public stage Clinton also carries tremendous political baggage. Obama believes in inclusiveness—hence his expected appointment of Republicans to his Cabinet. But including Clinton means including all the leftover business of her and her husband’s controversial Washington reign.

As senator for New York, Clinton has proven conventionally unadventurous on the key foreign policy issues for which she may become responsible. Her conservative outlook could become another cause of friction with a putative boss dedicated to change.

Clinton backed the war in Iraq; Obama opposed it. During the campaign she derided Obama’s stated willingness to talk to hostile governments such as Iran. Over the years she has become a lopsided supporter of Israel in its ongoing confrontation with the Palestinians.

If Obama takes Tony Blair’s advice and makes Middle East peacemaking the top foreign priority of his new administration, it is uncertain that she would bring to the table anything different. What is certain is that some of the parties to any revamped peace process would question her impartiality.

Clinton’s appointment to such a high-profile role could also cause problems within the White House and the Democratic Party. Obama’s more liberal advisers will worry that she may start to build a rival power base as the shine comes off the president. Her supposed aim would be to position herself for another presidential bid.

And then there is the question of the vice-president. As long-serving chairperson of the Senate foreign relations committee, Joe Biden can and does claim far deeper and wider foreign policy expertise. When Obama tapped him for the vice-presidency Biden made clear that he was not going to take a back seat.

According to Tony Blinken, an Obama adviser quoted by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, Biden told Obama that he didn’t want the job “to be the ceremonial, go-to-funerals-and-weddings thing”. He wanted influence and access and would expect to be involved in all big policy decision, especially on foreign policy issues.

Given Obama’s limited experience of foreign affairs and his busy domestic agenda some Washington observers suggest Biden could become the White House point man on foreign policy, with more clout than either the secretary of state or the national security adviser.

All the same, the recurring motif of Clinton’s career has been her power to bounce back and surprise detractors. None of the other possible candidates for secretary of state can match her high-profile reputation. None, arguably, has her political strengths. And none has her ability, sometimes less than admirable, to adjust her beliefs to changed circumstances.—

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