Clinton could be mixed blessing as No. 1 diplomat

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- During the Democrats' quarrelsome nominating contest, Hillary Rodham Clinton argued that she, and not upstart rival Barack Obama, had more impressive credentials as a statesman: familiarity with world leaders and problems, toughness under fire.

Now that she's under consideration to be Obama's pick as the nation's top diplomat, that resume might come in handy. Or not.

The prospect of the New York Democrat becoming the face of American diplomacy suggests that Obama is serious about assembling a "team of rivals" in the fashion of Abraham Lincoln's wartime Cabinet, and that he is not worried about Clinton's wattage outshining his own.

In equal measure, her possible selection as secretary of state raises red flags for allies and opponents alike.

At the top of the list of negatives is suspicion that Clinton would pursue her own agenda or mount rearguard campaigns inside the Obama administration. She was accused, perhaps unfairly at times, of doing that as first lady.

"I don't see him wanting her there, because she would be an independent actor," said Ray DuBois, a former Pentagon management and personnel official under President George W. Bush. He added that he doesn't think Clinton really wants the job. "It could work, but my instincts say no."

Then there is the potential minefield of husband Bill Clinton's international aid and development efforts and tangled business dealings, plus his ambition and outsize persona.

Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1994 to 1997, sees the former first lady as an attractive prospect, in part because she has the stature to be an effective voice abroad.

"I think it would be an outstanding selection because she really does understand foreign policy issues," he said. "The Clinton name obviously opens a lot of doors in international policy, and there's a lot of goodwill associated with that name, which I think is going to be particularly important as you try to repair relations around the world."

Clinton herself has not always appeared statesmanlike. As first lady she kissed Yasser Arafat's wife, and by doing so seemed to endorse Mrs. Arafat's anti-Israel remarks.

Clinton was an activist first lady and took a keen interest in foreign policy. She traveled to more than 80 countries - with her husband and alone - to promote U.S. policy and the cause of women and children.

She also helped herself to a bit of extra credit along the way.

Clinton has taken credit for negotiating open borders for refugees fleeing Kosovo, standing up to the Chinese government over women's rights, and flying into Bosnia when it was too dangerous to send the president.

For years, Clinton has asserted she made a difference in achieving peace in Northern Ireland, but some critics said her role was more symbolic than substantive.

In a December 2007 interview with ABC News, Clinton said: "In just the last few weeks, the new leaders of the Northern Ireland government, Dr. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, made a special effort to see me. Why? Because I helped in that process, not just standing by and witnessing, but actually getting my hands into it, creating opportunities for people on both sides of the sectarian divide to come together."

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee she visited Iraq and other countries and is well versed in the diplomatic fallout from the unpopular Iraq war and Bush administration policies in the global hunt for terrorists.

She differed with Obama over the war during their primary contest. Clinton was forced to repeatedly defend her 2002 Senate vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but security improvements in Iraq now mean the two substantially agree on what to do from here.

Obama still vows to withdraw U.S. troops from combat in 16 months or less. But top aides quietly point to escape clauses he has sprinkled into documents and interviews. Numerous outside observers think he is likely to take a more deliberate approach to disengagement and keep diplomatic pressure on the unsteady Iraq government to do more for itself.

James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, calls Clinton a realist on Iraq and other issues.

"She's not pollyanna-ish about the world," he said, and could be effective in promoting U.S. interests.

"You could do a lot worse. She's obviously well-known, she's got a strong personality, she'd be a good negotiator."

Likewise, foreign policy hawk Danielle Pletka at the American Enterprise Institute calls Clinton's drive and discipline a good match for the job. "She's a grown-up," Pletka said.

The symbolism of a woman and former rival in one of the most visible jobs in American government is probably the least reason Obama might choose her, and says little about how well she would perform, said Michael O'Hanlon, defense and foreign policy analyst at the center-left Brookings Institution.

"Obama is already a symbol," O'Hanlon said. "The reason to consider her is because she's so darn smart, because she is competent, because he knows her and he believes they can have honest disagreements as well as cooperate on most issues when they do agree."

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