Images of the charred U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, flashed around the world as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entered the Treaty Room in Washington and spoke about the deaths of four Americans there.
“Today, many Americans are asking, indeed I asked myself, how could this happen?” Clinton said. “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and at times how confounding the world can be.”
As she visits Algeria and the Balkans on what may be one of her last overseas trips as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton is also confronting her legacy, and whether it will be framed by the Benghazi tragedy or her vision that American foreign policy in the 21st Century must utilize social media, coalition- building and export promotion as well as military power.
“It’s no longer enough to be strong,” Clinton wrote in July in the New Statesman. “Great powers also have to be savvy and persuasive. To do that, we need to expand our foreign policy toolbox, integrate every asset and partner, and fundamentally change the way we do business.”
She has been one of the world’s most recognizable figures for more than 20 years. She turned 65 on Oct. 26, and the end of this phase of her public life is prompting questions about whether the next one might include a longer stay at the State Department or another run for the White House.
While her energy and endurance -- more than 918,000 miles to 112 countries over 384 travel days counting her current trip -- in the face of personal and political trials have made her one of the nation’s most admired figures, her tenure now will be examined for lasting accomplishments.
Her longer view, though, is obscured by the short attention span and limited peripheral vision of the Internet Age, and by the partisan politics of the presidential campaign.
“With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, an opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life and in economic life in the Middle East,” said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the Oct. 22 debate with President Barack Obama. “But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events.”
Clinton critics, such as Hoover Institution senior fellow Fouad Ajami, don’t see how Clinton’s extensive travels have advanced U.S. interests. Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, questions her shift of resources to Asia and a trans-Pacific free-trade accord she promotes. Others say a control-conscious White House has shut her out of some top-drawer policy decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror.
Clinton admirers, such as Leslie Gelb, a former State Department and Pentagon official, say the negative reviews ignore more than 717 White House meetings, her push for military intervention in Libya and how she has handled the strained U.S. relationship with Pakistan. They say the miles she travels -- more than 30,000 to Russia and the South Pacific in September alone -- are an investment in rebuilding ties essential to U.S. interests.
The debate reflects a fundamental division in Washington and beyond over what constitutes American power in the 21st Century, how it’s evolving and how it should be wielded as other countries grow stronger and new players arise.
New players include state-backed hedge funds along with cybercrime and cyberespionage, transnational threats such as piracy and climate change and the unpredictable “hive-mind” of restive populations linked by social media.
Clinton thinks the “real power drivers” now go beyond military strength to include social media such as Menlo Park, California-based Facebook Inc. (FB), said Jake Sullivan, the State Department’s director of policy planning. They also include managing the resentments of millions of unemployed young people worldwide, using aid to help stabilize shaky nuclear powers such as Pakistan and building coalitions, he said.
Clinton and her advisers say that through new partnerships, old alliances, and innovative tools, not just military might, they aim to shape U.S. foreign policy for many years.
Those represent “major changes in the way State does business,” Sullivan said. “The results of that will be measured over a generation. They won’t be measured over four years.”
The new global dynamics, Clinton says, require that U.S. power be used in more creative ways. That vision will shape her legacy long after news cycles cease to be dominated by the Benghazi attack, her aides say. Clinton’s longer view is shared by Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of State under President George W. Bush.
“When Mrs. Clinton came into office, it had been quite clear that the U.S. had been overly dependent on our hard power and neglected other aspects of our power, whether it’s sports, trade, education exchanges,” Armitage said in an interview.
Clinton understands that “smart power” means “we’ve got to be active not just with servicemen and women, but we’ve got to be active with our ideas and values,” Armitage said.
If persuasion is one of Clinton’s yardsticks for success, though, it’s been a tough three and a half years.
Iran continues to pursue a suspected nuclear weapons program in the face of U.S.-led sanctions, heightening tensions between the White House and Israeli leaders, who say the window for diplomacy and sanctions is closing.
Longstanding efforts to induce North Korea to renounce its nuclear program have failed so far. The 2009 attempt to “reset” relations with Russia hasn’t dispelled persistent friction over issues such as missile defense and the conflict in Syria.
In Pakistan, billions of dollars in aid and three years of pushing leaders to crack down on the militants who target NATO troops in Afghanistan have produced only modest progress.
Afghanistan remains bedeviled by the Taliban, and State Department efforts to curb corruption, improve governance and better the lot of women have moved slowly, officials acknowledge.
The Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is moribund. In Iraq, ethnic and sectarian violence and Iran’s new influence undermine administration claims that the U.S. has left the country stable enough to thrive on its estimated 143 billion barrels of oil reserves.
There’s no clear administration strategy for coping with unrest in nations such as Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. Traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are deeply unsettled by the U.S. backing for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
“I’ve seen plenty of Gulf Arabs nervous, but never more so when we were perceived to have thrown Mubarak under the bus,” said veteran diplomat Strobe Talbott, a member of Clinton’s advisory board. “It was not a thing of beauty diplomatically.”
Clinton is working within an administration that Gelb calls “highly centralized” in its decision-making. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor’s e-mailed description is that “foreign policy decisions are ultimately made by the president, but this is very much a team sport.”
Gelb and others say Clinton has great freedom abroad and within her agency. She’s reorganized the State Department and forged closer ties to the Pentagon by adding more personnel exchanges. She’s had State work closely with the Treasury Department and the U.S. Trade Representative, including on China policy and boosting American exports.
Continuing a trend that the first Bush administration started at the end of the Cold War, she has pushed U.S. embassies to make trade and promoting American business a greater part of diplomacy, taken over some tasks that used to be Commerce Department business and hired a chief economist.
Because Clinton sees social media as a way for the U.S. to bypass leaders and speak directly to people overseas, she has stressed the importance of new media and information technology. Her department and its embassies now have 195 accounts with San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. and 290 Facebook pages with 15 million subscribers and tens of millions more visitors.
Her department has spent $75 million on training and technology contracts for entrepreneurs to help activists in repressive countries communicate and avoid detection. In August, the department challenged the public to submit ideas on how smart phones can support arms-control efforts.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, credits Clinton for her focus on the “new and very difficult, complex dispersed reality of power,” which he said differs from “the previous century, where the enemy was clearly defined and the challenge was self-evident.”
Many of Clinton’s themes came together in a January 2011 address to the Arab world in Qatar, where she told leaders they had to heed the frustrations of unemployed youth and the calls for greater political freedom, opportunity and economic reform.
“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she said. It was less than a month after a Tunisian fruit vendor had set himself on fire, and a day before the country’s president was ousted. Two weeks later, protests in Egypt erupted.
Even supporters such as Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, acknowledge that Clinton has no major foreign policy achievements -- no deal with Iran or North Korea, no Mideast peace agreement.
Still, said State Department official Sullivan: “When people look back 10 or 15 years from now, they’ll say, OK, she saw the trends coming and she did something about them.”
Some of Clinton’s foreign policy challenges have erupted unexpectedly -- so-called Black Swans in financial slang. At times, veteran diplomat Talbott said, there have been so many that they have seemed more “like a black cloud.”
Clinton applies an intense work ethic to this cloud, using long hours on flights to work through encyclopedia-thick briefing binders or confer with Washington and other capitals. One former aide confessed he often found reasons to fly to foreign events early to get a respite from the nonstop work on the secretary’s plane.
The relentless travel is about “building personal relationships,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former director of policy planning, now a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
That attitude is the legacy of more than 40 years in retail politics with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, also a master at creating networks, showing up and showing you care.
The secretary of state’s investment of time and energy in Southeast Asia has “made a difference,” particularly in the opening of Myanmar, where former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi now sits in parliament, said Mathews.
After the crisis over blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Clinton told Bloomberg Radio that a resolution was possible because of work she and others had done with China to “create a level of personal relationships and understandings between individuals and our government institutions.”
Personal ties don’t always yield benefits, though. Clinton has known Hamid Karzai since her days as a senator from New York, yet the Afghan president has sometimes been a prickly partner, at one point accusing the West of fraud in his country’s elections and threatening to join the Taliban.
Still, Clinton sees value in dialogues she created with India, Brazil and China, and in forming an alliance of small Southeast Asian countries along the lower Mekong River.
Those networks will last long after Clinton is gone, her aides say. “These are the types of things it will now take an affirmative decision to turn off,” said Andrew Shapiro, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs. “And why would you?”
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