Clinton’s Exit Highlights Obama’s Weaknesses

With her old friend Senator John McCain attacking her and Senator Rand Paul asserting that she should have been fired, Hillary Clinton’s last appearances before Congress yesterday seemingly made for an ugly stage exit.

We see it differently.

In the hearings, Clinton displayed some of her best attributes. She was in command of the facts. She focused on what could be done better. She rose above ideology. And with flashes of both anger and sorrow, particularly at the memory of meeting the families of those killed in the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, she evoked the requisite pathos among her audience.

In short, the sessions reflected her tenure as secretary of state -- one defined by hard work, doggedness, precision and well-honed political instincts.

At the same time, she produced no big peace deals, new doctrines or major breakthroughs.

The question is whether those things were ever within her writ. President Barack Obama kept policy making within the White House, with the focus on engaging in drone warfare, winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program. He also gave the appearance of being not particularly interested in developing strong relationships with foreign leaders. And it’s pretty hard to remake the world when your own country is mired in debt, recession and political acrimony.

Quotidian Diplomacy

This left Clinton to focus on unglamorous, quotidian diplomacy: meeting with foreign officials, attending global forums, explaining America overseas. At that task, she excelled, performing the function Obama identified when first elected as essential to maintaining America’s position in the world -- nurturing relationships with other countries.

The value of Clinton’s cultivation of official ties was demonstrated by her role in lining up partners to fight Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and to support economic sanctions against Iran. It was essential to signaling the seriousness of the administration’s focus on Asia. The value was on display last spring, when Clinton helped persuade Chinese officials to let the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng go to the U.S. and, despite the crisis, managed to keep on track high-level economic and security talks. On the other hand, Clinton’s diplomacy couldn’t secure Chinese or Russian support for United Nations sanctions against Syria.

Perhaps her wider achievement was engaging in the kind of retail politics that defined her New York listening tours when she ran for the Senate. Instead of venturing to Buffalo, though, she found herself in town-hall meetings in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and Sao Paulo. She also pushed the State Department to embrace social media and promote Internet freedom.

This approach marked a larger understanding that power has dispersed beyond political and military leaders to the grass roots, newly empowered by technology. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Benghazi, was an avid practitioner of the retail statesmanship Clinton encouraged.

Certainly the U.S. should remain committed to this kind of diplomacy. It won’t succeed, however, without a clearer strategic vision and commitment emanating from the White House.

The Arab Spring is a depressing case in point. Lofty rhetoric such as Obama’s landmark June 2009 Cairo speech has been followed by fitful indifference -- one reason that public opinion toward the U.S. in several Muslim countries has soured since 2008, the final year of the George W. Bush administration. The plans Obama laid out to help Egypt in a May 2011 speech, for instance, have been disrupted by the country’s rocky transition to democracy, leaving foreign policy makers and their publics to guess at U.S. strategy moving forward.

Reaching Exhaustion

Given Obama’s preference for reacting to world events rather than trying to shape them, Clinton had almost no choice but to try to cover the waterfront, logging visits to a record-breaking 112 countries. As one of the senators in the hearings noted, she worked herself to exhaustion doing it.

Today, Clinton’s nominated successor, Senator John Kerry, is on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearings. Let’s hope that instead of sending him off in all directions at once, the president allows his new secretary of state to focus on a small number of well-articulated, and well-supported, foreign policy initiatives. First on our list would be coping with the Arab Spring.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at