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Why Hillary Can't Run on Her State Department Record

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Hillary Clinton's record as secretary of state became a hot-button issue this week after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Bloomberg Television that the Barack Obama administration's failed "reset" policy with Moscow was her "invention."

Here's why it matters: Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, gave an interview to Bloomberg View's Al Hunt in April in which he said holding up the “major accomplishments” from her State Department tenure would be a centerpiece of her campaign. Podesta may want to reconsider that plan. Running on Clinton's signature diplomatic initiatives is fraught with risks because, on closer inspection, most that he mentioned don’t hold up to scrutiny.

“She put together that sanctions package that’s led to at least the possibility of having a deal on the Iran nuclear program,” Podesta told Hunt in the interview, which was aired on PBS's "Charlie Rose" show. “That took very careful and longtime careful diplomacy."

In fact, the State Department under Clinton vigorously opposed almost all of the Iran sanctions passed by Congress while she was in office. Top officials, including  Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, openly advocated against many bills, including the sanctions on Iran’s central bank, which dealt the true crippling blow to the Tehran regime. The Senate passed that bill 100-0 and Obama reluctantly signed them into law. The State Department did implement them, but was criticized by lawmakers and advocacy groups for using waivers in the law to exempt several countries, including China and our allies Japan and South Korea.

Clinton can also expect to be pressed during the campaign over her involvement in the secret negotiations that led to the controversial Iran nuclear negotiations now nearing completion. Her deputy, William Burns, and her top foreign policy advisor, Jake Sullivan, held months of clandestine meetings with Iranian officials to set up the talks. In the run-up to her campaign announcement, Clinton was cautiously supportive of the nuclear talks; leaving herself some wiggle room by saying she won’t render a final judgment until the deal is done.

Podesta then went on to say that Clinton "restored America’s place in the world, which had been very badly battered through the previous administration.”  

While it’s true that global opinion of the U.S. soared when Barack Obama was first elected president, during Clinton's State Department tenure of 2009 to 2013 there was no measurable upswing in foreigners’ views of America, according to the Pew Research Center’s polling on global attitudes. In most major countries, approval of the U.S. actually went down by the time Clinton left office, including by 11 percentage points in each of France, Germany and the U.K.

A poll conducted in 33 countries by the BBC World Service just after Clinton stepped down as secretary found that overall world opinion of the U.S. by 2013 was the lowest since the presidency of George W. Bush. If Clinton wants to run on having polished America’s image abroad, she’ll be hard pressed to come up with data to back it up.

“She engineered the so-called 'pivot to Asia,’ ” Podesta continued. “Her first trip was to China.”

Clinton did lead parts of what the White House now calls the “rebalance” to Asia, but as Governor Scott Walker, a top Republican contender, pointed out last week, that policy has fallen well short of expectations.  With China building fake islands around the South China Sea and threatening to enforce an air-exclusion zone in the area, the pivot policy now looks inadequate.    

Along with Treasury Department officials, Clinton initiated a new strategic dialogue with China, but after several high-level summits, the effort has produced few if any tangible results. The State Department did succeed in creating an opening with Myanmar, an effort led by her top Asia official, Kurt Campbell. Unfortunately, the military junta has not eased up its brutal persecution of Muslim minorities, leading to a vast refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, and political reform has now slowed to a crawl.

“She put some new issues on the table for American diplomacy," Podesta went on, "including internet freedom, the importance of women’s rights as human rights, of LGBT rights as human rights, as part of our diplomatic package, which I think restored values to the way America projects its power around the world.”  

This is hard to square with the fact that, in her first visit to China, Clinton insisted that human rights advocacy “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Clinton's State Department repeatedly waived laws that would have cut aid to countries guilty of gross human rights violations, such as Egypt. This record won't be helped by Clinton’s family foundation having taken millions of dollars from foreign governments that systematically abuse their citizens and deny basic liberties to women.

Clinton did have several significant public initiatives meant to respond to the pressing social and economic issues of the new century. Her project on Internet freedom had some early success. Yet it was ultimately undermined by revelations from Edward Snowden and others, making her admonishment in 2011 of governments that “pry into the peaceful activities of their citizens” seem hypocritical.

Podesta also stressed Clinton's record on the struggle against violent religious extremism. “She was tough on terrorism, and participated in the decision that led up to the decisions that led up to the killing of Osama bin Laden,” he told Hunt.

While Clinton did support Obama's decision to launch the raid that killed bin Laden, it's misleading to claim that the State Department was a significant player in fighting terrorism. That effort was and is still led by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. And, of course, the worst terrorism blow to U.S. interests since the Sept. 11 attacks happened at a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, on her watch.

In addition, while the administration claimed in 2013 that terrorism was on the decline, the spread of the Islamic State, Boko Haram (which Clinton refused to put on the State Department’s terrorism list in 2011, despite requests from the Justice Department and the CIA) and other groups since then makes the victory laps of the first term look far too self-congratulatory.

Podesta avoided mentioning several other diplomatic initiatives Clinton led that turned out poorly. She was a major proponent of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in 2011, which has led to bloody chaos and a new bridgehead for the Islamic State. Her State Department led a failed diplomatic effort between Israel and the Palestinians. Her officials held years of talks with the Taliban that never bore fruit. She tried to build a moderate Syrian opposition. None of these are going to help her case that she deserves the Oval Office.

Some Republicans are already looking to turn Clinton's tenure as the nation's top diplomat into a liability.  "I think her time in the position of secretary of state is demonstrably one that lacks accomplishment, but that also has some real blemishes on it," said Carly Fiorina in April, just before announcing her own candidacy. 

Fiorina, of course, has relatively little international experience other than running a global company and serving on several government advisory boards. Neither do the other Republican primary candidates. Still, if Clinton is going to run on her foreign policy credentials, she will have to come up with a better narrative than the one the campaign has been peddling.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net