Obama-Clinton Foreign Policy: Act One

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, announces a new comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Friday, March 27, 2009, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington.(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) AP

A year ago the American people said "yes" to Barack Obama. In a surprise move the new president asked his political rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to be his secretary of state. Clinton said "yes" to Obama. So bright are the spotlights that follow Clinton that almost no one is bothering to wait the usual one year grace period before handing out performance reviews. Ten months in office, Clinton has been the subject of a TIME magazine cover story, a big spread in Vogue and is being profiled by 60 Minutes.

Almost everywhere Mr. Obama and Secretary Clinton have travelled they have been received as a breath of fresh air after eight years of the Bush administration. Compared to former President George W. Bush the new team in Washington seemed to be leaders who would listen, who would be inclusive, and who wanted partners. All of that was a welcome state of affairs in foreign capitals. On many key issues, the reaction seems to be: we like your style but we're not persuaded about the substance.

Good will, not surprisingly, does not always translate into automatic support. This week, Chinese leaders made clear to Mr. Obama their views do not coincide with Washington's on climate change or on Iran. The administration's call for a complete settlement freeze by the Israelis has been openly rejected by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

A willingness to sit down and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons program has been similarly rebuffed by Tehran. Iran's recalcitrance towards Washington does not seem to have changed with Mr. Obama's victory a year ago. North Korea as well has spent the past year continuing its stubborn refusal to return to the six party talks, although positive signals about re-engagement between Washington and Pyongyang soon may bear fruit when Special envoy Stephen Bosworth goes to Pyongyang for talks.

Reformulating policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan has dominated the Obama administration's agenda from the beginning and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was named to spearhead the diplomatic effort to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But ten months on, the outcome is very much in doubt. Hamid Karzai "won" re-election as president of Afghanistan but the voting was tainted and corruption at the highest levels in Kabul remains a huge concern.

More positive results have been registered with Russia where changes in America's missile defense plans may have brought Moscow and Washington closer on several key issues and in Burma, where senior American officials have met with leaders in the ruling junta and with Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader, even though she continues to be under house arrest.

While Mr. Obama of course retains final authority on these policies, he also is preoccupied with health care legislation and the state of the economy. Thus, it is his secretary of state who remains the focal point on foreign policy. In her first ten months in office Hillary Rodham Clinton has been speed dating her way from one foreign capital to another. Clinton has made fifteen trips, visited more than forty countries and logged over 175,000 miles.

When Hillary Clinton travels her staff plans it like a political candidate's campaign swing. The schedule has its share of meetings with foreign ministers and other senior officials but public events such as meetings with civil society leaders, women's groups and visits to college campuses to meet and take questions from students are also standard features on her travels. There is always time allotted for interviews with journalists, both those travelling with her and those locally based. On a recent trip to Pakistan and Morocco Clinton did thirteen separate interviews. Last week in Berlin she sat down with five different reporters. Interviews play to the well-honed skills of a politician and Hillary Clinton seems to enjoy the give and take-not to mention the exposure.

All of which boils down to: so far, so good.

After another six months, however, no one will be focused on comparing differences in style to the Bush administration. They are less likely to be concerned about Clinton's meetings with civil society leaders and more likely to start drawing some conclusions about her effectiveness as a diplomat.

Will Russia back U.S. led efforts for tougher sanctions on Iran? Is North Korea back at the negotiating table? Was the Obama administration's effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to re-start negotiations a success? Has China been helpful on Iran or Sudan?
Is President Karzai's government in Kabul any less corrupt?

Hillary Clinton will surely remain in the spotlight but the next round of assessments will be evaluating her not as a former presidential candidate but as America's chief diplomat. The good news is there is no shortage of problems waiting for her to leave her mark.

  • Charles Wolfson

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