OK, it is an artificial deadline but that hasn't stopped questions from being asked about how Hillary Rodham Clinton is doing as America's 67th secretary of state. After six months one can say in some cases it is the normal inside-the-beltway chatter, mere water cooler fodder for those who want to know who is up and who is down, especially since there is a new administration in town. However, there are those using the six month mark to ask more seriously whether Clinton has yet made any moves of consequence.
Clinton herself chose this week to take stock in what her aides billed as a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations. She began by recalling a bit of advice given to her early on by one of her (unnamed) predecessors: "Don't try to do too much. And it seemed like a wise admonition," Clinton said, "if only it were possible."
One of the cold hard facts of Clinton's daily life is having to deal with all of the well known litany of challenges from two wars to an ongoing world-wide recession and, as she noted, "they all threaten global stability and progress."
To help manage her many problems Clinton has gone back to a familiar model because one hallmark of her State Department has been a return to diplomacy by special envoy. This marks a return to a style favored during the administration of her husband, President Bill Clinton's administration and a distinctly different approach from the administration of President George W. Bush which largely shunned the use of special envoys. Virtually every major foreign policy front-burner issue has its own envoy, operating outside the normal state department bureaucratic structure. From the Middle East peace process and North Korea to Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan Clinton has chosen to place experienced outsiders in top policy jobs. Clinton has also named envoys for climate change, women's issues and European energy problems.
Secretary Clinton has also emphasized more coordination between the diplomacy practiced by her State Department and the development efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development which she also oversees. She speaks often of diplomacy, development and defense as the three pillars of America's national security policy. In an effort to get a better long term grasp on what is done on her watch, Clinton has instituted some new management reforms, the most ambitious of which is the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. This is taking a page from the Pentagon and is modeled on a similar process there, something she became familiar with as a senator on the Armed Services committee.
Hillary Rodham Clinton may be a diplomat now but it is no secret she is a politician at heart and, therefore, only a small surprise that in her big speech this week she took several rhetorical potshots at the recently departed Bush administration. "No doubt we lost some ground in recent years, but the damage is temporary. It's kind of like my (recently fractured) elbow-it's getting better every day." She said her aim was "a more flexible and pragmatic posture with our partners," adding "so we will not tell our partners to take it or leave it, nor will we insist that they're either with us or against us. In today's world, that's global malpractice."
If she demonstrated her political instincts are clearly intact, Clinton's rhetoric also touched on differences in policy including on the critical approach to the regime in Iran. "I believe, though, that the absence of the United States for much of the last eight years in these negotiations was a mistake. I think we outsourced our policy to Iran and, frankly, it didn't work very well. That's how I see it." For now, the Obama administration has left open the door to engagement but Clinton, who has said "the time for action is now," has also warned "The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely." How much time Mr. Obama and his secretary of state actually will give Tehran is still an open question.
Another hallmark of Clinton's early efforts include a new emphasis on issues related to climate change, to women's issues and to the inclusion of a number of rising global powers such as India, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and Indonesia in America's decision making process. On her current trip to India, for example, Clinton plans to discuss a broad agenda ranging from terrorism to climate change to the perils of doing business with Iran. She will also continue her already well-established practice of meeting with women's groups and doing events related to climate change.
Meanwhile the chattering classes in Washington's political and policy circles have been busy. If Clinton is having special envoys tend to everything, what is she doing? Does the recent move of Dennis Ross from the State Department to the National Security Council mean she is not in control of Iran policy? Has she been able to find a role for herself? Most of this chatter now falls into the inconsequential category.
There is plenty of time for Clinton to assert herself which is something she must do if, at the end of the day, she is to be thought of as a strong secretary of state. And there is one more thing. Clinton is carrying out the foreign policy of her boss, President Barack Obama. Whether Washington ends up having diplomatic engagement with Tehran or ends up having to resort to force to deal with Iran's nuclear program is a decision which will not be made in Foggy Bottom.