WORLD NOVEMBER 16, 2009
When Barack Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, the typical reaction came in two stages. The first was to think it was nuts. How could two blood rivals possibly make good foreign policy together? The second, a reconsideration, was to think it a stroke of genius. Secretary of state is a job that demands extreme dedication and diligence, requiring its occupant to learn the fine details of everything from the Kashmir dispute to Taiwanese independence--and to articulate U.S. policy with flawless precision. Who could be better for this task than Clinton? As a senator, after all, she had made her name as a policy wonk who actually enjoyed reading to the end of her briefing books--and one who, moreover, was known for an almost animatronic ability to stay on message. Barack Obama is said to have marveled at her relentless message discipline over two dozen Democratic primary debates. In selecting her a year ago, The New York Times reported, aides said he “recognized that Clinton had far more discipline and focus than her husband.”
A year later, Obama might be rethinking that assumption. The hallmark of Hillary’s tenure as America’s top diplomat has hardly been robotic precision. It has instead been a curious propensity for public statements that require amendment, clarification, and implicit retraction--as illustrated, most recently, by comments she made about Israeli settlement policy that reportedly baffled even her own aides. Perhaps because she is a smart and independent-minded woman, Hillary has taken a self-consciously blunt-speaking approach to her job and shows no sign of apologizing for it. “She’s candid,” says State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “And, if you look at the response she’s received around the world, I think most people appreciate it.” But it’s not a style in keeping with a White House that generally demands complete message control. For a president who hates drama, Barack Obama has installed a secretary of state who keeps creating it. A closer look at her recent history suggests that perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised.
The first sign that Hillary’s lips might be surprisingly loose came on her very first official trip--a swing through Asia in February. Aboard her government jet, Clinton spoke with reporters about prospects for the replacement of the ailing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The longtime diplomatic writers were startled; Clinton had broken what the Times called “an informal taboo” on the subject, which, tellingly, neither she nor top Obama officials seem to have publicly revisited since. More dramatically, on that same trip, Hillary unexpectedly dismissed the role of human rights in U.S.-China relations. Such concerns, she explained, “can’t interfere” with issues like global warming and the economy. “[W]e pretty much know what [Chinese leaders] are going to say” anyway, she shrugged. Human rights advocates were appalled, and State Department officials traveling with her reportedly debated whether she had been refreshingly candid or had committed a colossal blunder.
More memorable, if less consequential, was Clinton’s August trip to Africa, which featured a town-hall-style meeting in Congo. Tired and frayed after several days of travel on the continent, Hillary lost her patience with a questioner who asked her husband’s view of an obscure World Bank policy. “My husband is not secretary of state, I am,” she snapped. “I am not going to be channeling my husband.” Clinton’s aides initially suggested that a mistranslation was to blame--that, in fact, the questioner had inquired about Barack Obama’s views, not Bill Clinton’s. That turned out not to be the case. Predictably, a media frenzy obscured the message of Hillary’s visit (which included spotlighting the use of sex crimes as a tool of war in Central Africa). After so many years in the public eye, however, Hillary should have appreciated the distracting effect her quick temper would have.
There have been other curious rhetorical flourishes. Speaking again about North Korea, Clinton likened the country to an “unruly teenager” who throws periodic tantrums. While her observation is correct, the language was jarring coming from a government official--particularly when it emerged that Bill Clinton was, at that same time, arranging a visit to Pyongyang to accept the release of two detained American journalists. Then there was her recent visit to Pakistan. While there, Hillary admirably parried anti-American abuse in public forums, but the pressure pushed her into a comment that undercut her mission. During one meeting with several ornery Pakistani journalists, Clinton “appeared to get annoyed,” as one local paper wrote, and snapped that she found it “hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where [Al Qaeda leaders] are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.” After her rejoinder got a testy reception in the Pakistani media, Hillary “carefully scaled back her comments,” as the Associated Press wrote, insisting that she didn’t believe Pakistan harbors terrorists. Crowley says Clinton has no regrets. “To the extent that there is a change in approach to the world,” he says, “it involves a genuine dialogue, not just a delivery of polite diplomatic points.”
Though none of these comments had a tangible impact on U.S. foreign policy, the same can’t be said about two episodes in which Clinton veered away from the White House’s message on the Middle East peace process. The first came in May, when Clinton revealed at a press conference that Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze included any “natural growth” within existing settlements. The circumstances remain murky, but two sources with detailed knowledge of the U.S.-Israeli relationship say that the Obama team was not yet prepared to make public this departure from Bush-era policy. Rather than leave his secretary of state twisting in the wind, says one of the sources, Obama wound up repeating her formulation a few days later, touching off months of tension with the Israelis.
The second flap occurred on November 1 in Jerusalem, where Clinton abruptly reversed course on settlements--this time saying that a proposal by the Netanyahu government that falls short of the freeze Obama has sought nevertheless amounts to an “unprecedented” concession by Israel. The formulation--which infuriated Arab leaders and made it seem that Obama had surrendered to Netanyahu--had not been endorsed by the White House, which was not pleased with the statement. The Times subsequently reported that even Clinton’s aides considered the remark poorly worded. “Our leading diplomat is very undiplomatic,” says a Democratic official with a Jewish organization in Washington. “Sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes it’s not.”
En route to Egypt earlier this month, Hillary Clinton appeared in the press cabin of her plane bearing chocolates for her press corps. Not that she has much love for them: On one seven-day trip earlier this year, she spoke to journalists just once. It’s an old Hillary duality--disdain for the media coupled with occasional efforts at outreach. When she campaigned through Iowa as a presidential candidate, she would sometimes appear on her press bus--where she almost never made herself available for questions--to pass out bagels and coffee to reporters.
It’s a reminder that, in some ways, Hillary the candidate never disappeared. When Clinton travels the world, her trips can have a campaign-like feel. She still keeps an exhausting schedule of public events and town halls--only now in destinations like Beijing and Kinshasa instead of Concord and Ottumwa. Following her are some familiar faces from the old Hillaryland gang, including her confidante and personal aide, Huma Abedin, and her former Senate press secretary, Philippe Reines. (Her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, typically remains in Washington, leaving deputy chief of staff Jake Sullivan to oversee the road show.)
Perhaps the campaign feel helps to explain some of Hillary’s verbal burps. While many people think of Clinton as scripted and cautious, other facets of her personality--temper, self-assurance, sarcasm--have always broken through her robotic façade. Indeed, the hyper-disciplined Hillary of memory is an exaggeration. When she was a presidential candidate, Clinton’s mouth repeatedly caused her trouble. Think back: There was her surprisingly inept stumble at a pivotal debate on the subject of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants; her false recollection of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia in the 1990s; her angry outburst of “shame on you, Barack Obama!” at an Ohio press conference; and her utterly tone-deaf invocation of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 assassination as a reason for continuing her campaign even after Obama had effectively sewn up the Democratic nomination. “Hillary’s message discipline is more myth than reality,” says one former aide to her 2008 presidential campaign. “The campaign lived in regular fear that she’d say something to throw us off message.”
Mistakes on the trail can cost votes. But loose talk in diplomacy can make it hard for enemies and allies alike to know what’s coming off the cuff and what represents official U.S. policy. Which is why Barack Obama may be pining for the Hillary Clinton he thought he knew.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.