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Clinton Outlines Progressive Vision for Secretary of State

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/01/hillary-clinton-closeup.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ascension to secretary of state was never really in doubt. Even the few Republican critics at her Tuesday confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declined to say that they’d oppose her nomination, and a few of them said they’d support her when the committee votes at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday to send her nomination to the full Senate. And even though Clinton declined to give her specific thoughts on several controversial issues — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel among them — the picture that emerged from her eight-hour hearing was that of an energetic and progressive secretary of state prepared to reassert her department’s role in U.S. foreign policy.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Taking a high-altitude overview of her approach to statecraft, Clinton pledged to be principled but not ideological. She reasserted progressive shibboleths familiar to students of her Senate tenure and presidential campaign: the strengthening of American alliances and a move to a world of “more partners and fewer adversaries.” She embraced the term “Smart Power” as a catchphrase for the Obama administration, referring to an approach integrating military, economic, diplomatic and cultural solutions in a pragmatic fashion.

Much of Clinton’s testimony reflected a recognition that the ongoing world financial crises and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would constrain the Obama administration in ways that neither the Bush or Clinton administrations had to contend with. The rhetoric employed by Clinton was far less triumphalist than that of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, who described a diplomatic approach that “seeks to change the world itself” and even her husband’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who called America “the indispensable nation.” More fulsomely than either, Clinton tethered America’s fortunes to the world’s, saying, “America cannot solve the most pressing problems [of the world] on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America.” Nor did she use the phrase “war on terrorism” during her testimony, preferring to talk more specifically about combatting “Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”

Senators asked Clinton for specifics on the Obama administration’s approach to a multitude of foreign policy crises, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Israel and Iran. On all, she said that the administration would put together strategy reviews to provide a more deliberate way forward, but she did give some indications of the administration’s inclinations. She described the overall scope of the administration’s thinking on Afghanistan as “more-for-more,” meaning that the administration would seek burden-sharing measures from both NATO allies and the Afghan government while it raised the number of U.S. troops. Withdrawal from Iraq would come in “the context of the Status of Forces Agreement” that envisions total U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.

Clinton signaled departure from the Bush administration on a number of issues. On North Korea, she said she would be open to “bilateral talks” on nuclear disarmament that Bush has largely shunned. On Darfur, she opened the administration to the prospect of enforcing “no-fly zones” to repel Sudanese genocidaires. On nuclear proliferation, she embraced the prospect of reducing the U.S.’s own nuclear arsenal in order to pursue new global rules for nonproliferation. But she also appeared to back away from campaign promises made by Obama on the trail, declining to specify that she would enter into bilateral talks with the Iranians within the administration’s first year in office, despite Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the committee, pressing her. She also backed off one of her own campaign promises by indicating that the State Dept. wouldn’t ban private security contractors that protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If there was another theme that developed in the hearing, it was Clinton’s pledge — echoing those of her prospective Pentagon counterpart, Bob Gates; and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen — to reorient American foreign policy off its current military-dominant posture. She defined the task as not merely one of increasing the State Department’s budget, but “proving” that the department is up to the task of shouldering a greater burden by increasing its capacity for traditional development — she said USAID had been “decimated” by budget cuts — but for the new tasks of reconstruction and stability assistance to foreign countries. “It’s our job to prove that … in the 21st century, [we] can move with dispatch, be results-oriented,” she said, pledging to work closely with Gates. The counterinsurgency experts expected to follow Michele Flournoy into the Defense Dept.’s policy directorate will very likely welcome Clinton’s statements, which complement with many of their own critiques of the State Dept.

The hearing was not without controversy, all of which revolved around the charitable foundation set up by former President Bill Clinton, and the money it receives from foreign donors — which the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), warned could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, as foreign entities give the foundation money in an attempt to influence Secretary Clinton’s decision-making. Last month, the Obama transition sent a memorandum of understanding to the committee pledging annual disclosure of all contributors to the Foundation. Lugar urged Clinton to go further, with the Foundation “forswear[ing] new foreign contributions” in order to avoid the appearance of conflict. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual gathering of luminaries hosted by Bill Clinton to raise money and awareness for a host of global problems, ought to disclose its donors as well. Clinton replied that the Initiative does not receive donations itself — referring to it instead as a go-between connecting causes with donors — and said there was “no intention to amend” the memorandum of understanding.

Still, no senator voiced opposition to Clinton’s nomination to become the 67th secretary of state. Her task will now become the implementation of the approaches she laid out in her testimony; the further exploration of some of her inclinations; and the wisdom to change course if her desired policy choices fail.

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