Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

Clinton Defines Turf, Flexes Muscle: East Asia Trip My Choice

Posted: Updated:

Among the more gossipy subplots of Hillary Clinton's early weeks as Secretary of State has been the way in which the foreign policy spheres of influence have been distributed around her. Dick Morris -- a particularly brash Clinton critic -- opined in a recent column that the Secretary of State "is finding that her job description is dissolving under her feet" with Vice President Joseph Biden visiting Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke given the Afghanistan and Pakistan portfolio, and former Sen. George Mitchell appointed to oversee Arab-Israeli relations.

Poor Hillary, the logic follows, relegated to the non-sexy assignment of ... East Asia.

Well, on Friday, Clinton not only took pride and ownership of that particular assignment, she reasserted, however subtly, her position in the foreign policy hierarchy above both Holbrooke and Mitchell.

Speaking at the Asia Society just days before she heads to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia, Clinton said that going to East Asia first was her choice and an "easy" one at that. "I believe it demonstrates clearly that our new administration wants to focus a lot of time and energy working with Asian partners," she told attendees.

Later, Clinton said that on the first day she was at State, "both President Obama and Vice President Biden came... to make the announcements that I had asked them to do: naming George Mitchell as our special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as our special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan."

It wasn't entirely clear whether she meant that she asked Obama or Biden to come to the State Department, or whether she asked the president and vice president to name those two specific envoys. Noel Clay, a spokesman for the State Department said, when asked for clarification: "I wouldn't venture to try and guess what she said there. But what I will do is show you the remarks she made when introducing the two [envoys]: 'It's my great honor to introduce the man who the President and I have asked to be the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace.'"

Either way, the remarks seem to beat back the notion that Clinton is feeling marginalized or unhappy with her current purview. (It was her choice, after all). They also underscore just how crowded the top echelon of Obama's foreign policy team is, as currently structured. The decision to subcontract large swaths of diplomatic responsibilities was hailed as a practical recognition of just how many problems there are abroad. But it also complicates the chain of command. As Ben Smith wrote back when the announcements were made, Mitchell and Holbrooke will be reporting to both Obama and Clinton.

Here is the relevant transcript from Clinton's Friday event:

Question: What [do] you think is the significance of having your first rip as Secretary of State to Asia and not somewhere else?

Clinton: I believe it demonstrates clearly that our new administration wants to focus a lot of time and energy working with Asian partners and all the nations in the Pacific region because we know that so much of our future depends upon our relationships there. And we equally know that our capacity to solve a lot of the global challenges that we are confronting depends upon decisions that are made there.

So it was an easy choice for me to make. Obviously we are focused on the many problems that exist today that we are confronting. Right off the bat, actually the very first day I walked into the State Department and the second day of his administration, both President Obama and Vice President Biden came to the State Department to make the announcements that I had asked them to do: naming George Mitchell as our special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrook as our special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. So clearly we are focused on many parts of the world...