THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary Clinton Does 185,731 Miles and Asks If I Was a Party Crasher

Hillary Clinton would have probably flown more miles this year had she not badly injured her wrist in a nasty State Department parking lot fall, but she still logged a very impressive 185,731 in flight miles so far this year.

Andrea Mitchell, master of ceremonies at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition 2009 Tribute Dinner and senior diplomatic correspondent for NBC News, told me that she called State and got the very latest numbers as Secretary Clinton was just back from Brussels. Boeing Corporate President James Bell said, "and thanks for flying all those miles on Boeing."

Hillary Clinton was last night the most compelling and comfortably confident I have seen her since taking on the responsibility of serving as Barack Obama's Secretary of State.

hillary clinton impressive.jpg

When I was standing in a threesome with Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Eric Schwartz and the USGLC's John Glenn at the very end of a long line waiting to get through security into the thousand person dinner at DC's Grand Hyatt, I saw Hillary Clinton and her entourage pass us by. She caught me eye and I said, "Any chance you can help us out?"

Hillary's reply: "Oh, are you guys trying to crash the party and cause some trouble?"

Hillary Clinton was relaxed off stage and on last evening -- and my view is that she knows well and enjoys speaking about the nuances of American "smart power" as opposed to the "hard power" national security portfolio.

Clinton is sometimes characterized as a liberal hawk, an interventionist, a Democratic neocon, a person who clings a little too tightly to rhetoric of "coersive diplomacy." But last night I saw and heard a different Secretary of State than the one who seems to tilt easily towards force and triggers.

Clinton explained more fairly and fully the concept of "smart power" than I had heard in any of her speeches of late. She talked about elevating the roles of "diplomacy" and "development" alongside the "third D" of "defense."

She stated that the world's challenges today -- the big ones -- are so sizeable that "no nation can meet today's challenges -- or seize its opportunities -- alone. Leadership in this era means stepping up to the plate and galvanizing others to do the same." She is right. She didn't offer swagger or platitudes about American exceptionalism. She talked about creating lasting, sustained change in the international system in concert with other stewards of the global order.

There was one disappointment in her talk, a mistake that she should not continue to make.

Clinton expressed her support, obviously, of the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan -- noting that the U.S. would soon send 30,000 troops to buttress those already in theater, along with another 7,000 pledged troops for ISAF allies. But then she said:

When I became Secretary of State, there were about 320 civilians in Afghanistan, and many of them were on six-month tours. And we have been on the path to more than tripling that number, and we have one-year tours and we have very specific assignments for the people who are being sent to Afghanistan.

This is all true -- but what I have learned in the last week is that Secretary Clinton's own SCRS group (called the Secretary's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization) -- which is designed to be the short term, applied shock therapy for rapidly stabilizing conflict zones and which is considered by some to be the first solid, tangible deliverable in the State Department's "smart power" arsenal is not being used by Secretary Clinton and her team in Afghanistan.

Instead, the 300-plus civilian personnel being ramped up to approximately 900 civilians mentioned by Clinton last night at this "smart power" tribute dinner largely supported by private businesses and NGOS are "private contractors" hired by State.

There are rumors of internal bureaucratic strife between Deputy Secretary of State for Management Jack Lew and the folks who run SCRS, which reports directly to the Secretary, as well as with AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke who according to several State Department sources wanted none of the internally trained professionals ready to go into the field and wanted to hire contractors on the outside.

There is probably more to the back story on this than I have at the moment, but last evening's focus on "smart power" seemed perfectly designed to highlight the success and personnel output that Secretary Clinton's SCRS (just say it Secretary Clinton -- the Secretary's Coordinator for Reconstruction and Development. . .) could have for her Department. As it is those emerging from the program are being dispersed here and there around the world -- but not in Afghanistan.

But beyond this bureaucratic hiccup, Hillary Clinton's focus in her speech on women, girls' education, health, development, poverty, water, and the like -- her mention of a "Global Partnership Initiative" in which the Department of State and US AID had partnered with General Mills and African farmers in 15 Sub-Saharan nations to provide healthy and fortified foods; her salute the Millennium Development Goals and the development work of the Millennium Challenge Corporation; her passion about global justice, international law, and human rights were all on display last night.

Clinton said that her Department of State would re-establish and re-brand US AID as the "premier development agency in the world."

Hillary Clinton also revealed strategic alliances with Google's Eric Schmidt, Chairman of the Board of the New America Foundation, who recently committed to digitize all of the Iraqi National Museum archives and artworks as well as to launch an Iraq Government YouTube Channel to promote transparency in government.

Clinton bundled all of this into what she termed "21st Century Statecraft". She noted that even at the height of the Cold War with many a nuclear warhead pointed at each other, the Soviets and Americans had never stopped talking (she might consider then a shift in US-Cuba interactions?).

Bottom line last night was that Clinton was on top of this portfolio. Global justice, climate change, development, human rights, women's rights -- all of this is her thing.

Lately, I have felt that Hillary Clinton has been trying to prove herself in the hard power arena -- competing with Generals and war counselors to Obama to show that she too could hang on the tough challenges of Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

This reminds me of the old Soviet studies days when scholars, government officials, and other public intellectuals who watched for tiny shifts in Politburo politics or who were expert in the U.S.-Soviet arms race -- or arms reduction talks -- were at the highest rung of national security experts. Those with expertise in anything else -- like Japan at that time, or Latin America -- were lesser mortals.

I attended and heard an interesting speech that Hillary Clinton gave on the Obama administration's nuclear non-proliferation efforts for the US Institute of Peace -- and she just didn't have any of the confidence or ease of thought that she demonstrated last night. She misstated a key point in her speech then that the US would oppose any new expansion of full fuel cycle capacity in the world (implying this to be the case even if consistent with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). She also recently experienced rough, unforgiving encounters during trips to Pakistan and Israel/Palestine.

But these aren't her strong suit themes.

After watching Hillary Clinton last night, I saw that she has a lot to say and much depth in the question of how to make "smart power" something more than a thin or vapid phrase. She has thought about this stuff and is on to something in the way that she frames "21st century statecraft."

Kudos to Clinton and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition last night for an impressive dinner -- that featured at the end young Republican Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL) speaking on behalf of many other Congressman and US Senators in a letter to the President calling for a robust increase in America's foreign aid and international engagement budgets.

This is a big change. Aaron Schock has a passport -- and he's convincing many of his colleagues to come out of the dark ages and recognize the importance of U.S. global engagement.

Hillary's speech, on the whole, gets my applause -- and Aaron Schock was a great cap on a very impressive, internationalist evening.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note

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