Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ballyhooed address Wednesday to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington fell decidedly flat. For a few fairly obvious reasons.
First, President Barack Obama, like a number of other presidents before him, starting with Thomas Jefferson, is his own secretary of state. Second, Obama has already laid out America's new geopolitics, in a series of major addresses in Prague, Cairo, Moscow, and Accra, Ghana, as well as in announcements here in the US on new policies with regard to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Thus making Clinton's speech an exercise in echo. Third, Obama has other very powerful geopolitical counselors, including Vice President Joe Biden (whom a mutual friend told me when he was tapped for the ticket really wanted to be secretary of state), a coterie of special envoys reporting to the White House, and National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the former NATO commander and Marine Corps commandant.
And fourth, Clinton has been neatly mouse-trapped by Obama. She and her husband have been moved off the political gameboard by Team Obama. As I expected when I wrote about her appointment here on the Huffington Post when it was rumored last November.It was fairly obvious that Obama intended to be his own secretary of state when he addressed a crowd of more than 200,000 last summer in Berlin.
Hillary was hardly a geopolitical expert as a presidential candidate, despite what she claimed in the campaign. For one thing, she couldn't even get Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's name right.Here's what I wrote in November about her expertise:
Like most major politicians, she is not an expert in geopolitics, she's a gifted generalist. I was on many conference calls with Clinton during the primary season. On geopolitical matters, she generally deferred to her experts to provide the most substantive answers to questions, sometimes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, more frequently the former NATO commander, General Wes Clark. (I found Clark to be the most impressive performer of anyone on all the Clinton conference calls.) After listening to Clark give his answers, Clinton would then agree and add a few other points. Or not.
At one point, Clinton showed that she did not have a firm grasp of the concept of nuclear deterrence. Then there was the time she thought that Pervez Musharraf was running in the elections for Pakistan's parliament. (At that point, he'd recently been re-elected president.) At other points, as is very well known, she attacked Obama for his willingness to talk with boogeymen, as well as his desire to more aggressively prosecute Al Qaeda in its Pakistani safe havens.
And her explanation for her Senate vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was non-serious. She said she voted that way to further diplomacy. But it was already well known to the well-informed that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were determined to take down Saddam Hussein. That goal was at the heart of the neoconservative project which fatefully staffed the upper reaches of the administration.
The reality of Clinton's situation was driven home on Wednesday, if not earlier.By an odd coincidence, Obama spoke on universal health care in the White House Rose Garden at the same time as Clinton's long-awaited major foreign policy address elsewhere in Washington.
Obama chose the very time at which she was delivering her coming-out address to deliver remarks on health care reform from the Rose Garden of the White House. And the White House communications shop sent out Obama's prepared text just a few minutes after Hillary began her own address.
In addition, according to Foreign Policy, the Obama White House has blocked Hillary's attempt to add a long-time high-profile advisor to her staff as secretary of state. That is journalist-turned Clinton operative-turned journalist-turned-Clinton operative Sidney Blumenthal, a very old acquaintance of mine. More about that in a moment.Debating during the 2008 primaries, Obama declared that his geopolitical judgment is superior to Clinton's.
None of which means that she is not a major asset of the Obama Administration.
Hillary Clinton has a famous name which can be well employed on behalf of the United States. The fact that it has not been as of yet is more a function of the circumstances in which she finds herself.
Obama had a major and expansive agenda to lay out in a series of high-profile summits and speeches. Biden, for all his occasional foot-in-mouth tendencies, a function largely of his enthusiasms, is by far the more experienced and knowledgeable geopolitical player over Clinton, better able to read critical situations in various trouble spots. And Clinton suffered from her slow recovery from a broken elbow and consequent elbow surgery, occasioned by her nasty fall a month ago while hurrying to a meeting in the White House.Obama alternately charmed and confounded Russian leaders Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow.
Hillary did not have a lot of great choices following her once "inevitable" campaign for the White House. She wanted a leadership post in the Senate, but Majority Leader Harry Reid was not interested in that. And the upstart Obama actually garnered more endorsements from their Senate colleagues than did she.
While Hillary's "PUMA" redhots seemed to more ignorant observers to give her a base to challenge Obama in the 2012 primaries, that was never a serious prospect. The reality is that Obama had no trouble winning over Hillary's supporters against John McCain. And primary challenges in the Democratic Party are based on the left, not the right. Hillary, notwithstanding her actual background, had definitely positioned herself to the right as a staunch backer of the invasion of Iraq.Then there is the mousetrapping of the Clintons per se, which I laid out last November:
Obama's speech last month in Cairo sought to reset America's position with the Muslim and Arab worlds.
President Clinton has agreed to submit his future endeavours to strict ethics reviews by the White House counsel and the State Department's ethics office. Obama's White House counsel will be Greg Craig, a former Clinton Administration official who broke with the Clintons and leveled tough criticisms of them during the primary campaign.
Bill Clinton has agreed to publicly reveal all future contributors to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, something he flatly refused to do during the Democratic primaries. He's also agreed to publicly reveal "major" past contributors and has begun providing detailed information regarding his business dealings to Obama.
Bill Clinton has reportedly raised some $500 million for the Clinton Foundation, and another $15 billion or so for the Clinton Global Initiative. Both of which perform good works, in addition to the incalculable value they've afforded him from a public relations standpoint.
But those huge sums, especially for the Clinton Global Initiative, seem to come in large measure from foreign sources which may be very problematic. If they weren't, the Clintons would have revealed them during the Democratic primaries.
Bill Clinton is turning over a great deal of information about his operations to Barack Obama. In politics, that sort of knowledge is power.
Since Hillary Clinton has become secretary of state, as I anticipated, Bill Clinton has become a significantly diminished and much more controlled global player. Controlled, that is, by President Obama.
Now to the big Hillary speech that Obama rather neatly squelched.
The signature line, per her flacks? That America's adversaries "should never see America's willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited."
Which is essentially a slightly more hawkish paraphrase of what Obama -- author of military offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- has already said quite a few times.
Hillary did set herself up as something of a bad cop to Obama's good cop on Iran, where the protest movement in the wake of radical Islamist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's immediately proclaimed landslide re-election last month has, not surprisingly, been squelched.
"The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now," Clinton said Wednesday in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. "The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."
But that, too, is an echo of what Obama said only last week. And it is an endorsement of what she attacked in the primaries, namely direct engagement with Iran.
The fact is that Clinton has yet to develop her own powerful special portfolio. Between Obama, Biden, and the various special envoys reporting to the White House through Jones, if not Obama directly, there is little on any of the hot button fronts which Hillary can claim.
She is now off to India and China, potential areas for her policy dominance. Except that China, as America's biggest creditor (and source of import, which makes it dependent on America) is the purview of the treasury secretary, and Tim Geithner has already been all over the Chinese.
Hillary announced today that she will venture to Pakistan and Russia this fall. But Obama, Biden, Jones, and the special envoys have already all been over that ground repeatedly.
Other issues have perhaps been more vexing to Hillary.
Clinton went through a few miscues of late, which may -- or may not -- have played into the 86ing of her big speech Wednesday at the hands of Obama.
As the Washington Post recently reported, Hillary made a notable gaffe in May about Iran and its purported role in Nicaragua
She said then: "The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua. And you can only imagine what that's for."
The trouble is, there is no such embassy.
"We don't have an Iranian mega-embassy," a Nicaraguan official told the Post. "We have an ambassador in a rented house with his wife." State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was obliged to tell reporters Monday that "right now, there is no major Iranian presence in Nicaragua." That jibed with the view of one U.S. diplomat in Nicaragua, who told the Post, "There is no huge Iranian Embassy being built, as far as we can tell."
Then there were Hillary's bitter complaints a few days ago about her staffing.
Clinton complained about the difficulty in filling the directorship of the Agency for International Development, saying that the vetting process is murder.
She may also have been complaining about something else, her difficulty in getting her longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal into the State Department. Foreign Policy reports that the Obama White House has blocked Hillary's move to place Blumenthal on her personal staff as counselor, messagmeister, and speechwriter.
I've known Sidney Blumenthal for a long time. He was a prominent writer for the New Republic, then the New Yorker, and became deeply involved with the Clintons, promoting them heavily during Bill Clinton's run for the presidency and after. He ended up as a senior advisor in the White House, working closely with Hillary Clinton. After the Clinton White House days, he wrote books and wrote for the Guardian, and with the Clintons.
I stayed at Blumenthal's house in Washington when he was in his new politics ideologist phase, having been a booster of Gary Hart.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Wednesday, hoping to establish her own turf on geopolitics, but only echoing what her boss, President Obama, has been saying for months.
As time passed, Blumenthal moved from being something of a positive ideologist to a much more negative attack dog. Among his targets were Jerry Brown in the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries, George H.W. Bush in the 1992 general election, Bob Dole in the 1996 general election, and Barack Obama and John Edwards in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.
Hillary appointed Blumenthal to a top position on her staff, as a counselor and messagemeister.
But the Obama White House, according to Foreign Policy, recalling Blumenthal's vehement opposition to Obama in the primaries, rescinded Clinton's appointment of him to her own staff. Lest you think they are just nice guys who let bygones be bygones.
None of this means that Hillary Clinton will not be among the more effective secretaries of state in American history. But there are obviously very clearly circumscribed limits to her power and that of her husband. That's especially so with Obama clearly acting as his own secretary of state, as Jefferson did at the beginning of the republic and as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did more recently.
And it is clear that the Clinton era in the national Democratic Party is now in the rear view mirror.