Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the foreign policy “successes” of our celebrity leaders


[Note: Today’s article is a bit unusual in format, consisting of long portions of an article on Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State, the soft gloves with which the media now treat our “celebrity” president and other high “celebrity” government officials, together with a checklist of foreign policy subject areas and themes which any objective analysis of Hillary Clinton’s successes and failures as Secretary of State would need to take into account, focusing not on verbal policies but on facts on ground and the actions of other states. This latter section is somewhat adumbrated and incomplete, and in many ways could serve as an outline for a whole series of articles. However, it is offered now as a corrective to some of the hagiography currently being showered on Hillary Clinton, by President Obama and others, without regard for the factual record.]

Celebrity + popularity + miles traveled = foreign policy success

The loss of hard-hitting impartiality in foreign policy reporting, commentary and opinion is illustrated by President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s joint appearance on “60 Minutes” this last Sunday.

See “The President and the Secretary of State,” 60 Minutes, January 27, 2013.

There, as elsewhere on TV, they were treated like celebrities and judged by the kind of standards we use to judge celebrities:

Are they gracious, or apparently so?

Do they smile and laugh a lot in a friendly interview situation?

Are their little pleasantries amusing, and well-delivered?

Are they handsome and attractive, with million-dollar smiles?

While Steve Kroft’s intention might have been simply to draw them out, one cannot imagine Mike Wallace letting such an opportunity go by without asking–and following up on–the hard and penetrating questions of a first-rate journalist about the foreign policy of the United States.

Instead, this is what we got:

Steve Kroft: This is very improbable. This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing. But I understand, Mr. President, this was your idea. Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?

President Obama: Well, the main thing is I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank you, because I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretary of states we’ve had. It has been a great collaboration over the last four years. I’m going to miss her. Wish she was sticking around. But she has logged in so many miles, I can’t begrudge her wanting to take it easy for a little bit. But I want the country to appreciate just what an extraordinary role she’s played during the course of my administration and a lot of the successes we’ve had internationally have been because of her hard work.

Steve Kroft: Has she had much influence–

President Obama: Well, I–

Steve Kroft: –in this administration?

President Obama: I think everybody understands that Hillary’s been, you know, one of the most important advisors that I’ve had on a whole range of issues. Hillary’s capacity to travel around the world, to lay the groundwork for a new way of doing things, to establish a sense of engagement that, you know, our foreign policy was not going to be defined solely by Iraq, that we were going to be vigilant about terrorism, but we were going to make sure that we deployed all elements of American power, diplomacy, our economic and cultural and social capital, in order to bring about the kinds of international solutions that we wanted to see. I had confidence that Hillary could do that. And, you know, one of the things that I will always be grateful for is– yeah, it wasn’t just that she and I had to integrate. I mean, we had Bob Gates, who was a holdover from the Bush administration. You know Leon Panetta to take over the CIA. And so we had a lot of very strong personalities around the table. And, you know, I think one of the things that Hillary did was establish a standard in terms of professionalism and teamwork in our cabinet, in our foreign policy making that said, “We’re going to have an open discussion. We’re going to push each other hard. There are going to be times where we have some vigorous disagreements. Once the president makes a decision though we’re going to go out there and execute.

Steve Kroft: How would you characterize your relationship right now?

President Obama: I consider Hillary a strong friend….

The general consensus among commentators in Washington, consciously or unconsciously using these “celebrity” criteria and others we use to bestow esteem on celebrities, is that Obama’s and Hillary’s foreign policy has been very successful.

Hillary is often referred to as an extraordinarily successful Secretary of State, or as one of the most successful Secretaries of State in recent times. Indeed, that is how President Obama described her in the 60 Minutes interview quoted above.

But there is little analysis of foreign policy successes and failures supporting such conclusions. In fact, the closer we look at the substance of the foreign policy positions and decisions Obama and Hillary have adopted, the more distressing the picture becomes. As the patina of celebrity politicians and celebrity government officials fades away under the withering sunlight of serious examination, it turns out that all of the hoopla and self-contented praise our officials shower on each other has been hiding another reality, that of real facts on the ground in the real world unfiltered by the television media and many in the Washington and New York written press.

To judge Hillary’s successes and failures, we must look beyond her celebrity status and that of her patron, President Barack Obama, to ask simply, “What is it, in the real world, that she has actually accomplished during her four years in office?

How do her accomplishments stack up against those of Madeline Albright,  James Baker, Warren Christopher, or Dean Rusk, for example? What, in short, has she actually accomplished?

Sadly, the answer appears to be, “precious little”.  If her excuse is that she has only been an “implementer” of foreign policy crafted in the White House, that itself is a strong commentary on what she herself has or has not contributed during her own term in office.

So, let us begin to look at the facts.

Background Factors

The need for a bipartisan foreign policy, and the partisan nature of foreign policy analysis in the U.S.
–Partisan lockstep and loyalty chorus instead of independent analysis based on factual reporting by seasoned foreign correspondents and analyses by subject matter and regional experts.

The loss of respect for expertise and expert knowledge.
–Confidential inside sources and transmittal of “anonymous sources” information without verification.
–On TV, the preference for glib, young, attractive faces over seasoned experts. Here, anyone can be an expert.
–The failure to make rigorous judgments based on factual analysis and expert opinion.
–Celebrity, buzz, and partisan management of the political narrative transposed to foreign policy analysis. Hence, the chorus of Hillary’s “most-miles’ traveled” success as Secretary of State.
–Obama sings this refrain, without substantiation, because if Hillary’s success narrative gains traction, his own foreign-policy success narrative also gains traction.

In fact, historians of foreign policy may speak of the dramatic failures of Obama’s and Hillary’s foreign policy, with the most important questions focusing on issues of who was most responsible for them.

The first-term successes and failures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Let’s begin with a checklist. (Readers are encouraged to fill in the blanks.)







Benghazi and what it stands for

–growth of al-Queda and Islamic terrorists in Libya, north Africa, and the Sahel
–failure of covert operations approach to Syria
–total intelligence failure regarding terrorist activities in Benghazi
–failure to provide sufficient assistance to the new democracies of the Arab Spring to enable them to stay on a democratic and “rule of law” course

Significantly, Hillary Clinton’s long-delayed testimony on Benghazi took place this last week, on January 23, 2013.  Amy Davidson reported in the New Yorker on the following exchange:

“(T)here was…a scene that will surely be replayed in attack ads and echoed (and possibly distorted) in the Republican primary campaign, assuming that Clinton does run. It came in an exchange with Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. Like many of his colleagues, he goaded. (“I realize that’s a good excuse,” he said when Clinton talked about not interfering with investigations.) She lost her patience when he said, not for the first time, that she could have found out what was going on at the consulate easily enough if she wanted to.

Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

Johnson: I understand.

Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? (emphasis added)

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this. But the fact is that people were trying in real time to get the best information….But, you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

What difference, at this point, does it make?”

–Amy Davidson, “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Testimony: What Difference Will it Make?” The New Yorker, January 23, 2013.


–failure to grasp and respond to what is going on in Egypt


Sub-Saharan Africa

–Transitions to democracy
–Growth in number and strength of Islamist terrorist organizations

Mexico and Central America

–Violence and insecurity in Mexico, on the border with the United States
–Growing drug violence and insecurity in Guatema, El Salvador, and especially Honduras.
–Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega as a newly authoritarian state, joining with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia seeking to weaken the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the analogous institutions in the Americas to the European Court of Human Rights.


–as it faces Hugo Chavez’ impending exit from the scene, on the verge of a constitutional coup d’etat as the Chavistas seek to cling to power by unconstitutional means.


–ouster of President of Supreme Court, abandoning the rule of law

Military strategy

–so called “pivot to Asia”
–abandonment of two-war requirement in U.S. military strategy in favor of an unproven Counter-terrorism strategy like that espoused by Vice-President Joe Biden.  Betting the farm on an unproven theory.
–adoption of unproven “Counter-terrorism” strategy while reducing military capabilities, such as those in Mediterranean that might have been useful in Benghazi


–Obama administration policy and actions during the leadership transition in Beijing
–Did the so-called “pivot to Asia” and plans for an increased naval presence in the region affect the succession of a new generation of leaders in China?
–Were there any real experts on China advising Obama on these issues, and if so did he listen to them?
–strengthening military capabilities of allies ringing China
–U.S. naval force deployments

China and Japan

–doing nothing to defuse tensions, including dangerous  military interactions, in matter of disputed islands
–here, blindness to international law prevents U.S. from advancing most promising route for defusing crisis
–a growth of dangerous nationalism in both countries, with China evidencing a willingness to display and perhaps use force

Nuclear Proliferation

–North Korea
–Middle East
–the risk of proliferation throughout the Middle East

Climate Change


Human Rights

–kill lists; drone strikes and special forces operations
–denial of fundamental rights. See Jimmy Carter’s op-ed in the New York Times. Guantánamo.
–dealing with those responsible for Bush torture policy
–cooperating with countries which use torture
–non-cooperation with the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with respect to cases brought against the U.S.

Statute of the International Criminal Court

–Failure to push for ratification

Failure to develop new or adopt existing multilateral conventions or treaties

–In particular, multilateral treaties establishing legal norms and regimes regulating new forms of warfare, from done strikes to cyber-warfare

Judgments on the success of Obama’s and Clinton’s foreign policy should be based on careful assessment and analysis of U.S. actions (not just verbal policies) in the areas listed above, and others.

To simply shout in partisan chorus that Hillary has been a great Secretary of State, without reference to and analysis of the detailed factual record, is simply a strategy by politicians to transfer to the foreign policy arena the use of political narrative management techniques.  It is political, not analytical, in nature, and should be firmly resisted by all of those who want to see constructive, fact-based foreign policy debates aimed at finding and implementing the best policies for the country.

Until we are able to have those debates and discussions, a bipartisan foreign policy will be forever beyond our reach.

And the dialogue of the deaf, le dialogue des sourds, will continue, as many situations in other countries and regions, or globally, deteriorate in a leaderless world.

As for Hillary Clinton, three points illuminate the extent of her failed tenure as Secretary of State:

1. Her avoiding the TV shows and hiding from the cameras and congressional panels that wanted to know what happened, and what she and Barack Obama knew and when they knew it after the attacks in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012.  Her summary dismissal of Benghazi and the entire substance of the Susan Rice affair, in recent Congressional testimony, demonstrated an extraordinary degree of cynicism and almost unprecedented chutzpah, or insolence. “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

What difference did it make that the administration successfully hid the fact that its policies in North Africa were in total disarray, as demonstrated by the September 11 attacks in Benghazi and recent events in Mali?

What difference did it make that the Obama administration and campaign downplayed the Al-Qaeda links of those who attacked U.S. compounds in Benghazi, and killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans?

What difference did it make that Obama and his administration, during the election campaign, misrepresented the degree of their success in the battle against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates?

2. Hillary Clinton’s failure, and Obama’s failure, to lead international efforts to halt the atrocities in Syria, including military action, and to avoid the creation of a failed state where a dominant player, the al-Nusra Front, is an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

3. The State Department’s failure, under Hillary Clinton, to comment on Israel’s recent attack on targets in the Sudan, or its very recent bombing attacks inside Syrian territory. If the State Department cannot speak to the international law issues involved, who in the American government can?

Has the United States become an enemy of international law, a founding member of the “‘International Law Be Damned’ Club”?

Historians are not likely to be kind to Hillary Clinton in her role as Secretary of State. She used her star power to shield herself and the Obama administration from substantive criticism of what has turned out to be a disastrous foreign policy.


1. Relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply, while personal relations between Obama and Putin seem to have reached sub-zero temperatures.

2. Relations with China are not good. A new generation of leaders, which appear to be more hard-line than the technocrats that preceded them, has taken power. China is engaged in a very dangerous policy of military confrontation with Japan over disputed islands, as noted above.

3. Relations between China and Japan have reached what is perhaps their lowest point since the end of World War II, or at least the end of the Korean War.  This an extremely dangerous development for the prospects of international peace and security.

4. The Middle East is in great turmoil. Syria is in flames, due in part to the inexcusable failure of Obama and Clinton to lead international actions to bring the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity to a halt, including the limited use of military force when necessary.

5. The United States has stood by, and even lent support to Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as they proceeded with their November 22, 2012 coup d’état and the shutting down of the Constitutional Court through the use of “brown-shirt” tactics.

The U.S. and the West have been losing Egypt, just as they lost Iran in 1979.

6. The future leadership of Venezuela is being decided in Havana, Cuba, which is only the tip of the iceberg of U.S. failures in Latin America due to America’s policy of neglect in most, though not all, of the countries in the region.

Where are the successes of Obama’s and Hillary’s first term in office?

Hillary Clinton is in many ways an admirable politician and public figure. But that should not blind us to the facts regarding her tenure as Secretary of State under Obama.

There have undoubtedly been some achievements during her term of office, in the area of women’s rights, for example. Undoubtedly, many dedicated and talented people in the State Department have achieved significant goals and objectives, and this too is part of the story.

But here, we are talking about foreign policy successes and failures in the larger sense, in the grand scheme of things.

While Clinton pushed for women’s rights, admirably, she also failed to criticize Mohamed Morsi when he launched a coup d’état after helping her broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel as the latter was poised to invade Gaza. Did Hillary’s praise embolden Morsi to launch his coup?  That coup  led to the illegitimate adoption of a draft constitution (later approved in a hurried referendum that did not allow time for debate throughout the country), enshrining a stricter adherence to sharia law, and also the removal of the first female judge of the constitutional court, who had been an inspirational figure in the struggle to bring women into the judiciary in Egypt.

Nor does the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan bode well for the women of that country.

Hillary worked hard, and traveled almost a million miles, and visited over a hundred countries. But these are not indicators of foreign policy success.

In the grand scheme of things, what did she achieve?

It may turn out to be the case that she was consistently pushed aside by Obama and his foreign policy team in the White House.  We look forward to reading her memoirs, and hope they will be candid. The risk is that political considerations could compromise the forthrightness of those memoirs, should she decide to seek the presidency in 2016.  Indeed, that could well have been Obama’s intention in orchestrating the “love fest” on “60 Minutes” on January 27.   That could be his calculation.  That could be why he wanted to say “thank you” in the way he did.

We can only hope that Hilary will write her memoirs, beginning soon, with the kind of historical candor that would add to our understanding of foreign-policy decision making within the Obama administration.  We need to know the battles which she fought and lost or won within the administration during the president’s first term.  That could greatly advance the foreign policy interests of the United States, opening up the discussion in a way which might lead to corrective action and avoidance of further failures during Obama’s second term. 

Yet as a political candidate she could find that book hard to write.

Nonetheless, whatever course she may choose to take in the future, in assessing her achievements and failures as Secretary of State, let us at least take a hard look at the facts and try to be objective.

The Trenchant Observer