There may be pitfalls for Hillary Clinton at State

November 23, 2008|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Tribune Washington Bureau

Cordell Hull was a veteran lawmaker with a worldwide reputation when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him secretary of state in 1933, in part to win needed support from Hull's army of Democratic admirers.

But the dignified Tennessean was never close to FDR. As time passed he was "muscled out by others in the administration," said Michael Hunt, a diplomatic historian at the University of North Carolina.

Barack Obama's election as president has drawn other comparisons with Roosevelt, especially for the economic crisis he inherits. But the example of Hull, a marginal figure despite his having served into the 1940s and having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, may point to potential pitfalls for Sen. Hillary Clinton if she takes the top diplomatic post, as seems increasingly likely.

Clinton would come to the role with global star power, a first-name relationship with world leaders and a familiarity with foreign policy.

But her relationship to the president and the new administration - so key to success in the job - is coarsely mixed. And her future ambitions could affect her pursuit of the administration's goals.

"I can imagine lots of room for friction," Hunt said, adding that strains between presidents and their top diplomats have been "a leitmotif of U.S. history."

The fixed presence of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, raises a range of additional questions.

From all outward appearances, Hillary Clinton and Obama have made peace. Yet, they were rivals in the most protracted presidential primary in history, and that battle is certain to tint her arrival in the administration and on the world scene.

Throughout a long career, Clinton has been known for her diligence and grasp of details. Like the president-elect, she is thorough and methodical.

She met world leaders on a ceremonial level as first lady, but she also knows many from her last five years as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan. International leaders are aware that they are dealing with one of the most influential politicians in the United States.

"She'll bring stature and seriousness to a job that needs a real heavyweight," said former Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, who held a series of top-ranking foreign policy positions for the Clinton administration.

Foreign policy experts in both parties, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, have praised her skills. In her campaign, Clinton was supported by a large team of experienced foreign policy experts, many of whom she could bring to the State Department.

But world leaders who are impressed at her high profile may also wonder if she speaks for Obama, said one former Clinton foreign policy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when assessing Clinton's aptitude for the diplomatic post.

The leaders may look at her and wonder: "If she's a person with her own trajectory, how loyal can she be?" the official said. "Any smart foreign leader is going to wonder how close she is to the president."

The most successful secretaries of state have been those who, like James A. Baker III, and Kissinger, clearly were very close to their presidents, experts said.

Any political strains could have both domestic and international ramifications. At home, Clinton must deal with any political animosities between her team of foreign policy advisers and Obama's. In matters of state, it is the duty of the secretary, like other aides, to step forward and take responsibility for any failure of the administration, so the president is not blamed. If she cherishes her own ambitions, she may be reluctant to do so.

And even if she's willing to subordinate her own interests, will her husband do the same? Bill Clinton may be tempted to call a journalist, as he sometimes has done in the past, to put out a story line that makes his wife look good.

The former president has been working with Obama's team on a deal under which he would seek clearance from the new administration before making any speech that could affect U.S. foreign policy.

But controlling those speeches may be harder than it may seem. The former president himself has joked about the fact that he usually makes up a large part of his speeches as he goes along.

The former Clinton foreign policy official said that while Obama has said he would relish having a team of political rivals in his Cabinet, as Abraham Lincoln did, Hillary Clinton may be different.

"Lincoln never had to deal with the special dynamic presented by having this secretary and this spouse," the former official said. "He [Bill Clinton] loves politics and diplomacy, and it's going to be very tough for him to sit back and not get into it."

Secretaries of state must frequently maneuver for power against the White House national security adviser, the defense secretary and intelligence officials. Clinton will also have to share foreign policy influence with Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Democrats close to the selection process say that Biden supported the choice of Clinton, preferring her over short-list candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, with whom he has competed for recognition on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Nevertheless, Biden is likely to want to keep his hand in on foreign policy, Democratic foreign affairs specialists said.

Biden has made it clear that he does not intend to be limited to specified projects, as former Vice President Al Gore was, but will remain free to dip in on a wide range of subjects.

Some people close to the Clintons have expressed concern that Obama may try to centralize power over national security issues at the White House, as many presidents have. To counter that potential trend, some predict that Clinton may try to find jobs for some of her loyalists in the White House.

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