Hillary Clinton’s legacy at State: Splendid but not spectacular

Share via

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton leaves her post as secretary of State next month with a split judgment on her diplomatic career: She’s won rave reviews from the American public and the president, but maybe not a prominent place in the diplomatic history books.

Job approval ratings for the former senator and first lady are at stratospheric levels, suggesting that her four years as chief U.S. diplomat could be an important asset if she runs for president in 2016.

But scholars and diplomatic insiders say she has never dominated issues of war and peace in the manner of predecessors Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger, or laid down an enduring diplomatic doctrine.


President Obama has tightly controlled foreign policy in the last four years — more so even than his recent predecessors. Clinton has had a seat at the table on every key issue, officials say, but she did not “own” any of them.

She devoted long hours to signatures issues, including empowerment of women and girls, gay rights, Third World development, health and Internet freedoms. Clinton lent her support to a wide range of new projects and organizations, and she appointed new officials in the State Department to shepherd them. Some of these may eventually have huge effects, but many are at an early stage.

At the same time, the most important and toughest foreign policy issues of the day — Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan-Pakistan, the Arab-Israeli standoff — weren’t resolved during the four years. Some grew more intractable. Though none of that may be Clinton’s fault, the lack of diplomatic breakthroughs on her watch limits her legacy.

“She’s coming away with a stellar reputation that seems to have put her almost above criticism,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. peace negotiator who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But you can’t say that she’s really led on any of the big issues for this administration or made a major mark on high strategy.”

Expectations ran high that Clinton would be a heavyweight — maybe even a “co-president” on foreign policy — from the time Obama picked his bitter rival in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign to take the Cabinet’s senior spot. She had star power from 20 years in national life that dazzled foreign audiences and guaranteed worldwide attention to whatever issue she focused on.

“She’s the first secretary who’s also been a global rock star,” said a senior State Department official who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “It’s allowed her to raise issues on the global agenda in a way that no one before her has been able to do.”


Obama praised her performance Sunday in a joint interview with Clinton that he proposed to CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Obama described her as “one of our finest” secretaries of State and one of his most important advisors on a range of issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Al Qaeda.

In the interview, Clinton brushed aside questions about her future in politics and pronounced her health as good — although she said she had some “lingering effects” from a concussion she suffered in December when she fainted and hit her head after suffering from a virus that left her dehydrated. The concussion led to a blood clot behind her right ear, for which she was hospitalized.

“The doctors tell me that will all recede,” she said, referring to the continued symptoms. “And so, thankfully, I’m looking forward to being at full speed.”

As secretary of State, Clinton has shared Obama’s democratic take on the proper role of American diplomats, believing that the world is no longer a place where a handful of powers can dictate the terms of the world order. Rather, the job of U.S. diplomats is collaborating with dozens of other countries in the “constant gardening and tending” of institutions and projects that advance common goals, the senior State Department official said.

Foreign audiences warmed to this attitude, which they found appealing after eight years of a George W. Bush administration many associated with a go-it-alone approach. As they did, the American image abroad improved.

At the same time, Clinton quickly removed a potential internal stumbling block, insisting on no infighting between her loyalists at the State Department and Obama’s team. Former President Bill Clinton’s kibitzing on foreign policy never became the problem some had predicted.


A hard worker and team player, Clinton won praise from many in Obama’s circle who had initially doubted her.

But as time passed, it became clear that she wouldn’t have the lead role on key issues of war and peace.

Clinton’s original plan was to have three powerful “special envoys” in charge of key security issues and reporting to her — a flow chart that would have enabled her to tightly control the biggest security issues.

But Richard C. Holbrooke, in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan militant threat, was marginalized after clashing with White House officials. Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell resigned in May 2011 after the painful collapse of the administration’s opening Middle East peace initiative; and diplomat Dennis Ross, the envoy for Iran, moved to the White House in June 2009 to better help manage the range of Mideast problems that were bubbling over.

“She was a fully functioning member of the team,” said a former administration official, who asked to remain anonymous speaking about a former colleague. “But not a first among equals.”

“If you go down the line, it’s tough to see what’s happened in world politics over the last four years that wouldn’t have happened without her,” the official said. “So it’s tough to see how she gets into that category of truly great, transformational secretaries, like Acheson and [George] Marshall,” who presided over U.S. foreign policy in the years after World War II.


On Libya, for example, Clinton helped persuade Obama to support a NATO military intervention in March 2011. But her voice was one of several, including those of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Samantha Power, a human rights advocate at the White House; and a group of younger staffers at the National Security Council.

Clinton decided in February 2011 that the United States needed to urge its longtime ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to leave office after weeks of angry “Arab Spring” demonstrations against him. But again, she was one of a crowd: Other members of the foreign policy team took the same view.

Key decisions on another top security threat, Iran’s nuclear program, were made largely by Obama and the White House inner circle. Clinton ably led administration efforts to round up international support for economic sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to accept curbs on the nuclear program.

Through most of the four years, she seemed immune to criticism. The most notable exception came near the end, with the death of four Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September. Although Clinton said she took responsibility for security weaknesses there, Republican criticism largely focused not on her, but on Rice, who had appeared on a Sunday morning talk show a few days after the killings to defend the administration’s handling of the matter.

Rice’s appearance helped sink her chances to succeed Clinton at the State Department. Clinton, who had stayed away from the talk show circuit, saw her approval rating remain about 70% — an all-time high.

Similarly, although Clinton has been the administration’s point person on the Syrian civil war and the becalmed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, criticism of administration efforts on those have rarely found their way to her.


Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy specialist and historian with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Clinton was like James A. Baker III, secretary of State to President George H.W. Bush, in her ability to avoid association with the administration’s perceived failures.

“Trouble was always where Baker wasn’t,” he said.

Despite the glow, however, there have been limits to her impact.

Issues of global poverty or the plight of women “showed limited movement due to any idea of hers while secretary of State,” Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution foreign policy and defense analyst, wrote in a recent evaluation.

“Even an admirer, such as myself, must acknowledge that few big problems were solved on her watch, few victories achieved,” he wrote. Clinton, he added, has been “more solid than spectacular.”

David G. Savage in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.