Walter Rodgers

MVP of Obama's security team: Hillary 'the hammer' Rodham Clinton

Even the right wing applauds Secretary of State Clinton's performance.

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One of my friends is a classic Republican: He’s a businessman from a Southern “red state,” and a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam who earned a Silver Star for heroism at Hué. To put it mildly, he’s never been a fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yet he recently called to acknowledge a conversion like Paul’s on the road to Damascus. He now kind of likes her.

“She’s out there doing things … she’s smarter than Bill. If she was [messing] up, the far right would be all over her and they’re not coming up with anything.”

He’s got a point. Hillary Clinton, the once-hated first lady, appears to have hit her stride as secretary of State. The right wing, even “talk radio,” deems her the “good” member of the Obama team.

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The right-wing Republican mantra goes something like this: “If only the president were more like her. She’s pushing him on Iran, pushing for more troops in Afghanistan. He’s wobbly. She’s the iron fist in the velvet glove.”

The right is right that Clinton is tough on Iran, but it’s wrong to think that there’s much daylight between her and the president.

Clinton has been intolerant of Tehran’s dissimulation. As the administration “hammer,” her message is steely: First, Iran must live up to its nuclear nonproliferation treaty obligations or it will find itself globally isolated. Second, if Tehran builds nuclear weapons, it will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Sunni Arab world with more than a few of the Sunni nukes likely to be pointed at Shiite Iran, a historic rival.

“Both the president and his secretary knew there was a good chance Obama’s initial outreach to Iran would fail,” says a Clinton aide who sat down with me recently for an interview on condition that he not be named. But it was part of a
long-term calculation.

As the aide explained: “Failure would set us up to pursue the ‘pressure track’ more effectively … if Iran didn’t respond affirmatively [on its nuclear program], then you can bring the hammer down on them with an international consensus you could not otherwise have created.”

Indeed, on May 18, a day after Brazil and Turkey announced a nuclear fuel deal with Iran, Clinton said she had secured the support of Russia and China for “strong” new sanctions against Iran.

Clinton may appear to have been born a diplomatic pro, but at least some of her exemplary patience, discipline, and professionalism were probably forged on the anvil of some bruising blows during the eight years of her husband’s presidency.

Her battle-tested political savvy may be one reason today’s national security establishment – the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council – has shown less backstabbing, bureaucratic rivalry, or policy contradictions than I’ve seen in 45 years of watching Washington.

In the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and second Bush administrations, infighting between State and the Pentagon, and the National Security Council and State, was at times poisonous.

Today, there seems to be less clamoring for celebrity status amid an overpowering realization the president is the celebrity.

Sure, there is some difference in tone between this White House and Foggy Bottom, but totally similar views between the commander in chief and the secretary of State would smack of redundancy or lack of imagination. Where all people think alike, no one thinks very much.

The Clinton aide says it was Obama who set the harmonious tone for his national security team, insisting he wanted a team without internal rivalries. That’s a welcome change from the contentious relations between President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Secretary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly “see the world through the same glasses.” Each has a huge number of items on their plate, so there is no time for argument over the grand ideological disputes – the kind that hobbled previous administrations.

On the face of it, Obama’s team is an odd mix: Defense Secretary Gates is a former CIA director; National Security Adviser James Jones Jr. is a highly decorated retired US Marine Corps four-star general. And Clinton is a Midwestern lawyer turned first lady turned New York Senator.

Clinton’s experience as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee no doubt helps the chemistry. As a member of that committee she became quite close to senior military officials. “She also came to understand the workings of the military and the way it fits into the broader national security fabric,” says the aide.

Is she in the same league as James Baker, the most recent “great” secretary of State? Not yet, perhaps. But then the simpler bipolar world that Mr. Baker had to manage no longer exists. We no longer live even in a multipolar world. As Clinton put it recently, we now belong to a “multipartner world.” Still, she notes, there is no major global problem that can be solved without US involvement.

Ironically Clinton’s greatest diplomatic challenge now may be convincing Israel, an American ally, that Obama is no less a friend of the Jewish State than was her husband. It is not proving easy.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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