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Hillary Clinton departs State: What's her legacy as top US diplomat? (+video)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steps down Friday. Her supporters say she has reenergized America’s working relationships with allies and partners, while some critics ask what her defining accomplishments are.

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“Hillary Clinton has been highly successful and has left a very positive mark on American foreign policy,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In two areas especially” – stewardship of the Asia pivot and elevation of the role that women and girls play in political and economic development – “she will have a lasting legacy,” he adds.

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Clinton recognized that Asia was going to be an economic priority for the US as well as a predominant national-security consideration, Mr. Inderfurth says, and “she set the standard” for US involvement. He cites her attendance and “tireless participation” in gatherings of the region’s multilateral institutions.

While many diplomats and foreign-policy experts give Clinton high marks, the glowing evaluation is hardly unanimous. As one national-security expert with Democratic leanings (and who requested anonymity in order to be blunt) says, “She’s been a fairly effective spokesman for the US government, but what has she done as secretary of State?”

Clinton’s critics argue that something like the Asia pivot, for example, was going to happen no matter who was Obama’s secretary of State. And they say they are hard pressed to find anything significant in the foreign policy of Obama’s first term that is Clinton’s signature work.

Yet even some ardent critics of the Obama administration say that Clinton’s lack of defining accomplishments can’t be blamed on her, but is rather a result of a White House that controls all major policy decisions.

“It’s been a difficult four years for Mrs. Clinton, because the State Department has been marginalized from the making of foreign policy,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “I don’t think she was influential – not because she shouldn’t have been or didn’t want to be, but because in this White House, only the very few are influential.”

The Obama White House has kept unusually tight reins on the conducting of foreign policy, many Washington analysts agree. There has been a broad trend in this direction in recent decades, but Obama, they say, has taken the concentration of foreign policy into the hands of a few close White House advisers to new levels.

Middle East policy under Obama is one example of this. In the Bush administration, it was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who dragged a dubious president and White House into a peace initiative that culminated in the 2007 peace conference in Annapolis, Md., some note. Obama launched a Middle East peace initiative his first week in office, but it was clear from the outset it was going to be a White House effort. Clinton was on the sidelines as Obama clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Special envoy George Mitchell eventually stepped down in frustration.

But others say Clinton has been effective, with some senior foreign diplomats saying what will be missed are her tireless efforts to keep the US engaged with allies and partners despite an insular and aloof White House. (To a great degree, Clinton has done the engagement on others’ turf: She visited 112 countries – a record for secretaries of State – and logged just under 1 million miles.)

An example that some of these foreign admirers cite is how Clinton “institutionalized” the US-China relationship despite the challenging context of China’s rising economic and global political power.


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