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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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Clinton’s patient and building-block-style labor on China has paid off on two notable occasions in the past year, they say: last spring, when Clinton was able to carry out a series of high-level meetings in Beijing even as she resolved the prickly asylum case of activist Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in the US Embassy the same day Clinton arrived in April; and this month, when the US was able to work out a compromise with China that allowed for unanimous condemnation of North Korea at the United Nations Security Council.

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To those who say Clinton did a solid job but left behind no signature accomplishment, her defenders most often point to Clinton’s elevation of the issue of women and girls in development. Some add Clinton’s attention to the global campaign for cleaner and more efficient cookstoves – a seemingly secondary issue that nevertheless has considerable health and economic implications for millions of developing-world women and families.

Inderfurth, who has taught a college course on secretaries of State, says Clinton has “upgraded, promoted, and institutionalized” the issue of the role of women in stability and development to such a degree that it is not going to fade to the background as she steps down.

“She has been absolutely laser-focused on the participation of women in politics and economic development – not just in the developing world, but in all countries,” he says. If it is widely accepted now that women and girls are a key to the developing world’s prosperity, he adds, “that will be part of her legacy.”

Obama marked the conclusion of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State by issuing a presidential memorandum Wednesday directing federal agencies to give an “elevated focus” to gender-equality issues and to “empowering women and girls globally.” Calling this issue the “unfinished business of the 21st century,” Clinton said the memorandum would help institutionalize the issue as a US priority.

But Ms. Pletka of AEI says that “so much talk” of women and girls cannot mask the setback that Obama policies – which she summarizes as “retreat” from the world – have meant for millions of women.

“If Hillary Clinton has done so much to advance this issue, is that why the women and girls of Afghanistan are fearful of losing whatever they’ve gained to a pernicious and resurgent Taliban?” she says. “Is that why the women and girls of Syria are dying by the thousands or fleeing their country? Is that why women and girls are losing their rights in Egypt?”

The point, Pletka says, is that Clinton’s “good intentions” have meant little in the face of a White House that she sees engineering a weakened role for America in the world. “That’s not something,” she says, “that Hillary Clinton or John Kerry,” who replaces Clinton as secretary of State, “or anyone else in this administration’s State Department will be able to do anything about.”

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