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How would Hillary Clinton do as top US diplomat?

Some raise questions, but most analysts – left and right – think she’s qualified.

By Staff writer / November 20, 2008

Foreign-policy team? Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a campaign rally in Orlando, Fla., last month.

Jim Young/Reuters/File


New York

For the past 16 years, Hillary Rodham Clinton has crisscrossed the world, developing relationships with heads of state and grass-roots civil society advocates alike.

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That’s given foreign-policy experts confidence that the former first lady and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has the experience needed to become an effective secretary of State – that’s if she’s offered the job, as expected.

Some progressives question whether the New York senator is too hawkish, especially because of her pro-war vote on Iraq. Some conservatives are quick to note she lacks experience managing such a large organization as the State Department.

But the consensus in foreign-policy circles of the left and the right is that if President-elect Barack Obama does offer her the job, she has the potential to excel at it.

“She would be a fine choice,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Over the years, what we’ve seen from Hillary Clinton in public life is a lot of growth based on experience – she’s a lot more seasoned after eight years in the Senate.”

The job has not yet been offered, and Senator Clinton has made it clear she is uncertain herself about what she’ll do if it is. She could become America’s top diplomat or stay in the Senate and take a leading role in fixing America’s broken healthcare system.

Her dilemma has preoccupied the nation’s chattering classes for the past week, creating one of the few commotions in President-elect Barack Obama’s transition process.

His team, which during the campaign became known for its “no-drama-Obama” approach, remains predictably silent. But sources close to them and to Senator Clinton have provided the media with a steady stream of tidbits, from concerns about conflicts of interest with former President Clinton’s international dealings to the senator’s own internal conflicts about what to do, and, finally, to frustration over all of the leaks.

But people who’ve worked with Clinton on foreign-policy issues and seen her in international action, like Ambassador Swanee Hunt of Harvard’s Kennedy School, believe she has the intellect, discipline, and depth of understanding to help the United States regain its international standing.

“She and I have worked together with representatives from probably 50 different countries, in war zones, and there is this extraordinary warmth about her that makes her connect with people so quickly – then she has also all of this understanding and smarts,” says Ambassador Hunt. “It’s a striking combination.”

In December 1997, Hunt joined then first lady Clinton and her husband on a trip to Bosnia. President Clinton spent time meeting with leaders of the country’s warring factions. The first lady and Hunt met with representatives of nongovernmental organizations, teachers, writers, and local political leaders.

“She emerged from that meeting saying, ‘Oh, there’s such hope in this country!’ and he emerged from his meeting saying, ‘I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to move forward,’ ” says Hunt. “I remember his eyes, they were all bleary, and hers were all sparkling. She had chosen to find the strength in the community to build on.”