Secretary Clinton: Dutiful diplomat? Or 2012 candidate?

So far, she's hewed so close to the Obama party line that she sounds like a clone of the president.

"Whatever happened to Hillary Clinton?"

That question came from a senior diplomat of yesteryear in a conversation I had a few weeks ago. He raised the issue in light of all the talk months ago about what role Mrs. Clinton might play in the Obama Cabinet.

Pundits pondered whether President Obama risked being outshone and outmaneuvered by a superstar who nearly became president herself.

The pondering has proved irrelevant. In domestic and foreign media, Mr. Obama has become a superstar to trump all other superstars. (If he has anyone to fear in Washington on the publicity front, it is not Clinton but Mrs. Obama, who is getting multinewspaper and TV coverage.)

By contrast, Secretary of State Clinton has become a dutiful bureaucrat, hewing close to the Obama party line, with never a ripple to agitate the White House. No more campaign trail talk of obliterating Iran if it attacked Israel. No more questioning the president's competence to handle the 3 a.m. crisis call. And minus the mistranslated "reset" button she presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, not even a Joe Biden-like gaffe to bring a frown to the president's brow.

When the president speaks, she is in a silent phalanx behind him with other members of his team. She has a private, one-on-one weekly meeting with the president – the kind of session that all secretaries of State yearn for, but not all get. But in public, when presiding over her own meetings, or when she travels abroad, she sounds like a clone of the president, albeit cloaked sometimes in diplomatic nonspeak.

Some cynics suggest that Clinton's good-soldier routine is a clever ploy with an eye to 2012 and another crack at the presidency. Obama's prospects for a second term will sink or swim on the economy. If it is up, he looks good for reelection. If it is still down, the Obama family, and their dog, go home to Chicago.

Clinton would be untainted by such a domestic calamity. She has stayed away from the US economy, leaving the unfortunate secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, to play point man on this issue.

On the foreign front, she is insulated from political damage in critical areas by the appointment of prestigious special envoys (George Mitchell to the Middle East, Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dennis Ross to Iran).

This has prompted at least one former US diplomat to exclaim: "How many secretaries of State do we have now?" Should the envoys succeed in their difficult diplomatic assignments, Clinton would gain prestige as the managing architect. (Should they fail, they will all be writing books in retirement.)

One area in which Clinton is putting her own stamp is public diplomacy, the art of presenting truthful information about America to audiences around the world. In earlier years, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was America's principal vehicle for this. When the cold war ended, Congress ran it down and merged its remnants with the State Department.

Clinton says USIA was "unfortunately marginalized" but does not see it emerging again as an independent agency. She is encouraging the use of new technology, such as blogs and online social networking, but faces criticism that traditional media such as radio are being shortchanged. She is promoting cultural exchanges, replicating such cold-war measures as the dispatch of jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to Iron Curtain countries.

Her nomination of Judith McHale, a media and communications executive with no prior public diplomacy experience, to be undersecretary for public diplomacy, has drawn some criticism from observers. It is not at all clear that the personnel, resources, or techniques requisite for the task at hand are adequate.

Whether another run for the presidency still lingers in Clinton's dreams, only she knows. But for now she is concentrating on being a smart diplomat and loyal foot soldier in the Obama administration.

John Hughes served as assistant secretary of State, associate director of USIA, and director of the Voice of America, in the Reagan administration. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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