Secretary of State Clinton, Washington's No. 1 diplomatic salesperson, is fast becoming the foreign-policy hawk in a Democratic administration, while President Obama seems to be slow moving. Both believe in engagement with foreign adversaries, but Clinton believes in engaging from a position of strength. By contrast, Mr. Obama is now being faulted for engaging from a platform of weakness, if not appeasement.
Clinton seems to be replicating as secretary of State the technique she employed when she became a senator. During her first months in the Senate, she maintained a low profile, taking the measure of her colleagues and learning the ways of that historic chamber before becoming a major player. Similarly at State, she has spent quiet months learning the contents of her briefing books and summing up the foreign players before asserting herself as a cabinet heavy.
The 3 a.m. crisis call
This was the woman who during the presidential campaign dismissed Obama as being too inexperienced to take a 3 a.m. crisis call. Yet as a cabinet member she has projected loyalty to the president and his declared policies, while exuding firmness in their support and application. Thus on her first Asian foray, she sharply warned North Korea to mend its nuclear ways, publicly confronted Pakistani officials for harboring terrorists, and publicly endorsed Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, while privately cautioning him to shape up.
Unkind critics declared the Chinese set piece of Obama's Asian trip a near diplomatic disaster. The hallowed wisdom of summitry is that you do not let the president embark upon such an odyssey without the final decisions agreed upon, the protocol set, the farewell communiqués written well in advance. But on the Obama trip there were no breakthroughs to trumpet, the Chinese orchestrated press conferences without questions, obliged the US president to tiptoe around human rights issues like Tibet, and rigged a public "town hall" meeting not with ordinary folk, but selected young communists.
Meanwhile, the president has been snubbed by Israel, ignored by North Korea, charged with dithering on the length of time he took to decide on his commander's request for more troops for Afghanistan, dallying on his overly optimistic promise to close down Guantánamo, and has been stiffed by Iran announcing a plan to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants. The Chinese seem surprised by the Iranian announcement, as do the Russians, but while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has suggested in the past that he might go along with US-urged sanctions against Iran, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested he would not. No doubt it will emerge in time who is really running Russia.
By all accounts, Clinton was key, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in urging the president to take a strong stand on more troops for Afghanistan. On the other side of the argument was Vice President Joe Biden, who in retrospect may be ruing the decision he took – according to his wife, and despite his recognized expertise in foreign affairs – to choose the vice-presidential, rather than the State Department slot in the Obama administration.
The current take on the president seems to be that despite his soaring eloquence and charm lauded in many lands, he is perceived abroad to be lacking decisiveness, and lacking political traction at home on such issues as healthcare reform.
What's behind her smile?
According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Obama, at a recent cabinet meeting, singled out Clinton for special gratitude among officials "who have been traveling around the globe for us day in and day out and don't know what time zone they're in."
The secretary of State, with a china cup and saucer in front of her, just smiled.
She has been at the diplomacy business now long enough to know that successful diplomats are splendidly adept at concealing their reactions and emotions under all circumstances.
I do wonder what emotion was concealed by that little smile.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.