How would Hillary Clinton do as top US diplomat?

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

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

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.

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.”

If she is appointed secretary of State, Clinton would inherit a complex set of international issues, from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a newly aggressive Russia to growing anti-US sentiment in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Progressive critics of her choice contend that her appointment as the nation’s leading ambassador would send the wrong signal to an international community that is expecting significant changes in US foreign policy. The reason: her close ties to her husband’s administration.

“During the Clinton administration there was also widespread resentment of the United States’ unilateralism and bullying as a superpower, but we forget about that because [President George W.] Bush took it to new heights,” says Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.

Professor Zunes also argues that a Clinton appointment would be “a downright betrayal” of many of the people who supported Obama during the campaign because of his early opposition to the war and his argument that judgment is more important than experience.

“She lacks judgment and it’s not just Iraq but a number of issues [including] Iran. She’s superhawkish on Israel and Palestine and opposed even modest human rights legislation like restricting the export of cluster mines to countries that use them on civilian targets,” says Zunes. “Those were things where Obama took a higher stance, morally.”

But other progressives, like Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress (CAP), say Clinton would be a “brilliant choice,” in part because her fundamental foreign-policy positions aren’t that different from those of the president-elect. She “really does understand” the world and is a “quick learner,” he says. He recalls a 2002 meeting with her soon after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq.

“She was really on top of the game, but what surprised me was how much she knew about lots of other defense issues,” says Mr. Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration. “We ended up not only talking about Iraq, but defense transformation [and] the history of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [She has] really quite a remarkable understanding of things that I’ve spent my life working on.”

Some conservatives have noted that she lacks managerial experience – something that is critical to a secretary of State.

“The only kind of secretary of State who is effective is one that can leave the building,” says Ms. Pletka at the American Enterprise Institute. “The State Department is a giant career bureaucracy that knows it will be there after you’re gone. Fifty percent of being an effective secretary of State is actually harnessing the Foreign Service to your leadership and your will.”

Even supporters say her biggest drawback may be lack of experience in managing a large organization like the State Department. But the key to resolving that, they argue, would be appointing a strong deputy secretary.

“That is much the way it’s done,” says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. He also believes she wouldn’t have any problems transitioning to the new position. “She’s smart, tough, knows the world, is prepared for this, and is a world figure,” he says. “And her history of once being [Obama’s] opponent and now [being] in tandem working with him is a very attractive story.”

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