Did Hillary Clinton accomplish anything as secretary of State?

Even the State Department spokeswoman was, at first, at a loss as to how to respond to that question, certain to be asked more often as the 2016 presidential election season gets closer.

Stephan Savoia/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers the keynote lecture for the Simmons College Leadership Conference at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston on Wednesday. Meanwhile, her own leadership record at the State Department came under renewed scrutiny at a State Department briefing.

Did Hillary Clinton accomplish anything as secretary of State? That question is in the news at the moment because an Associated Press reporter asked something like it this week at a Foggy Bottom briefing and a State Department spokeswoman fumbled the response.

The specific subject was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a periodic reassessment of State Department organization that was a particular focus of Secretary Clinton. At Tuesday’s press briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the 2014 edition of the QDDR is now under way. So AP’s Matt Lee asked Ms. Psaki an obvious question: “Off the top of your head, can you identify one tangible achievement that the last QDDR resulted in?”

No, not really. She punted.

“I’m sure there are a range of things that were put into place that I’m not even aware of,” said Psaki.

By Wednesday other State Department officials had made Psaki aware of a number of things. She came to the daily briefing with a new answer, pointing out that the 2010 QDDR under Secretary Clinton had placed a greater emphasis on trade promotion, more fully integrated the concerns of women into the State policy framework, and established three new bureaus within the department, including a Bureau for Counterterrorism.

“I just wanted to highlight that as a follow-up,” she said.

Psaki and Mr. Lee than became involved in a discussion as to whether this sort of thing was real progress or the shuffling of deck chairs.

More broadly, right-leaning writers have responded to this back-and-forth by asking whether the lack of more concrete diplomatic results for Clinton to point to might damage a Hillary 2016 presidential bid. Clinton’s State Department memoir “Hard Choices” is due on shelves in a few weeks. What will it have to say?

“Will voters care if Clinton reorganized the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment?” writes the conservative Washington Examiner’s Byron York. “Or will they be looking for something much, much bigger?”

At the right-leaning blog Power Line, Scott Johnson brings up then-President Eisenhower’s deflation of his VP Richard Nixon. Asked what major idea of Nixon’s that he’d adopted as president, Ike paused, then said, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

“When it comes to identifying Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishments as secretary of State, one thinks of Eisenhower on Nixon,” writes Johnson.

That’s all well and good, but we’ve got a couple of things to add here. The first is that we would be careful with Nixon references in this context. After all, Nixon won the White House – twice. Historians rate him highly adept at foreign policy. His own hubris brought him low, not Ike’s gibe.

Second, secretaries of State are staff. Like it or not, it is the White House itself that drives most big foreign policy decisions. Foggy Bottom implements as much as decides. Does the public remember any specific accomplishments for Bush-era Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?

And third, Hillary Clinton has been a public figure for decades. Her image is not dependent only on the outcome of her latest job. Most US voters have a fixed opinion of her one way or the other, and have since she was first lady. A discussion as to whether she’s responsible for a failed “reset” of policy to Russia isn’t going to change many minds.

That said, whether she was a good or bad secretary of State remains an interesting historical question that both includes and stretches beyond the issue of whether she could have prevented the fatal attack on US buildings in Benghazi, Libya.

Taking a first cut at an answer in the journal Foreign Affairs last year, diplomatic reporter Michael Hirsh judged Clinton a “highly competent secretary of state, but not a great one.”

She traveled tirelessly, promoted so-called “soft power” of US image-building and value promotion, and was a realist in an administration that has numerous foreign policy idealists, Hirsh wrote last June.

Yet “she left office without a signature doctrine, strategy, or diplomatic triumph,” wrote Hirsh.

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