Countries:
Egypt, Lebanon
Candidates:
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton
Issues:
International Relations, Government & Politics
 

News reports are buzzing with speculation that Hillary Clinton has been offered the role of Secretary of State in the upcoming Obama administration, a happening I believe few people had expected. If the speculation turns out to be true, however, Clinton may find ample incentive to take the position, given its historical role as a stepping stone to the presidency. Beside the advantage of a padded-resume, the position would allow her to exercise a large measure of influence on U.S foreign policy and perhaps even leave an indelible mark (for better or worse) on its role in global affairs.

Given the narrow margin of her loss to President-elect Obama during the Democratic primaries and the support she still holds among the public and her party’s top brass, her involvement in an Obama administration seemed to be there for the taking if she so desired. Clinton is currently considered the front-runner for the position on a short-list that includes the familiar faces of Senator John Kerry and Former U.N ambassador Bill Richardson. How would the appointment of Hillary Clinton to the Secretary of State affect U.S policy on the Middle East?

Beside running the State Department, the Secretary of State traditionally serves the President as his chief foreign policy advisor. The nature of this role has had exceptions; during the Cold War, depending on the administration, the top foreign policy advisor was sometimes the Secretary of State or the National Security Advisor. In recent times it could be argued that the Vice President’s office has played an enlarged role in the formation of foreign policy. The Secretary of State plays a few other roles in foreign affairs, including the handling of negotiations with foreign governments and their representatives, and the marketing of U.S foreign policy to the rest of the world. Given the presence of Vice President Joe Biden (not my favorite policy architecht, but knowledgable nonetheless), and the possible involvement of Samantha Power in the next administration (an academic and a prominent writer, she’s been widely tapped for the position of National Security Advisor), Clinton’s influence on Obama in matters of foreign affairs may be limited. Further influence on Obama may be hampered by their reportedly contentious relationship stemming from the Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton’s selling ability however, given her public stature, could be well suited to the position.

Of what we can derive from her presidential run, Clinton’s foreign policy views are nearly identical to those of Obama. Beside the standard campaign rhetoric on Iraq (both want to see a withdrawal of U.S presence, but both are cautious of how this would proceed) and Afghanistan (the first of the individual Wars on Terror is likely to receive a renewed focus in the coming four years), we have little to glean from either of their foreign policy objectives other than an increased emphasis on multilateralism and probably a more realist approach to exercising American power abroad. Compare their Foreign Affairs articles, for instance, written toward the end of 2007. While they generally reek of the traditional ambiguity of a political stump speech, their essays reflect the democratic line on foreign policy, perhaps only separated by their distinct emphasis’ on themes of experience and judgment that served to anchor their campaign messages. The possible points of contention emerge on discussions of approaching Iran, with Clinton seeming rhetorically less-open to high level negotiations with the Islamic Republic that have been proposed by Obama. While their policy differences on Iran are minute, Clinton’s emphasis during the primaries on setting ‘pre-conditions’ before engaging the Iranians (which is already happening) managed to pull Obama’s conciliatory language toward the center on the issue, dropping suggestions that he would meet with Ahmadinejad (a rather pointless endeavor to propose in the first place, given where real power on Iran’s foreign policy is centered).

Clinton does carry some light baggage with respect to Iran. During an interview with ABC news toward the end of her presidential run, she responded to a question about the possibility of Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons with this statement:

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an at tack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

Iran protested formally to the U.N, and Iranian members of parliament responded to the provocation with typical indignation and resentment. While protests to the comment are more symbolic than anything else (similar comments have been made by others throughout the past 8 years), reputation is an integral factor in diplomacy and negotiation, and her efforts to engage Iran may receive a sour reception from an already reluctant political establishment in that country.

Any appointee to the position will be responsible for executing an ambitious agenda challenged by a weakened base of resources and power. The familiar obstacles of Israel-Palestine, MidEast political reform, Iraq, Iran, and Syria-Lebanon require a determined yet pragmatic approach to overcome. With all the talk of Senators and former presidential candidates being considered for the job, one cannot help but wish that more established, wonky foreign affairs experts would be short listed to head the U.S state department. A ceremonial appointee (which Clinton and Kerry would largely be) could serve to draw increased attention to their efforts, but wouldn’t it be more appropriate to appoint a person specialized in foreign affairs or diplomacy to head America’s foreign policy bureaucracy? I’m skeptical of the short-list, but almost any appointee will carry out a similar agenda with regard to the Middle East.

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