YOU’D have thought it was a rock star showing up at the C Street lobby of the State Department on Friday. And maybe it was. When Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared at the top of the stairs, she was greeted by a raucous but respectful crowd more off the chain than you’d expect from State Department operatives.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to elevate diplomacy and development, to serve the nation we all love; to understand the challenges, the threats and the opportunities the United States, and to work with all our heart and all our might to make sure that America is secure, that our interests are promoted and that our values are respected.”
The modern world intruded to punctuate her valedictory at State. Underscoring the global dangers Clinton alluded to was a tragic coda to the Clinton diplomatic era: the suicide-bomber attack earlier that day at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in which a Turkish national, working as embassy security, was killed.
“I know that the world we are trying to help bring into being in the 21st century will have many difficult days, but I am more optimistic today than I was when I stood here four years ago, because I have seen, day after day, the many contributions that our diplomats and development experts are making to help ensure that this century provides the kind of peace, progress, and prosperity that not just the United States, but the entire world, especially young people, so richly deserve. I am very proud to have been Secretary of State.”
The address to the troops was the last of a sparkling victory lap. Clinton spoke on Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations, offering her final formal speech as the 67th U.S. Secretary of State, and the most traveled in the history of the United States.
She talked about “the distance we’ve traveled” since January 2009: “Two wars, an economy in free fall, traditional alliances framed, our diplomatic standing damaged and around the world people questioning America’s commitment to core values and our ability to maintain our global leadership. That was my in-box on day one ...”
“A lot has changed in the last four years. Under President Obama’s leadership we’ve ended the war in Iraq, begun a transition in Afghanistan and brought Osama bin Laden to justice. We have also revitalized American diplomacy and strengthened our alliances. And while our economic recovery is not yet complete, we are heading in the right direction.
“In short, America today is stronger at home and more respected in the world.”
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THERE WERE highs and lows, of course. And maybe even lower lows. Benghazi and Syria were certainly two of them, two proofs that, for all the legitimate advances in outreach and charitable toughness made by Clinton’s State Department, some situations were resistant to change, if not downright antagonistic to it.
At 6:25 p.m. on Sept. 11, a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that a protest in Libya had taken a violent turn with the death of John Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other American citizens. What was originally characterized and communicated as a mob action at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi developed a life of its own, one interpreted through the lens of Washington politics at its most deeply partisan.
The State Department came under withering fire from Congressional Republicans, who took the State Department to task for ignoring requests (some from Stevens himself) for more guards and safety improvements. And a report from the independent Accountability Review Board said the State Department had "systemic failures" in responding to events in Benghazi, including a reliance on local militias for security instead of U.S. Marine guards.
The lows of the Syria situation are ably distilled in a story by Michael Gordon and Mark Landler of The New York Times.
The U.S. objective: Cultivate a Syrian opposition with the help of other actors in the region. The Times reports: “The plan that [then-CIA director David] Petraeus developed and Mrs. Clinton supported called for vetting rebels and establishing and arming a group of fighters with the assistance of some neighboring states. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was said by some officials to be sympathetic to the idea. ...
“Wary of becoming entangled in the Syria crisis, the White House pushed back, and Mrs. Clinton backed off. Some administration officials expected the issue to be joined again after the election. But when Mr. Petraeus resigned because of an extramarital affair and Mrs. Clinton suffered a concussion, missing weeks of work, the issue was shelved.
“In an interview last week, Mrs. Clinton declined to comment on her role in the arms debate and emphasized other steps the United States had taken. ‘We have worked assiduously, first to create some kind of legitimate opposition,’ she said. ‘We have been the architect and main mover of very tough sanctions against Assad.’
“ ‘Having said all that, Assad is still killing. ...’ ”
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THE HIGHS for the Clinton State Department can be measured, here anyway, by the accolades of fellow diplomats. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state, interviewed on MSNBC on Friday: “She’s done two things that were very different for a secretary of state. She has put development into the picture as a major priority — what we do to assist poorer countries of the world — and she stood up for women. Some people have diminished that, but for the United States secretary of state to say that promoting the role of women worldwide to be leaders globally, that’s a revolutionary thing, and I think that’s gonna have a lasting impact.”
“She has redefined American power in Asia,” Burns said. “With the opening to Burma — Myanmar — and the way that she has stood up in difficult conversations with the Chinese in support of peaceful resolution of disputes [with its neighbors] in the South China Sea ... I think she deserves enormous credit for what she’s done.”
“Secretary Clinton has dramatically changed the face of U.S. foreign policy globally for the good,” Richard L. Armitage, deputy Bush 43 secretary of state, told The New York Times.
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Now, of course, speculation begins on Hill’s next move. Even before her formal resignation, Hillary Clinton was the obvious early choice for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Speculation futures will soon run wild. Clinton is understandably mum about her future, smartly saying that her first priority is experiencing sleep in a structure that doesn’t move. After four years, 112 countries and literally 1 million miles flown as secretary of state, you can hardly find fault with that.
But the Clintons — all of them, really — are never far from being part of the national conversation, and their conversation pivots on public service and politics (watch for daughter Chelsea making a run for office in 2018 or so. You watch and see.) For Hillary Clinton, a second run for the roses in 2016 would be the capstone to a stellar public career.
And if Clinton decides to seek the White House, she’ll do it after having had the incredible good fortune of losing the first time, in 2008, when she wasn’t nearly as formidable a figure on the world stage. When she wasn’t nearly as good a candidate as she’ll be if she runs in 2016.
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A CLINTON 2016 presidential campaign would wield the gravitas of one presumably enlightened enough to have learned from mistakes of the past. The use of social media and the Internet, responsive and numerous field offices, and stronger reliance on small-donor contributions will all have more of a presence in the infrastructure of a Hillary ’16 run than they did in her 2008 campaign. Lessons learned from the Obama machine she helped run for four years.
What’s not debatable is the fact that the workhorse of the State Department has earned a break. On Sunday, the first day of the first week of her new unemployment, Hill could put her feet up at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and (maybe) sit down to enjoy our one truly, fully ecumenical American experience: the Super Bowl. Or maybe not. There’s no plane to catch tomorrow, or the next day. The only thing to catch, to catch up on, is blessed sleep. In a bed not made to aircraft specifications.
Well done, Madame Secretary. Enjoy retirement. We’ll see you ... when we see you.
Clinton at retirement sendoff: Still from State Department video. Stevens: Public domain. Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi: Still from Telegraph.co.uk video.