Saturday, December 27, 2008

Clinton’s day-one Job #1

For practically all of this year’s grueling presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton made much of her movements and relationships on the world stage. From the start of her campaign, the Clinton brand of competence and experience was the main selling point transmitted to the nation’s voters.

The American people didn’t buy what Clinton was selling. President-elect Barack Obama did, bought it enough to name her as the next Secretary of State. Now, with new explosions in the Middle East taking place at this literal moment, with the potential for vast violence between Israelis and Palestinians greater than it’s been in years, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly have a new Job #1 on the day one of her taking command at the State Department.

Her handling of the new and emerging unrest in the region has the potential to elevate her star globally in two ways. The first, of course, and most utterly Machiavellian, is raising her profile for a presidential run in 2012. The second is less predictable but shouldn’t be any less welcome: the opportunity to rise to the ranks of America’s most revered public servants, to be remembered not as a president, but as a stateswoman.

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At this writing, more than 240 Palestinians have been killed, inevitably many of them women, children and the elderly, as a result of Israeli air strikes on Hamas strongholds in Gaza. The Israeli action, announced and defended by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was called a reprisal for Hamas rocket attacks. One Israeli woman was killed in the latest wave of those rocket firings, and many others were injured. Israel has called up its reserves, so a ground invasion of the region is possible within days.

World leaders have condemned the Israeli action as a wildly disproportionate response to rocket attacks that were, on the weight of casualty count alone, mostly ineffectual. The Bush administration has adopted its customary position, defending Israel and condemning the Palestinian leadership for launching the attacks in the first place. And outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has consulted with Obama on what’s happening and what happens next.

What happens next will obviously be Barack Obama’s first big test on the international stage. No celebrity celebrations, no Ich Bin Ein moments this time. Obama’s reaction to this crisis, and the formulation of policy related to this crisis, will be the first proof of his intention to recentralize foreign policy in the White House, and to abide by some of the pledges made during the campaign.

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But this is, in a lot of ways, a bigger challenge for Hillary Clinton. We were told for months of her past sitdowns with world leaders, her huddles with the movers and shakers of our time. We’re fast approaching the point when her relationships with those in the Middle East will need to be revisited, and possibly revived — and maybe even created.

You have to wonder, for example, just what kind of a relationship Hillary Clinton had with Barak, currently the Israeli defense minister, previously, in July 2000, when Bill Clinton, then president, met at Camp David with Barak, then Israeli prime minister, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — attempting over 15 days to negotiate what would have been an historic agreement concretizing an historic two-state solution to an historically intractable problem.

Was Hillary Clinton in the room with the leaders? Was Hillary walking on the trails in the Catoctin Mountains with the others? Clinton, it goes without saying, spoke today with Barak by phone about the current situation. That’s where and how relationships are forged — on a firsthand basis, not on the basis of what your husband tells you at the end of the day.

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Some of the best relationships, and some of the worst, are created under duress. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s other big challenge vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is cultivating another crucial relationship: the one between her and Barack Obama.

There have been reports of Clinton already attempting to make distinctions between her and the Obama admininstration on matters of staffing the new State Department. Clinton has insisted on purging State of those who criticized her during the campaign, and has been just as adamant about insisting on direct access to President Obama, without going through the national security adviser.

The risk is there, right out of the gate, for backbiting, end runs and deception — the kind of fractious intramurals that can doom an administration. That would be a big enough headache combined with such established matters as the Bush II Iraq War, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and potentially ruinous conflicts in Africa.

The new Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed changes the game. It underscores the importance of the White House and the State Department being on the same page in the playbook — the White House playbook; it makes clear the potential for the first misstep of the Obama administration: internal division on how to proceed in resolving this crisis.

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This may be Hillary Clinton’s first opportunity to show us a side we haven’t seen from her: Hillary as peacemaker, as negotiator, not in the ceremonial context of a first lady, not in the clubby realm of a Senate subcommittee, but in the high-stakes arena of geopolitics, with the gravitas of a diplomat, acting as a transmitter and interpreter of a foreign policy that, for all her input, will not originate with her.

What’s coming for Hillary Clinton, upon her confirmation as Secretary of State, will be a different day one than the one she envisioned almost two years ago. But given the gravity of events still unfolding in the Middle East, it’s also got to be more than just a day one for new responsibilities.

It’s got to be a day one for a new Hillary Clinton, someone inclined to minimize not just differences in the wider world, but also any differences she has with the administration she works for.
Image credit: Ehud Barak: Agence France-Presse file.

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