Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hillary on the hot seat on the Hill

Up until right about now, the personage of vast ambition and overweening entitlement known as Hillary Clinton was thought to have the title of Secretary of State all but already appended to her name. The process of Senate confirmation that began on Tuesday — one week before the inauguration of her presumed boss — was to be just a formality.

Leave it to some reluctant Republicans and a columnist (whose rhetorical brickbats make the little boy who called the emperor on his new clothes seem diplomatic by comparison) to cast doubt on a confirmation that seemed a certainty. Their concerns suggest that, for the Secretary of State-designate, Hillary Clinton’s newest problem may be Hillary Clinton’s oldest companion: husband Bill.

Despite an agreement ensuring that the monster fundraising apparatus known as the Clinton Global Initiative (started by Bill Clinton) would be completely separated from her duties and influence as Secretary of State, the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aired their worries.

“The core of the problem is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton foundation as a means to gain favor with the Secretary of State,” said Sen. Richard Lugar on Tuesday.

“The bottom line,” Lugar said, “is that even well-intentioned foreign donations carry risks for United States foreign policy … This was bound to be a dilemma from the moment that the President-elect asked you to become Secretary of State.”

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There’s no escaping the fact that the Clinton Global Initiative does a multitude of good works on behalf of the world, having raised nearly $500 million to address such intractable problems as the AIDS epidemic, living standards, and other urgent matters that don’t respect borders or governments. Its value in effecting meaningful change isn’t really debatable.

Neither, unfortunately, is the appearance of a potential for conflict of interest. As Hillary Clinton prepares to assume the responsibilities of the world’s top diplomat, as the literal face of American diplomacy, senators have raised the questions of just where the lines between diplomacy and improper influence are drawn, and whether or not Bill Clinton will respect those lines, or try to smudge those boundaries in the name of a foundation with his name attached.

Hillary Clinton on Tuesday dutifully set her objective for the nation’s relationship with the rest of the world, For her, the role of Secretary of State will mean embarking this nation on the pursuit of “smart power,” a strategy of invoking diplomatic, legal, military and cultural initiatives to advance the United States’ agenda with its global neighbors.

On Tuesday, Clinton addressed what’s likely to be her Job #1: the situation in Gaza, proposing a tougher line with old ally Israel, calling the relentless attacks on Palestinian civilians responsible for “tragic humanitarian costs.”

Clinton called for the need for “real security for Israel, normal and positive relations with its neighbors,” and appeared to propose a new and possibly less automatic relationship regarding Israel’s use of force against the Palestinians, even as she called for renewed efforts toward peace in the region.

“As intractable as the Middle East’s problems may seem — and many presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a solution — we cannot give up on peace,” she said.

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It didn’t stop there. In a broad outline of global hot spots from Russia to North Korea, Clinton stated her preparedness to jump into the challenge on, well, day one. “I assure you that, if I am confirmed, the State Department will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-looking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world,” she said.

Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, was not convinced. Looping back to the matter of her husband’s foundation, Vitter (still very much about the business of rehabilitating himself after a sex scandal last year) said Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation poses a lot of real and perceived conflict issues.”

Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, the mountain lion at the garden party, writing Tuesday in Slate in his characteristically acerbic fashion, but airing the questions that until now were thought to be fairly dead and buried:

“Why is Sen. Clinton, the spouse of the great influence-peddler, being nominated in the first place? In exchange for giving the painful impression that our State Department will be an attractive destination for lobbyists and donors, what exactly are we getting? George Marshall? Dean Acheson? Even Madeleine Albright?

No, we are getting a notoriously ambitious woman who made a fool of herself over Bosnia, at the time and during the recent campaign, and who otherwise has no command of foreign affairs except what she's picked up second-hand from an impeached ex-president, a disbarred lawyer, and a renter of the Lincoln Bedroom. If the Senate waves this through, it will have reinforced its recent image as the rubber-stamp chamber of a bankrupt banana republic. Not an especially good start to the brave new era.”

None of this is likely to scuttle Clinton’s chances for confirmation. Despite raising the conflict of interest issue, Lugar himself told Clinton that “your qualifications are remarkable” en route to admitting that he planned to vote in favor of her confirmation.

The first big confirmational hurdle of the Obama administration seems to be behind it. Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing was neither a love feast nor a drive-by. With a vigorous defense of her own good works, and deftly dodging involvement with those of her husband, she's apparently prevailed in her first most pressing diplomatic overture: not in negotiations with a confrontational foreign government but with fixtures of her own.
Image credit: Vitter: Via chicagotribune.com.

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