Clinton’s Years at State: Benefit or Baggage?
Policy + Politics

Clinton’s Years at State: Benefit or Baggage?

Back in 2008, when Hillary Rodham Clinton first campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, she decided that one of her best selling points was her ability to respond to crises – particularly international, national security-related emergencies. The Clinton campaign famously aired the “3 a.m. phone call” advertisement:

“It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep, but there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call – whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world…Who do you want answering the phone?”

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The ad was a shot at Clinton’s then-opponent, the relatively inexperienced junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Now, seven years later, and with Clinton making her second run at the presidency after four years as Secretary of State, she has a far stronger case to make about her experience dealing with global trouble spots and foreign leaders. At the same time, though, Clinton’s tenure at State will also give opponents plenty of arguments to make about why she shouldn’t be the one taking that phone call.

Most Clinton backers will concede that she hasn’t come away from her four years running the State Department with any signature accomplishments. Whether that is because Clinton was not bold enough or because Barack Obama worried that a major foreign policy gaffe could risk a second term remains a subject of debate.

However, Clinton traveled abroad more than any previous Secretary of State and spent a lot of time working on the unglamorous but necessary task of rebuilding the image of the U.S. in the eyes of many in the world who had come to associate America with invasions, torture and bellicosity. (GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has famously said: "Like Hillary Clinton, I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike Hillary Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”)

Clinton also pushed what has been described as the U.S.’s “pivot to Asia,” which was in fact less of a turn away from the parts of the world where the country was already engaged than recognition of the importance of strengthening connections in the Pacific. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, currently the subject of much debate in Washington, made significant progress during her time in Foggy Bottom.

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On the downside, as Democratic nominee, Clinton would face unrelenting assaults from Republicans on a number of issues that could get traction with voters.

First on the list is, of course, is the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The U.S. mission in Libya had sought additional security, but did not receive it before an attack by Islamic militants killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Clinton has repeatedly said that the request for additional security at the facility never reached her desk. Nevertheless, she has taken responsibility for the debacle as the leader of the State Department at the time. A raft of conspiracy theories, including a claim that U.S. military personnel were ordered to “stand down” and not intervene, have been thoroughly debunked but continue to be given credence by some on the far Right.

Certainly, Clinton will have to answer for the current state of U.S. relations with Russia. At the beginning of her term at State, Clinton pushed to “reset” the increasingly chilly relationship between Washington and Moscow. But things have only got worse between the two countries.

Since then, Russia has invaded one part of Ukraine, fomented a rebellion in another, offered advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, supported the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and found countless other ways to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S.

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The causes of Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior are complex and not attributable to a single factor. But on the campaign trail, voters will hear that Clinton tried to fix the U.S. relationship with Moscow and failed.

Opponents will also point out that in late 2012, Clinton and the White House brought major pressure to bear on Israel in an effort to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the militant anti-Israel group that ruled the Gaza strip between Israel and Egypt.

Little more than18 months later, after a rash of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, Israel mounted an extensive bombing campaign prior to an invasion aimed at ending the attacks.

There probably isn’t a whole lot of justification for blaming Clinton for failing to end a generations-old conflict, but that won’t prevent her opponents from drawing what they claim is a straight line between her pressuring Israel to accept the 2012 ceasefire and the 2014 rocket attacks leading to the invasion.

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At the time she agreed to serve as Obama’s first Secretary of State, cynics in Washington (and even the not-particularly-cynical, to be honest) saw the move as positioning herself for a second run at the Democratic nomination for president.

In the end, the run-up to November 2016 will demonstrate whether her time at State will be a plus for Clinton the candidate or just another heavy piece of luggage on her considerable pile of political baggage.

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