In New Role, Clinton's Former Experience Won't Help Much

Campaign boosted Clinton's foreign policy cred, but Senate taught world lessons.

December 1, 2008, 6:52 PM

Dec. 2, 2008 — -- When running against now President-elect Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton asked voters whom they would want in the White House answering an emergency phone call at 3 a.m.

The voters resoundingly chose Obama to be on the receiving end of that phone call. But with her nomination Monday to become secretary of state, the Democratic senator from New York will likely be the one dialing the phone and waking the president with news of an international incident.

Clinton made an effort during the campaign to portray Obama as inexperienced on matters of foreign policy while touting her own thin credentials during her time spent as first lady.

The litany of foreign trips and speeches made while she was first lady, experts told ABC, probably did little to teach her much about policymaking. Nevertheless, her proximity to the Oval Office -- having perhaps the closest professional working relationship any first lady has ever had with her husband -- gave her perspective on the kinds of information a president needs when making critical foreign policy decisions.

In addition to her eight years in the White House, Clinton has spent the past seven in the Senate, serving on the Armed Services Committee and has, in that capacity, traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But beyond foreign policy experience, Clinton brings something else to the table, said Robert Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University -- her good name and a familiarity to the leaders of the world.

"She brings some of the goodwill foreign leaders remember from the Clinton days, and she brings the goodwill many world leaders have already expressed about Obama," Lieber said. "When world leaders meet with a secretary of state, they want to believe they're dealing with a heavy -- a person of substance who matters politically. She's got that."

As first lady, Clinton "was not a formal decision maker," Lieber said. "But the Clintons were always a team. They both are highly intelligent. Hillary brought drive and discipline, and Bill Clinton brought a sometimes unruly charisma. It's inconceivable that she wouldn't have been privy to what he was seeing and thinking."

Clinton's New Role

But as for Clinton's trips abroad, some of which she trumpeted during her run for president, and for which she was also attacked by her then-opponent and soon-to-be boss, experts said that experience would probably be of little use to the incoming secretary of state.

During the campaign, Clinton cited five specific trips she made as first lady that she said at the time proved she was "tested."

By March, in the heat of the primary and soon after she ran the 3 a.m. television spot, Clinton claimed that she had assisted in bringing peace between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; helped to open Macedonia's borders to fleeing Kosovar refugees; visited a Bosnian war zone; delivered a speech on women's rights in China; and made public statements about the genocide in Rwanda.

Officials from Bill Clinton's administration, some of whom have been tapped to serve in the incoming Obama administration, were divided as to how much influence Hillary Clinton had as first lady.

Richard Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations, who was on Obama's short list for the secretary of state job, said Clinton's "intense efforts" in Macedonia "contributed to saving many lives."

But Susan Rice, also an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration and nominated Monday to be ambassador to the U.N., said Clinton's role was more about "gentle prodding or constructive reinforcement."

Each of Clinton's claims came under careful scrutiny during the campaign, and each was found lacking.

It was revealed that despite Clinton's claim that she helped open Macedonia's borders to Kosovar refugees, she actually arrived in Macedonia one day after the borders had been opened.

John Hume and David Trimble, respectively Northern Ireland's chief Catholic and Protestant peace negotiators who had shared the Nobel Peace Prize, each remember Clinton's role differently.

In the spring, Hume said Clinton provided "decisive support" in negotiating peace. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams agreed, telling the Irish Times that "Sen. Clinton played an important role in the peace process" and praised her as "extremely well informed on the issues."

Clinton Faces Challenges

Trimble, however, remembered Clinton mainly as a "cheerleader" and not a "principal player."

The incident for which Clinton took the most flack during the campaign was her much ballyhooed claim to have taken cover from sniper fire while visiting Bosnia in 1996.

When photos of Clinton's arrival in Sarajevo showed her with her daughter, Chelsea, and embracing a young Bosnian girl, Clinton stepped back from her earlier comments, calling them "misstatements."

Despite the barbs they lobbed at each other throughout the campaign, in nominating her Monday, Obama called her "an American of tremendous stature ... who will command respect in every capital."

"Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances," he said.

"During campaigns or during the course of election season, differences get magnified," he said. "I did not ask for assurances from these individuals that they would agree with me at all times. I think they understand and would not be joining this team unless they understood and were prepared to carry out the decisions that have been made by me after full discussion."

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "The campaign revealed just how thin some of her first lady experience really was.

"Far more valuable was her time in the Senate on the Armed Services Committee. She was given access to what was taking place in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

But, Biddle said, neither in her capacity as first lady nor in her role as senator has Clinton ever had to run anything, let alone a bureaucracy as geographically widespread as the State Department.

"She has no managerial experience, nor for that matter does President-elect Obama," he said. "She's a quick study and a fast learner, but there will be immediate challenges when it comes to running a large executive branch."

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