Hillary Clinton's test at State: How she'll work with Obama

WASHINGTON -- She'll bring global star power, a long-standing commitment to improving the status of women and children around the world and muscular promises of military action when U.S. interests are crossed.

The question for Hillary Rodham Clinton, slated to be named secretary of State on Monday by President-elect Barack Obama, is whether she can forge the sort of close relationship with a former rival that is crucial to giving the nation's top diplomat the credibility to get things done.

"What matters most are two things," says James Lindsay, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin. "One, the secretary of State has to have the president's ear. Two, the president has to have the secretary of State's back."

Obama is choosing for his most prestigious Cabinet post an independent-minded policymaker whose world view has been shaped by eight years as a globe-trotting first lady and eight years as a senator with time on the Armed Services Committee. She combines a focus on "soft" issues such as maternal health with rhetoric more hawkish than Obama's on containing Iran's nuclear program and protecting Israel.

She will be taking the lead on a crushing set of global challenges, including repercussions from last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which threaten a conflagration on the nuclear-armed subcontinent.

In collaboration with other administration officials, the incoming secretary of State will deal with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, efforts to turn around the war in Afghanistan, nuclear programs in such rogue nations as North Korea and Iran, the challenge from a resurgent Russia and growing concerns about global climate change.

Obama's pick is non-traditional on several fronts. Not since James Garfield appointed James Blaine to head the State Department in 1881 has a president chosen a major political rival for the job. What's more, Clinton's grounding in women's rights contrasts with her predecessors, most of whom had pursued careers in academia, the military or law steeped in U.S. relations with major world powers.

The Obama transition office said Sunday that he would unveil his national security team today. Two Democratic sources with firsthand knowledge of the decision confirmed Clinton would be among those named. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record.

Clinton is "a tough pragmatist who understands it's a dangerous world out there, who understands it can be necessary at times to use force and at other times to be able to back your diplomacy with the threat of force," says Martin Indyk, a former assistant secretary of State and ambassador to Israel who is close to Clinton.

"On the other hand, she has shown a very deep commitment to the causes of human rights, women's rights in particular, and the pursuit of peace and resolution of conflict."

When Clinton decided to run for the Senate in 2000, she launched her campaign with a "listening tour" to hear from New York voters. When she began her presidential campaign in 2007, she announced a similar "listening tour" through states with early primaries and caucuses.

It would be no surprise, then, if she chose to begin her tenure as secretary of State with a "listening tour" around the globe, especially to hear from allies in Europe and elsewhere who have complained about what they see as a penchant for unilateral action by the Bush administration.

She also has other ideas in her pocket.

During a trip last year to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Clinton met separately with then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, each of whom expressed suspicions of the other. She asked each if it would be helpful for the United States to appoint a special envoy to work with leaders of the two countries. They said yes.

On her return to Washington, she called White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley to pitch the idea, but to no avail. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe says the White House did look into her suggestion but decided it wasn't feasible because the administration, while also working on tensions between Musharraf and Karzai, was focused on a governmental transition in Pakistan and the need to name a new U.N. representative for Afghanistan.

As secretary of State, Clinton would be in a position to put her ideas into action.

From bellicose to 'brilliant'

As they competed for the Democratic nomination, Clinton portrayed Obama as naive in his approach to rogue leaders around the world.

Obama, meanwhile, questioned her judgment in voting to authorize the Iraq war and cast her as unnecessarily bellicose toward Iran. He and his top aides — including Susan Rice, set to be named United Nations ambassador — mocked the idea that Clinton's work as first lady amounted to substantive experience.

Now, associates of both describe their differences on foreign policy as overblown in the heat of battle. They say Clinton's public campaigning for Obama during the general election and their private conversations in the four weeks since he won have helped mend fences and begin a budding partnership. Obama strategist David Axelrod now calls Clinton "able, tough, brilliant."

Even so, no appointment Obama has considered has generated as much chatter as the choice of the New York senator.

Some leaders of anti-war groups are dismayed that Obama, whose national ambitions were launched by his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, would give such a key role to someone who supported it.

"One of the ways in which he separated himself from Hillary Clinton during the primary season was to remind people that early on he was opposed to the war in Iraq, was opposed to her position, which was always quite supportive of war," says Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of anti-war groups.

She calls the prospective nomination of Clinton "quite disappointing" but says the "real question" will be the policies Obama himself sets.

Then there are the potential complications of choosing the spouse of a former president who continues to pursue his own initiatives on AIDS and other issues around the world. Will foreign leaders assume Bill Clinton speaks for the White House? And what happens if he disagrees with a step the president and secretary of State decide to take?

The former president has agreed to take steps to minimize conflicts or the appearance of them, including submitting future speaking engagements and business dealings to the State Department or White House for approval. Under the arrangement, first reported by The New York Times Sunday, Clinton will release the names of more than 200,000 donors to his foundation.

The former president could prove to be an asset for the new administration. In an interview in October with Joe Klein of Time magazine, Obama said he had talked with Bill Clinton about the possibility of serving as a special envoy to ease tensions between India and Pakistan — a task that takes on special importance now.

Bill Clinton has been "foursquare" in favor of his wife's appointment, says Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of State who has been a friend since they were Rhodes Scholars together. "I know his initial reaction to the idea was, 'She'd be great; (Obama's) smart to offer it.' …

"She obviously had to make some pretty basic decisions" whether to accept the job, Talbott says. "It's a major career change."

She has made those before.

Clinton was a Little Rock lawyer and activist on children's issues when her husband was governor of Arkansas. After he was elected president in 1992, she headed the task force charged with his signature domestic initiative, on health care.

The proposal she helped draft failed spectacularly, never coming to a vote on Capitol Hill and contributing to devastating Democratic setbacks in the congressional elections in 1994. Hillary Clinton, a political lightning rod in the United States, became increasingly engaged in global travels and programs.

"She was very interested in a combination of things that led her to get more active on foreign issues," recalls Madeleine Albright, who was U.N. ambassador in President Clinton's first term and secretary of State in his second. She and Hillary Clinton regularly met for lunch in Albright's private dining room at the State Department.

"She could see what her voice meant when she got involved in a particular issue," Albright says. "There were specific areas she got interested in — human rights and women's issues and international health issues — and then more and more that gave her the capability of understanding developments in those countries."

Eight years, 82 countries

During eight years in the White House, Hillary Clinton visited 82 countries. She met with dozens of foreign leaders including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, president Ion Iliescu of Romania and prime minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. (In her 2003 memoir, Living History, Clinton says Bhutto commiserated on their mutual challenges. "Women who take on tough issues and stake out new territory are often on the receiving end of ignorance," Bhutto told her.)

One of Clinton's most embarrassing missteps during this year's presidential campaign came when she exaggerated her experiences as first lady, giving audiences a vivid account of landing in Bosnia in 1996 under sniper fire. CBS footage of the trip — posted on YouTube this spring and viewed more than 2 million times since then — shows her and daughter Chelsea at a placid welcome ceremony on the airport tarmac, greeted by a young girl with a long braid.

Clinton's schedule abroad included hundreds of photo ops and sightseeing expeditions, but she also routinely held meetings on such substantive issues as the political empowerment of women, equal opportunities for girls and the availability of health care.

After a 1995 trip to India, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, she delivered a presentation at the State Department of what she found that Talbott calls "stunning" in its analysis of the region's importance and its challenges. He says it laid the groundwork for President Clinton to visit India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2000.

On that trip and others, Hillary Clinton spotlighted the emergence of "microcredit" programs that offered small, unsecured loans to give the impoverished a path to self-sufficiency.

"When Hillary Clinton says something, the whole world listens," Mohammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, told reporters after she sat down in the remote village of Moishahati with a group of Bangladeshi women who had benefited from the bank's microcredit loans.

After she was elected to the Senate in 2000, Clinton sought a seat on the Armed Services Committee, a step that would bolster her credentials as a potential commander-in-chief. Since then, she has regularly traveled abroad, making three trips each to Iraq and Afghanistan and two to Israel as well as visits to Pakistan, Kuwait, Canada and Europe.

Clinton remains determined to focus on such issues as maternal health and the education of girls. She argues there is a direct link between those "soft" issues and the stability of governments, and with that U.S. security interests.

"Typically, governments (including that of the U.S.) limit their foreign policies to diplomatic, military and trade issues, the staple of most treaties, pacts and negotiations," Clinton wrote in her memoir. "Yet it was clear to me that in the new global economy, individual countries and regions would find it difficult to make economic or social progress if a disproportionate percentage of their female population remained poor, uneducated, unhealthy and disenfranchised. …

"Issues affecting women and girls should not be dismissed as 'soft' or marginal but should be integrated fully into domestic and foreign policy decisions."

Still, it is on such traditional "hard" issues as authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq and dealing with the nuclear program in Iran that Clinton has clashed most with Obama. Those questions and others — including the perilous situation between India and Pakistan — will be among the new secretary of State's most pressing challenges.

"For the Obama administration, foreign policy is not going to be easy," says Lindsay, a former National Security Council aide. "Their inbox is filled with lots of intractable problems."

Reported by Susan Page, USA TODAY