This Clinton insists on speaking to governments and civil societies simultaneously. She has held regular town-hall meetings abroad—or as she likes to call them, “town-terviews,” combining local people and media—an approach that has eased some of the anti-Americanism in Islamic countries.
And in a speech in Doha, Qatar, just before the recent turmoil began, Clinton issued what now looks like a prescient warning to Arab leaders who for too long had failed “to build a future that your young people will believe in, stay for, and defend.” The Arab peoples “have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” she said. “They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.”
But there’s also the tough, pragmatic Clinton, the consummate practitioner of realpolitik who knows how to use power at high levels, with connections everywhere. The one who’s considered a crisis manager par excellence, who, according to her close aide, Jake Sullivan, is on the phone constantly and is marshaling every deputy “at all levels of the State Department” to be “on the phone around the clock, conveying these same messages” of reform.
Above all, she will need to hold the hands of America’s autocratic allies while insisting that they open up their societies and usher in democratic reforms and economic equity.
It’s all part of a broader strategic vision that many of her acolytes say goes underappreciated by the “traditional” foreign-policy types. “She’s able to think in stereo,” Slaughter says. “She’s able to think at the level of intergovernmental bargaining and pressure, and carrots and sticks, and she’s also able, because of her own background—because of what she saw as first lady and senator—to think simultaneously at the level of individuals, groups, and far more so than really anybody I’ve ever seen.”
She will need all of those skills, because, in truth, neither the Arab autocrats nor the Arab Street are very happy with America right now. And there may be no way around that. “It may be a can’t-win situation, so all you can do is pursue your own interests,” Burns says.
Slaughter herself reflects the administration’s ambivalence about what democracy could mean in the Mideast. Clinton’s strategic approach, she says, is to “stand with societies in the pursuit of these rights and in pursuit of development more broadly.… And we’re exercising our diplomatic influence in encouraging those governments to reform. Not to become democracies, to reform.”
Slaughter thinks the better of this comment and adds: “Strike this. I realize what that will sound like.… That’s not the right formulation: We’re asking them to reform in the direction that for us means liberal democracy. But it’s got to be their approach.”
While she manages relationships abroad, Clinton will also have to watch her back. Some bad blood lingers between the White House and State, especially when it comes to the use of America’s biggest lever with Egypt and other Arab regimes—military aid. Early in the Egypt crisis, then-White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared that the administration “ will be reviewing” the $1.3 billion aid program to Egypt; Clinton said that there has been no such discussion.
Back in 2009, Clinton, who is an Iran hawk and had sought, until a few weeks ago, to carefully cultivate Arab dictators as an anti-Tehran bloc, boldly called for the Arab regimes to become part of a Cold War-style “defense umbrella” against Iran’s nuclear program. Here at home, the Right erupted: Hillary was in effect conceding that Tehran would get the bomb! Once again, Obama pulled the rug from under his secretary of State. Clinton was actually speaking for herself on that one, The New York Times quoted a “senior White House official” as saying.
For Clinton, perhaps the ultimate irony is that she didn’t want the Mideast defining her; she had stayed away from it for as long as possible, handed the region off to envoy George Mitchell and others. She wanted to talk about Asia and about Latin America. But inexorably, as has happened with almost every U.S. secretary of State in modern times, from Henry Kissinger to James Baker to Condoleezza Rice, the Mideast comes calling. And now it has for Clinton.
When I asked her in an interview last spring what she most enjoyed about the job, she replied, “A lot of it is not the headline stuff. It’s the slow and steady progress that I think provides a much firmer footing for us.”
“Slow and steady progress” is not necessarily the stuff of greatness. But it may be what, in the end, we will get from Clinton. And if she can prevent the Mideast from descending into chaos, it may be more than enough.
This article appears in the Feb. 19, 2011, edition of National Journal.