Hillary Rodham Clinton, it seems, has rediscovered freedom. As demonstrations erupted anew in Iran this week, the secretary of State mocked the Tehran regime for its “hypocrisy” in supporting the protests in Egypt while cracking down violently on its own people. “Let me, clearly and directly, support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets in Iran today,” Clinton said.
She also delivered a major speech on Internet freedom at George Washington University, inveighing against the Egyptian and Iranian regimes for shutting down or interfering with Web communications and declaring that cyberspace is “the public space of the 21st century—the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub.” The “universal” right to assemble and freedom of expression, she said, must now also include “the freedom to connect.”
It’s not that she hasn’t said things like this before—it was Clinton who called Iran an emerging “military dictatorship” last year, and who delivered a memorable, Churchillian-sounding warning about the “new information curtain” descending on countries that are censoring or shutting down their Internet access.
But after what critics called a muted administration message toward Egypt in the early days of the protests—and meager support for Iran’s Green Revolution when it first emerged in 2009—Clinton and President Obama are leaving no doubt about which side of history they’re on, at least rhetorically. (For the record, administration officials deny any change in tone. “Freedom? When did we forget about that?” Clinton’s spokesman, P.J. Crowley, asked National Journal with mock gravity.)
Indeed, this may be Clinton’s moment, at long last. She often seemed to disappear into the role of secretary of State in her first two years. The question lingered: Whatever happened to the powerhouse who fought Obama in one of the fiercest battles in American political history?
By most accounts, she and the president get along quite well. But nearly a year ago, a top aide to Clinton posed a question to me: “The biggest issue still unresolved in the Obama administration is: Can there be more than one star?” The answer soon seemed clear: No, there can’t. For Clinton, there was no blaze of global Hillarymania, à la Condi Rice and those sexy black boots. No big peace deal. No headline-grabbing initiative. No “Clinton doctrine.”
A region that has a way of defining American secretaries of State, whether they like it or not, might be her greatest foreign-policy test. Clinton is America’s chief voice overseas. And in the weeks ahead, she will have to balance crucial U.S. interests that seem contradictory. She will have to ensure the stability of often antidemocratic allies, among them Jordan and Bahrain, that preserve peace with Israel and aid antiterrorism efforts, and at the same time support the fundamental U.S. values of freedom and democracy that are manifesting themselves in the streets.
“This is about as difficult and complex a foreign-policy challenge as you can find,” says former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who is a Clinton admirer and was recently offered Richard Holbrooke’s old job in Afghanistan and Pakistan (he turned it down). “It’s an epochal moment in the history of the Middle East.”
Some might say that the Middle East is a circle that is impossible to square. But despite the criticisms, no one may be better suited to the task than Clinton. Or perhaps one should say, the two Clintons—the one who has spoken out for years about the demands for self-expression and fundamental rights evinced in Tahrir Square, and the one who knows and understands the autocrats in the region and can prod them into serious reforms that may forestall further revolution.
The first might be called the It-Takes-a-Village Clinton. She’s the politically astute empathizer who has developed a complex worldview dating from her first great moment on the global stage, in Beijing in 1995, when as first lady she rocked a women’s conference hall with her declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” and vice versa.
The It-Takes-a-Village Clinton believes passionately that diplomacy and development issues must be united as one concept, that an infrastructure of social stability—issues such as health, food security, and water—is key to making better allies and solving traditional foreign-policy issues.
“I think that really is new,” her just-departed policy-planning chief, Anne-Marie Slaughter, told National Journal. “She’s the one who kept saying, ‘You’ve got to have government-to-government, government-to-people, and people-to-people contacts.’ She’s been very clear that the people of different countries are not just the object of policies; they are active agents of change and evolution. And, above all, of problem-solving.”
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 February 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.