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 article appears in the February 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.