Vanity Fair Politics
Woman of the World
In her ninth year as America’s most admired woman, Hillary Clinton is dealing with radical change across the globe, as well as trying to transform U.S. diplomacy on the nuts-and-coffee level. But despite the secretary of state’s punishing pace—half a million miles in her Boeing 757—and the complex relationship between her and President Obama, Clinton seems clear about what she can (and can’t) accomplish, and, as Jonathan Alter reports, her friends are clear about something else: Madam Secretary is in her element.
By Jonathan Alter
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THE PERILS OF HILLARY As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton finds herself dealing with foreign upheaval not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was four a.m. when Hillary Clinton’s plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, and by midmorning she was in the Oval Office conferring with President Obama. The night before, as her plane was en route from Tunis, they had agreed that the vote of the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on Libya meant that it was now decision time on launching a third American war in the Middle East, though no one in the U.S. government dared call it that. Muammar Qaddafi was ramping up his genocidal threats, pledging to show “no mercy” toward his own people (whom he described as “rats”) in the eastern city of Benghazi. Inside the White House, the president quickly settled on an American bombing campaign, but he and the secretary of state thought strongly that Great Britain and France should be seen as taking the lead. They agreed that there was no choice but for Hillary to sit down in person with both British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “I’m sorry, Hillary, but you’re going to fly over the Atlantic again,” said Obama, who was about to leave on his own foreign trip, to Brazil. So only hours after landing from Tunis, she was headed back to Paris.
By then it was clear that the “Arab Spring” of 2011 was creating tumult not just in the Middle East but inside the Obama administration. Not since the fall of Communism, in the late 80s, has a U.S. administration faced a chain reaction of foreign crises that seemed so much out of its control.
At first, Hillary looked clairvoyant: in January, when the street protests were still small in Tunisia, she lectured decrepit dictatorial regimes at a conference in Qatar that “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” Within days, demonstrators filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a vibrant plea for greater freedom that swiftly spread to Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Libya, and eventually even Syria.
But if Madam Secretary could be ahead of the curve, she was also sometimes behind it, caught in a dizzying series of upheavals that left her both exhilarated and exhausted. In early February, Hillary said the regime of Hosni Mubarak was “stable”; he was gone 17 days later. When she felt White House officials were pushing too hard in public statements for Mubarak to resign, Hillary complained to President Obama, who was unmoved. Yet on the big picture, especially the need to isolate the menacing regime in Tehran, the president and his secretary of state fully agreed. They understood immediately that, for all the facile accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy wouldn’t work. Doctrines, they felt, were for the doctrinaire.
Hillary had been one of the first in the administration to privately raise the issue of a no-fly zone. But she retreated when her main ally in the Cabinet, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, loudly and publicly said a no-fly zone would mean attacking ground positions, and it was a bad idea to get involved in Libya. The White House was searching for a way to arm the rebels—a strategy Hillary found problematic—but also resisted a no-fly zone. “Lots of people throw around phrases like no-fly zone. They talk about it as though it’s just a video game,” White House chief of staff Bill Daley said dismissively.
Hillary decided to push her case on March 12, after the Arab League voted to request action from the U.N. Security Council—an extraordinary decision to break Arab ranks and ask the nations they had for so long denounced as colonialists to help. “Their statement moved her,” said a close aide, adding that two meanings of “moved” applied.
A myth quickly arose that the women in the administration—Clinton, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, and national-security aide Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide was influential in Obama’s thinking—drove the debate. “The idea that the girls pushed the boys into war is ludicrous,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently served as director of policy planning at State. “We were dismissed for months as soft liberals concerned about ‘peripheral’ development issues like women and girls, and now we’re Amazonian Valkyrie warmongers. Please.” In truth, the president, as usual, was not persuaded by anyone to change his mind. He was always a reluctant warrior and decided to intervene only when imminent atrocities in Benghazi made sitting on his hands even riskier.
What the women policymakers did do was help mobilize the alliance. Rice worked hard for the broadest possible language in U.N. Resolution 1973, to allow maximum allied flexibility, while Hillary made sure that China and Russia abstained instead of vetoing the resolution.
Hillary already spends much of her life on her plane, but for six crucial days in March she might just as well have used her seat belt as a fashion accessory, flying nearly 20,000 miles on the Washington-Paris-Cairo-Tunis-Washington-Paris-Washington route. On March 14 and 15, she met with Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president was gung-ho to attack Qaddafi, who by then was reversing rebel advances and regaining the offensive. After taking the measure of Mahmoud Jibril, recognized as one of the leaders of Libya’s transitional government, Hillary agreed to U.S. intervention if the U.N. backed it. Viewing television images of the dictator’s brutality from her quarters at the U.S. ambassador’s residence strengthened her resolve. She took to seconding her husband’s much-repeated line that the biggest mistake of his presidency was doing nothing to prevent genocide in Rwanda.
Hillary’s personal connection to Sarkozy helped cement the coalition. In 2010, Sarkozy had gallantly steadied her after a shoe had come off her foot as she climbed the stone steps of the Élysée Palace. (“I may not be Cinderella but you’re certainly my Prince Charming!” Hillary inscribed a photo, which sits in his office.) Now, over mixed fruit and chocolate, the French president took the normal diplomatic flattery a step further in their “bilat” (diplo-speak for bilateral talks). “Hillary, I always like being with you,” he told her. “You are tough. You are smart. You are a good person.”
From Paris, on the 15th, she went with some trepidation to Cairo, where many young protesters still angry about her support for Mubarak refused to meet with her. Others vented to her face in a Four Seasons conference room before the mood changed and they talked about democracy building. Her 10 to 15 minutes in Tahrir Square the next day (where she was greeted cordially) and drop-by in Tunisia on March 17 left her small security detail jittery; the local authorities, her guards felt, had no clue what they were doing. She arrived back in Washington early on March 18 before heading across the Atlantic again. She arrived in Paris at six a.m. on March 19 and set to work rounding up support from other allies.
The rollout of the “kinetic military action” (the ridiculous euphemism used to avoid the word “war”) was botched and misleading. Hillary had little warning before Sarkozy announced that French planes were in the skies over Libya. At her Paris press conference she made it seem, with her frequent references to “they” and “them”—with the U.S. providing “assistance”—that someone else was leading the intervention. Hillary was safely on her plane en route back to Washington on the evening of March 19 when the world would learn that the core of the attack—112 cruise missiles directed at Libyan targets—was largely American. It would be another 10 days before she would go to London to arrange for the military campaign to be handled by nato. Whatever the burden-sharing logistics, the United States was in deep now, on a course that no one could predict.
For Barack Obama, the Arab Spring and its aftermath will shape just one critical piece of his record. But, for Hillary Clinton, the swirling challenges of the region are likely to determine her legacy. Many diplomats remain anxious; the world they knew has been upended. Yet they also understand that the months ahead will be Hillary’s moment to help turn those ripples into a permanent tide of reform and renewal.
But Hillary’s intense diplomatic efforts to forge a coalition to go to war in Libya came at the exact worst time, only two months after WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing Web site run by Julian Assange, began posting thousands of classified State Department cables online. Candid descriptions of foreign leaders (e.g., Putin is the “alpha dog” of a “virtual mafia state”) were published around the world and have already led to the departure of U.S. ambassadors in Mexico and Ecuador, with more fallout on the way. Hillary told staff that she could not fathom how an army private, Bradley Manning, with psychological problems and a drag-queen boyfriend could single-handedly cause the United States unprecedented embarrassment just by labeling massive downloads as Lady Gaga songs.
Several allies needed little comfort. “Don’t worry about it,” one leader told Hillary. “You should see what we say about you.” Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wasn’t so forgiving. In 2008 the loutish media baron and billionaire had described Barack Obama as “young, handsome and bronzato (bronzed),” but after WikiLeaks he chose to play the victim. It wasn’t clear whether he was genuinely upset about a cable describing him as “physically and politically weak” or merely projecting his anger over allegations in the Italian press about his relationship with a teenage Moroccan belly dancer suspected of prostitution. Either way, he unloaded on Hillary during an awkward one-on-one in Astana, Kazakhstan.