|OBAMA ON PAKISTAN, AUGUST 2007 "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."|
If President-elect Barack Obama taps Senator Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, he would be giving her oversight of an area where the two former rivals diverged sharply during their prolonged primary battle: foreign policy.
From their first clashes in the summer of 2007 through spring this year, Obama and Clinton fought bitterly over who had a deeper understanding of the world, exchanging sharp words over their international experience and their views on diplomacy, military strikes against terrorists, the right approach toward Iran, and the genesis of the Iraq war.
It is the one arena in which Obama and Clinton articulated significantly different visions. On a host of other issues - taxes, healthcare, jobs, free trade, investments in renewable energy - their positions were often indistinguishable.
Obama met with Clinton last week in Chicago, reportedly to discuss the secretary of state job, as the president-elect looks to begin filling his Cabinet. Obama is also said to be considering Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, both of whom have significant foreign affairs experience for the post.
Although Obama's aides will not comment on potential appointments, the possibility of Clinton as the face of the United States around the globe has riveted the political world and added another wrinkle to the fraught relationship between two of Washington's leading Democrats.
"It would be a very politically mature move on his part," said Henry R. Nau, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who has worked at the State Department and National Security Council. "It would reflect a great deal of self-confidence in his leadership role."
Some analysts say that if Obama picks Clinton, it would prove his assertions that he draws inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, who asked former political opponents to help him lead the country through the Civil War.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who chronicled Lincoln's deft political maneuvering in her 2005 book "Team of Rivals," said Obama's consideration of Clinton for secretary of state is analogous to Lincoln's selecting William Seward for the same post in 1861. Seward was considered the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, as Clinton had been for this year's Democratic nomination. Though initially dejected from the loss, Goodwin said, Seward eventually accepted Lincoln's offer to join his Cabinet and the two men developed a productive friendship.
"The parallel with Hillary is almost eerie," she said yesterday.
The tranquil early days of the primary contest between Clinton and Obama came to an abrupt end in July 2007, when Obama, during a debate in Charleston, S.C., said that he would be willing to meet, without precondition, with the leaders of rogue nations such as North Korea, Cuba, and Iran - an answer that came to define his views on diplomacy throughout the campaign.
"I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive," Clinton said the next day in a newspaper interview. Obama responded by saying Clinton's foreign policy views amounted to "Bush-Cheney lite."
From there, Obama and Clinton sparred regularly over how America should conduct itself abroad. Their squabbles at times made them appear further apart on policy than they were.
Last fall, after Clinton voted for a toughly worded Senate resolution on Iran, Obama attacked the measure as "reckless," writing in the New Hampshire Union Leader, "As we learned with the original authorization of the Iraq war - when you give this president a blank check, you can't be surprised when he cashes it."
It was part of Obama's broader critique of Clinton's world view, which he said led to her 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq. Obama often said, in a dig aimed partly at the New York senator, that he did not want to end just the war, but the "mindset that got us into war."
Clinton blasted Obama for publicly advocating unilateral strikes against terrorists in Pakistan, and in late February she aired one of the campaign's most memorable TV ads, an ominous spot that sought to raise doubts about Obama's ability to handle a middle-of-the-night international crisis. "Who do you want answering the phone?" asked the narrator of what came to be known as the "3 a.m. ad."
The two former adversaries also mocked each other's assertions of foreign policy experience. Obama reportedly said at a fund-raiser last spring that foreign affairs was "the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator [John] McCain." Clinton, responding on Fox News Channel, laughed and said, "Well I'm somewhat shocked by that since I don't see any evidence of it."
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, however, disputes the notion that Obama and Clinton differed significantly during the primary race on foreign affairs, arguing that on issues such as diplomacy, their heated rhetoric belied a broad similarity in approach. "A lot of the foreign policy skirmishes between the two were more about style than anything else," he said.
The possibility of Clinton as the top American diplomat has been met largely with bipartisan approval in the political establishment, with Republican figures such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona - both high-profile supporters of McCain during the general election - calling her well-suited for the job.
The prospect of Clinton calling the shots at Foggy Bottom also cheers Obama backers such as Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of yogurt company Stonyfield Farm and a prominent early New Hampshire supporter. Hirshberg said he was troubled by Clinton's attacks during the primary contest, but he said Obama would be "brilliant" to look past that and choose Clinton if he considers her the best choice.
"It says, this is a guy who is going to do what's right, and he's going to make decisions on the merits and not on the politics," he said.
However, among liberals who helped Obama win the Democratic nomination, praise for Clinton is hardly universal. Some commenters on popular liberal blogs are expressing opposition. One writer on Daily Kos called Clinton "too centrist, too collaborationist, too accommodating." Another wrote on The Huffington Post, "he can't trust her to control her personal agenda . . . she is incapable of focusing and carrying out his policies."
One potential hang-up to Clinton's appointment is concern among Obama's advisers that Bill Clinton's post-presidential career as international philanthropist and public speaker would pose conflicts of interest. The New York Times reported yesterday that lawyers spent the weekend evaluating Bill Clinton's nonprofit organization, the William J. Clinton Foundation, which has been active on issues such as AIDS in Africa and global poverty, as well as his dealings with foreign leaders and links to pharmaceutical companies.
If Obama chooses Clinton for the post, it would give him two high-level foreign envoys; Vice President-elect Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also well-known in world capitals.
Analysts say that would allow Obama to send respected, high-wattage representatives of his administration abroad and not always have to make such visits himself.
Still, Nau argued that it was unlikely that Obama, even if Clinton and Biden are by his side, would be overshadowed on the world stage.
"He knows what he's doing - he's not going to appoint a lot of heavyweights who are going to be battling each other and he's going to be lost in the middle of it," Nau said. "In some ways, you could argue that was George W. Bush."
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.