Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t get there. But John Kerry might.
This isn’t a knock on Clinton’s abilities or record, nor is it excessive optimism about what Kerry might achieve as secretary of state. Rather, it’s a recognition that 90 percent of success in life isn’t merely showing up — it’s showing up at the right time. And in showing up at Foggy Bottom for President Obama’s second term, Kerry may have done precisely that.
The president’s need to delegate more of his global portfolio as he focuses on domestic issues, the sheer variety and magnitude of international problems to manage, and the fact that Kerry, unlike Clinton, has taken the job at the end of his political career, when he can afford to take greater risks — all these forces come together to give Kerry a chance to shine that Clinton never had.
Don’t misunderstand: Clinton was a fine secretary of state. She fought for her department and traveled the world in an effort to improve America’s image. But she had the misfortune of serving under the most controlling commander in chief — on foreign policy — since Richard Nixon. If she didn’t own the kind of consequential issues relating to conflict, war and diplomacy that make secretaries of state into historic figures, it is because she was not allowed to. Instead, Clinton made a virtue out of necessity, building an agenda that included gender equality, Internet freedom and the environment. All important issues, just not Acheson or Marshall territory.
On those matters relating to peace and war, the president, his White House advisers and the National Security Council dominated. The military, understandably, controlled Iraq and Afghanistan together with the president. When it came to thinking big on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Iran, strategy on Russia and China, and the so-called Mideast peace process, it was the White House again. Even special envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke were viewed as second-class citizens.
It was a tough spot for Clinton. Certainly, all presidents seek to dominate foreign policy. But great secretaries of state don’t just implement the White House’s policies, they play a critical role in shaping them. And presidents often empower their top diplomats, giving them leeway to run while watching their backs in Washington.
Nixon may have been jealous of Kissinger, but he knew he needed him, particularly during the Watergate years. And George H.W. Bush, because of his personal relationship with and high regard for Baker, let him shape U.S. policy on key issues relating to Iraq, Russia and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Clinton may have been a loyal team player, and the president respected her, but neither was very likely to forget that one ended up with the top job in Washington and the other didn’t. As the withholder in chief on foreign policy, the president never really depended on his secretary of state.