The retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens gave President Obama his second opportunity in his still-young presidency to appoint a member of the Supreme Court. Predictably enough, Senate Republicans are gearing for a fight. Trying to avoid protracted and potentially contentious confirmation hearings, someone on the Obama team came up with a great idea: to nominate for the position current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tactically, this would have been a brilliant move. With Clinton’s popularity and high personal ratings, criticizing her isn’t exactly a winning proposal. Besides, in her prior life, Clinton was a Senator, and according to unwritten Senate rules, it’s highly unusual to criticize a former colleague without having grave reasons for so doing. In other words, Clinton would have sailed, smoothly and rapidly, through the confirmation process, giving the administration the opportunity to return to other legislative priorities.
However, something hasn’t worked out: White House spokesman Tommy Vietor promptly explained that Clinton’s wasn’t on the list of potential nominees and that "[t]he President thinks Secretary Clinton is doing an excellent job as Secretary of State and wants her to remain in that position."
There is no reason to question Obama's sincerity: Clinton’s position in his Cabinet does seem to be suiting him. But what does Hillary think about her own role in defining and implementing U.S. foreign policy?
This isn't a hollow question. American political tradition doesn't clearly point to a member of the presidential administration in charge of foreign policy. In the Nixon administration, the role of such a point person was played by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; in the Carter administration – by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. But what makes the current administration somewhat special is that all important foreign policy decisions are apparently made by President Obama himself.
Obama does have advisors. The most trusted – and, ironically, the least known to the public – are Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. Both have worked with Obama since his days as a Senator from Illinois. Obama brought them to Washington and placed in unspectacular positions in the White House: McDonough is the chief of staff at the National Security Council; Rhodes is the third deputy of the National Security Advisor James Jones. Along with Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod, McDonough and Rhodes represent "the first circle" of Obama’s foreign policy advisors.
The second, more expanded, circle of advisors appears to be composed of three people. First, it's Vice-President Joe Biden. Obama seems to be getting more and more comfortable with charging Biden with "special projects," including foreign policy ones. Thus, last fall, Biden headed the discussion on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that resulted in the decision to send an additional 30,000 troops. Incidentally, Biden was personally against further escalation of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Yet, Obama was apparently happy with Biden’s performance. First, the president was impressed with the quality of the discussion. Second, Obama appreciated that Biden didn’t simply followed the majority, but argued to the end, providing in the process a quality consideration of all available options.
Second, it's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates whose point of view was critical to the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Interestingly, the only hold-over from the previous administration, Gates at some point was considered a "transition" figure. But as time is passing, there are absolutely no signs that Gates is going to leave his position. Quite to the contrary, his political stock seems to be rising.
Third, it's general James Jones. All indications are that Obama is extremely happy with his National Security Advisor. Although very little is known about relations between Obama and Jones – Jones is extremely publicity shy – my impression is that Jones has transformed his position into something it was originally meant to be: a coordinator for the administration's foreign policy design and implementation.
There appears to be yet another circle of people whose opinion Obama values. Among those are George Mitchell and Richard Holbrook (the president’s special envoys to the Middle East and AfPak, resptectively) and Kissinger and Brzezinski; the first advises the president on Russia, the second on the Middles East.
Finally, there is Susan Rice, Obama's senior foreign policy advisor during his presidential campaign. Obama has sent Rice to represent the United States at the United Nations and, quite unexpectedly, elevated the rank of this position to the Cabinet level (so that Rice reports simultaneously to Obama and Clinton).
An obvious questions arises: where is Hillary Clinton's place in this mesh? Interestingly, even now, 16 months since Clinton took the oath of office as Secretary of State, this topic remains a subject of lively discussion in the media.
Obama and Clinton fought a tough primary battle to become the Democratic nominee for the 2008 presidential election. This battle often turned personal, so that at the end of the primaries, there was not much love left between the two. This was one of the reasons why despite pressure from Clinton's supporters, Obama refused to make her his Vice-Presidential running mate. However, after the election, Obama came to realize that to avoid a potentially damaging rift within the Democratic Party, he had to offer Clinton a position in his administration that would fit Clinton's statue. The position of Secretary of State was a natural choice.
Offering Clinton this job in the midst of a severe economic crisis, Obama reportedly told her that he wanted to focus on the deteriorating economic situation and thus needed someone of Clinton's caliber to represent the U.S. in the world. But soon, it became apparent that all the White House wanted from the Foggy Bottom was to execute decisions made by the president.
Hillary's critics (yes, they do exist) charge that she lacks "strategic vision" and still views international relations through the prism of poverty reduction and women's issues, her pet topic since her times as the First Lady.
Clinton largely ignores the criticism. It would appear that by simply becoming Secretary of State, she's achieved her major objective: to add a "foreign policy" page to her already quite impressive "domestic" resume. Far from getting upset about the alleged lack of "strategic vision", Hillary seems to be more concerned about retaining her reputation as a foreign policy hawk. It was Clinton who actively supported Gates in the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. It was Clinton who reportedly insisted that Obama meet in the White House with the Dalai Lama - despite furious objections from Beijing. It is Clinton, the only high-level member of the Obama Cabinet, who still has a habit of lecturing foreign governments over human rights. One can't avoid the impression that showing formal loyalty to Obama, Clinton is nevertheless trying to distance herself from the president who's often criticized by the Republicans for being cozy with "authoritarian regimes."
Modern American history knows no Secretary of State who has served more than a single presidential term. And from the very beginning, Clinton has insisted that she wasn't going to be an exception to this rule. However, recently, Hillary began hinting that she may not even stay until the end of Obama's first term. Hearing Clinton complaining about the hardship of non-stop international traveling, one can't help but suspecting that she's paving a ground to a "dignified" retirement. (If this happens, I dare to predict that the next Secretary of State will be Susan Rice).
And this raises another question: what is Hillary going to do next? According to one of her interviews, Clinton wants to return to a "normal" life: to read, to travel "for herself", to write a book, to teach, perhaps. Really? While it's quite feasible that Clinton has simply gotten tired, it's nevertheless too difficult to believe that she has completely abandoned her dream to become president. Time, however, works against her. The year 2012, when Obama will run for a second term is out of the question (unless something completely unforeseen happens). Sure, if Obama loses in 2012, Clinton can still be the Democratic candidate in 2016. But if Obama does get re-elected, then in 2016, the country will probably be sick of Democrats and will be likely to elect a Republican president. Indeed, at the core of Clinton's allusions to returning to "normal" life might lie a pragmatic realization that the time of presidential battles is behind her. From this point of view, the honorable (and life-long) appointment to the Supreme Court doesn't look like a bad idea at all.
I remember how on June 3, 2008, when Obama's victory in the primaries became obvious even to Hillary's supporters, everyone was expecting her to concede. Instead she went to the microphones and gave a long and murky speech, in which she coquettishly asked: "What does Hillary want?"
Indeed, what does Hillary want? This question still remains unanswered.