Clinton in Charge

Hillary Clinton sets her own agenda.

Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden

“It’s time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa.” It’s a line that brilliantly managed to belittle our female secretary of state under the guise of supporting her, to offend her and “defend” her at the same time: No wonder the insult that Tina Brown lobbed at the White House two weeks ago continues to echo around Washington. Since Brown wrote her article (snidely titled “Obama’s Other Wife“), even Clinton has been forced to respond.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to what is said,” she told an interviewer before setting off on a trip to Asia, during which she seemed deliberately to court media attention and to care a lot about what was said. “I broke my elbow, not my larynx,” she pointed out. And then, defensively, “I have been deeply involved in the shaping and implementation of our foreign policy.”

Let Hillary take off her burqa. Yes, it was memorable. And yes, it reflected just how hard it is to understand how, exactly, foreign policy gets made in this country. If only President Obama really were sitting in the White House, scheming with his inner circle, dreaming up diabolical plots, sending out detailed instructions to Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and the director of the CIA—issuing metaphorical burqas—then at least we’d all find things easier to analyze. But that’s how foreign policy gets made in North Korea, not the United States.

The fact is that the post of secretary of state is a fabulously ill-defined job. If she so desires, Clinton can engage the world in multiple ways. She can visit, she can write, and she can speak, knowing full well that everyone will hang onto her every word. She can hold town hall meetings in the countries she visits, and indeed she has done so. She has also done TV interviews, both in the United States and abroad. One presumes that she consults with the president on major speeches and key issues, but other than that, she sets her program.

Not only has she not been kept forcibly silent, in other words, but she possesses an extraordinary number of ways to set the agenda, and she has done so on several occasions. She created a small fuss in February by declaring that human rights debates with China aren’t very important, because “we already know what they are going to say.” Since then she’s gone out of her way to talk about human rights and its central importance to Americans. Last week in Asia, she caused a fuss by discussing a “defense umbrella” that the United States could theoretically create to protect the Middle East, in case Iran gets nuclear weapons. Since then, she—and others—have backpedaled: Leaving aside any implications for Iranian nuclear policy, her comments surely came as a surprise to other members of the administration who have been telling other people that missile defense programs are all on hold.

Clinton is not alone is possessing the power to make up policy on the spot, of course. Biden also has this power, and he, too, has used it to the fullest. Following a recent trip to Ukraine and Georgia, for example, he described the Russian economy as “withering” and its population as “shrinking.” Although neither statement was untrue, exactly, Clinton herself felt obliged to publicly reassure the Russians that Washington still views their country as a “great power.” It makes one wonder what the Russians make of it all.

But my point isn’t that the United States should have a crystal clear, perfectly unified foreign policy of the sort that can only be made by dictatorships. My point is that it is largely up to Clinton, not Obama, to determine what kind of secretary of state she is going to be. And although she can choose her issues and pick her big moments, so far she has mostly made headlines by accident. Her recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, billed as an important policy statement, was bland and predictable. What we know of her official views on Russia can be encapsulated by Biden’s vapid expression “let’s press the reset button.” She has engaged in some amusing back-and-forth with the North Koreans—I give her high marks for getting them angry enough to hurl insults (“She looks like … a pensioner going shopping”)—but we don’t know yet how she thinks that problem will be solved.

I’m not sure that Clinton, or any secretary of state, needs to have an overarching “theory” in order to explain her views. But it is up to her to tell us what she thinks is important and why. If she hasn’t done so yet, it isn’t the president’s fault.