1. Running for president was good training to be secretary of state.
Yes, Hillary Clinton has a large cabin in the front of her plane — with a bed in which she could sleep on the long flight from Shannon, Ireland, to Islamabad — and a staff of many to prep, brief, tend to and coif her. But the sheer pace of high-impact public events and behind-closed-door meetings was remarkable, not least for a woman who just turned 62. The totals: eight days, five countries and more than 50 events, meetings, town halls and news conferences.
“Nobody ever gets used to this kind of schedule,” veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller said in an e-mail, “but when you work on issues you care about and there really are things at stake, you’re running on empty to be sure but with great energy and power.”
Secretary Clinton, like candidate Clinton, tries to win over audiences with her homework and her obvious command of policy substance, as well as with her ability to connect on a personal level. She also tactically deploys the odd flash of authenticity, lowering her voice to speak “frankly” and get real.
In a complex environment like Pakistan or the Middle East, such efforts sometimes backfire, or at least counteract the rest of her major public diplomacy message du jour. But with Clinton, ever aware that her audience is both domestic and international, it’s hard to know how much such misfires may be unintentional — or not.
For instance, after nodding patiently through several days of public events in Pakistan in which she tried to explain, in response to seemingly endless Pakistani complaints about the shortcomings of American policy, that she was an advocate of “turning the page” in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, Clinton was asked by a Pakistani editor what the U.S. was doing to try to curb outside funding for terrorist groups that Pakistan is fighting “in our backyard.”
Clinton replied: “We’ve done a lot.” But then she detoured from the message of U.S.-Pakistani partnership that had been the major theme of the trip, questioning why the Pakistanis hadn’t had more success with Al Qaeda “if they wanted to.”
Not the message of respectful mutual partnership Clinton had spent several long days conveying to Pakistani official and civic audiences. But then again, perhaps not a message she regretted much saying, either, given the seeming veracity of the observation and the hours of having heard one-way Pakistani complaints about American policies and supposed shortcomings.
2. A breakneck schedule packed with events is not without risks.
That was demonstrated by Clinton’s late-night news conference with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday. The optics alone of Clinton nodding in affirmation to a strutting and confident Netanyahu talking up his partial settlement moratorium offer, and Clinton’s nodding praise of it as “unprecedented,” ricocheted through the Arab world, where the event was taken as a signal of a significant policy retreat by the Obama administration on its earlier demand for a full settlement freeze by Israel.
Clinton and the U.S. Mideast team spent the next several days scrambling to do damage control, first at a conference with Arab foreign ministers in Morocco and then at a stop in Cairo added at the last minute. They tried to explain that President Barack Obama’s goal was to get Israeli-Palestinian talks relaunched as soon as possible — and out of the rut of talking about talks while Israeli settlement expansion increased.
One veteran Democratic foreign policy hand described it as a case of Clinton’s taking “what was supposed to be said privately and [saying] it publicly.”
Whatever caused her Jerusalem misstep, there’s no doubt that Clinton had spent her days scrambling to try to smooth things over. And that suggests something else.
3. She is much better served by her current staffers than she was by her 2008 campaign staff.
Their quick reaction to the settlement controversy and teamwork in trying to deal with its consequences were the kind of damage control not always demonstrated by the Clinton political team, which was famous for its leaking, infighting and venomous feuds.
Along with the State Department officials and National Security Council staff Clinton brought with her was one important holdover from her campaign: deputy chief of staff Huma Abedin, Clinton’s closest personal aide, whose many duties included plopping notes on the podium before she spoke and telling her when to put on more lipstick.
4. She’s a lightning rod, for better or for worse.
Nothing Clinton says simply peters out into the ether. She is one of those people whose words — even tonal inflections— and body language have unusual impact and are scrutinized under the microscope, for better or for worse. And because of her desire to go beyond just official meetings, she makes herself a ready target for critics of the U.S.
During the same roundtable with Pakistani television journalists, in which she seemed to suggest the Pakistani government has turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda suspects, Clinton faced complaints about U.S. drone attacks on militants that have killed hundreds of civilians.
“We are fighting a war that was imposed on us. It is not our war; it is your war,” journalist Asma Shirazi told Clinton. “You had a Sept. 11. We are having daily Sept. 11s in Pakistan.”
5. She is not suffering from special-envoy eclipse.
Clinton was accompanied on the Pakistan portion of the trip by U.S. Afghanistan and Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke and met up with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Abu Dhabi. And neither was looking as fresh or as enthusiastic as Clinton.
While Holbrooke and Mitchell have previously been portrayed as competitors for ownership of the two key foreign policy issues, it was Clinton who had the oomph and media magnetism that the envoys working the issues day in and day out did not have. And while both envoys seemed somewhat discouraged and exhausted by their efforts, Clinton appeared to bring endless energy to the issues — along with a team of State Department professionals who had been somewhat sidelined by the envoys’ presence.
After arriving home late Wednesday, Clinton had a Thursday schedule that included meetings with an Ethiopian official, an award ceremony at State, an NSC principals committee meeting on Afghanistan at the White House and her usual Thursday private meeting with Obama.
And on Saturday, it starts all over again: Clinton begins another marathon trip that will take her to Berlin for commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to Paris and then to Asia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, where she will cede the spotlight to Obama.