Foreign Policy Blogs

How Secretary Clinton Got It All Wrong


“To work with all our heart and all of our might to make sure that America is secure, that our interests are promoted and our values are respected.”

–  Former Secretary of State Clinton

If only former Secretary of State Clinton had remained true to the words she uttered so many times during her four year tenure. Sadly, she came up short where it mattered most.

Though Clinton garnered wide admiration for her incredible work ethic, she leaves her post with very few golden nuggets of diplomatic achievements in her basket. Despite a fertile geopolitical field of opportunities, she failed to focus her efforts where it really mattered most.  News articles written about her standout performance reminded us of the 401 total days she spent on the road; the 956,733 miles traveled; the more than 112 countries visited and so on. But regrettably, in terms of  enduring successes, these statistics are likely to be the most memorable measures of Clinton’s performance.

Secretary Clinton unwisely chose to make human rights her principal operational prerogative – spending much of her diplomatic capital on countries like Burma and South Sudan. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty to help free political prisoners, like Myanmar’s then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She even took her advocacy into the virtual world where she pushed for global Internet freedoms believing access to the Internet and free speech on the World Wide Web to be legitimate human rights issues that the U.S. had a duty, indeed a mandate, to address.

Though these efforts were praiseworthy, Americans should have been concerned with the shear volume of time she and her team spent working to fix the sociopolitical issues of other countries. She worked hard helping to install or repair the civil society wiring of foreign nations while America’s vital national security interests were left for second and third string players on President Obama’s national security team to tackle. Madame Secretary was very much at home in her self-appointed role as High Priestess of planetary human rights — calling out injustice around the world, and totally comfortable spending tax payers’ dollars to help to rectify global injustice.

In 2010, her department spent $25 million on an initiative designed to protect bloggers and help them get around curbs like the Great Firewall of China. Again, another laudable initiative, but  she should have allowed trans-national human rights initiatives to be led by international bodies like the U.N Commission of Human Rights and not by her very much resource constrained department.

Sadly, Clinton worked like a globe trotting preacher on a global human rights crusade – proselytizing democratic ideals, but shying away from defusing ticking geopolitical time bombs (i.e. Israel vs. Iran); detangling relationships (i.e. Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela et al.) or helping to kick-start a certain Middle East peace process. Regrettably, the issues of most concern to the U.S., and the international community, did not make it to her short list of priorities.

For sure, America’s diplomatic corps should exercise leadership and be a vocal participant in the international conversation on human rights — working with and through multinational bodies to bring about change. But leading from the front on issues that don’t affect our vital economic and security interests should not top our foreign affairs “things to do” list. Clinton either never figured that out or intentionally failed to act where it mattered most.

The Clinton era should rekindle the national debate about America’s role in the world in general and the role of the Secretary of State in particular. On all national security and foreign engagement fronts, the U.S. continues to spend tremendous resources on civilizing the world and buying “influence and access”. Old school ideology peddling belongs to the cold war era and is not a behavior that provides real national security dividends for the American people. Let’s remind ourselves that injustice anywhere on the planet is a international prerogative not just an American one. We should join the international choir as much as possible, not grab the microphone whenever we can.

Let us hope that Secretary of State Kerry demonstrates earlier on that he is ready to hit the road hard and to use the tools in his diplomatic toolkit to help untangle some geopolitical wiring and to defuse some ticking time bombs. After all, there are a few large time-bombs to be defused and time is running out. Let’s stop evangelizing and start paying attention to the ticking.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).