I started writing this post about a week ago but then held off publishing it. One of the reasons I don’t like to talk about some of the subjects in wide currency within the blogosphere is because, in addition to wanting to avoid “me, too-ism,” many of these stories, particularly those relating to current events, frequently have too short a lifespan and will soon become irrelevant. On the other hand, I do pay attention to the news around me and like to share what cogent thoughts form about it. So since this story is unfolding slowly enough for me to be able to catch up with my comments I will risk potentially-imminent mootness and venture to weigh in anyway about the possible — and at this point perhaps even probable — appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State.
I have mixed feelings. In fact, my first were negative. One concern is that I’m not sure enough of Clinton’s expertise lies in foreign policy. Domestic policy I regard her as an expert on, but hers is not a name I frequently think of when I think of foreign relations. On the other hand, Condoleeza Rice was supposedly a Russian expert, and yet relations with that nation are as troubled as they’ve been since the Cold War.
The bigger concern with Clinton stems from what I have always disliked about her, something that I’ve always perceived as a certain smugness. Sure, she’s an immensely capable person — it’s not smugness about herself that I’m picking up on. It’s more a smugness about her particular positions, a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, “if you’re not with us you’re against us” kind of arrogance that I see weaving through a lot of her political rhetoric. True, I usually agree with her positions (er, well, except for the Iraq war…). But what I object to about Bush is not just his positions themselves but his obstinate, monolithic advocacy he has for them that leaves no room for nuance.
Clinton I at least believe capable of recognizing complexity and considering nuance. But her political persona often obscures her sophistication, which is why I hesitate about her possible nomination. For too long American foreign policy has lacked nuance or any significant recognition of the complexity to the world’s problems. America has barreled onto the world stage, running roughshod over everything that hasn’t seemed to fit its model of how things should be, and everyone’s the poorer for it. Indeed, America’s behavior has often worked at cross-purposes to its stated interests, undermining the very security it has been so adamant about protecting by alienating itself from its allies and providing plenty of fuel for its enemies. So the idea of having a secretary of state that might continue such arrogant behavior on the world stage is frightening. Surely that’s the last thing we need, and partly why Obama has such traction around the world (and with me). Widely regarded as an intelligent, thoughtful leader, the world eagerly awaits an American foreign policy that’s equally as intelligent and thoughtful.
On the other hand, while thoughtfulness is good, at the same time America cannot suddenly become a pushover, vulnerable to the clever maneuvers of other powers who would try to keep America at bay by negotiating to its face and manipulating behind its back. The idea that America might now talk softly while still carrying a big stick is not necessarily an outdated foreign policy tack. That we are willing and capable of interacting with the world through thoughtful, intelligent dialog should not also mean that we are unwilling and incapable of digging in and fighting back when necessary.
Even Obama himself seems to recognize the need to represent America as tough as the Bush administration has. I couldn’t help but notice a subtext to his first press conference after his election, the one he held right after his first foreign policy briefing. In his comments about Iran, instead of continuing his campaign mantra about being willing to engage in dialog — which I do think is still important, for no peace can ever result without it — he dug into the position that the international community cannot ever let Iran get nuclear weapons. Obviously his comments gave nothing away, but reading between the lines I suspect he was just informed that Iran was much closer to having nuclear capability than he previously realized, and that some foreign power (Russia?) has been helping it get there.
Thus why I think Clinton, for all her “arrogant” shortcomings, might be a perfect choice for Secretary of State. She’s not an imbecile: comfortable on the world stage she’s likely to engage in thoughtful, diplomatically appropriate ways. She’s also probably better attuned to the need to support developing nations in constructive ways than many of her predecessors. But ultimately she could turn out to be the bad cop to Obama’s good one, which might turn out to be just what America needs.