In a surprising twist, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finds herself fighting for relevance as President Obama's penchant for conducting his own foreign-policy initiatives has risked relegating her to the sidelines of America's relations abroad.
When Clinton was appointed, pundits widely assumed she would be the star figure in the new administration. Since then, she often has toiled behind the scenes to influence foreign policy, beyond range of TV cameras.
"In her first six months as Barack Obama's top diplomat," reports Agence France-Presse, "the secretary has faced something of an underappreciated challenge: proving that she is a loyal lieutenant to her former presidential primary rival while projecting that she owns the Obama administrations diplomatic portfolio."
Although Clinton's diplomatic emergence has been understandably slowed by a broken elbow sustained in a fall, her frustration appeared to boil over this week, as she complained that the hypersensitive White House vetting operation had made it difficult to fill key foreign-policy positions.
Clinton called the White House requirements a "nightmare," "ridiculous," and "frustrating beyond words."
A particular frustration has been Clinton's inability to get the White House to sign off on a director to run USAID, the agency that doles out U.S. foreign assistance across the globe. Both Clinton and Obama have touted that USAID will have a much more important role in the new administration.
When a USAID staffer recently asked Clinton why no one had been named to run the agency, Clinton responded: "Let me just say it's not for lack of trying."
She added, "The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare and it takes far longer than any of us would want to see."
The appointment of a small legion of diplomatic envoys at the behest of the White House, new voices who complicate Clinton's job of directing foreign policy, has suffered no such delays, however.
On Wednesday, Clinton kicked off a high-profile comeback tour, delivering a major foreign-policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Her remarks indicate she's staying close to the president's coattails: reiterating the administration's proposal to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, while wielding the big stick of further international sanctions.
"Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success," Clinton's text read.
Her comeback tour continues this week when she visits India, then flies to Thailand to attend the ASEAN conference on Friday.
Hillary's effort to re-emerge at the helm of American foreign policy after weeks of relative obscurity may not be enough to get her out from under the powerful shadow of her globe-trotting boss. According to a recent Newsmax report, Obama has shattered overseas-travel records for any president at this point in his administration.
Clinton and Obama generally have been on the same diplomatic page, but not necessarily reading in perfect tandem.
For example, she pushed the administration to take a tougher line on Iran. But both Clinton aides and White House staffers appear anxious to dismiss the notion that there is any distance between Clinton and the president.
According to published reports, her aides reject the notion that Hillary has failed to grab hold of the normal diplomatic portfolio expected of a high-profile secretary of State.
Politico's Ben Smith writes: "Still, there's no doubt that in this administration — as in all modern presidencies — the center of policy and personnel gravity remains at the White House."
Among the reasons Clinton has struggled to establish a strong presence in the foreign-policy realm:Clinton is dealing with what Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator, calls "the empire of envoys." Obama has anointed a host of special envoys to stoke diplomatic dealings in far-flung regions ranging from the Middle East to Central and South America. Miller tells Politico that Clinton "acquiesced" to the envoy model, "which sent into motion these little fiefdoms." The envoys are joint appointments directly involving the White House. Obama has rewarded his army of campaign contributors with ambassadorships, sometimes against the wishes of Clinton staffers who prefer career diplomatic professionals. Obama's ambassadors include figures Clinton barely knows or has no working relationship with. Traditionally, Japan is among the nations that carry sufficient weight to merit the appointment of career foreign-service professionals, but Obama appointed tech-lawyer John Roos as his ambassador to Japan. His primary qualification for the post is apparently the half-million dollars he bundled for the president's campaign.The White House decided in June to bring its point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, into the fold at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. By moving Ross from the State Department to the White House, the administration made it clear who its go-to official would be for advice on how to handle matters in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia — and it wasn't Hillary Clinton. Ross, who oversaw the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the Clinton administration, is considered a top-drawer expert on Middle East affairs.Clinton also is working under a president whose primary victory hinged on his position against the Iraq war. Combine that with his extensive overseas visits despite being in the midst of the worst domestic economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the picture emerges of a president whose inclination is to focus on global affairs rather than the domestic economy.
Author and syndicated columnist Dick Morris tells Newsmax of Obama: "I think he is, essentially, a foreign policy president who finds himself beset with domestic economic problems that were never part of why he ran in the first place. Iraq was always his chosen issue, not the economy."
Obama demonstrates a "preoccupation" with foreign policy, Morris says.
If Morris is correct about Obama's globalist inclinations, it may take more than a speech and attendance at an international conference in Thailand to resurrect Clinton's image of power and influence in Washington.
One indication that Obama may continue to bask in the klieg lights and suck the oxygen out of the foreign policy debate: Even as his aides were assuring the media of Clinton's central importance last week, Obama was in Italy telling the media that the United States would intervene in world crises only in "exceptional" circumstances in which there was a "moral imperative."
"There has to be a strong international outrage at what's taking place," Obama said, in articulating his doctrine on the use of U.S. power abroad.
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