After Clinton

The State of State
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 23, 2011

WAR AND PEACE Hillary Clinton's success as secretary of state has helped mend fences among Democrats.

With a world full of crises in full flower, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton surprised a lot of people last week by declaring, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, that she will not continue to serve beyond 2012, should Barack Obama win a second term as president.

It's not an enormous shock, or historically unique: Colin Powell gave way to Condoleezza Rice after George W. Bush's re-election, and Madeleine Albright succeeded Warren Christopher at the start of Bill Clinton's second term. Arguably, the job today entails far more travel and constant pressure than in the days when Dean Rusk served a full eight years under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Still, the definitive declaration startled many — and served as a reminder that, for all of the initial hubbub, Clinton has been unostentatiously effective in her supporting role.

When Obama announced her appointment, during the post-election transition in late 2008, pundits warned that her celebrity and ambition would serve as a distraction to the administration's international diplomatic efforts.

That concern echoed the conventional wisdom when Clinton became US senator in 2001 — and in both cases, those predictions were belied by her actions.

Now pundits are again speculating about her future. Talk of her replacing Joe Biden on the national ticket have been emphatically dismissed in the past, and rumors that she would run against Obama are pipe dreams. And, while it's possible she would run for president in 2016, she would be nearing 70 during that campaign.

But whatever role she chooses, there is little doubt that any negative image of her somewhat incompetent and petulant presidential campaign has been erased by her time at State.

"Sometimes you learn more about the quality of a person when they lose, than when they win," says Ellen Zucker, attorney and a leading Boston-area activist for Clinton during the 2008 campaign. "She's shown herself to be the person we thought she would be — she's about the work, and getting things done right. And she's a team player."

Clinton's role in the Obama administration has also helped heal the '08 rift between supporters of Obama and Clinton — as evidenced by many of the latter attending the Obama pep rally in Boston earlier this week.

Her success on the job remains to be written, let alone judged, with two wars still winding down and a third just underway. But most reports credit Clinton with reforming the bloated State Department bureaucracy (implementing the far-reaching, but little-noticed Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review), and running a tight, well-oiled operation — a particular surprise after the chaos and infighting of her presidential campaign.

She also succeeded in negotiating the New START treaty with Russia, and the historic (and some thought impossible) Turkish-Armenian accord in 2009.

But perhaps the best way to judge her tenure is that — so far — the hotspots of the world have failed to blow up in America's face.

Granted, it may still happen. But danger zones like North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and Israel, while still simmering, have had no major flare-ups since Obama took office. Ditto with regional tinderboxes, where the "clash of civilizations" theorists predicted constant collisions, forcing major powers to take sides.

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