For a week every fall, America’s foreign-policy apparatus relocates to New York for the opening session of the United Nations. Whole floors of the Waldorf Astoria are turned into a miniature State Department, where the corridors bristle with uniformed security guards, as well as admonitions not to take them for granted (“ATTENTION: Hallways are not cleared for classified discussions”).
On a Monday afternoon, in the corner suite on the 34th floor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, arrived for a meeting with Mohamed Magariaf, Libya’s brand-new president.
It was their first meeting – just two weeks after militants had attacked the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Both hands folded on the table, Ms. Clinton didn’t even glance at the cookies placed in front of her. Nor did she signal to her team (each country had eight staffers seated around the large oval table). Instead, she simply nodded, her face impassive, as Mr. Magariaf gave an opening statement in Arabic, which a translator relayed in sections into English.
But as he spoke, a Libyan aide scribbled a handwritten note and passed it to him. And at the end of his prepared remarks, Mr. Magariaf did something unexpected. He looked directly at Ms. Clinton and said, in English, “We will not be a burden.”
For a moment, the formal protocol vanished. The two leaders locked eyes and a broad smile broke out on Ms. Clinton’s face.
It’s too early to say whether Libya will or will not be a burden on the United States, but it has emerged as a major test for Ms. Clinton, and a lightning rod in this election. The two candidates have sparred repeatedly in their debates over the violence in Libya and how the Obama administration handled the aftermath. And those issues will affect Ms. Clinton’s legacy, which just two months ago seemed unblemished as she cruised to the announced end of her tenure after four years.
In some ways, though, it’s clear that Ms. Clinton has excelled at her job. She has become a trusted adviser to President Barack Obama, the man who had vanquished her in a bitter primary. She has carved out new dimensions for her role, particularly with regards to women’s rights. She has used her extensive travel to promote the image of an America engaged with the world and deepen relationships with leaders abroad.
In the words of one veteran U.S. envoy, it is as though she is on a “constant campaign trail and the candidate is the United States of America.”
Ms. Clinton, 65, claims she is done with the other kind of campaigning. But her denial does little to change the fact that the woman who might have been president in Mr. Obama’s place remains the front-runner for a future Democratic nomination.
No matter who wins next month’s election, Ms. Clinton has become a sort of shadow candidate – the next viable alternative for voters to consider.
Ms. Clinton’s résumé is worth repeating: the ambitious young lawyer who became a political spouse; the political spouse who became the first lady of the United States; the first lady who became a New York senator; the senator who was the first woman to nearly win a presidential nomination; the presidential contender who, in the end, became secretary of state.
The interesting thing about her stature, though, is that it now feels inevitable – when, in fact, it was anything but.
As first lady, Ms. Clinton was a target for vitriol, both for her role in White House scandals and policy flops. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, commentators felt free to remark on everything from her voice (labelled shrill) to her cleavage (on one occasion, barely visible) to her personality (in Mr. Obama’s own withering phrase, “likeable enough”).
But fast-forward four years. She is hailed in the press as a “rock star diplomat.” She has travelled to more countries than any of her predecessors (110 at last count; her aides turned down requests for an interview, citing her schedule). And her approval rating – now 66 per cent – matches that of her husband, former president Bill Clinton.