World leaders are “interested, in effect, in appearing with her,” says Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador who is heading the official inquiry into the Benghazi attacks. “Not just as a Secretary of State but as a political leader of importance in the U.S.”
Also impressive, he says, “she has found a way to develop that without stepping on the President.” Ms. Clinton, once Mr. Obama’s rival, is now a loyal surrogate. In the wake of Benghazi, she publicly took responsibility for any security lapses, drawing fire away from the commander-in-chief in an election season.
Even more remarkable, a group of Senate Republicans said her willingness to accept responsibility was “laudable.” Once upon a time, using Ms. Clinton as a punching bag would have been second nature for the opposing party; now, there appears to be no political advantage in doing it.
Ms. Clinton commands genuine respect, both at home and abroad. Several people who have worked closely with her in recent years – some of whom were Obama loyalists, or who had never met her before – say they are impressed by her intelligence, seriousness, sense of humour and jaw-dropping stamina.
She takes binders of briefings home and returns the next day armed with detailed questions for the authors. She often arrives in a foreign country in the middle of the night, rises before dawn and completes a full day of meetings, remaining alert and composed even as her aides – and the travelling press corps – droop.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department (whose own ruthless schedule drove her back to academia), says Ms. Clinton is “probably the most professional person I have ever seen in terms of her ability to divorce whatever [she] may be thinking or feeling … from the job at hand.”
That ability to compartmentalize served Ms. Clinton well after the 2008 election.
When Mr. Obama tapped her for the Secretary of State job, pundits saw it as a tactical masterstroke – a way to co-opt his one-time adversary for the Democratic nomination. One of Mr. Obama’s favourite books is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals , which describes how president Abraham Lincoln appointed political foes to his cabinet in a time of crisis.
But Ms. Clinton is also a student of history – and early on she made a decision that there would be no backbiting or disloyalty in this “team of rivals.” “She set the tone,” says James Steinberg, Ms. Clinton’s former deputy at the State Department who is now dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “Everybody followed it.”
On a rainy evening last month in New York, several hundred people packed into a university auditorium to hear a panel of experts debate U.S. foreign policy.
The discussion of Ms. Clinton’s role went something like this: She has done a wonderful job, but it’s hard to find her fingerprints on important decisions. Instead, the key priorities for foreign policy – Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East – have been driven by the National Security Adviser and Mr. Obama.
Sometimes Mr. Obama does not even discuss his thinking at meetings, said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He goes back to the Oval Office to settle on a choice of action.
Certainly, Ms. Clinton is not Henry Kissinger, or James Baker, or even Richard Holbrooke – a dealmaker who makes things happen. Over all, her tenure has been a period of “putting out fires and solving problems that the administration inherited,” a former senior White House official says, “not a time for great initiatives in foreign policy.”
What she has done, however, is rehabilitated the role of diplomacy in the national security arena, partly by building an unusually close tie with Robert Gates, the former secretary of defence. And she built critical relationships in a world that is no longer so amenable to the blunt exercise of U.S. power.