WASHINGTON — When Hillary Clinton was running for president, she promised Americans she would be ready to deal with a treacherous world on Day One.
Day One arrived early. The warfare in Gaza is but an item on a menu of troubles facing Secretary of State designate Clinton as she prepares to face confimation hearings on Capitol Hill.
Clinton’s admirers are persuaded that, as throughout her career, the New York senator will be thoroughly prepared for the questioning and live up to her reputation for thriving under adversity.
“She’ll bring intelligence and guts to the whole approach of the Obama administration,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, when asked to judge how Clinton will meet the tests posed by the Middle East. “And a cachet in the region as a Clinton.”
But is cachet enough? That’s the question confronting President-elect Barack Obama as well. From Gaza to Ukraine to Afghanistan, his national security team is being tested — now — threatening what hopes it may have had to gradually unveil a fresh foreign policy to a receptive international audience.
Bad as they are, the immediate crises pale against the complexity of the long-term strategic challenge: to get former foes like the Russians and Chinese; emerging players in countries like India and Brazil; and antagonists in the Muslim world to sign on to the Western vision of multi-polar order, built on individual liberty and an open international economy.
And if that were not enough, the incoming administration will need to find its answers in the awful climate of global recession. When everyone is making money, it is easier to get along. In tough times, not so much.
Bill Clinton had a lot of cachet in the Middle East. But all that good will wasn’t enough when he failed, as president, to broker peace at Camp David.
“Having been the wife of a president who tried to bring an end to the conflict, and somebody who has been involved with both sides, it obviously gives her an entry,” said Samar Assad, the executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington.
“The problem with that is how that ended. Clinton blamed the Palestinian side,” said Assad. “The fear is that she will keep that in the back of her mind — that `You guys didn’t take the opportunity when you did and it cost my husband his legacy.’”
And the wider Muslim world wonders about a senator who voted to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq; refuses to negotiate with Hamas and vowed, if she became president, to “totally obliterate” Iran should it launch a nuclear attack.
So Clinton will be scrutinized when she ends the traditional no-interviews quiet period at her Senate confirmation hearing. And she will send a strong signal when, in the coming days, she names her peace envoy for the region.
What Obama and Clinton offer is, first, a different approach from that of the insular and more belligerent and unpopular policies of George W. Bush, and second, the new president’s unique and diverse background, with roots in Hawaii, Indonesia and Africa, which has raised hopes around the Earth.
Clinton can draw on a similar store of good will, fostered during her husband’s presidency and carefully nurtured since.
People see in Hillary Clinton what they like to see. “She’s like a Rorschach test,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
And while Bill Clinton’s post-presidential work on disease and natural disasters in developing nations may spur some interesting conflicts of interest for the famous couple down the road, it has also served to keep the Clinton brand alive.
Still, crises demand results. Obama and Secretary of State Clinton will have to leverage their popularity, at home and abroad, in ways that neither has had to demonstrate before.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is instructive. As candidates, both Obama and Clinton vowed to launch bold, comprehensive Middle East peace initiatives that addressed the Palestinian issue. Then, after winning election, Obama promised to “reboot America’s image around the world and … in the Muslim world in particular.”
There is hope, among many in the region, that an American by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, the scion of a Kenyan Muslim family and a Kansas Christian family, will find fresh ways to connect with their world.
“There was the expectation … that the wave of anti-American anger that had been manifesting itself over the last eight years towards the Bush administration would quickly dissipate,” said Indyk.
“This was deeply threatening to Al Qaeda.” Now, each news report of the civilian casualties caused by the Israeli invasion of Gaza — with the compliant silence of America — is giving Obama’s foes in the Middle East the opportunity “to paint him as no different than George W. Bush,” Indyk acknowledged.
The stakes are high for Obama.
"You shouldn’t allow this crisis to define your policy toward the region,” warned Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland. Obama “won’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Steven Cook and Daniel Senor, senior experts with the Council on Foreign Relations, said on a call with reporters last week that the bloodshed in Gaza may not necessarily cost Obama his chance at a new start. The Muslim world will greet him as someone who can restore calm and the Israelis can argue that it has done him a favor by conducting an operation that was a political and military necessity before its people could support a new peace process.
Similarly, the Clinton name is revered in the center and left of the Israeli population, largely due to the peacekeeping efforts and political skills of Bill Clinton. Many still recall his speech at the funeral rites of the martyred Yitzhak Rabin, when he offered a sorrowful goodbye in Hebrew — Shalom, Haver — to his friend. If anyone can speak candidly to Israel, while still reassuring its people, it’s a secretary of state named Hillary Clinton.
“Bill Clinton is probably the only person in the world who could get elected as the leader of Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” said Wittes. “She benefits from that, and she has a clear understanding of Middle East diplomacy.”
In Washington, Clinton and her fellow foreign policy chiefs will have to smooth out policy differences, learn to harness egos, and work together, and with Congress. Obama has made their job a bit easier by inching rightward, preaching bipartisanship during the transition, and selecting a team best described as centrists and pragmatists, rather than idealogues.
Clinton should fit in well, said Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State. The New York senator is neither a cynic, nor a Wilsonian crusader like Bush, out to graft American values on the world. Clinton has demonstrated, throughout her career, “idealistic goals and realistic approaches,” Albright said.