BOSTON — When President Obama chose Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State, it was an attempt to unite a bitterly divided party that had fought the longest, take-no-prisoners primary in living memory.

The vice-presidency was out. Too much had been said for that, including Clinton’s famous remark about staying in a hopelessly up-hill fight because the assassination of Bobby Kennedy showed that you never knew what fate had in store. Secondly, no one in the Obama camp wanted Bill Clinton that close.

So he gave her what by tradition has been the premier cabinet post. In reality, Defense has become the bigger prize, but no matter, Hillary Clinton for State had all the symbolism to bring the disaffected Hillarylanders back into the fold.

He had to be concerned lest she try to set up a separate power center at State. By assigning such a high voltage envoy as Richard Holbrooke to the most difficult foreign affairs problem he had, the Afghan — Pakistan brouhaha, one suspects Obama wanted to keep Hillary a bit in the shade. Perhaps the same was true of assigning the hugely respected George Mitchell to the Palestine-Israel problem. Both of them had impressive records of mediation, Mitchell had been instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, while Holbrooke had ended a Balkan war with his tough negotiating tactics.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had no real foreign policy experience other than following her husband around.

During the primaries, Hillary Clinton had mocked Obama as naive in foreign affairs, but as the old saying goes, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, and State was about as close as Obama could afford to let Hillary Clinton get.

Now people are saying that Obama’s two top envoys have lost their luster. Mitchell, in his quiet, tortoise –like way, has patiently gone back and forth between Palestinians and Israelis, but has nothing to show for it.

Holbrooke, ever the hare, has dashed around the sub-continent, taking names and kicking ass, as they say, but when it came time to walk the Hamid Karzai cat back towards an election run off, Senator John Kerry was chosen for the job. Holbrooke and Karzai had had a celebrated row in August, Karzai saying that he had been bullied, and Holbrooke’s side saying that nothing of the sort had taken place.

Having met and interviewed Karzai and Holbrooke more than once, I can imagine that both were reporting the truth as they saw it. For Holbrooke, the encounter probably was nothing more than the normal. But to Karzai, the hard charging Holbrooke would seem threatening.

Mitchell’s brief was always going to be tough — especially with the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, who wants really nothing to do with Palestinian independence if he can help it, and the hopelessly split Palestinians. Obama himself damaged Mitchell’s mission before it really got started by backing down on his demand for an Israel settlement freeze. As I have written in this space before, Obama and Netanyahu were eye ball to eye ball on the freeze, and Obama blinked first. By giving up on the settlement freeze, Obama destroyed what slim chance he had for an Arab-Israeli deal during his administration.

If anything, Holbrooke’s task was even harder. An insurgency getting out of hand in Afghanistan against an enemy with safe havens across the border, and a Pakistan with its own weaknesses. Yes, the Pakistani army is engaged in Waziristan against the Taliban at last, as America has been urging, but read the fine print and you see that the campaign is against the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban that uses the safe heavens to attack Americans. And the suspicion remains that there are elements in Pakistani intelligence that continue to help the Afghan Taliban as an ace up the sleeve against Indian influence, and in case the Americans go home.

Has Holbrooke burned his bridges with Karzai, who is likely to win next month’s election run-off? No, because neither Karzai nor Holbrooke can afford not to talk to each other. But it would be a mistake to make it look like the old game of America bullying American puppets. That simply damages Karzai in the eyes of his people and makes the tasks we want him to perform more difficult.

In both of Mitchell and Holbrooke’s previous successes, their interlocutors had already decided to give up their struggles. The British and the IRA had already decided to give up armed struggle in Northern Ireland before Mitchell helped them find a way towards agreement, and the Serbs had already decided to throw in the towel before Holbrooke hammered out a deal. Neither in Afghanistan, nor in Israel or Palestine, have the combatants decided to give up combating.

In a sense, envoys serve a useful purpose because there are not enough hours in the day for the kind of cabinet level diplomacy that Henry Kissinger in his prime could bring to bear. Another advantage of having envoys is that, should they fail, the failure is kept at a lower level than State or the White House. Envoys are expendable if things go wrong. In the 19th century, British special envoys were thrown into bug pits and beheaded in Central Asia, or left to die by the spears of religious fanatics on the banks of the Nile.  

As for Hillary Clinton, she has proved to have been a more loyal and better secretary of state than the Obama team feared. She hasn’t been the high-profile secretary her supporters may have wanted, but she has done a good job in an administration in which the White House takes the lead in foreign affairs.

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