The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Ducking the Issues: What counts for Foreign Policy experience?


December 27, 2007

Hillary Clinton is running as the “Experienced” candidate. Her political experience consists of 8 years in the US Senate and 8 years in the White House as First Lady. In her speeches and discussion, she leaves a great deal of that resume deliberately ambiguous, and in doing so, raises a very important question: How should one count the experience of being First Lady? The New York Times addresses that issue today:

In seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Mrs. Clinton lays claim to two traits nearly every day: strength and experience. But as the junior senator from New York, she has few significant legislative accomplishments to her name. She has cast herself, instead, as a first lady like no other: a full partner to her husband in his administration, and, she says, all the stronger and more experienced for her “eight years with a front-row seat on history.”

Many First Ladies have significant influences on their Presidential spouses, all the way back to Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. Hillary’s influence and importance in the Clinton White House is not in dispute—clearly she was a close political and policy adviser to President William Clinton. The issue here is if this “front-row seat” counts as substantial foreign policy experience for a Presidential candidate, especially when Hillary has questioned Obama on his lack thereof. That, I think, is a legitimate and open question.

The case against:

Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda.

And during one of President Bill Clinton’s major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled….

But other [former Clinton] administration officials, as well as opponents of Mrs. Clinton, are skeptical that the couple’s conversations and her 79 trips add up to unique experience that voters should reward. She was not independently judging intelligence, for the most part, or mediating the data, egos and agendas of a national security team. And, in the end, she did not feel or process the weight of responsibility.

Susan Rice, a National Security Council senior aide and State Department official under Mr. Clinton who now advises Mr. Obama, said Mrs. Clinton was not involved in “the heavy lifting of foreign policy.” Ms. Rice also took issue with a recent comment by a Clinton campaign official that Mrs. Clinton was “the face of the administration in foreign affairs.”

“Making tough decisions, responding to crises, making the bureaucracy implement decisions that they may not want to implement — that’s the hard part of foreign policy,” Ms. Rice said. “That’s not what Mrs. Clinton was asked or expected to do as first lady.”

That’s rather important stuff. Of critical important, I think, is her lack of a security clearance. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she now has clearance to greater intelligence and military information than she did while in the White House. She didn’t know all the information, and she didn’t sit in on the most critical and classified decisions. Given that today’s most pressing security issues—terrorism, war, and nuclear proliferation—revolve heavily around intelligence and classified material, its seems reasonable to question whether or not her experience is relevant, as she didn’t directly deal with these things as First Lady. While she certainly had her share of tough decisions to make, none of them were based on national security intelligence.

On the other hand, there’s the case for:

Her role mostly involved what diplomats call “soft power” — converting cold war foes into friends, supporting nonprofit work and good-will endeavors, and pressing her agenda on women’s rights, human trafficking and the expanded use of microcredits, tiny loans to help individuals in poor countries start small businesses….

Friends of Mrs. Clinton say that she acted as adviser, analyst, devil’s advocate, problem-solver and gut check for her husband, and that she has an intuitive sense of how brutal the job can be. What is clear, she and others say, is that Mr. Clinton often consulted her, and that Mrs. Clinton gained experience that Mr. Obama, John Edwards and every other candidate lack — indeed, that most incoming presidents did not have.

One of the primary criticisms that all Democrats are levying against the Bush Administration is its squandering of soft-power resources, decimating the US’s image abroad. Clinton’s demonstrated experience and sensitivity to soft power tools, her experience “converting… foes into friends” is central to all the Democrats’ foreign policy platforms. While it may be impossible to prepare for the pressures and demands of the Presidency, she has a better idea of what to expect than anything else. You’d have to go back to George Bush I (VP, CIA Director, UN Ambassador), and before him, Nixon (VP) (and that worked out oh-so well….) for comparable White House experience.

So, the question is open: How do we value resume experience as First Lady? How ought we count it, and how should it be discussed on the campaign trail? This is a tough one, one I don’t think we’ve adequately addressed, in part, because we don’t have a language for discussing the professional aspects of spousal duties. In the contemporary Washington power couple, each person as an independent career—he’s Senate Minority Leader, she’s Secretary of Labor… he (was) an Ambassador, she (was) a Spy—so each defines experience on the basis of individual accomplishments. The spouse doesn’t have to define his or her political role vis-à-vis the other. Of course, none of these spousal positions come with a a title, stationary, or an East Wing office. Hence the question—how do we value Hillary’s East Wing experience as she seeks a term in the West Wing?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.