Hillary Clinton crafts defense on tenure at State Department

Hillary Clinton has started to formulate a strategy on one of the thorniest issues she will face on the campaign trail: her tenure as President Obama’s secretary of State.

Republicans have ripped Clinton’s reign as the country’s top diplomat, and the 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner hasn’t yet responded directly to those salvos.

{mosads}She is less inclined to focus on any specific achievement than to weave her time at Foggy Bottom into a larger narrative about her experience and toughness.

“I’ve stood up to adversaries like [Russia President Vladimir] Putin and reinforced allies like Israel,” she said in her speech on Saturday at Roosevelt Island in New York City. “I was in the Situation Room on the day we got [Osama] bin Laden.”

The general nature of those remarks points to a potential vulnerability for Clinton. Her critics argue that she achieved little of substance as secretary of State. And they expand that critique to suggest that her public life more broadly has been marked by talk over action.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) targeted Clinton’s record at the State Department while in New Hampshire Tuesday, the day after making his presidential candidacy official. Bush told Sean Hannity of Fox News that Clinton’s time in the Cabinet post was a “complete failure,” and argued that the things that she was most associated with were missteps — including U.S. policy in Libya and the attempt to “reset” relations with Russia.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has also launched a 2016 bid, has said “Hillary Clinton’s war” in Libya led to “chaos” in the Middle East.

Bush suggested that her time in Foggy Bottom was consistent with Clinton’s performance as a senator representing New York, when, he said, “she has her name on three laws in eight years.”

Carly Fiorina, the businesswoman seeking the Republican presidential nomination, is fond of mocking Clinton for her statements about how many miles she racked up on planes while secretary of State. “Flying is not an accomplishment; it is an activity,” Fiorina often says. Her campaign used the line as the centerpiece of an ad released last week. 

To be sure, Clinton is not citing her time at the State Department as a primary reason why people should vote for her as president. Her rhetoric so far has been focused on domestic issues, such as income inequality and the need to check corporate power, as well as appeals to crucial Democratic voting blocs, including Hispanics, blacks and the LGBT community.

At Roosevelt Island, only a few hundred words were devoted to foreign policy in an address that weighed in at around 5,000 words.

At the same time, however, Clinton can hardly skip over her most recent experience of holding public office, which stretched across the entirety of Obama’s first term.

Clinton has pointed to some specific achievements. In her address last weekend, she briefly alluded to the nuclear treaty with Russia known as New START, which was signed in 2010. Clinton said she helped pass the treaty to “reduce the number of Russian nuclear warheads that could threaten our cities.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, praised Clinton’s handling of the “Asia-Pacific rebalance,” a complicated set of diplomatic maneuverings intended to recognize the growing importance of that region as a whole and recalibrate priorities within it.

Whether those are the kind of achievements that, as the famous phrase goes, “play in Peoria” is a very different question.

“If you’re asking me if she solved the problems of the Middle East, the answer is no,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said. “But she did do much to change the world’s view of the United States, and she worked very hard to try to reach different constituencies.”

O’Hanlon said the high approval ratings Clinton enjoyed at the conclusion of her time as secretary of State were partly rooted in “a sense amid most of the public that she had been competent, confident and eloquent — she had explained what we were doing, even when the things themselves were incremental rather than earth-shattering.”

“But you can’t go out [on the campaign trail] and say, ‘Don’t forget you used to give me 70 percent approval, you should do so again,’ ” he added. 

Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who served in the State Department under Clinton from 2009 to 2011, suggested a different way forward. 

He insisted that voters who might not be impressed by nebulous achievements or foreign-policy arcana could be persuaded that a solid performance on the world stage was proof of broader leadership qualities.

“Foreign policy is going to play into this election in a bank-shot way,” he said. “There is not an issue — like Iraq was — that is really going to move voters. But when they hear ‘foreign policy,’ they think not just about the issues but about leadership. It reinforces the sense that she is a very capable leader.”

Republicans maintain that precisely the opposite is true. In addition to what they see as a lack of concrete accomplishments, they point to the continuing controversy over the fatal 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, as well as ongoing revelations about donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Neither issue is going away soon, with the House panel on Benghazi taking a deposition from long-time Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal on Tuesday, and media stories about the foundation continuing to emerge.

Democratic strategists profess themselves unbothered by the Benghazi issue, which they consider overblown. Manley said that, when it comes to the Clintons, the GOP has “an amazing ability to overreach. They’ll blow it this time just like they have in the past.”

But even people sympathetic to Clinton expressed some concern that there is no signature achievement that could serve as a one-shot counterweight to the Republican attacks.

Jentleson, though he praised Clinton highly for her competence, noted, “There was a lot of discussion about this before she was even running. There is no Camp David agreement.”

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