Obama's Bad Cop


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Clinton's played the heavy with Iran, Russia, and even Israel—and her sometimes hawkish views are finding favor with the president.

It was almost like one of those moments in a buddy-cop movie when the two partners who dislike each other at the beginning finally bond while taking on the bad guys. In mid-December Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in Copenhagen, where the leaders of more than 100 countries had gathered to negotiate a new agreement to combat global warming, and the summit was on the verge of collapse. Clinton later described it as the most disorganized meeting she'd seen since her eighth-grade student council. It "was just disintegrating right before everybody's eyes," she recalled to NEWSWEEK in an interview last week. Clinton and her former political rival, now the president, found themselves up against most of the rest of the world. At the last minute Obama sought a one-on-one meeting with the Chinese leader to rescue some kind of agreement, only to be told that Premier Wen Jiabao and his team still weren't ready to meet (after two years of prior procrastination). "No, we're going in now," Obama declared, looking at Clinton. "Absolutely," she said. "Let's go." The former political rivals suddenly morphed into a diplomatic version of Starsky and Hutch. "I felt a particular responsibility since I had urged the president to come," Clinton said. "Because I knew nothing was going to happen unless we gave it our all." Striding down the hallway, with the Chinese protocol officer sputtering protests behind them, America's two best-known politicians barged into the meeting room. There they found Wen conferring secretly with the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa; behind the scenes, Beijing had been trying to block all efforts to impose standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying progress on carbon reduction. Smiling and shaking hands, Obama and Clinton worked the room together, as they had each done so many times before as contending politicians. Then the president sat down and started negotiating, with Clinton sliding position papers to him as needed. When the Chinese finally caved, both Obama and Clinton knew that it wasn't just because they had crashed the meeting. Two days before, the secretary of state had flown in to Copenhagen by surprise to deliver a sweetener to help win over developing countries. In essence, it was a global bribe: $100 billion a year from rich nations by 2020 to help poorer countries cope with climate controls. It was political hardball, Hillary style, and it had helped to isolate Beijing. Now Obama was closing the deal Clinton had set up.

The two came away from Copenhagen with a partial triumph and a new sense of maturity—both about their relationship and their sense of how to lead. Clinton later called it one of "the most extraordinary 48 hours she's spent in public life," said her global-warming negotiator, Todd Stern—which is saying something for a woman who's lived through political tumult for 18 years, including several presidential and senatorial campaigns. Clinton told NEWSWEEK that it was important for America to be seen taking the lead in tackling seemingly impossible problems, particularly in an era with rising new powers at the table, if only to show what the country stands for. "We can't just walk out of the arena and leave these important decisions to somebody else because it's messy, it's difficult, it requires compromise. That is what you have to do on the world stage today," she said. "We remain the strongest country in the world, but the way we exercise that leadership has changed dramatically."

Copenhagen also provided further evidence that the sharp differences between Obama and Clinton over foreign policy on the campaign trail were, as many on both sides now acknowledge, largely political theater. In fact, their views of American power had never been that far apart. "We're both, at bottom, problem solvers and practical, realistic people," Clinton says now. "As Mario Cuomo said, 'You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.'?" Critics dismissed the climate targets as vague and voluntary, and the administration faces a separate onslaught from global-warming skeptics. But since the summit, 120 nations have signed on and 75 have submitted carbon-reduction plans, Stern says.

It took some time after the election for Obama and Clinton to find their balance together. They had fought one of the fiercest wars in American political history, and the wounds were still raw in the early months of the new administration. Clinton's aides felt a chill from the advisers around Obama, especially loyalists like David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, and Valerie Jarrett. Though Clinton kept her head down while she mastered her brief as secretary of state—it was the way she took on every new task, methodically and tirelessly—she was also feeling a little deflated. Obama's plea to join his administration had been enticing: he had his hands full with the collapsing economy, the new president said, and he needed someone of her stature to handle foreign policy. The implication was that she would have the dominant voice when it came to dealing with the world. Instead, friends and admirers were baffled at her seeming lack of influence. She "was not in the inner circle. That was clear," says one aide who, like several others quoted in this story, did not want to be named discussing internal politics. Her bluntness abroad occasionally caused consternation in the West Wing, and Clinton, in turn, "complained about a lack of dissenting voices in the administration," says an old friend who knows her from her first-lady days. "In the beginning she would say, 'They want this, they want that,'?" meaning the White House. "It took a while for her to start saying 'we.'?" Clinton and Obama had already begun bonding on previous trips abroad, but in Copenhagen the "they" truly became "we," Clinton aides say. Today, the metamorphosis of bitter combatants into bona fide partners is not quite complete, but it is far along. Clinton herself says she and Obama quickly established a "collegial partnership," though she acknowledges that some of their aides "may have taken longer to shake off the vestiges of a very hard-fought campaign." Some friends marvel at the equanimity with which she accepted defeat and quickly allowed herself to be absorbed into the new administration. "If you look at defeated presidential candidates, the ones who thought they had a chance, a lot of them go into deep funks," says a former member of the Clinton administration who knows her well. "Kerry, John McCain. Al Gore took a while, too."

Some of Obama's most loyal aides have nothing but good things to say about their former political foe. "The bottom line is the president has always had a very deep respect for Secretary Clinton's capabilities and contributions to the country," says Denis McDonough, who is formally National Security Council chief of staff but plays a powerful role behind the scenes as a longtime Obama confidant. Obama was always one of her biggest fans, even in the immediate aftermath of the primaries, McDonough says, believing "that she made him that much better a candidate" and would do the same for his presidency. National-security adviser Gen. James Jones credits Clinton with being "one of the articulators of the overall strategy that we all adopted" on Iran and ChinaYet the on-the-record effusions of good feeling don't tell the whole story. There's a wariness in both camps that may never completely disappear. The giant Clinton entourage once known as Hillaryland, now relocated to the wood-paneled corridor on the seventh floor at Foggy Bottom, remains to some degree a place and mindset unto itself. It is still dominated by Hillary and, of course, her husband—who has remained surprisingly out of view, even if his advice is often sought throughout the Obama administration, as Hillary herself acknowledges. "When they say on the seventh floor, 'We need to run this by the president,' that phrase doesn't necessarily refer to Obama," remarks one former Clinton administration official wryly. In the White House, it's still possible to hear someone dismissing Hillary as a foreign-policy lightweight. "She has no real strategic vision," says an NSC official. "But she'll get done what she has to do. She's the good little Methodist girl. In the end she'll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one."

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton's former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: "She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It's part of who she is." Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. "At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven't you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven't you?"

Clinton is now influencing policy more than she ever has, especially in close partnership with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Subtly yet unmistakably, her somewhat greater hawkishness is beginning to show up in policy. While Obama's no slouch at showing displeasure himself, he's depended on Clinton to hammer Iran (which is becoming a "military dictatorship," she recently declared, setting the administration's new tough tone), and to harangue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his defiance of U.S. demands for a settlement freeze. She also criticized the Russians in their own backyard over Moscow's work on an Iranian nuclear-power plant. Clinton politely plays down her role as Obama's bad cop. "I don't think there's anything as formal as that," she says. "With every tough message that I deliver, it is embedded in a much broader context. It's not, 'You're with us or against us.' It is, 'We have a lot of business to do.'?"

Even so, the Clinton-Gates axis was critical to persuading Obama to add another 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, a senior White House official concedes. Clinton has also set a policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea, refusing to offer any new incentives to Pyongyang in order to induce it to return to nuclear-disarmament talks. On Iran, Clinton and the defense secretary have long argued for sanctions sooner rather than later to replace Obama's all-carrots-and-no-sticks offer of engagement in the first year (though she supported the policy at the time). Now they seem to be getting what they want, with a renewed push for another U.N. sanctions resolution. Clinton has pressed for a still-more-aggressive stance on Iran, calling for a U.S. defense umbrella over the Mideast. The effectiveness of these policies is still hotly debated outside the administration. What's no longer as much in dispute is Clinton's impact inside the administration. "I would say, over time, both of them [Obama and Clinton] have gotten closer to the pragmatism espoused by her during the campaign," says one senior administration official who has worked for both. "You've seen in the last three months much more of an emergence of her persona, much more involvement in specific issues, and taking a specific line." Whereas the beginning of the administration was dominated by Obama's transformation-al rhetoric—especially his "outstretched hand" to Iran and his efforts to woo the Muslim world—in recent months the sort of slow, let's-make-a-deal approach favored by Clinton has come to pre-vail. "The administration, frankly, overpromised and underdelivered in the first year," says the official. "Some people around Obama view him as a transformational figure, and transactions are seen as somehow a little unseemly. But it turns out transformational foreign policy is complicated. It's hard sometimes to turn this enormous public appeal [of Obama's] into actual leverage."

The president himself continues to set grand strategy, of course, for his secretary of state to follow. As one of Clinton's senior aides concedes: "If you ask, 'Who is Barack Obama's Henry Kissinger?' the answer, of course, is that it's Barack Obama." But Clinton has added a new sobriety to the administration's approach to the world. "Her point about the 3-o'clock-in-the-morning phone call wasn't entirely wrong," says one senior State official, referring to Clinton's infamous campaign slap at Obama's inexperience. "I think she's obviously been here before in ways that the president hasn't." It's about hard work as much as a harder line: the flood of attention she's brought to hitherto neglected places with almost nonstop travel, typically delivered with political flair ("How are you?" Clinton exclaimed last week on greeting Estonia's overawed young foreign minister, Urmas Paet, prompting grins from Estonian officials). Her internal politicking has helped as well. Beyond forging an intimate working relationship with the like-minded Gates, Clinton has strengthened the bond she already had with Vice President Joe Biden (with whom she often ends conversations, "Talk to you later, dear"). At the same time, she has huge sway with former colleagues on important Senate committees, giving State new budget power.

It's been at least partly thanks to Clinton's tight bond with Gates that the administration has followed the Obama surge in Afghanistan with a series of high-level visits to Pakistan. She induced her old colleague John Kerry—despite some bad blood over his endorsement of Obama in 2008—to placate the dyspeptic Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai. "John Kerry and I spent a lot of time explaining to President Karzai about why elections oftentimes aren't fair. We can draw on our own personal experience," she says. "It wasn't just 'We're going to give you lecture 101 on how democracy works.' We could say, 'Look, we've been on the other side.' I mean, John could talk about Ohio and I could talk about the 18 million votes [her total in the primaries] and all that went with it. And it really makes a difference."

Clinton also drove administration policy on Haiti. She heard about the horrific quake on the first leg of a trip to Asia. At dinner with aides in Hawaii, she became emotional as she talked about people she knew who had died in the disaster. The next morning, Clinton turned into "a gunslinger," says Kurt Campbell, her assistant secretary for Asia. "It was a new person. She spent the next four hours in the [Pacific Command headquarters] working the phones, pulling strings, in a way I've never seen." She later persuaded the president to mount a major military-relief operation.

Clinton's regular town-hall meetings abroad—or, as she likes to call them now, "town-terviews," involving local citizens and media—have eased at least some of the anti-Americanism in Islamic countries. She points proudly to a new BBC World poll showing improved U.S. standing globally thanks in part to "the president's popularity and my popularity, and with how hard we've worked." She's also succeeded, in part, by not failing: maintaining a low profile for the first year while allowing special envoys like George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke to make headlines, for better or worse (though Clinton also did manage to put her own foot in her mouth a few times early on).

But now that she's beginning to emerge, says one senior official, "the biggest issue still unresolved in the Obama administration is, can there be more than one star?" Even now there are questions about how much she's putting her personal stamp on things. "It's a mystery to me why she hasn't taken a big issue and totally owned it," says one devoted aide who has worked for her on and off since Clinton was first lady. "She always has before. This is a woman who never faced questions about whether she has too little influence. She's never been without influence before."

Clinton says she no longer has the "luxury" of focusing on one issue; her agenda is too "enormous." Her admirers credit her for developing a profound and complex world view dating from Beijing in 1995, when she rocked a women's conference hall with her declaration that women's rights were human rights and vice versa, and on through the hard-nosed views she developed as a senator, like voting to authorize the Iraq War. In her biggest strategic speech yet, on Internet freedom in January, Clinton issued a Churchillian warning about the "new information curtain" descending on countries like China and Iran. She still believes passionately, as she did as first lady, that building social stability through economic development and empowering women and minorities is a key to solving traditional foreign-policy issues like war. But the It Takes a Village Hillary can shift at any moment into the hawkish Hillary. "There's no simple view of her. She embodies all these views," says one State official.

Clinton's and Obama's various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America's place in the world. Much of the first year was about "rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital," says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America's dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn't think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. "She's very smart," he says. "She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn't pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn't bring that to the table." (General Jones, for the record, disagrees, saying, "Those of us who have worked with her are grateful for her strategic vision.")

Asked about such criticisms, Clinton reveals a glimmer of the testy feelings she is usually so successful at concealing. "I think when you inherit the range of problems that we have, from one end of the world to the other—the threats that we faced, the two wars that we inherited—I think trying to have a very clear approach to actually dealing with those problems [and promoting] American leadership at this time in our history is about as big an idea as you can get," she says. How long she'll stay focused on this job is another question. Before Obama stunned her with his offer, Clinton had wanted to go back to the Senate and write a book about the campaign she'd lost. She's occasionally hinted to friends that she may not last out the first term. Pressed about that now, she looks down and replies, "We'll see." For the moment, strange as it may seem, she appears to enjoy the partnership she's made with the man she once tried so hard to beat.


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