It was Halloween night in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu came dressed as a peacemaker. "We're prepared to start peace talks immediately," the notoriously reluctant Israeli Prime Minister proclaimed, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton standing at his side, poker-faced. "I think we should ... get on it and get with it."
It was a ploy, of course. The Palestinians were tangled up in themselves, yet again. They had elections looming, and their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had to hang tough: he was demanding a total freeze to Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank which was precisely what the Obama Administration had previously said it favored. Netanyahu was offering a partial freeze, not including new settlements in East Jerusalem, the desired capital of a future Palestinian state. This was a nonstarter for the Palestinians, but it had the holographic glow of a step forward. It was an "unprecedented" offer, Netanyahu trumpeted, with the joy of a chess master springing a trap.
It was a tough moment for Clinton, playing second fiddle at the Bibi-does-Gandhi show. President Barack Obama had softened his language on the settlements a few weeks earlier: instead of a total freeze, he had talked about Israeli "restraint" in settlement-building. And now Clinton seemed to cement the Administration's retreat, agreeing that Netanyahu's proposal was, indeed, "unprecedented," even though the U.S. still favored a total freeze. The most important thing, she added, was for the parties to get to the table as quickly as possible. The onus was back on the Palestinians and the Palestinians quickly expressed outrage at the Obama Administration's retreat. Their Arab neighbors soon joined in, causing Clinton to backtrack two days later, telling reporters the Israeli plan "falls far short" of U.S. expectations, although she still insisted on calling it "unprecedented," which was neither diplomatic nor wise.
Suddenly the Obama Administration seemed wobbly on the Middle East; clearly, Clinton had been too bullish on Netanyahu's proposal (which had been negotiated over months with Middle East envoy George Mitchell and was seen, privately, by the Americans as real progress). But the Administration's mission was to get the parties into peace talks without preconditions. The Israelis were now in favor of talks. The Palestinians were setting preconditions. And Clinton had violated an essential rule of her job: boring is almost always better.
Clinton's Three Qualities
For the past 40 years, the awkward Middle East press conference has helped define the job of Secretary of State. You go to Jerusalem or Ramallah; you stand there "guardedly optimistic" in public; in private, you try to move a comma, but the Israelis or Palestinians move a semicolon to block your comma. The result is almost always the same: gridlock. The breakthroughs, when they come, emanate from others. Walter Cronkite asks Anwar Sadat if he'd be willing to go to Jerusalem ... and Sadat, to everyone's surprise, says yes. The Israelis and Palestinians hold secret meetings in Oslo and reach what appears to be a breakthrough they're talking! which then becomes another dead end.
The job of Secretary of State is more thankless than glamorous; in some ways, the Department of State, a noble antique, is still trying to come to terms with the invention of the telephone. In an era when Twitter haiku-messaging rules, diplomacy moves at the speed, and requires the nuanced complexity, of literature. Power has drifted from State to the National Security Council and the Pentagon, especially in wartime. Only a few of Clinton's recent predecessors have distinguished themselves. Henry Kissinger, a National Security Adviser who belatedly became Secretary of State, was Richard Nixon's schizophrenic alter ego; George Shultz was a strong policy voice in the Reagan Administration; James Baker had clout because he was George H.W. Bush's best friend and a world-class dealmaker. Most of the others have been frustrated or forgettable. And yet this is Hillary Clinton we're talking about the second most popular American in the world, an eternally compelling and supremely talented character, the subject of constant speculation, a walking headline. Her very presence in the job makes it crucial once more.
It is a cliché to say that by naming Clinton, Obama brought his most popular potential opponent into the tent. The conventional wisdom, too cynical by half, is that he thereby succeeded in neutering her, a theory bolstered by Clinton's reticence during her first nine months on the job, with special envoys like Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke doing the heavy lifting of diplomacy. But by naming Clinton, Obama also gave her great power, which cuts both ways: if she becomes dissatisfied with her role or the Administration's policies, she can become a torpedo aimed at the Oval Office. Colin Powell had similar power and a real gripe the Iraq war but never used it. Clinton has no such gripe, but as the Obama Administration settles in and policy differences begin to emerge among the key players, the Powell conundrum looms: How will Clinton choose to use her power? How will Obama react if and when she does?
Traditionally, the Secretary of State is judged on his or her ability to formulate policy, negotiate deals and manage the striped-pants bureaucracy. Clinton has no history as a global strategist, although her performance in the 2008 campaign indicates that she is a bit more conservative than the President, more the foreign policy realist than the Wilsonian idealist. It is also too early to judge her skill as a manager or negotiator although her performance in Jerusalem indicates that she needs a few lessons in Middle East Haggling 101.