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Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Marginalization of Hillary Clinton

We're all now familiar with this viral exchange between Secretary Clinton and a questioner in Africa.

What's startling is that nearly seven months into her job as Secretary of State, this scene appears to be the most exposure that Clinton has received. I won't try and pretend to know what set her off. What I do know is that our top diplomat has been given little room for diplomacy.

It is the State Department that is supposed to be in charge of foreign policy and diplomacy, along with the president of course. Yet, in the Obama White House, diplomacy and foreign policy appears to be a decentralized process and much of that power lies outside of the State Department chain of command.

For instance, there's Richard Holbrooke. He's been appointed by Obama as an envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then, President Obama made Afghanistan and Pakistan the center of his GWOT policy. With it, he made Holbrooke, not Clinton, his point person on those two vital countries.

Then, there's George Mitchell. He was named special envoy to the Middle East. The Middle East is always a vital foreign policy area. Now, it's Mitchell, and not Clinton, that is the point person on that region. It was Mitchell that took the administration's first trip overseas when he went to Israel and Palestine in January. Until recently, Dennis Ross served as a special envoy to Iran. He continues to maintain, some though unclear power, within the administration over the region as well.

Meanwhile, the Vice President, Joe Biden, recently took a high profile trip through Russia and its neighbors and he appears to be carving out that region as his sphere of influence. In Iraq, Obama has continued Bush's unwritten chain of command which set most of the decision making power in the hands of our ambassador, Christopher Hill, and the General on the ground, General Ray Odierno.

That leaves very little room for Secretary Clinton to direct. As such, she spent a full week travelling through Africa. With due respect to the continent, that's not where our most important strategic decisions will be made. Instead, the Secretary of State, our main diplomat, has faded int the background on most diplomatic decisions. In most of the world's hot spots, the main decision and advisory roles are left to others.

We can only speculate as to why however this all appears to be political and strategic. It appears that President Obama took his main rival pushed them into his team and then marginalized them. Clinton was always considered of having an outside chance of challenging Obama in 2012 if things really went bad for him. Now, Obama has put her in the administration and effectively stripped her of all her power. She would have exponentially more influence right now in the health care debate as a Senator from New York. Instead, she's making trips to the Congo.

It remains to be seen how all of this will play out but it's very dangerous to run foreign policy through such a political strategy. If, in fact, President Obama orchestrated all of this simply to weaken a political rival, he also weakened the State Department with it. That has real consequences on our foreign policy and they're much more important than the rivalry between the two of them.

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