Hillary Clinton and the Case for De-politicizing Foreign Policy

She effectively implemented the president's foreign policy, but but the next Secretary of State likely won't be as influenced by domestic political concerns.

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Afghan president Hamid Karzai talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her outer office at the State Department in Washington, DC on January 10, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday hosted a working dinner here for Afghan President Hamid Karzai - one of her last official meetings with a foreign head of state.

On paper, Karzai's talks with Clinton are historic. A famed American political figure is helping negotiate the end of the longest war in U.S. history -- a 12-year odyssey that has claimed 2,100 American lives and more than $600 billion in treasure.

But Karzai's visit is being greeted with a yawn. There has been more media coverage of Clinton's exhaustive travel, physical appearance and political prospects in recent days than her wartime diplomacy.

Clinton is partly to blame for this dynamic. She has been a very good but very cautious secretary of state, who kept her distance from Afghanistan and other seemingly intractable conflicts. Clinton established a strong relationship with President Barack Obama, was innovative and worked tirelessly, but her position as a potential 2016 presidential candidate clearly influenced her performance.

One State Department official praised Clinton's tenure, but talked about looking forward to the arrival of her presumed successor, Senator John Kerry.

"I came to admire Clinton as secretary of state," this official said, "her focus on women and innovation in particular. But am really happy to have someone in the job who does not retain political ambitions."

A former State Department official said much the same. Clinton was "brilliant," but her aides' primary concern was how her actions as secretary of state would affect her political standing in the U.S.

"They were running the State Department like her Senate office," said the official, who asked not to be named. "It was a political minders' approach."

Clinton, of course, is one of hundreds of politicians to serve in presidential Cabinets. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is a career politician. As is incoming Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And to Clinton's credit, she has made sweeping reforms at the State Department and modernized the staid world of American diplomacy.

Still, her tenure is a marker of how politicized our approach to foreign policy has become. Clinton is not alone. Obama and his inner circle have politicized foreign policy as well.

After promising a sweeping break with the approaches of President George W. Bush, the Obama White House has proved just as insular and controlling of foreign policy as the Bush administration. In fact, Obama and his inner circle has arguably proven more political.

Loath or love Bush, he embarked on a risky, unpopular and open-ended troop surge in Iraq. The Obama administration, by comparison, backed an 18-month surge in Afghanistan - just long enough to protect it from charges of being soft on terrorism. And just short enough to telegraph to the Taliban and their backers in Pakistan's intelligence service  that they simply needed to wait the U.S. out.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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