A Closer Look at Clinton's Foreign Policy Experience

The question of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy experience is not whether she did or did not do this or that. In the tug-of-war between the Clinton and Obama campaigns over Clinton's claims to various foreign policy achievements, it's becoming increasingly clear that Senator Clinton has overstated her role, although the various particpants in the Northern Ireland peace agreement and the Kosovo conflict, for example, may never agree on the exact details of who did what when. The important issue is why has Hillary Clinton said she did more than she did, what has compelled her to do so? Equally importantly, what does this resume inflation suggest about any American future with her at the helm of our foreign policy?

Clinton's breadth and depth and length of experience abroad is so much greater than Obama's that it's astonishing she has felt the need to embellish her record. Barack Obama has never taken a congressional trip to Europe. His official travels abroad have been few, including Russia and three former Soviet republics (2005 senatorial trip) and five African nations (2006 senatorial trip), but not China or India, Japan or Egypt, for example. Hillary Clinton in her official role as Senator has touched down in twenty countries--Afghanistan and Pakistan three times. As First Lady, she made official visits to eighty-two countries, surpassing Pat Nixon's record for travel abroad. Even a partial list of her official travels in the 1990s is impressive:

In July 1993 Hillary Clinton accompanied her husband to the G-7 Summit in Japan. She led the American delegation to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. With Vice President Gore, in May 1994 she represented the U.S. at the South African presidential innauguration of Nelson Mandela. She travelled with the President to Russia. In March 1995 Clinton made her first solo extended official trip abroad, to Southeast Asia. In September she made her famous women's rights speech in China. In October she attended the annual meeting of the First Ladies of the Western Hemisphere, with visits to Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay. In November she travelled with President Clinton to Western Europe. The following summer of 1996 Clinton went with then U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright to Eastern Europe. In November the Clintons made a state visit to Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. In March 1997 Clinton toured Africa. In July she gave a keynote speech at the NATO Summit in Madrid. She made official visits to Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Central Asia. In 1998 the Clintons returned to Russia and together visited Ireland, Africa, China and the Middle East. In January 1999 the First Lady attended King Hussein's funeral in Jordan. The same year she journeyed to the Balkans, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Whether or not any of these "experiences" involved the shaping of foreign policy is debatable (and I will get to that), but certainly they laid the groundwork for acumen and judgment in foreign policy. Everybody has to start somewhere--in a North Vietnamese prison, in a Jakarta public school. So why hasn't Hillary Clinton presented her resume in this honest and forthright way, as a beginning, coupled with her many official visits abroad as Senator, as a platform on which she feels confident she can build a good foreign policy for the United States? Why does she continue to insist that, as First Lady, she made foreign policy?

First of all, she embellishes because she can. One of the perquisites of power is the rewriting of history to suit, and Hillary Clinton has enjoyed this perk for so long, ever since she was in her twenties in Arkansas, that she is used to wielding it. Likely, she doesn't even recognize that moment anymore when she crosses the line from what happened to what should have happened. Rereading Clinton biographies, I have been struck by how the methods and results for Hillary's efforts on behalf of women and children in Arkansas don't quite match up with the "thirty-five years of service" resume Bill Clinton has been promulgating in the '08 campaign. The latest instance of service polishing, revealed by The Boston Globe , is Hillary Clinton's role in SCHIP. Since she was thirty-one and the new First Lady of Arkansas, Clinton has grown used to being the center of things. On her African travels, women hailed her as "Queen of the World." In some small but significant way, she has succumbed to this belief.

The spliced videos related to the Northern Ireland peace agreement, briefly linked to the Clinton Campaign website, are fascinating in this regard. Former Senator George Mitchell was the negotiator, but in the tapes he is upstaged by Hillary Clinton, who is both more charismatic and sharper than he. Nevertheless, she was never a broker in Belfast. Her role in Northern Ireland was amorphous in a way that other women who are married to powerful men can understand. In talking with a group of Irish Catholic and Protestant women, Clinton contributed something--something peripheral, but largely out of respect for her and for her position this fact was never going to be spelled out by the real movers and shakers. Also, given what we know about the Clinton marriage, it is likely that Bill Clinton never would have confronted Hillary with a reality check on the true nature of her position abroad.

We changed the world. By 2005, when she gave a speech on women's rights at a NYU forum, Hillary Clinton had come to see the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in China and her speech there on universal women's rights in that light. "It was a gathering that lasted only a few days," she said in March 2005, "but it changed the world." The grandiosity and ludicrousness here are so apparent that Clinton's claim hardly merits scrutiny. What does deserve a closer look is the extent to which Clinton's First Lady speeches abroad on behalf of women's and children's rights have constituted a contribution to American foreign policy. In his two administrations, to the degree he was interested in foreign policy, Bill Clinton focused on trade, nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He allowed the First Lady to speak out on women's rights abroad. At the time, Hillary's increasing travels, which centered on women's issues, may not have seemed like a policy decision on his part. In this country, women's rights had become self-evident. What harm could it do if the First Lady addressed the subject abroad? The realization that educated and reform-minded women in other cultures defined women's rights differently and resented American attempts to foist our assumptions on them would not even begin to be brought home in this country for another decade.

Hillary Clinton's first extended official trip abroad, with Chelsea in tow, to Southeast Asia and especially to Pakistan in March 1995 speaks to all the points I've made. Here is how Clinton assesses the importance of that trip in her autobiography Living History: "The State Department had asked me to visit the subcontinent to highlight the administration's commitment to the region, because neither the President nor the Vice President could make a trip soon. My visit was meant to demonstrate that this strategic and volatile part of the world was important to the United States and to assure leaders throughout South Asia that Bill supported their efforts to strengthen democracy, expand free markets and promote tolerance and human rights, including the rights of women." Bill Clinton saw his wife's trip in a narrower light. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas April 1995, the President describes the Asia trip completely in terms of women and children. He never mentions strategy, democracy or free markets. "I was very pleased with the First Lady's trip and with the way my wife and daughter were treated and what they learned....What Hillary was doing [for women and children] was profoundly important. And after getting a blow-by-blow description of the trip for a good long while yesterday from both my wife and daughter, I still feel that way." This hardly sounds like a State Department de-briefing.

In fact, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense William Perry had been in Pakistan two months earlier doing the real policy work on the United States' real interest there: nuclear proliferation. The U.S. suspected (correctly, as it would transpire) that Pakistan was still developing its nuclear weapons program, despite sanctions against economic and military aid. The book-end to Perry's visit to Pakistan would be Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's visit to the U.S. in April to get some of the sanctions lifted. Although Hillary hadn't a hand in any of these negotiations, she was right about one thing: Pakistan was volatile. In early 1995 Pakistan was so dangerous that the lack of uxorious solicitousness on the part of Bill Clinton in allowing his wife, much less his daughter, to travel there is striking.

Two weeks before Clinton's trip, two U.S. consulate workers in Karachi were waylaid and killed. Violence, from both terrorists and criminals, had swelled following the recent extradition to the U.S. of Ramzi Yousef, accused in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As a result, the State Department ordered all school-age children of American officials evacuated from Pakistan. According to Human Rights Watch reports, lawlessness, extortion, kidnapping, torture, "custodial deaths," and extrajudicial executions were endemic. Journalists were attacked. Sectarian conflict, with attendant deaths, had broken out between Sunni and Shia. A member of a Christian sect had been stoned to death. There had been strikes throughout the country following the acquittal in February of two Christians charged with blasphemy (a capital crime in Islamic Pakistan). Prime Minister Bhutto and her government, accustomed to working outside the law, prepared for Hillary Clinton's visit by cracking down on the press and jailing hundreds of suspected militants.

During Clinton's three days in Pakistan, in Islamabad she called on Begum Nasreen Leghari, the wife of Pakistan's President, and attended a ladies luncheon hosted by Benazir Bhutto. The next day Hillary and Chelsea visited Bhutto's old high school and a mosque. Their last day in Pakistan they left for Lahore, where they talked to women at a local college; they stopped by a health clinic and grade school; mother and daughter ended the day with a huge celebration staged in their honor at Lahore's Moghul Fort. Here is how Clinton remembers that night: "Camels and horses draped in jeweled robes and headdresses shuffled and spun to flute music. Chelsea and I were entranced and squeezed each other's hands in wonder." (Joe Klein, writing for Newsweek, was also entranced. It must have been some party.)

In her autobiography, Clinton never mentions talking to anyone in authority about women's rights. On this trip she was finding her footing and getting a sense of things. However, Human Rights Watch reports that it "communicated its key regional human rights concerns to her and called on her to push for the rights of women, minorities, and bonded laborers during her trip to Pakistan." This directive may have been at odds with ground rules laid down by the State Department, for although Clinton remembers her trip as a substantive one in that regard, others do not, and it's unlikely Clinton on such a whirlwind tour would've been encouraged to confront Bhutto on Pakistan's widespread human slavery, in the form of bonded labor, particularly bonded child labor when, frankly, America's strategic concerns with Pakistan lay elsewhere.

"I came to know Mrs. Bhutto over many years, during her tenures as Prime Minister and during her years in exile," Senator Clinton said in her press release on Bhutto's death. Clinton is mis-remembering, for she didn't meet Bhutto until the Pakistani was Prime Minister for the second and final time. Precious little seems to have come of that meeting and subsequent ones. The Bhutto family own most of Pakistan's Sindh province; therefore as rural landowners they also own most of Sindh's bonded laborers. All the human (not to mention women's) rights abuses in Pakistan that Human Rights Watch observed in 1995 are still present today. To date, Hillary Clinton has visited Pakistan five times, and it's unclear that she understands the country as well as one might suppose. In January interviews on CNN and ABC, Senator Clinton didn't know, among other things, that Pervez Musharraf was not a candidate in the upcoming elections. In December she had been quick to suggest that the Pakistani military might have killed Benazir Bhutto--surely a rash statement for someone supposedly so versed in diplomacy. Last November, in the Democratic Debate from Nevada, Arif Rafiq commented on The Pakistan Policy Blog that "Hillary Clinton offered a discordant perspective on the Pakistan 'problem.' . . . She said that she asked the Pakistani president earlier in the year if he wanted a special envoy for his country--presumably to negotiate a deal with Benazir Bhutto--and that despite his reply in the affirmative, the White House had not appointed such a person. Clinton seems to be unaware of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher's intimate--and perhaps excessive--role in the Bhutto-Musharraf negotiations."

Last week Hillary Clinton released her foreign policy plan for Pakistan. (And then took it back, if this link is still down. In slightly different form, it is summarized on her website under "Hillary Clinton's Plan for the Forgotten Front Line in Afghanistan.") She makes no mention of women's and children's rights. She makes no mention of Islam, despite the fact that establishing a relationship with at least a few religious leaders, in a religious state, would seem to be key. She mentions education but doesn't put it in any context that might work in such an increasingly religious society. She doesn't mention land reform (less than a dozen families own all of rural Pakistan) or the ways in which land ownership, the increasing power of the mullahs, clan and tribe, the military, the end of the Cold War and a subsequent rethinking of not just socialist but also western values are interconnected in Pakistan. Hillary Clinton, for all her intelligence, doesn't seem to be a particularly inquisitive or subtle thinker for someone who claims proficiency in foreign policy. Here's a person who thinks she knows more than she does. Hasn't it recently been brought home to us how dangerous a trait this is in a leader?

The week after Hillary and Chelsea left Pakistan in March 1995, a group of Iranian women travelled through, promulgating their own version of women's rights to the Pakistanis. That historical moment at the apex of American power, when we could define rights for the rest of humankind, was already passing. From Pakistan, Hillary and Chelsea went on to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Hillary Clinton fell in love with India, at a time when the U.S. and India were feeling out a new relationship post Cold War. The irony here is that the real impetus for Bill Clinton's acquiescence in Hillary's foreign travels, which cost taxpayers a pretty penny by the way, was the need to get her out of the White House after her health care initiative fiasco and subsequent personal funk. Bill Clinton didn't care much about Southeast Asia. In the end, however, Hillary communicated her interest in and enthusiasm for India to her husband. She transformed him into the globalist William Jefferson Clinton of the global Clinton Foundation today. Bill and Hillary Clinton were early believers in outsourcing to India and invested in at least one Indian outsourcing company. (Why the Obama Campaign never made much of this in Ohio is a mystery.) They befriended Indian businessmen, some of them colorful financiers, some of them big contributors to Hillary Clintons' political campaigns. This may be a kernel of the Clintons' reluctance to release recent tax returns and a donors' list for the Clinton Library and Foundation. Bill Clinton is drawn to colorful financiers--how many of them has he picked up on his foreign travels?

When I was covering the Nevada caucuses, I met a group of Middle Eastern journalists who had traveled to Reno for the same purpose. We spent as much time talking about politics as watching them. The four men were hopeful that Hillary Clinton would be the next President. Their attitude took me by surprise--at first--until I discerned their underlying anxiety. They didn't know much about Senator Obama. What might he do in case of another terrorist attack in the U.S.? In fact--also to my surprise--the first subject the Egyptian editor broached with me was the possibility of another terrorist attack before the November elections. I couldn't believe he had uttered the word terrorist. Then I tried to put myself in Middle Eastern shoes. Having seen how one American president had responded to attack, they worried what a different president might do in a similar situation, how another powerful force might exact retribution. But these Arabs felt they knew Hillary Clinton because they knew Bill Clinton. They assumed reasonableness. They were confident they could gauge the boundaries she might set. Likely both assumptions are accurate. That she might have qualities of mind and personality different from her husband's that would also affect American foreign policy didn't enter their thinking.