Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Masterstroke, Mousetrap, Or Both?

Potential Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is it a masterstroke by President-elect Obama? A mousetrap for the Clintons? Is it even happening at all?
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Hillary Clinton's Democratic National Convention speech.

Potential Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Masterstroke or mousetrap? Or both?

And for whom?

The political world has been all aflutter for the better part of a week at the prospect -- initially portrayed as a done deal -- that Hillary Clinton will be Barack Obama's secretary of state. On the Republican side of the aisle, Henry Kissinger calls her "highly qualified" and Arnold Schwarzenegger dubs it "a great move." The Clintons' opponents in the Democratic Party have been restrained in their response. The media loves it, running with endless references to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's very fine book on the Lincoln Cabinet, an Obama favorite, "Team of Rivals."

Clinton's "3 AM" TV ad attacking Obama.

Is it a masterstroke by President-elect Obama? A mousetrap for the Clintons? Is it even happening at all?

Hillary Clinton is clearly a highly intelligent and accomplished person. She's a formidable debater who prevailed in most of the primary encounters, except towards the end when Obama, who is still improving as a political leader, began getting the best of her. Like most major politicians, she is not an expert in geopolitics, she's a gifted generalist.

I was on many conference calls with Clinton during the primary season. On geopolitical matters, she generally deferred to her experts to provide the most substantive answers to questions, sometimes former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, more frequently the former NATO commander, General Wes Clark. (I found Clark to be the most impressive performer of anyone on all the Clinton conference calls.) After listening to Clark give his answers, Clinton would then agree and add a few other points. Or not.

At one point, Clinton showed that she did not have a firm grasp of the concept of nuclear deterrence. Then there was the time she thought that Pervez Musharraf was running in the elections for Pakistan's parliament. (At that point, he'd recently been re-elected president.) At other points, as is very well known, she attacked Obama for his willingness to talk with boogeymen, as well as his desire to more aggressively prosecute Al Qaeda in its Pakistani safe havens.

And her explanation for her Senate vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was non-serious. She said she voted that way to further diplomacy. But it was already well known to the well-informed that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were determined to take down Saddam Hussein. That goal was at the heart of the neoconservative project which fatefully staffed the upper reaches of the administration.

This doesn't mean she can't be a good secretary of state. Hillary Clinton is a very formidable figure. If geopolitics becomes her area of focus, she'll study accordingly. And she would be working under President Obama, with the assistance of her husband, who was a generally good president himself.

That's what makes this look like a potential masterstroke for Obama, taking his once bitter rival and making her his ally and representative. It makes him look strong and confident. It also would make it virtually impossible for Hillary to challenge him in 2012, a prospect which looks very unlikely in any event. That is something Lyndon Johnson should have thought of when he refused to make Robert F. Kennedy his vice president in 1964.

While Hillary and Bill Clinton, especially Hillary, campaigned hard for Obama, they ultimately were not the keys to his victory. John McCain's inability to adequately respond to the financial crisis, the backfiring pick of Sarah Palin, and Obama's victories in all three presidential debates were much more determinative.

The move, which apparently has not actually been made, despite all the clamor about it, also looks like a mousetrap.

If Hillary withdraws from consideration, then Obama has made the effort he did not make around the vice presidency. And a shadow would be placed over her career in the Senate.

For, notwithstanding whatever reluctance she may have to make the move -- which some Clinton associates are talking up -- she and her husband are taking steps to make this happen.

Now that he's back in the country, the former president is submitting himself to Obama's vetting process. And he is saying that he would place future philanthropic and business dealings under the authority of the Obama Administration.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this morning, President Clinton has agreed to submit his future endeavours to strict ethics reviews by the White House counsel and the State Department's ethics office. Obama's White House counsel will be Greg Craig, a former Clinton Administration official who broke with the Clintons and leveled tough criticisms of them during the primary campaign.

Bill Clinton campaigning with Barack Obama in Florida.

Bill Clinton has agreed to publicly reveal all future contributors to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, something he flatly refused to do during the Democratic primaries. He's also agreed to publicly reveal "major" past contributors and has begun providing detailed information regarding his business dealings to Obama.

Bill Clinton has reportedly raised some $500 million for the Clinton Foundation, and another $15 billion or so for the Clinton Global Initiative. Both of which perform good works, in addition to the incalculable value they've afforded him from a public relations standpoint.

But those huge sums, especially for the Clinton Global Initiative, seem to come in large measure from foreign sources which may be very problematic. If they weren't, the Clintons would have revealed them during the Democratic primaries.

Bill Clinton is turning over a great deal of information about his operations to Barack Obama. In politics, that sort of knowledge is power.

Of course, the Clintons are using lawyers to pass on the information, to ensure confidentiality under attorney-client privilege. But once you know something, you can always figure out a way, if need be, to "reverse engineer" it over time through another source.

In any event, having new restrictions on his foundation fundraising would probably limit the scope of Clinton's activities in that realm. If Bill Clinton has fewer resources at his disposal, he's easier to control. At times during the Bush/Cheney era, Bill Clinton has been an alternate American presence on the global stage. Now superstar figures, such as Al Gore, are likely to find it easier to come more to the fore if Bill Clinton is diminished.

Now it may seem that having Hillary in the Cabinet is a mousetrap for Obama. After all, she's a global figure in her own right. Were she to break with him, it could be a major blow.

But Obama is clearly the much larger figure on the world stage. Not since John F. Kennedy has an American president been so intriguing to so many around the world, and so widely applauded. And JFK didn't enter office that way. Obama is still only president-elect.

In addition, were Hillary to become secretary of state, it would make her efforts to retire her big campaign debt even more problematic. It would also be tough for her to contemplate a break with President Obama knowing that she would then attempt to re-enter her political career amidst a major public controversy with a multi-million campaign debt hanging over her head. That would not exactly be a commanding political position, to say the least.

She would also have problems with a political base. Yes, she got 18 million votes in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. But many if not most of those folks have transferred their allegiance to Obama. She and her husband thought and worked long and hard to secure her seat in New York. Seats in the U.S. Senate, once relinquished, are not easy to get back.

Obama and Hillary Clinton at their first post-primary appearance, in Unity, New Hampshire.

Will Hillary Clinton be Barack Obama's secretary of state? The momentum seems to be in that direction. The Clintons must know that she is probably precluded from being president for at least another eight years. They also know, from their own experience, that new figures emerge.

While she is a power in the Senate, she is far from being the power in the Senate. Most Democratic senators who endorsed in the primaries picked Obama over her. And she would probably have to look to Obama for a franchise on top issues like health care, which Ted Kennedy -- one of Obama's most important backers -- wants as his crowning achievement.

If she's dependent on Obama in any event, and is not likely to be president, why not become secretary of state? It would be an extraordinary career capper at an extraordinary time in history.

Now we'll see if everything gets worked through.

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