Obama’s Bad Cop

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, June 13, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, June 13, 2009 (Harry Skull Jr.)

Former rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may have gotten off to a rocky start when the former accepted the position of secretary of state but, so writes Michael Hirsch for Newsweek this week, Clinton has emerged in recent months as Obama’s bad cop.

“Clinton is now influencing policy more than she ever has,” notes Hirsch, “especially in close partnership with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.” The two were critical in persuading the president to add 30,000 troops to the mission in Afghanistan while on Iran, both secretaries have long pushed for sanctions instead of Obama’s “all-carrots-and-no-sticks offer of engagement.” After admitting in January that his overture to the Arab world failed to deliver much result, the president agreed to a new strategy that appears aimed at isolating Iran with Clinton warning that the regime is moving toward military dictatorship. Indeed, the secretary is supposed to be in favor of taking an ever tougher stance yet she hasn’t managed to get rising powers as Brazil, China and India on board for further action.

Increasingly, the president is relying on Clinton to “hammer Iran,” writes Hirsch and her “greater hawkishness is beginning to show up in policy.” Besides opting for a more assertive course toward Iran, Clinton has been the one to harangue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his defiance of US demands for a settlement freeze and although supportive of the administration’s effort to “restart” relations with Russia, she didn’t shrink from criticizing Moscow for aiding Iran in its quest for nuclear power.

Clinton is properly modest, dismissing the suggestion that the president and she have adopted a formel good cop, bad cop routine. “With every tough message that I deliver, it is embedded in a much broader context,” she declared. “It’s not, ‘You’re with us or against us.’ It is, ‘We have a lot of business to do.’?”

This might seem reminiscent of Obama’s transformational rhetoric during the earlier days of his administration but in truth, the more pragmatic, “let’s-make-a-deal approach favored by Clinton has come to prevail.”

Beyond forging an intimate working relationship with Robert Gates, Clinton has also strengthened her bond with Vice President Joe Biden and with key Senate committee members in order to extract more funds for the State Department. Abroad she also maintains close personal ties with government leaders and officials while working to repair America’s previously shattered prestige. Regular town hall meetings — or “townterviews,” as she likes to call them — involving local citizens and media “have eased at least some of the anti-Americanism in Islamic countries.”

It would be too early to speak of a shared Clinton-Obama doctrine emerging as of yet in spite of the foreign policy goals that were pronounced by the president when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize: nuclear disarmament, human rights, being the standard-bearer of civilization, etc. Instead, much of the past year was spent “rebuilding the brand” and rebuilding political capital abroad. “And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course.” Now that that’s done, what will the new American strategy come to look like?