December 26, 2007

Experience By Osmosis

Hillary Clinton claims executive experience through her work as First Lady in her husband's administration. She tells people about her involvement in foreign relations, especially about her work in the Balkans and her efforts to get Bill Clinton to engage in the fight against Slobodan Milosevic and end the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. The New York Times looks at her case and concludes that she had little to do with anything in the Clinton administration -- and any lessons she learned came through "osmosis":

As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton jaw-boned the authoritarian president of Uzbekistan to leave his car and shake hands with people. She argued with the Czech prime minister about democracy. She cajoled Roman Catholic and Protestant women to talk to one another in Northern Ireland. She traveled to 79 countries in total, little of it leisure; one meeting with mutilated Rwandan refugees so unsettled her that she threw up afterward.

But during those two terms in the White House, Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda.

And during one of President Bill Clinton’s major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled.

In seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Mrs. Clinton lays claim to two traits nearly every day: strength and experience. But as the junior senator from New York, she has few significant legislative accomplishments to her name. She has cast herself, instead, as a first lady like no other: a full partner to her husband in his administration, and, she says, all the stronger and more experienced for her “eight years with a front-row seat on history.”

Instead of making policy, Hillary served as a sounding board, interviews with Clinton-era officials conclude. She knew about emerging threats such as al-Qaeda but made no attempt to fashion policy to meet them. And given her lack of clearance to the information necessary to develop threat response, she couldn't have done it even if inclined.

Even when she attended meetings on foreign relations, her emphasis didn't fall on actual policy. When invited to pre-inaugural consultations by Warren Christopher (who became Secretary of State), other participants recall her concern mostly centered on hiring women and minorities for responsible positions -- in other words, focused on the political. No one doubts her intense concern for all things political, but it's hardly the same thing as conducting a foreign policy. One former National Security Council aide now working for Barack Obama insists that Hillary did "no heavy lifting" on international relations.

Even Warren Christopher, who supports Hillary, underscores her negligible impact on crises during the Clinton administration. On Somalia and Haiti, two early crises, Christopher can't even recall her attending the meetings that dealt with the issues and formulated the policies. That makes even osmosis a questionable process for the experience she claims as an advantage over her rivals.

Of course, when campaigning primarily against Barack Obama and John Edwards, one hardly needs much osmosis to make that claim. Obama has served just under half of his first term in the Senate, and Edwards spent a third of his one and only term in public office running for President in the last cycle. Edwards sat on the Foreign Relations committee but missed most of the meetings. In an embarrassingly weak field, Clinton can make good her insistence on experience. In the general election, that claim will not stand at all.


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