Washington’s worst-kept secret was made official on Monday. President-elect Barack Obama announced – from Chicago, that his one-time deadly rival, Senator Hillary Clinton would be the next US Secretary of State. The furious flurry of chatter and swirl of speculation which preceded the announcement gave way, after momentary pause, to a renewed flurry and swirl: was this a master-stroke of inclusivity? A case of inspanning of a “team of rivals” to borrow the title of a much-touted new book on the cabinet of Obama’s distinguished predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, he also hailed from Illinois and like Obama, was a little-known Senator until his presidency, and the American Civil War which defined it, marked him out as an all-time great.
Or would the apparent enmity and distrust between Obama and Clinton, and the unfulfilled presidential ambitions of “Madam Secretary-elect” as we must now call her, doom the relationship?
The betting, at the moment, inclines to the masterstroke explanation. But the media immediately noted the apparent incongruity of this pick of the ultimate Washington insider by the man who promised to be the tribune of change. The simultaneous announcement of former NATO Commander and Marine Corps Commandant, General James L Jones, as Obama’s Security Adviser and his retention of President Bush’s Defence Secretary, the Republican Robert M Gates, means the untested President-Elect has surrounded himself with “two Cold War warriors” plus Clinton, all of whose records are far more hawkish than the liberal, change-oriented Obama.
Obama batted away the apparent contradiction (and his record of campaign disagreements with Clinton) by advising, “I’m a strong believer in strong debate and strong opinions”. Indeed to most, the selection signalled a president who is self-confident enough to surround himself with smart and capable people: a study in contrast to the incumbent Bush, whose moral certitude and the blind faith of his key advisers landed America (and the world) in many of its current travails.
Although Obama mocked Clinton during the campaign for a foreign policy resume obtained by osmosis through her presidential husband while First Lady, and chastised her judgement as a Senator for supporting Bush to go to war in Iraq, foreign opinion apparently reacted with optimism to her selection. In some circles this was not because of her record: during the primaries she warned that Iran risked “obliteration” in the event of nuclear attack in Israel – and also dismissed as “reckless and naive” her new boss’s plan to engage in talks with the dread Iranian leadership. She announced herself in favour of “coercive diplomacy” – whatever that might mean or entail.
But the global welcome to her appointment is attributable in part to her star power: “she’s a global brand”, gushed the New York Times. Even its waspish columnist, Maureen Dowd – a well-chronicled Hillary-hater – who had previously warned Obama not to pick Clinton as Vice President. (“She’ll put poison in your tea”, she wrote back in August) recanted. Last week she approvingly quoted another Clinton critic who concluded “she’s smart and tough and a lot better than any of those old hacks like Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright.”
However, I think the real clue to the apparent American and world receptivity to Clinton’s new incarnation probably lies in the acronym “ABBC” (“Anything Is Better Than Bush and Co”). A senior Russian MP was quoted this week as saying, “the most important thing is not who is coming in, but who is leaving.”
But Hillary Clinton, star wattage and stellar intellect aside, is weighed down with a lot of baggage. I was advised at a recent dinner by a veteran of her husband’s administration that “most of it is carried by Bill”. My informant was scathing on the excesses of the soon-to-return Clinton soap opera: the paranoia, the infidelities, the leaks, the volcanic tantrums. All of this seemed ill suited to the discipline and thoughtfulness of the “No Drama Obama” regime. Globalisation guru and veteran foreign policy watcher, Thomas Friedman opined that if the relationship between the president and his secretary of state sours or becomes remote (as it became between the much-admired Colin Powell and President George W Bush) then “foreign leaders will spot the daylight between them from a thousand miles”. And here the “big dog”, as Bill Clinton has been dubbed by some, enters the frame. He practically has his own foreign policy apparatus: his global philanthropy foundation employs 800 people. He earns R100 million in speaking fees annually, many of which are apparently thinly-disguised influence-peddling events sponsored by doubtful foreign potentates. He also has 200 000 (actual number) donors to his presidential library whose identity have never been publicly disclosed. But at the time of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, it was mentioned that he received a $10 million gift from the Saudi Royal family.
No doubt the new administration will resolve these conflicts of interest. But a conflict of interest of a different sort potentially looms between the new administration in Washington and the next government in Pretoria. This is the hangover from Thabo Mbeki’s penchant for temporising with African tyrants. If this pattern persists going forward then the Union Buildings can expect a serious early collision with another appointee announced here on Monday. Susan Rice, a close Obama confidante has now been elevated, with cabinet status, to the US ambassadorship at the United Nations. In contrast to Mbeki’s shielding of the Sudanese dictator and oppressor Omar al-Bashir from indictment by the International Criminal Court, Rice is a vehement and committed adherent to using “America’s muscle to protect human rights in Africa.” When Jacob Zuma recently visited Washington I suggested to him that we should change course away from the Mbeki approach of “never meeting a dictator he didn’t like”. I hardly expect our wannabe president to accept my unsolicited counsel .But as South Africa’s rights-delinquent term of office on the Security Council is about to expire, Pretoria might have consideration for the fact that many key people in the new administration in Washington consider our performance there to be more befitting of a “rogue democracy”.
* Written for the Weekender, to be published 6 December 2008.