After nearly a million miles of travel to 112 countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is closing her term on the familiar home ground of partisan politics and crackling fascination with the ambitions of a woman almost no one thinks is really leaving public life.
Friday is Clinton’s last day as America’s top diplomat, a plum job but still a runner-up to the presidency she sought, unsuccessfully, four years ago. No matter how often she says she isn’t running again in 2016, Clinton walks out of the State Department a presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination.
Noting her pending departure in a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, Clinton said: “And though it is hard to predict what any day in this job will bring, I know that tomorrow, my heart will be very full. Serving with the men and women of the State Department and USAID has been a singular honor.”
Clinton leaves with a mixed record: She has garnered wide admiration around the world but has no major diplomatic achievements on par with those of other well-known secretaries of state, such as Henry Kissinger or George C. Marshall.
She oversaw a diplomatic opening to Burma and the difficult birth of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. She helped hold together a fragile world coalition opposed to Iranian nuclear development but saw the U.S. partnership with Russia disintegrate. It’s too soon to score her stewardship of U.S. interests in the fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings, but she was unable to stop Syria’s slide into civil war and the resulting deaths, 60,000 and counting.
Rand Corp.’s James Dobbins, a former ambassador and longtime troubleshooter for both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Clinton was denied big diplomatic breakthroughs but also leaves without “catastrophic failures.”
“She turned out, perhaps rather surprisingly given her reputation for sharp elbows, to be a very competent and even quite popular manager of a large, complex bureaucracy and a highly collegial player on a ‘team of rivals,’ ” Dobbins said.
Clinton accepted responsibility but not blame for the deaths of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya last year. It was the biggest debacle of her term and became a white-hot political issue for Republicans. A former Clinton Senate colleague, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said she “got away with murder.”
Many of Clinton’s successes appeared to be due largely to her personal popularity and famous work ethic — attributes that were on display in her final days in office.
Still recovering from a concussion she suffered in December, Clinton barreled through high-wire testimony about her handling of the deaths in Libya, a dozen ceremonial appearances, a flurry of media interviews and a parting gala dinner in her honor hosted by the British foreign secretary.
There was also one final “townterview,” a Clinton creation featuring questions — often softballs from foreign students — in a town-hall setting.
The event Tuesday showcased Clinton’s ready command of policy and obscure facts (seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa, she noted at one point) and her signature cause, the bettering of women’s lives.
Clinton’s most passionate response was to a young man who rose to question her via satellite from New Delhi. Why, he asked, must women in “supposedly progressive societies like the United States” conform to a masculine ideal of a statesman?
“Although it is better than it was, having been in and around politics for many years now, there is still a double standard,” Clinton said. “It is a double standard that exists from the trivial, like what you wear, to the incredibly serious, like women can’t vote, women can’t run for office, women are not supposed to be in the public sphere.”
She told another questioner that she isn’t thinking about running for office right now and just wants to get some sleep, but she added that she wants to help women “compete for the highest positions in their countries.”
Clinton hands off to John F. Kerry, leaving the Obama Cabinet without a woman among the premier posts.
Robert Schmuhl, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality,” said Clinton’s “personal stature helped open doors, but her diplomatic skills kept them open.”
“In most places, there’s a higher regard for the United States as she leaves her post,” he said. “That in itself is a significant achievement, proving that her endless travel had consequence.”
That travel took Clinton from Afghanistan to Zambia, an odyssey that led Foreign Policy magazine to dub her the “secretary of schlep.”