WASHINGTON: Last summer, as the fighting in Syria raged and questions about the United States’ inaction grew, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred privately with David Petraeus, the director of the CIA. The two officials were joining forces on a plan to arm the Syrian resistance.
The idea was to vet the rebel groups and train fighters, who would be supplied with weapons. The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and President Bashar Assad’s eventual removal.
Clinton and Petraeus presented the proposal to the White House, according to administration officials. But with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Barack Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed.
A year earlier, she had better luck with the White House. Overcoming the president’s skeptical aides, she persuaded Obama to open relations with the military rulers in Myanmar, a reclusive dictatorship eager to emerge from decades of isolation.
As she leaves the State Department, the simplest yardstick for measuring Clinton’s legacy has been her tireless travels: 112 countries, nearly a million miles, 401 days on the road. Historians will point to how she expanded the State Department’s agenda to embrace issues like gender violence and the use of social media in diplomacy.
“We do need a new architecture for this new world: more Frank Gehry than formal Greek,” Clinton said in a speech last week that served as both a valedictory and a reminder of why she remained the nation’s most potent political figure aside from Obama.
And yet interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials also paint a more complex picture: of a dogged diplomat and a sometimes frustrated figure who prized her role as team player, but whose instincts were often more activist than those of a White House that has kept a tight grip on foreign policy.
The disclosures about Clinton’s behind-the-scenes role in Syria and Myanmar — one a setback, the other a success — offer a window into her time as a member of Obama’s Cabinet. They may also be a guide to her thinking as she ponders a future run for the presidency with favorability ratings that are the highest of her career, even after her last months at the State Department were marred by the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“Secretary Clinton has dramatically changed the face of U.S. foreign policy globally for the good,” said Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. “But I wish she had been unleashed more by the White House.”
In an administration often faulted for its timidity abroad, “Clinton wanted to lead from the front, not from behind,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan who is now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Asia first official trip
Clinton made her first official trip to Asia, a choice that spoke to her diplomatic ambitions as well as her recognition from the start that many big-ticket foreign-policy issues in the Obama administration — Iraq, Iran and peacemaking in the Middle East — would be controlled by the White House or the Pentagon.
In Afghanistan, several officials said, Clinton hungered for a success on the order of the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War. But when her special representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, who had negotiated that agreement, fell out of favor with the White House and later died, those dreams died with him.
Then came the Arab awakening, a strategic surprise that eclipsed America’s pivot to focusing on Asia and plunged Clinton into a maelstrom. It tested her loyalty to longtime allies like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and reinforced her conviction that anger at decades of stagnation, fueled by social media, would sweep aside the old order in the Arab world.
Mobilized a broad coalition
After Britain and France argued for intervening to defend Libya’s rebels against Moammar Gadhafi, Clinton played an important role in mobilizing a broad international coalition and persuading the White House to join the NATO-led operation.
But it was Syria that proved to be the most difficult test. As that country descended into civil war, the administration provided humanitarian aid to the growing flood of refugees, pushed for sanctions and sought to organize the political opposition. The United States lagged France, Britain and Persian Gulf states in recognizing that opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syria people, but by December, Obama had taken that step.
Still, rebel fighters were clamoring for weapons and training. The White House has been reluctant to arm them for fear that it would draw the United States into the conflict and raise the risk of the weapons falling into the wrong hands.
In an interview last week, Clinton declined to comment on her role in the arms debate and stressed other steps the United States had taken.
“We have worked assiduously, first to create some kind of legitimate opposition,” she said. “We have been the architect and main mover of very tough sanctions against Assad.”
“Having said all that, Assad is still killing. The opposition is increasingly being represented by al-Qaida extremist elements,” she said