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February 1, 2013 5:43 pm
Four years is an eternity in politics, especially for a 65-year-old who has just had a serious health scare, yet Hillary Clinton stood down this week as US secretary of state already ordained as frontrunner for the presidency in 2016.
For someone who once attracted furious and even unhinged criticism from all sides of politics and the press, Mrs Clinton left office to adulation from Democrats, near-fawning from the media and respect from many Republicans.
The problem with Mrs Clinton’s adulatory send-off is that it invites the question of what she has achieved in her four years at the state department.
Barack Obama, in as near to an endorsement as it is possible from a president only a few days into his second term, described her in a joint interview as “one of the finest secretaries of state we have ever had”.
The praise also came from abroad. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, flew to Washington to hold a dinner for Mrs Clinton, and arranged a video message for her by members of the cast of Downton Abbey. “There is a wonderful stillness that descends on large halls full of diplomats and foreign ministers the moment Hillary enters the room,” Mr Hague told the dinner.
But while she has scored high marks for stamina (956,733 air miles clocked up), competence and for winning positive press for her country, there are few of the distinctive accomplishments that defined the legacies of Henry Kissinger or James Baker.
She leaves office with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process languishing. The engagement with Iran and North Korea that Mr Obama promised has produced no results, while the political reconciliation that might prevent another civil war in Afghanistan remains a distant prospect.
Mrs Clinton’s supporters say the absence of big breakthroughs partly reflects the hand she was dealt. After the bodyblow to US credibility and image from the Iraq war, one of her main tasks has been to repair the damage, even if opinions about Washington have not improved in the countries subject to drone strikes.
“She has done a fantastic job of rebuilding America’s image and standing in the world,” said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution think-tank. “She is a rock star in her own right.”
Mrs Clinton also demonstrated she could be a loyal team player in an administration with a tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the White House. “This has been a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said Robert Kagan, an author and foreign policy commentator. “You have to actually give cabinet officers some room to work.”
Her imprint is most clear in Asia, where the US has the most latitude to set the agenda. Mrs Clinton moved swiftly to support signs of a political thaw in Myanmar, and was one of the main architects of the “pivot” – the opportunistic effort to take advantage of regional disquiet about China to re-engage in Asia.
If those bets pay off in the coming years, her reception by historians could become yet more positive.
In domestic political terms, however, her period as secretary of state has been a triumph, reinforcing the bipartisan respect she earned as a senator. She leaves with a 69 per cent approval rating – well above the president’s.
Mrs Clinton’s supporters dismiss talk of 2016, saying she will rest, and then perhaps write a book and make speeches about her political passions before she makes any decisions. “There is nothing to know. People can say what they like, but there is no information,” said a Clinton confidante.
Democratic officials are in no doubt, however, that the moment Mrs Clinton decides to run, the party’s nomination will be hers for the taking.
“I think support can more or less be turned on like a switch: it will be staggering the number of people who turn up to give money and offer to help out,” said a strategist who worked for both the Clintons and Mr Obama. “Someone will run against her within the Democratic party, but I don’t think it will be close.”
And while she will certainly come under fierce attack from Republicans should she run in 2016, her broader image has changed significantly.
In 2006, when Mr Obama was considering a run for president, his then aide David Axelrod wrote a memo describing the “well-formulated opinion among swing voters [of Mrs Clinton] as a leftwing ideologue”.
After four years as the country’s top diplomat, that line of attack will be much harder for opponents to sustain.
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