Hillary Clinton's Keynote Speech Fighting For Influence in Obama's White House

She was supposed to be the strong woman in Obama's cabinet, but Hillary Clinton has been remarkably muted as secretary of state. On Wednesday she sought to reclaim her foreign policy position -- but the White House stole her thunder.

By in Washington

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approached the podium to address the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, the seating had been as carefully stage-managed as if this were an election campaign event.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Academics, big names from the media, global business people, Washington's foreign policy elite -- all had been invited to hear the secretary of state speak. The front seats, however, were reserved for the top diplomats and special envoys, people who are officially her subordinates. However in recent months they have outshone their boss. Richard Holbrooke, for example, the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a giant of a man with an ego to match. And yet on Wednesday he sat obediently watching Clinton like a schoolboy. When asked whether some of her co-workers wanted to ask questions, Clinton laughed and said: "You better not."

Today it was "Madame Secretary's" turn to speak. This was not to be any ordinary speech. It was the speech. After all, Clinton has been in office for six months; it was high time for a keynote address. "She wants to present her foreign policy vision," her spokeswoman promised. Nothing less than a framework for Obama's global strategy was to be expected.

Or was this more about raising her standing in the government? She has already been branded a weak secretary of state in the US media. They have worked out how often Clinton was left at home during Obama's many important foreign trips. And how many ambassador posts, from Europe to Asia, have gone to big contributors to Obama's campaign rather than to Clinton loyalists. They also noticed how Clinton only managed to get back in the media spotlight when she broke her elbow.

"It's time for Barack Clinton to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa," mocked Tina Brown, top columnist with Internet news site The Daily Beast, who went on to suggest that the president treated his former rival like a Saudi wife.

"Kind of like my elbow -- it's getting better every day," Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations. She meant, of course, US foreign policy. However, it could just as easily have been an expression of her hope for a bigger role in the administration.

That was exactly what she was aiming for with the speech. Speaking for 34 minutes, Clinton covered a broad swath of terrain, from Iran, to the fight against weapons of mass destruction, dialogue with the Arab world, more development aid and "smart power." America should use its power decisively, but also sensibly, in conjunction with its partners, Clinton explained. "We need a new mindset about how America will use its power," she said.

It was a comprehensive foreign policy manifesto, perfectly delivered. The president couldn't have done it better.

Upstaged by Obama

There was only one big problem: Hardly anyone was watching Clinton.

A cursory flick through the cable channels during her speech showed live images of a press conference about the murder of the parents of 17 children. Other networks were reporting on the confirmation hearings at the Senate for Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Even worse, there was President Obama, who was appearing before cameras at almost the exact same time. He had decided that now was the perfect time to talk about his plans for health care reform, surrounded by nurses in the Rose Garden of the White House.

And the networks had decided to broadcast Obama, not Clinton, live. For a few minutes it was like being back in that bitter battle for the Democratic nomination when the two rivals would compete to be the first on the evening news during the primaries.

The president's speech was announced at short notice. Something like that needs be agreed upon beforehand, complained one Washington insider. Or maybe it was completely deliberate. Clinton was "upstaged by Obama," commented the New York Daily News.

That must hurt. A lot. Clinton worked for six weeks on her keynote speech and her aides prepared for it with a PR offensive. They had spokespeople from other departments praise Clinton's loyalty and influence in the administration. They made sure people remembered how popular Clinton was with the people, even more so than the president. They pointed out how logical her reserve at the beginning of the presidency was: The president was still overshadowing everything else and as a new senator Clinton had also once learned the ropes without attracting attention.

There are 100 senators but there's only one secretary of state -- and only one Hillary Clinton. Is she now being downgraded to become a kind of globally recognizable government mascot, only responsible for Haiti and alleviating world hunger? Those were the areas that occurred to Clinton when interviewed about her role by the TV network ABC.

Both Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific

The speech to the Council of Foreign Relations showed what a shame that would be. Her approach entails everything that is needed in US foreign policy. Principles, yes, but no ideology. "Smart power," if you like, with an eye on a changing world.

The Europeans in particular should pay close attention to this speech. Many European diplomats believe that Clinton is closer to Europe than Obama, because she knows the continent better after her many years in the White House -- and because as the world's first globalization president, Obama shows little patience for the old-fashioned rituals of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

Clinton is much more patient with Europe. However, she still insisted that: "We are both a trans-Atlantic and a trans-Pacific nation." And she argued: "It does not make sense to adapt a 19th century concert of powers, or a 20th century balance of power strategy."

That sounds like a very cool look at the world map. Who can help the US most with the current global challenges? Where do the biggest dangers lurk? Her speech shows that even in Clinton's department the search for answers to these questions is rarely focused on Europe. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton's head of policy planning at the State Department, helped her write the speech. The former academic had been a Europe expert, before spending a year in China. That seems to have been a career-forming experience.

This Friday, Clinton is travelling to India and then shortly thereafter to Pakistan. At the end of July she and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will attend a two-day summit with top Chinese officials. The agenda doesn't seem to include negotiations between Beijing and Washington about how to change the world.

G-20 and G-2 instead of G-8 and the EU: The global shift in the balance of power that Clinton hinted at, is actually much more important than whether Clinton or Obama get more air time.

And Clinton is still a politician. She made sure to mention Obama eight times in her speech, calling him the "right president." However she will now coolly analyze why her speech was a PR disaster and continue to fight for more influence. She is in talks to hire a new adviser, Sidney Blumenthal. He worked in the White House when her husband was president and then on her campaign.

Blumenthal was in charge of launching attacks on political rivals -- in particular Barack Obama.


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