Clinton takes a chance
Posted: Monday, October 24, 2011 7:01 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Tripoli meeting with Libya’s transitional government leaders less than 48 hours before deposed dictator Colonel Qaddafi was killed in his home town of Serte. Qaddafi’s death captured the headlines, but Clinton should get credit for having the gumption to fly into the Libyan capital under risky security conditions to assure the interim prime minister of the Obama administration’s commitment to help build a democracy.
Clinton’s trip followed similar visits by British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. All made secret trips. Their presence in the country was not announced and not reported until they were in the air and well on their way back out of harm’s way. Clinton could have sent a high-ranking deputy but chose to make the trip herself, an indication of how important the Obama administration considers Libya.
Libya is the only country roiled by the Arab Spring where President Obama chose to get directly involved with military intervention. He received criticism for intervening on humanitarian grounds, and then for standing back and letting NATO take charge as a bombing campaign stretched on longer than anticipated. The death of Qaddafi this week brings an end to the bombing, but Clinton’s presence in the country signals a realization that outside help will still be needed.
Clinton did not come empty-handed, bringing with her a modest package of financial assistance that will supplement the $135 million the administration has been parceling out since February. During her short time in the country, Clinton got much done, including dispensing plenty of good will. She met with college students eager to take advantage of new educational exchanges, and visited a medical center where she promised help in getting medical equipment and in untangling bureaucratic red tape that might allow some of the wounded to be treated abroad, including in the United States. The New York Times quoted Clinton telling one wounded fighter, “We are on your side.”
Notably, Clinton did not fly to Egypt or visit Tunisia when those countries were in the midst of changing their governments. Her presence in Libya reflects a realization by the Obama administration that this was at least in part Obama’s war, and he wants to get the post-war part right. America doesn’t have the resources or the desire to nation-build, but at the same time, walking away and saying to this fledging group of leaders that they are on their own is not acceptable either.
Putting Clinton on the front lines reflects Obama’s confidence in her, and in her performance as a diplomat. She has said that even if Obama is reelected, she would not continue as Secretary of State in a second term. It is an exhausting job, and she has handled it well, but the big-ticket successes that make a legacy have so far eluded her.
There are still many challenges left, and in her last year, Clinton may well decide to up the ante in finding the issue that will provide the capstone to her career. One obvious area is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Her husband came close to getting a historic deal in the months before he left the White House. The prisoner exchange this week where more than a thousand Palestinians are being released in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2005, created a brief moment of goodwill that a skilled diplomat should be able to exploit.
Clinton may decide as so many before her have, including former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who stepped down as Obama’s Middle East envoy after a fruitless and frustrating two years, that the search for peace is a dead-end. Or perhaps her daring flight into the heart of Tripoli will embolden her to take on more such daring missions in the time she has left as America’s top diplomat. Published in The Messenger 10.24.11