POWER TALK

06.12.14

Hillary Takes on the World: Clinton’s Foreign Policy Record in the Spotlight

Putin, Syria, the disintegration of Iraq… Hillary Clinton candidly discussed all the major policy areas she oversaw as the 67th Secretary of State at a packed-to-capacity event at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“You’ve dealt with some fairly strong personalities—” policy wonk Richard Haas began his question to Hillary Rodham Clinton.        

 “I’d like to think the same is true,” America’s 67th Secretary of State interrupted, pointing with both hands at herself and getting a big laugh from the overflow crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Clinton punctuated her hammy gesture with a deep, throaty chuckle.

Thus the 66-year-old former first lady and United States senator from New York—modeling a tailored taupe pantsuit, a simple black blouse, and a power-helmet of blond hair—dropped by the council’s Upper East Side headquarters Thursday on Day 4 of her pre-presidential campaign juggernaut that is masquerading as a book tour for her memoir Hard Choices.

With her very pregnant daughter Chelsea in attendance, along with a praetorian guard of security types, and loyal aide Huma (Mrs. Anthony Weiner) Abedin sitting close by, Clinton gave council president Haas and her adoring audience an exhaustive travelogue of the planet’s hot spots.

Surveying the Earth from the stratosphere when not getting down in the weeds, she talked about China, North Korea, the Arab Spring, Afghanistan, and the disintegration if Iraq. She drew policy distinctions between herself and President Obama, her erstwhile political rival and former boss, assessed the damage done to U.S. foreign policy by Wikileaks’ release of sensitive diplomatic cables, and stressed the importance of establishing personal relationships with sometimes obstreperous foreign leaders.

“When we’re running into obstacles we could fall back on those relationships,” Clinton said. “There are obvious exceptions. It’s very difficult to build relationships with some people. I’m talking about you, Vladimir!”

As political performance art, it was authoritative and commanding, lightened every so often by a soupcon of humor—like a mischievous shout-out to Russian President Putin—and that deep, throaty laugh.  

Haas—who wisely didn’t bother to ask Clinton if she’s running for president, knowing he’d get her standard boilerplate evasion—also showed his guest some hospitality by not mentioning Benghazi.

Unlike Clinton’s much-discussed television interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, in which she claimed absurdly that she and President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” and financially “struggling” when they left the White House, Thursday’s appearance was gaffe-free.

She definitely seemed ready to take that 3 a.m. phone call. 

Here are some points of interest:

On the impact of the embarrassing Wikileaks cables: “What happened was [foreign] leaders said they would meet only with me—no note-takers—and would clear the room. That’s a little challenging. I’ve got a good memory, but not that good a memory…I went on an apology tour.”

On Obama’s decision to throw embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, a longtime U.S. ally, under the bus: “I had a lot of apprehension, both just throwing Mubarek out of office and not knowing what was going to come next, and not preparing a more orderly transition.” When Mubarek refused to promise that neither he nor his son would run for president in the next election, “at a certain point the president and other leaders said he had to go. I remained apprehensive about what would follow.”

On Iraq: “It’s a dreadful, deteriorating situation.”

On her differences with Obama regarding how to support opponents of the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad : “I did feel quite strongly that we needed, if it were possible, to vet and train and equip moderate opposition figures, because when it started there was truly a citizen uprising—pharmacists, professors or students. They had no training and they were up against a very disciplined, large army…We didn’t do that…Now the wicked problem has gotten even wickeder.”

On her desire to normalize relations with Cuba and end the five-decade economic embargo: “The embargo is Castro’s best friend. It provides Castro an excuse for everything.”

On the White House frustrations concerning Congress’s complaints about not being properly informed on diplomatic initiatives—a perhaps veiled reference to the Taliban prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: It’s “Look, we’ve informed them, but then they act like we’ve never told them. So what’s the point of informing them?”

On the Republican primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “I think it shows the continuing conflict within the Republican Party over its direction…It will certainly have long-term implications for 2016 and beyond.”

On relations with North Korea: When her husband traveled there in 2009 to free two detained American journalists, “he came back with his antenna vibrating. ‘I think there’s some potential here.’  ” But after the death of Kim Jong Il and the ascension of his son, Kim Jong Un, even the China, North Korea’s financial and economic sponsor, didn’t have much influence.  “The young leader is suspicious of them, too.”

Looking relaxed and rested, Clinton fielded questions for an hour and then, like a real-life candidate, spent time schmoozing with old friends and donors who happen to be members of the council. She threw her arms around Clinton intimate Vernon Jordan and happily posed for grip and grins, with Abedin acting as photographer. Even the normally press-averse Chelsea—who, like her dad, is an ace at retail politics—engaged in a friendly chat with a Daily Beast reporter, recalling that they’d met during the 2008 primary campaign and warmly shaking hands.

As Chelsea’s mom departed, members of the council crowded around a pile of books for sale on a groaning table. Commercial real estate billionaire Mort Zuckerman, owner of The New York Daily News, was among those flashing an American Express Platinum Card to buy a copy of Hard Choices.

If Clinton runs, is Zuckerman on board?

“Damn right I am!” he replied.