While Secretary Clinton's reaction to a question in Congo may not have any political
repercussions, some foreign policy analysts say it reflects her limitations as a diplomat.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
In case it wasn't clear before, Hillary Clinton -- not her husband -- is the nation's top diplomat.
The secretary of state curtly sent that message to a Congolese university student who asked her Monday through a translator what "Mr. Clinton" thinks about China's growing influence.
Turns out, though, the student was trying to ask what President Obama thought.
Some foreign policy analysts said while her reaction may not have any political repercussions, it reflects her limitations as a diplomat.
"If a student in the Congo can get under your skin with a mistranslation and you're unable to deflect it in a gracious diplomatic way, one gets a little concerned when an issue of more consequence comes along and she might indulge in a personal perspective as opposed to something that's good for the country as a whole," said Robert Schadler, senior fellow in public diplomacy at the American Foreign Policy Council.
"It's inappropriate for a diplomat to be so harshly personal," Schadler added. "You can't imagine the great secretaries of state with expressing that unnecessary personal view when they would be overseas and talking to a foreign audience."
Others told FOXNews.com that Clinton's outburst seemed to be a reaction to her struggle to assert herself as the face and voice of U.S. foreign policy, especially after her husband's successful mission last week to retrieve two American journalists from a North Korean prison.
Hillary Clinton's first six months as top diplomat have been overshadowed by the president's ambitious travels, heavyweight special envoys assigned to the world's critical hotspots and her husband's high-profile mission -- which coincided with her arrival in Africa on a seven-nation trip.
In the Congo on Monday, a university student asked her what her husband thought about a multibillion-dollar Chinese loan offer to the country.
"Wait, you want to know what my husband thinks?" she replied in an angry outburst. "My husband is not the secretary of state. I am. You ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."
Clinton then quickly recovered her cool and moved on to other subjects.
State Department officials said the student approached Clinton afterward and told her he had meant to ask what Obama, not Bill Clinton, thought about the offer. It was not clear whether the French-speaking student or translator had made an error. The student and secretary eventually shook hands.
"It was a flippish response. I think it was far from diplomatic," said Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation and a career Foreign Service officer with the State Department for 27 years until 2007. "I think it shows this constant wear and tear about who's in charge."
But Doug Schoen, a former adviser to President Clinton and FOX News contributor, said Hillary Clinton was a victim of circumstances.
"She is on an exhausting 11-day, seven-nation tour. She was tired," he told FOX News. "This was also a forum about women, sexual exploitation, rape. So to ask a man's opinion when the focus is women is a little sensitive. And President Clinton had just come from this successful visit to North Korea. So you might understand why at this particular time sensitivities were heightened."
Others said Clinton's reaction provides more fodder for debate about the former first couple's complicated relationship.
An accomplished lawyer and politician, Hillary Clinton has struggled for decades to balance her interests and ambitions against her husband's. Unnamed friends told The Associated Press that she supported his career while looking to blaze a trail of her own -- at times proud of, and benefiting from, Bill Clinton's accomplishments, and at other times frustrated by his failings and his habit of overshadowing her.
Walser said Clinton's reaction reminded him of Secretary of State Al Haig telling reporters, "I am in control here," when President Reagan was hospitalized in 1981 after an assassination attempt.
His comment was seen by some critics as an attempt to exceed his authority.