Responding to a Reader on Clinton and Foreign Policy

A reader wrote a comment to yesterday's story on Secretary Clinton's statement after the Cairo embassy attack that provoked such a long response out of me that I figured I would just present both as a standalone post. An anonymous reader wrote:

I disagree. I don't think the state department's role is to export America's free speech values. Rather, it is to find common ground and build alliances on it.

America is unique in the amount of speech it protects, and better for it. But ours is not te only possible balance to strike between speech and censorship (though I like ours best).

So when speaking to Muslims around the world, many of whom live in countries where blasphemy is a crime, the Secretary sought common ground. She never suggested that the US supported censorship; only that it, too, disliked the speech at issue. That was both accurate and diplomatic.

My response:

I appreciate you stopping by, and thanks for your comment. I agree 100% with your description of the role of State, your explanation of speech rights around the world, and with your assertion that Clinton's statements were accurate and diplomatic. Let me also be clear in stating that I have generally found Clinton to have done a marvelous job in a difficult role made doubly tough by the circumstances; she 1. accepted it after 8 years of American policy which, like it or not, was deeply unpopular around the world, 2. from a president with very limited FP experience who she knew would lean heavily on her, 3. and who was not particularly friendly to her during a very tough primary campaign not so far in the past at that point.

So far, so good. Where we disagree is on the execution. Your comment might be most appropriate with respect to the initial statement from the Cairo embassy. It was conciliatory and sought common ground, etc. However, Secretary Clinton taking on the conciliatory, almost apologetic tone put the administration she serves in a tough position.

While it would be nice if the State Department were able to serve the noble goals you describe, the reality of the situation is that it serves as a foreign extension of the president and his agenda. This is no truer than during a tough election fight, especially with respect to the Middle East, especially when the president is in the news for snubbing the Israeli PM, and most especially when an incumbent is trying to remind voters of his bona fides while asserting that his opponent is too light on the foreign front. Policy wonk readers can correct me if I am wrong as I am straying a bit into technical terms I haven't studied in some time, but I believe that this foreign policy based in part on domestic agendas would be considered a part of a realist take on FP.

Now, some may argue that Clinton was serving Obama's interests, that she was doing what he ordered. However, as the White House stated that it had not cleared the Cairo or the State Department statements prior to release, it would seem that there was at least some confusion between Foggy Bottom and Pennsylvania Avenue (ed note: to be clear, I mean in the time period between the two attacks here). The fact that Obama has made similar statements since does nothing to prove or disprove anything; it only suggests that a unified front is being put on now. Maybe a Bob Woodward book or some presidential papers a few years from now will make this all clearer. For now, I can't help but think that something went wrong.

It is also easy to say that Clinton's approach was wrong in hindsight and after Americans were killed. However, I think her statements were really inconsequential with respect to that situation. That mob was clearly out for blood, and was even possibly coordinated before her statements were made. I speak of it as a miscalculation pertaining to political reality more than any practical effect, at least in the very short term.

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