Despite questions about her handling of the Benghazi attacks in Libya, Hillary Clinton’s legacy as a highly effective and competent secretary of state is intact. She still would be a formidable presidential candidate should she choose to run in 2016.
Clinton voluntarily left her job Friday but not before being grilled during congressional hearings the week before by a group of skeptical and often hostile Republicans about Benghazi. But the interrogation produced little new information about the attacks, which claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and certainly nothing resembling a mea culpa on Clinton’s part.
The hearings probably changed few minds one way or the other. Those predisposed to hold her responsible no doubt still do, while others will continue to give her the benefit of the doubt.
But it also is doubtful that the hearings caused much lasting damage to Clintons’ reputation. She leaves the State Department as one of the most highly respected women in the nation, a product not only of her tenure as secretary but also her cumulative history as first lady, senator and presidential candidate.
While it would be hard to pinpoint what might be called a “Clinton doctrine,” there is a clear sense that she skillfully presided over U.S. foreign policy and the huge bureaucracy at the State Department at a time of rapid and unpredictable change. She took over at State just as the United States was winding down two wars and shortly before the monumental changes wrought by the Arab spring and the spread of democracy in North Africa.
She famously visited more countries in her four years in office than any previous secretary. She traveled nearly 957,000 miles to 112 different nations to hold 1,700 meetings with world leaders.
There also is the indelible image of Clinton, hand shielding her mouth, in the White House operations room, watching events unfold in real time as a Navy Seal team assassinated Osama bin Laden.
The duties of any secretary of state are comparable to those of a CEO of a major company – but one who is constantly in the public eye and accountable to all American citizens. In that role, Clinton ably avoided missteps, helped restore American prestige abroad and remained a discreet team player throughout her tenure.
Many of the events that occurred on Clinton’s watch still are unfolding. For example, it is hard to predict what will happen in Syria as rebels continue to battle the government there, or whether the threat of a nuclear Iran can be averted.
Even the outcome of the revolution in Egypt remains uncertain, as do the futures of Iraq and Afghanistan where the United States has expended blood and treasure for more than a decade. And the nation faces the potential for a new Islamist threat rooted in Mali, Yemen, Algeria or elsewhere in North Africa.
It also is too early to tell how efforts to shift the nation’s focus to fast-emerging Asia, including overtures to former foes such as Burma, will pan out.
But, as secretary, Clinton helped guide a policy that coped with these challenges in a measured way without entangling the nation in another armed conflict. During her tenure, she showed herself to be a strong, resilient and pragmatic leader.
And that might be what Democrats will be looking for in a presidential candidate in four years.