Hillary Clinton's recent Capitol Hill testimony about the attack last year on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, showed the outgoing secretary of state at her strongest.
Clinton was clearly moved by the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three security personnel, sensible as to what larger lessons could be drawn from the affair, and combative in refuting the attempts of right-wing fools who sought to distort the record and misappropriate blame. It was a performance that was alternately dignified and energetic. And it reminded the nation — indeed the world — of Clinton's undeniable status as a woman of supreme substance.
Clinton's long-anticipated retirement as America's premier diplomat raises the obvious question of how history will view her tenure. Events, these days, are quicksilver, and the news cycle is remorseless. But even from our myopic proximity, it is possible to draw some general conclusions about her four years on the job.
The world is a mighty fractious place these days. Even a flexible unified field theory of how to keep it from exploding would be unlikely to be practical. And so Clinton was not a grand strategist in the mode of Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, or Henry Kissinger, who played Tonto to Nixon's Lone Ranger. Instead, to the surprise of many and to the gratification of most, Clinton was the ultimate team player, forging working relationships with the White House National Security Council staff and two secretaries of defense.
Clinton's sole client, if you will, was President Obama — and through him, the American people.
It was a stroke of political genius for Obama to ask Clinton to serve. And it was a manifestation of Clinton's deep sense of urgency and purpose that she served so well. She brought the strengths of a mature and sure-footed politician to her job, and was so single-minded in her pursuit of the national interest that Clinton leaves the cabinet with the unofficial rank of stateswoman, a status Clinton shares with a heroine of hers, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Obama faces huge challenges over the next four years. But in the realm of foreign affairs, one imperative remains strong: the need to demilitarize American foreign policy.
The failed Bush-Cheney imperium was rooted in Mao's idea that all power comes from the barrel of a gun. While the president has admirably wound down America's presence in Iraq and continues to scale back in Afghanistan, Obama's continued reliance on death by drones is going to spark international backlash or reach a point of diminishing returns — if not both.
Obama's nomination of Massachusetts senator John Kerry, a Democrat, as secretary of state, and former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, whom the more bloodthirsty neocon GOPers want to disown, as secretary of defense is a step in the right direction. Both Kerry and Hagel are Vietnam veterans who served under fire, and both of them learned firsthand and the hard way that armed force does not by definition yield the results on which policy makers bank.
Although she's no soldier, this is a point that the previously hawkish Clinton appears to have learned just as well in her four years of global engagement.
In the course of her testimony, Clinton was in effect asked to summarize what the Benghazi attack could teach policy makers.
"Humility," was Clinton's reply — by which she meant that aspirations, conflicts, and goals are complicated and contradictory. It was a message to the president, the next secretaries of state and defense, and Congress, to approach their international missions and responsibilities with caution.
If the result of Clinton's advice is a more humane American foreign policy, that will be a striking legacy.