Hillary Clinton: The downside of her time at State

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton's foreign policy expertise likely to help her shine in Tuesday's presidential debate, Aaron Miller writes
  • But Clinton, try as she might, likely will be hurt by burden of public disapproval of Obama foreign policy, Miller says

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The last secretary of state to accede to the presidency was James Buchanan, and that was 158 years ago. And there's a reason for that.

Modern secretaries of state don't tend to be politicians who have a lot of experience in elected office or around politics, though they do have political ambitions.
Aaron David Miller
Hillary Clinton is an exception, of course. And hopefully, should she win, she won't follow in the footsteps of Buchanan, who, despite having one of the best resumes in the presidential biz, turned out to be one of our worst presidents.
    So will Clinton's tenure as the nation's top diplomat help or hurt her campaign for the presidency? You'll probably see the upside in Tuesday's debate. But there are downsides too. And here's why.

    The second best job in government?

    On the face of it, being secretary of state has got to be the second best job in government for the aspiring pol. No job other than the presidency affords you as serious a set of responsibilities, the aura of nonpartisanship, your own aircraft (formerly an Air Force One), and nonstop visibility, either trying to pre-empt crises or just, as George Shultz used to say, tending the diplomatic garden.
    Hillary Clinton's decision to take the job was a smart call for presidential prep. She became the most recognizable woman on the planet, added to an already formidable knowledge of the world gained as a first lady and a U.S. senator, and now knows her way around the contemporary foreign policy universe -- who's who and what's what.
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    Americans may not follow the details of diplomacy and foreign policy much. But they want their presidents to be commanding, knowledgeable and well-versed in the affairs of the the world.
    The Democratic debate should be a good stage for Clinton on the foreign policy side. None of the other Democratic candidates can claim her expertise; she knows the players and issues and won't get jammed up on answering questions about the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force, as Donald Trump did.
    And in calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, she's tried to distance herself from President Obama on Syria just enough to walk a fine line between Democratic hawks and doves. That she supported the Iraq War, and endorsed the trans-Pacific trade deal scores of times and is now walking away from it, are problems she'll have to triangulate. But she's Clinton, after all. No, the debate ought to show the upside of her being secretary of state.
    But the downsides are clear too. Having worked for half a dozen secretaries of state, I can say it's not so easy being a truly successful one. Henry Kissinger and James Baker come to mind as two of the most consequential because they were associated with enough personal successes to outweigh the asterisks in their administrations' foreign policy records.

    Empty spaces on her record

    Full disclosure: I know and like Clinton. But my own take on her four years is mixed. Obama controlled most of the big issues (Iran and Israel, for example) and, with the Pentagon, ran the wars. She was left with loser issues and a risk-averse president on crises such as Libya, Iraq and Syria.
    She can credibly claim that she advocated for more assertive approaches. But that doesn't help fill in the empty spaces on her record. Nor will it help her with Democrats wary of tough interventionist approaches, particularly when they involve use of military force.
    Clinton identified an agenda of 21st-century issues -- women, environment, youth, State Department reforms and social media. I call it planetary humanism. But it's not an agenda that gets you into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.
    The fact is in a general election against a Republican candidate who actually knows foreign policy (Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush), her time as secretary of state might well come to be seen as a disadvantage. Benghazi surely won't help her win votes, although Rep. Kevin McCarthy's comments about how the Republicans wanted to use the scandal will. Against an able Republican adversary, it will not be easy trumpeting the Democrats' foreign policy record against the backdrop of a bloody Middle East tableau and Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertiveness.

    Inheriting Obama's problem

    The problem isn't Clinton's foreign policy smarts or sound instincts as much as it is Obama's record. In August, a CNN poll found 56% of Americans disapproved of his handling of foreign policy.
    The Republicans will hammer Obama's foreign policy -- from Iran to Syria to Iraq -- as lacking leadership and resolve. The Iran agreement will be exhibit A; hasty withdrawal from Iraq, B; Syria, C, with Putin's intervention not far behind. And of course ISIS, too. A significant ISIS-claimed attack on the United States before the elections could be the coup de grace for a Democratic candidate.
    We don't know where any of these issues will be a year from now, of course. But right or wrong, the sense that the world is on fire and looks a whole lot worse now than it did at the beginning of the Obama presidency will help create a perception of weak leadership and abdicated responsibility. Try as she might, Clinton can't walk away from a president whose foreign policy she helped shape and endorse, or from a president whose constituencies -- blacks, Hispanics, and youth -- she needs to get elected..
    In the end, the biggest challenge for Hillary Clinton as a former secretary of state is the one beyond her control: the perception -- correct or not -- among enough voters in the general election that Barack Obama has been a weak, even failed, foreign policy president.