Hillary Clinton's record at State Department: Blessing or curse?

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton's time in Foggy Bottom is already shaping up as a central battleground of the 2016 campaign
  • Here is a rundown of some of the major -- and most contentious -- moments of Clinton's years as secretary of state

Washington (CNN)Hillary Clinton's speech Thursday morning on how to thwart the march of ISIS following the Paris terror attacks is sure to throw a fresh spotlight on her record as secretary of state.

As the world focuses on the terror network after the Paris attacks, Clinton outlined what she would do about ISIS as commander in chief in a closely watched appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Already, her time in Foggy Bottom is shaping up as a central battleground of the 2016 campaign, as Democrats and Republicans have sharply differing views of her tenure from 2009 to 2013.
    According to President Barack Obama, in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," Clinton was "one of the best secretaries of state we have had."
    Clinton herself has labeled her experience running U.S. foreign policy in the President's first term as the perfect training to be commander in chief. Her presidential campaign clearly thinks her experience will be an asset, recently producing an ad touting her "iron will, vision, empathy" and dogged determination in the post.
    But Republican front-runner and billionaire businessman Donald Trump says she's the worst-ever top U.S. diplomat. Another possible Republican nominee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has described her record as "ineffective at best, and dangerously negligent at worst."
    The eventual outcome of this duel over Clinton's legacy could go a long way to deciding the 2016 election, with key episodes of her tenure likely to play a starring role in the argument should she win the Democratic nomination.
    Here is a rundown of some of the major -- and most contentious -- moments of Clinton's globetrotting years as secretary of state.

    A reset that wasn't

    Clinton reported in her book "Hard Choices" that she was always skeptical of the "leadership duet" of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who were serving as prime minister and President when she took the job of secretary of state in 2009. Yet on the basis that pursuing U.S. national interests sometimes requires tough diplomacy with people you dislike, Clinton resolved to work with Russia. She and her staff came up with the concept of using a "reset" button as a prop to hand to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as a sign of the fresh start the Obama administration sought. But in a diplomatic embarrassment, the gesture backfired when a mistranslation resulted in the button being labeled "overcharged" in Russian. It was a symbol of a policy that started out with great hopes but which ground to a halt when a more nationalistic and antagonistic Putin returned to power as President in 2012.
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    What the GOP will say: The entire concept of a "reset" with Russia now looks naive given Putin's subsequent adoption of a Cold War-style mindset, incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Expect her embarrassing press appearance with Lavrov to play out in campaign ads and on the debate stage if she is the nominee.
    What Clinton will say: She will likely argue that she spoke up for human rights and freedoms in Russia, which infuriated Putin. She will claim progress on a major nuclear arms control treaty with Russia early in the administration and can rightly argue that her diplomacy with Moscow helped secure tough international sanctions against Iran and a supply route for U.S. troops into Afghanistan. She also wrote in her book that by the end of her tenure, she was suggesting Obama should press the "pause button" with Putin, even though some in the White House did not agree with her "relatively harsh" analysis. Protecting her exposure further once out of office, Clinton in 2014 compared the Russian leader's actions in Europe to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

    Unintended consequences

    Clinton was a leading voice in helping persuade Obama to back a NATO operation in Libya to head off a possible genocide of opposition fighters by longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The operation later led to the toppling of the reviled strongman. Despite efforts to nurture a democratic future for Libya, the country tumbled into instability, is torn by tribal divisions and has become a haven for extremists like ISIS. The chaos indirectly precipitated the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans on September 11, 2012, by an anti-U.S. mob in the city of Benghazi.
    Questions over whether the attack was a spontaneous protest or an organized terror attack have dogged Clinton ever since, and a congressional investigation into the affair unearthed the fact that she used a private email server as secretary of state in an episode that has done her considerable political damage.
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    What the GOP will say: Republicans have spent years trying to tarnish Clinton over Benghazi and only more recently have turned to the disastrous turn that Libya took after the NATO operation. Clinton will be accused of having no plan for the day after Gadhafi's fall -- in the full knowledge that a similar political vacuum helped tip Iraq into sectarian misery. She is still bracing for new revelations about her emails, an affair the GOP has used to effectively cast doubt on her character and integrity.
    What Clinton will say: The former top diplomat emerged without serious damage from a grueling 11-hour hearing on Capitol Hill. Her campaign cannot be sure, however, what will emerge from an FBI investigation into her email server, even though she denies she used it to send information that was classified at the time. Clinton has argued that for multiple reasons, the Libyans themselves blew their chance at freedom offered by the Western air campaign. But the plight of the North African nation remains a blot on her record.

    Killing the most-wanted terrorist

    The photograph of Clinton in an annex to the White House Situation Room with her hand over her mouth during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden remains an iconic moment of the Obama era. Clinton has said she advised Obama that he should go ahead with the risky Navy SEAL mission to take out the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan, though there were even odds as to whether it would succeed.
    "I was part of a very small group that had to advise the President about whether or not to go after bin Laden," Clinton said at the Democratic debate in Iowa on Saturday. "I spent a lot of time in the Situation Room as secretary of state, and there were many very difficult choices presented to us."
    President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011 in Washington, in this image provided by the White House.
    What the GOP will say: Given that a Republican president, George W. Bush, failed to find Bin Laden, it's going to be tough to use the terror leader's demise against Clinton. Instead, a Republican candidate is likely to pivot to ISIS, arguing that while the administration decapitated al Qaeda's core, it took its eye off the ball with the rise of the even more vicious extremist group. And a GOP opponent is likely to try to pin the blame on Clinton for failing to negotiate a deal with Iraq to leave a residual U.S. force in the country, something Republicans contend could have halted the advance of ISIS.
    What Clinton will say: Clinton is likely to use her role in the Bin Laden raid for all its worth to prove she is up to the tough choices demanded of a commander in chief -- as she did Saturday, arguably her best moment on foreign policy in the debate. Ultimately, though, it was Obama, not Clinton, who faced the highest stakes.

    Negotiating nuclear power

    Clinton played a significant role in framing the tough international sanctions she credits with forcing Iran back to the negotiating table with world powers. The talks eventually resulted in the deal this July to curb Tehran's nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions.
    "We convinced all 27 nations of the European Union to stop importing Iranian oil and all 20 major global importers of Iranian oil -- including Japan, India, China and Turkey -- to make significant cuts," Clinton said in a speech at the State Department in 2012.
    The deal that was finally reached with Iran forced Clinton, who had initially been skeptical that Tehran would ever enter an agreement, into a difficult spot. The deal was universally opposed by Republicans, and any sign that Iran is reneging on its commitments could significantly harm her presidential campaign. Yet she could hardly reject the most significant diplomatic achievement of Obama, whose help she needs to become president. In the end, Clinton backed the deal, but expressed noticeable skepticism. She vowed that her approach to the pact would be "distrust but verify." Clinton also warned that as president, she would not hesitate to take military action if Tehran didn't honor its commitments.
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    What the GOP will say: The Republican approach on this is clear. Clinton will be accused of siding with an administration the party believes sold out U.S. ally Israel with a deal that will eventually lead to Iran getting a nuclear bomb. Any proven backsliding on the deal by Tehran could prove very damaging for the former secretary of state.
    What Clinton will say: She will probably sound like she opposes the deal, even though she backs it. She has already pointed out that "Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection -- it is the balancing of risk." By that, Clinton means that the alternative to a deal -- likely, eventually, some kind of military action -- could prove more damaging to U.S. interests than the current situation. And she is likely to warn Republicans their vows to rip up the agreement on the first day of a new GOP presidency will cause a damaging schism with U.S. allies.

    Revolution in the Arab world

    As a potential Democratic nominee hoping to retain the White House for her party, Clinton will be called to account for Obama administration policies that have struggled to keep pace with unprecedented and violent change ripping through the region. Though the Arab Spring sparked great hopes for a new era of people power when it started in Tunisia in 2010, the crashing down of authoritarian regimes was instead replaced by a political vacuum that allowed extremism to fester. Clinton will be cross-examined on her role in the often-uneven U.S. response, even though she was sometimes not on the same page as the White House.
    She wrote in "Hard Choices," for instance, that she sympathized with democracy campaigners in Egypt but was uneasy at pushing longtime strategic ally President Hosni Mubarak from power. "Some of President Obama's aides in the White House were swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment," Clinton said.
    In a wider sense, Republicans accuse Obama of abdicating U.S. leadership, of deserting allies like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, of pulling out of Iraq too quickly and leaving chaos behind.
    Most seriously, Clinton will be accused of being a key player in an administration that failed to intervene to halt a civil war in Syria that destroyed a nation, killed 250,000 people and counting, sent millions of refugees fleeing into the region and Europe, and provided a safe haven for ISIS to seize territory and plan international terror attacks.
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    What the GOP will say: Republicans will blame the administration, and by extension Clinton, for a world that seems to be spiraling out of control without strong U.S. leadership. They will question Clinton's suitability to serve as commander in chief after being part of a U.S. government that appears to have badly underestimated the lethality and expansion of ISIS.
    Republicans will also likely accuse the administration of not having a coherent policy on Syria and of failing to enforce its red lines -- even though it was Obama, not his secretary of state, who decided against military action despite warning he would use it if President Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons.
    Clinton's challenge will be to prevent a GOP opponent from stigmatizing the entirety of her record as secretary of state with the chaos in the Middle East.
    What Clinton will say: She can point to the fact that no previous U.S. administration has had to deal with such upheaval, carnage and shifting of historical tectonic plates in the Middle East, and can argue that Obama's refusal to throw U.S. troops into the fight has avoided the terrible losses the United States faced in Iraq. She is likely to blame the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush for ripping the lid off sectarian tensions in the region with its failure to adequately prepare for the aftermath of the war in Iraq.
    On Syria, Clinton has already begun subtly distancing herself from her former boss. She has pointed out that she advocated arming and training moderate Syrian rebels much earlier in the civil war, a step the White House declined to take at the time.
    Clinton has also called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria and humanitarian corridors on the ground, a step the administration has deemed unfeasible. Her differences with Obama on Egypt, meanwhile, could allow her to argue that she would have handled the entire portfolio differently had she been in charge.

    The Middle East

    Unlike previous secretaries of state, Clinton did not handle the Obama administration's doomed first-term effort to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians herself. She handed those duties over to U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
    To some extent, that distance may allow Clinton to escape some of the GOP vitriol sure to be aimed at Obama during the 2016 campaign by Republicans furious at what they see as the President's shabby treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
    Clinton has known and sparred with the Israeli leader for years, dating back to her husband's administration, and she told CNN last year that she had a good relationship with him. But she also said she was often called upon to convey the administration's displeasure with his actions, sometimes over settlement expansion that critics say helped to scuttle U.S. peace efforts.
    "I was often the designated yeller. Something would happen, a new settlement announcement would come and I would call him up," Clinton said.
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    What the GOP will say: Republicans will charge that she was part of an administration that had the worst relations with Israel in the history of the Jewish state and that she backs an Iran deal that allows the Islamic Republic to retain the nuclear infrastructure that could eventually threaten Israel's existence.
    What Clinton will say: The former first lady and top U.S. diplomat enjoys sufficient personal history with Netanyahu and Israel that she may be able to escape Obama's shadow over Israel. She has already said she will repair relations with Netanyahu and would invite him to the White House in her first month in office. She is also likely to stress her role in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2012, which she counts as one of her most significant achievements.

    A massive new trade deal

    Clinton was an enthusiastic and early proponent of the Obama administration's rebalancing of diplomatic and military power toward Asia, the world's most dynamic emerging region. In a troubled world, the pivot remains one area of Obama administration policy that still has momentum. It would also be fair to say the process has suffered since Clinton's departure, as her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, has been more focused on the Middle East and Iran than in the Asia-Pacific region.
    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks on stage before speaking at Singapore Management University in Singapore on November 17, 2012.
    What the GOP will say: Republicans are not waiting for a general election to highlight what they see as Clinton's hypocrisy over a central pillar of the pivot policy: the vast Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Though Clinton called such a deal "a gold standard" while secretary of state, she has now rejected the final version as she runs for the presidency in a Democratic Party suspicious of free trade.
    What Clinton will say: Clinton is in a tough spot on TPP. She can argue that while she was not against it in principle, the final package fell well short of expectations. But that won't free her of the flip-flopper label on an issue she worked so diligently on. And while she has a case that her leadership skills identified potent opportunities with Southeast Asian allies spooked by China's rise, the policy toward the broader region is not likely to be as big a deal in the general election.

    A rising power

    One view of the Asia pivot is that it's a necessary response to China's ascent as a regional and even global superpower. Clinton has long had a prickly relationship with the Chinese, dating from her speech to a U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where she angered the Beijing leadership by declaring, "Women's rights are human rights."
    Early in her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton infuriated China again for intervening in the issue of maritime territorial disputes at a regional meeting in Vietnam in 2010. She also spent days in 2012 negotiating with Beijing over the fate of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy and was eventually allowed to leave China.
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    What the GOP will say: Republican presidential candidates like Rubio have already made clear that China will be a target in the 2016 campaign and will seek to tie Clinton to what they say is a weak U.S. response to Beijing on its belligerence and territorial moves in the South China Sea, which are alarming U.S. allies. Rubio has also chided the Obama administration failure to put human rights at the center of U.S. policy toward China.
    What Clinton will say: Given her difficult personal interactions with the Chinese, Clinton is well positioned to argue she has always been tough on China but that she has also managed to pull off hard-nosed diplomacy to maintain a vital if often complicated dynamic relationship.
    "The jury's still out," Clinton wrote about Sino-U.S. relations in her book. "China has some hard choices to make and so do we. We should follow a time-tested strategy: Work for the best outcome but plan for something less."

    Supporting democracy

    Perhaps the closest Clinton has to a genuine personal diplomatic triumph is the gradual political opening in Myanmar, which led to successful parliamentary elections this month. Still, the Southeast Asian country has a long way to go -- the generals who ran it for decades still exert considerable power behind the scenes after weighting the Constitution and political system against the democratic opposition.
    US Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton speaks to Myanmar's Member of Parliament and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after introducing her at the United States Institute of Peace September 18, 2012 in Washington, DC.
    What the GOP will say: Republicans are likely to accuse Clinton of overstating her role in the country's opening and point out the still imperfect nature of Myanmar's political system, its persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority and its troubled human rights record.
    What Clinton will say: Clinton has a fair claim to playing a key role in nurturing the opening between the generals and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose image is likely to be featured alongside the former secretary of state in campaign ads.

    A new diplomacy

    The most dramatic shift in U.S. relations with Cuba, after more than 50 years of estrangement between Washington and the communist island, took place after Clinton had left the administration.
    Yet while secretary of state, she backed new administration rules to make it easier for U.S. church groups and students to visit the country and to lift limits on the amount of money Americans could send home to Cuban family members. The theory was that this small-scale engagement would later lead to more dramatic measures and was the best way to undermine the Castro regime.
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    What the GOP will say: If Clinton faces either Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz -- both of Cuban descent -- or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the debate over Cuba will be particularly intense. The trio of Republicans have vehemently criticized the administration for its opening to Cuba and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, saying the move rewards a brutal regime that crushes human rights. The controversy will likely factor into the battle for the crucial swing state of Florida, which is home to may Cuban exiles and their descendants.
    What Clinton will say: The former secretary of state backs Obama's lifting of sanctions on Cuba and has said the previous policy, while well-intentioned, only cemented the long rule of the Castro brothers. She is also calling for real and genuine reform in Cuba.