Con Coughlin

Whatever happened to Hillary?

Wherever you look on the world stage, there is one notable absentee, says Con Coughlin. Has Mrs Clinton finally relinquished her political ambitions?

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What’s become of Hillary Clinton? At times of international crisis — and boy, do we have a few — it is customary for the American Secretary of State to take centre stage and work the phones until the early hours sorting out the latest threat to global security.

Remember the legwork that James Baker put in to build a multinational coalition to boot out Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990? Or the air miles Madame Secretary Albright clocked up in her attempts to bring the tiresome Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic to heel during the Bosnian civil war? Even Condoleezza Rice managed to maintain a high-profile international presence during President George W. Bush’s second term at a time when most world leaders were turning their backs on what they regarded as the hectoring arrogance of the Bush White House.

Given the generally warm reception President Barack Obama has received since his election, this should be a golden age for any competent Secretary of State. Even the Russians appear to have taken a step back from the bellicose nationalism that characterised their dealings with Washington during the final years of the Bush administration.

But wherever you look today on the world stage, there is one noticeable absentee. When Mr Obama last month made his controversial decision to cancel the missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, where was Hillary? It was Mrs Clinton, after all, who had laid the foundations of Washington’s outreach policy to Moscow in the spring when she staged her clumsy ‘reset’ stunt in Geneva with Sergei Lavrov, her opposite number.

But when it came to making one of the most symbolic gestures of the Obama administration to date, Mrs Clinton was nowhere to be seen. We heard lots from Mr Obama about the high expectations he had for closer co-operation with Moscow on pressing global security issues. And we heard a bundle from Robert Gates, the flinty-eyed US Defense Secretary, about how the missile shield didn’t work in the first place, and the West would be far better protected by strengthening America’s naval presence in the Gulf and the Mediterranean. But not a word was heard from Mrs Clinton.

The same was true at last month’s UN General Assembly, where Mr Obama stole the show once more with his explosive revelation that Iran was building yet another uranium enrichment facility, this one buried deep within the bowels of a mountain range outside Qom (most nuclear powers, like Britain, are content to make do with one enrichment plant). By any standard, this was a pivotal moment in American diplomacy, coming days before the Americans were about to have their first face-to-face meeting with the Iranians since the 1979 Islamic revolution. And Mrs Clinton has shown herself to be no shrinking violet on the Iran issue, warning in the summer that Tehran would face ‘crippling sanctions’ if it did not comply with the West’s demand that it cease its illicit enrichment programme. But when the crunch came in New York, Mrs Clinton was nowhere to be seen. While Mr Obama corralled Gordon Brown and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy to support his spectacular diplomatic demarché, Mrs Clinton was addressing a group of Gulf leaders to reassure them of America’s support, which hardly counts as taking centre stage.

And then there is Afghanistan, which together with Iran is the most pressing security issue of the modern age. But does Mrs Clinton support a troop surge to defeat the Taleban? Does she think we should invest more effort on counter-terrorism operations — blitzing the Taleban with missiles fired from pilotless drones — or stick with the infinitely more demanding counter-terrorism policy currently being pursued by Nato? We do not know, because, while there is no shortage of White House officials and military officers prepared to air their views, all we’ve had from Mrs Clinton is a resounding silence.

When Mr Obama appointed Mrs Clinton Secretary of State, he took a lot of stick, with critics claiming that the new president remained in awe of Mrs Clinton, who had proved to be such a formidable opponent during the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Fears that Mrs Clinton was seeking to establish a rival presidency at Foggy Bottom deepened when she appointed a number of big beasts from her husband’s administration to key foreign policy posts: Dennis Ross, a key figure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, to handle Iran; Senator George Mitchell, of Good Friday Agreement fame, to revive the stalled peace process; and the combative Richard Holbrooke to look after Afghanistan.

Eight months later, though, it seems that Mrs Clinton’s blatant attempt to usurp the White House’s traditional prerogative in running foreign policy has backfired spectacularly. George Mitchell may have excelled himself in coaxing Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley into supporting the Northern Ireland peace process, but he has got nowhere in his attempts to repeat the trick with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Mr Mitchell has a reputation as a painstaking negotiator who likes to take his time, but at 76, he is no longer as steady on his feet as he used to be.

Richard Holbrooke, the saviour of Sarajevo under President Bill Clinton, is another Clinton acolyte whose star has exploded in spectacular fashion. Mr Holbrooke, a ruthless Washington Beltway operator, initially exerted great influence on the Obama administration’s policy for Afghanistan, stressing the importance of Pakistan in resolving the Afghan crisis, thereby creating a new Af-Pak strategy. But like Mr Mitchell, Mr Holbrooke now finds himself increasingly detached from the White House’s strategy discussions, not least because of the embarrassment he was caused by the dismissal of Peter Galbraith, another Clinton-era groupie, from his UN post in Kabul. If Mr Holbrooke can’t keep control of his own staff in Kabul, what chance has he got of restoring order to one of the world’s most lawless countries?

Of Mrs Clinton’s original appointments, only Dennis Ross is regarded as having performed creditably, but he is being moved from the State Department to the National Security Council, where he will in future report to the President, rather than the Secretary of State.

All of which leaves Mrs Clinton’s power base severely diminished, and might explain why this weekend, rather than jetting to Jerusalem or Kabul, she will be flying to Ireland to renew her ‘deep personal commitment to Irish-US relations’. It was in Ireland, of course, that Mrs Clinton sought solace after her husband’s adultery with Monica Lewinsky was revealed to the world. This time she will want to be consoled over the demise of her own political ambition.

Con Coughlin is executive foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph and author of Khomeini’s Ghost: Iran since 1979 (Macmillan).