Clinton's foreign policy record examined

March 8, 2008 7:34:36 PM PST
To hear Hillary Rodham Clinton tell it now, she had a lot more going on as first lady than she let on at the time.

On the presidential campaign trail, Clinton frequently makes the pitch that she is uniquely qualified to pass the "commander in chief" test in large part because of her foreign policy and national security experience in Bill Clinton's White House.

She takes credit for helping bring peace to Northern Ireland, negotiating open borders for refugees fleeing Kosovo, standing up to the Chinese government over women's rights, and flying into Bosnia when it was too dangerous to send the president.

There is little doubt that Clinton was an exceptionally activist first lady. She was the first to set up shop in a West Wing office alongside other White House policymakers, and immediately was in the thick of domestic policy deliberations, most notably her long and unsuccessful fight for health care reform.

Clinton also took a keen interest in foreign policy, traveling to more than 80 countries, with her husband and alone, to promote U.S. policy and the cause of women and children.

But Clinton is taking credit for accomplishing more than some of those who were active in foreign policy during the Clinton years recall.

Former Clinton administration officials, many of them now aligned with either Clinton or Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama, offer differing views on the extent of her influence ? and its relevance to the presidential race.

"Her experience speaks for itself," says former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is advising Clinton's campaign. She wasn't the one making the final decisions on U.S. policy, he says, but "no one in the world got a better idea of the countervailing pressures. The most important decision a president can make is to send Americans into harm's way. She knows what that entails."

A contrary view comes from Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state from the Clinton years and an Obama campaign adviser. She said Clinton's involvement with foreign policy as first lady was "laudable and important, but it is hardly the same thing as the kind of crisis management" that is required of a president. "There is no crisis to be dealt with or managed when you are first lady," Rice said.

A look at some of Clinton's specific foreign policy claims: _NORTHERN IRELAND: "I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland."

Clinton traveled to Northern Ireland five times as first lady, and was a tireless advocate for the peace process. But she was not directly involved in negotiating the Good Friday peace accord.

She did encourage Irish women on both sides of the conflict to come together and get involved in a process that was dominated by men.

Former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the peace accord, said Clinton was "quite helpful."

"She became quite active in encouraging women in Northern Ireland to engage in the political process and in the peace process, and ultimately the role of women was important in moving the process forward," said Mitchell, who is neutral in the presidential race. "She was one of many people who participated in encouraging women to get involved, not the only one."

John Hume, the Catholic leader who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the peace accord, credits Clinton for playing a "pivotal role" in the peace process.

But others in Northern Ireland say Clinton overstates her role.

"The road to peace was carefully documented, and she wasn't on it," says Brian Feeney, an author and former leading Belfast politician from the same party as Hume.

KOSOVO: "I negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo."

At the urging of the Macedonian government, Clinton in May 1999 traveled to Macedonia, which was being inundated with Albanian refugees from Kosovo. She visited a huge refugee camp, held hands with children, told their parents they would go home and announced business loans for the country to help its laggard economy cope with the refugee influx.

On May 5, Macedonian officials had shut the border to refugees, blaming the West for allowing more than a quarter-million people to overwhelm the country. Despite later government insistence that the border was open again, Serb soldiers appeared to be blocking refugees' exit, and only a trickle passed through on May 13, the day before Clinton arrived, according to an AP story written at the time. Refugees were reported to be afraid even to attempt the crossing.

Melanne Verveer, a Clinton aide who accompanied the first lady on the trip to Macedonia, said that only a small section of the border was open when she arrived, and that there was no guarantee it wouldn't close again at any time.

Verveer, who sat in on May 14 meetings between the first lady and Macedonia's president and prime minister, said Clinton was forceful in urging the leaders to keep the border open, and in assuring the Macedonians that the U.S. would support them in coping with the influx of refugees.

"What she did there I don't think can be underestimated in terms of the positive impact that it had," said Verveer, who is active in Clinton's campaign.

Robert Gelbard, who was presidential envoy to the Balkans at the time and now serves as an adviser to the Obama campaign, offers an opposing view.

"I cannot recall any involvement by Senator Clinton in this issue," he said. "The person who was able to get the border opened was Mrs. Sadako Ogata," the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Gelbard said he had questioned other U.S. officials directly involved and none remembered involvement by Clinton.

There were no public reports at the time of Clinton negotiating to keep the border open.

Overall, said Gelbard, "She had more of a role on some foreign policy issues than a lot of other first ladies, including, for example, the current one. My own firsthand experience, though, is that her role was limited and I've been surprised at the claims that she had a much greater role than certainly I'm aware of on the issues I was working on."

SERBIA: "I urged him to bomb."

Clinton doesn't bring this one up now, but in a 1999 interview published in Talk magazine, the first lady was quoted as saying that she had urged her husband to recommend a NATO bombing campaign on Serb targets to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. According to the story, Clinton called the president on March 21, 1999, from her travels in North Africa. "I urged him to bomb," she was quoted as saying. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?" NATO airstrikes began March 24.

Clinton generally refuses to talk about the private advice she gave her husband. But Holbrooke this week recalled a time during the subsequent NATO bombing campaign when he and his wife were invited upstairs at the White House after a social event. He said Hillary Clinton was a big participant in an hour-long discussion about the bombing, the possible use of ground troops and other matters.

She didn't take sides in the conversation, Holbrooke said, "but I have no doubt that she continued the conversation in the privacy of their relationship" and made her views clear.

CHINA: "I've been standing up to the Chinese government over women's rights."

Clinton says her participation on the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 was "one of the highlights of my own life." There had been a huge debate over whether she should even go, with some human rights advocates expressing concern that China would use the conference as a public relations tool.

Clinton got strong reviews for threading the diplomatic needle with an impassioned speech that contained a wide-ranging denunciation of human rights abuses worldwide. She criticized China, without naming it directly, for the practice of sterilization and forced abortion, and for preventing many women from attending or participating fully in the conference.

In her memoir, Clinton writes about the rousing reception her speech received at the conference and adds, "What I didn't know at the time was that my 21-minute speech would become a manifesto for women all over the world. To this day, whenever I travel overseas, women come up to me quoting words from the Beijing speech or clutching copies they want me to autograph."

Rice, the former Clinton administration official now supporting Obama, credits the first lady for delivering an important speech on women's rights, but says that that doesn't translate into presidential crisis management credentials.

BOSNIA: "If the place was too small, too dangerous or too poor, send Hillary."

Clinton cites her March 1996 trip to Bosnia as an example of traveling into a war zone to promote U.S. policy, recalling a harrowing "corkscrew" landing during which she and her daughter, Chelsea, were ordered into the armored front of the plane to protect them against possible ground fire. She jokes that one mantra around the Clinton White House, was that "if the place was too small, too dangerous or too poor, send Hillary."

Clinton brought up the trip to counter Obama's suggestion that her experiences as first lady amounted to having tea at an ambassador's house.

"I don't remember anyone offering me tea," Clinton said of the Bosnia visit.

Security was very tight on Clinton's goodwill tour to Bosnia, but officials said at the time that she took no extraordinary risks.

Rice, the Obama supporter, dismissed the trip as a "meet and greet." She stressed that comedian Sinbad and singer Sheryl Crow accompanied Clinton on the flight to put on a USO show for the troops.