WASHINGTON -- An old quote from President Obama has played over and over in recent days on television since his impressive inaugural address. In effect, he said that he was not against all wars, but that he was against the people who start them.
Could we possibly figure out WHO he was referring to?
Then he cornered outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a "goodbye and good luck" clutch on TV, and it was difficult for a moment to remember that the two had once been so at loggerheads when they were competitors that he voiced the famously sarcastic remark to her: "You're likable enough, Hillary."
Now that is all gone -- and thank goodness. The president praised Hillary for her discipline and talent and for the incredible energy she brought to the job. She had visited no fewer than 112 countries, talked with scores of world leaders and, above all, brought the consistent vision of a United States that was looking toward the future and attempting to lead the world as much with "soft power" (women's rights, education advantages and human rights) as the hard power the George W. Bush administration had depended upon and failed so badly with.
The interesting thing about the Hillary regimen in the State Department, as head of the tens of thousands of diplomats in the foreign service, is that despite how much she is liked, she has not left any indelible marks on foreign policy. She is not a Kissinger or a Brzezinski, but she is a capable, attractive, extremely hard-working pro who is on watch for America night and day.
She made a remarkable impression everyplace she went, and reminded the peoples of the world that America is back. She will stand as a protagonist for women's rights in the world for decades to come. But there is no Yalta agreement, no NAFTA, no Helsinki Accords. It's as if she has been a right wind blowing in after the George W. disasters, just to put things back in order.
Oddly enough for Bill Clinton's many admirers, Hillary has outperformed her "diva" husband -- and that, as everyone knows, is something! Very few women -- or men -- can outshine Bill Clinton in terms of charismatic speaking ability. Maybe Fidel Castro. But Bill's capacity as far as foreign policy during his presidential reign was nothing to brag about.
He let the Balkan wars and the Serb massacres of Bosnians and Croatians go without a second look until it was the worst killing in Europe since World War II. He ignored the holocaust in Rwanda. He put sanctions against Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, thus destroying what industries its people had left.
Above all, Bill Clinton barely noticed that President George H.W. Bush had left him a most extraordinary gift: the peaceful end of the Cold War, which the Bush administration had achieved successfully by its brilliant diplomacy in not calling the Russians to task, but by simply allowing the end of the Soviet Union to play out.
The fact that Hillary Clinton should outdo her husband in the areas of political smarts and diplomacy is something many people will get substantial pleasure over. (Of course, not I!)
President Obama likes to call Hillary his "transformational" secretary of state. The "house," sometimes known as the world, was in one hell of a mess, much of it due to the actions of the war-loving George W. administration. Hillary came in, not only cleaning up, but also setting the clocks, seeing that the children were on schedule and assuring that everyone better understood the country she was representing.
It was rather a Clintonian version of "Stay Calm and Carry On." Or we might look upon it as the victory of intellect over testosterone.
Now we will almost surely have Sen. John Kerry as the new secretary of state. What will that mean?
Kerry is an interesting man, much like Obama, tortured by the uses of American power in the world. He went to Nicaragua during the Reagan administration to try to stop the Reagan-backed anti-Sandinista "contras." But he also was instrumental in removing President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.
Looking at our role in the world, he said that the biggest priority in American foreign policy in the years to come will be to solve the country's budget problems and to overcome "gridlock and dysfunction." He echoed Kissinger's position that the Cold War would inevitably give way to a multistate world in which "never before has a new world order had to be assembled from so many different perceptions or on so global a scale."
But Kerry's key asset is that he was decorated as a soldier of the Vietnam War. He returned to speak out against the war, but then won even the critical Sen. John McCain's praise for working with the Vietnamese to return the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam.
So, at the very least, if we set up a base in Niger, as is being talked about, in order to better coordinate with the French in Mali, our foreign policy will be waged by a diplomat whose first-hand experience of war will save us from amateurs needing to prove their machismo.
Are we beginning to see the triumph of diplomacy over war? It actually could happen.