Washington It wasn’t too long ago that Barack Obama and his advisers were tripping over one another to tear down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s foreign policy credentials. She was dismissed as a commander in chief wanna-be who did little more than sip tea and make small talk with foreign leaders during her days as first lady.
“What exactly is this foreign policy experience?” Obama said mockingly of the New York senator. “Was she negotiating treaties? Was she handling crises? The answer is no.”
That was in March, when Clinton was Obama’s sole remaining rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Now, Clinton is on track to become Obama’s secretary of state.
And, unsurprisingly, the sniping at her foreign policy credentials is a thing of the past.
Obama adviser William Daley said Clinton would be “a tremendous addition to this administration. Tremendous.”
Senior adviser David Axelrod called Clinton a “demonstrably able, tough, brilliant person.”
Last spring, though, Clinton was targeted with a steady stream of criticism via conference call, e-mail and campaign-trail digs from the Obama camp, all aimed at shredding her self-portrait as an experienced and confident leader on the international stage. Some of those doing the sniping will be taking up key positions — most likely along with Clinton — in the new Obama administration.
Greg Craig, selected to serve as White House counsel in the Obama administration, delivered a withering attack during the primaries on Clinton’s claims that she could rightfully share in the credit for some of the foreign policy successes of her husband’s presidency.
“She did not sit in on any National Security Council meetings when she was first lady,” Craig insisted in one conference call. He went on to knock down Clinton’s claims to influence in the Northern Ireland peace process, opening borders for refugees during the war in Kosovo, and making a dangerous visit to Bosnia.
“There is no reason to believe ... that she was a key player in foreign policy at any time during the Clinton administration,” Craig wrote in a campaign memo.
Susan Rice, an Obama adviser who could land a spot in the new administration, mocked the idea that Clinton could lay claim to foreign policy credentials by marriage.
“There is no crisis to be dealt with or managed when you are first lady,” Rice sniffed last March. “You don’t get that kind of experience by being married to a commander in chief.”
Clinton was only too happy to make light of Obama’s own foreign policy credentials, suggesting his biggest selling point was a 2002 speech against going to war with Iraq. “Many people gave speeches against the war then,” she said in a February debate.
Robert Gelbard, an adviser to the Obama campaign on foreign policy who worked in the Clinton administration, said in March that Clinton had more involvement in foreign policy than a lot of first ladies, but added that “her role was limited, and I’ve been surprised at the claims that she had a much greater role.”
Well, never mind about all of that now.
“That was then; this is now,” said David Gergen, who has served as an adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents. “Campaigns are ever thus.”
“Generally speaking,” Gergen said, “there is a recognition that campaigns bring a certain amount of hyperbole, and when it’s over you try to find the most talented people you can find to work with you.”
Clinton may not have been at the table when her husband made the big decisions, Gergen said, but “she’s been imbibing questions on foreign policy and decision-making since 1992.”
A spokesperson for the Obama transition team declined to comment on the shift in tone.
It also should be said that some of the wounds to Clinton’s foreign policy credentials during the primaries were self-inflicted, most famously her inflated account of the drama associated with a visit she made to Bosnia.
“I remember landing under sniper fire,” she recounted in a speech. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
Soon enough, video footage surfaced of Clinton’s unremarkable airport arrival ceremony, where she was welcomed by dignitaries and posed for photos with children.
Clinton brought up the Bosnia 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,” she said of the Bosnia visit.
Clinton, in an April debate, blamed her Bosnia gaffe on campaign fatigue. But she did not back away from her claim to broad foreign policy experience as first lady.
“I was not as accurate as I have been in the past,” she said. “But I know, too, that being able to rely on my experience of having gone to Bosnia, gone to more than 80 countries, having represented the United States in so many different settings, gives me a tremendous advantage going into this campaign.”
Well, maybe not in the campaign, as it turned out.
But maybe, just perhaps, as secretary of state.