While One Clinton Wows at the Obamarama, Another Pivots to the Long Game

Posted on September 7, 2012


Separated by some 10,000 miles, Bill and Hillary Clinton are both having an interesting time of it positioning for the future. The former president, of course, just did his level best, and then some, in a tour de force of a speech re-nominating Barack Obama for president, confounding the conventionally minded who thought it was to the Clintons’ long-term advantage for Obama to lose.

The secretary of state is off on her latest geopolitical “Pivot” tour in the Asia Pacific region, laying more groundwork for America’s move from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with Asia and the Pacific. With her policies still building toward fruition, her legacy, and foundation for a potential future presidency at stake, the possibility of the bumbling Mitt Romney threatens it all.

Assuming that Hillary Clinton still wants to be president, after a breather from years of frenetic activity, first as a presidential candidate and then secretary of state — and that is my assumption after talking with friends of the Clintons and thinking about their histories — she is playing a long game. And the geopolitical pivot to the Asia Pacific is a central part of it. (You can see my articles relating to the Pivot here.)

Speaking in Dili, capital of East Timor in the Lesser Sunda Islands near Indonesia, just before her husband addressed the Democratic National Convention, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jokingly said she was “anxious to compare the as-prepared version with the as-delivered version.” Bill Clinton ad libbed more than 2,000 words beyond his teleprompter text.

Secretary of state is easily the most important office Hillary Clinton has ever held and the big moves she is at the center of will still be in flux as she leaves office at the end of the year. Even though there is much history to suggest that the pivot to the Asia Pacific — especially with the rise of Asian economies and the emergence of China as an increasingly aggressive would-be superpower — is the natural course of American geopolitics and the past decade of invasions in the Islamic world is the oddity, Romney could easily screw everything up. He certainly showed no facility for geopolitics or even the simplest diplomacy on what should have been an easy trip last month to the UK, Israel, and Poland, which he managed to turn into a sort of rolling thunder tour of buffoonery.

Of course, Clinton, who backed the Iraq War, has to take care herself to promote an assertive geopolitics rather than a reckless geopolitics.

I explained here in July why the Clintons’ increasingly likely future moves are tied to Obama’s fate, in “Why the Clintons Need Obama to Win: Uncertainty as Hillary Pushes the Big Geopolitical Pivot.” And lo and behold, last night came the former president to deliver one of the best speeches in recent memory to push Obama toward victory.

Simply put, Bill Clinton did the best job of advancing the argument for Obama (much better than the president himself and his narratively-challenged colleagues have done), the best job of rebutting all Republican attacks on Obama, and the best job of defining the Romney/Ryan ticket as a “double down on the trickle down,” the policies that got America in trouble in the first place.

Former President Bill Clinton’s Democratic National Convention address, in its entirety, nominating President Barack Obama for his second term. Obama joins Clinton on stage around the 49-minute mark.

Clinton ad libbed extensively and went far beyond the time allotted, but the networks all stayed with him into their previously scheduled local news programming in the later time zones. Which I suspect was also to the former president’s design.

Just before he spoke, a new Gallup Poll revealed that Clinton, in fact, has just achieved his record high popularity rating, besting that from his inaugural period over 19 years ago.

Hillary Clinton’s latest big geopolitical Pivot tour — six nations in 11 days across the sprawling Asia Pacific — took her from her two-day stay in Beijing to East Timor. She’s the first secretary of state to visit that nation, and it was there that she watched her husband’s address over an Internet hook-up.

Clinton moves on to Brunei, then finally to the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vladivostok, Russia’s great Pacific port.

In Beijing, she urged China to drop its staunch backing of Syria and pressed China to agree to peacefully resolve disputes with its neighbors over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But China, which claims virtually the entire body of water, questioned the stated neutrality of the US. With the US embroiled and to a certain extent pinned down in its latest Gulf crisis, centering on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s threats of military strikes, and Syria’s Arab Awakening uprising against its longstanding, pro-Iranian dictatorship, China has taken the opportunity to escalate its moves in the South China Sea.

Before her stay in China, Clinton worked to shore up US ties with South Pacific island nations and to coordinate with Indonesia on the South China Sea.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands and site of the annual South Pacific islands nations summit, at the start of her geopolitical Pivot tour.

Clinton began this tour at the annual summit of Pacific island nations, held in Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands. She brought promises of continued and in some cases, expanded US aid to the Pacific island nations. Including promises of more action on climate change and mitigation aid for nations which some call the charter members of “the League of Drowning Nations.” Which is not an official name, of course.

Clinton said that the South Pacific is “big enough” for both the US and China, which has lately stepped up its efforts to gain sway by providing financial aid and investment in the islands.

China, of course, is not at all on board with the anti-greenhouse gas movement, as one of the biggest obstacles to any sort of global agreement.

Clinton was to have met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Pacific island nations summit, but Gillard stayed at home to deal with the death of five Australian soldiers in one dark day in Afghanistan. It’s the bloodiest day for the Oz military since the Vietnam War.

Most were killed in the latest example of “green on blue” violence by an Afghan military colleague.

Australia is a key partner in the Pivot, with US forces increasingly integrating at the base in Darwin, which the two countries shared in the early days of World War II.

Gillard says that the tragedies won’t hasten Australia’s departure from Afghanistan, but that may be wishful thinking, as the deployment is very unpopular.

From the Cook Islands, Clinton went on to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where Obama himself lived as a boy.

Clinton’s latest big geopolitical “Pivot” tour took her to Beijing, where she pressed China to agree to peacefully resolve disputes with its neighbors over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But China, which claims virtually the entire body of water, questioned the stated neutrality of the U.S.

The US is seeking to work with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, on the South China Sea and other matters.

Indonesia is part of the South China Sea but makes no special claims on on it. Instead, it is seeking to forge agreement on a multilateral code of conduct for the sea, virtually all of which is claimed by China, to the grave displeasure of Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations.

It’s all quite tricky for the US. America has to define and promote its national interests in the sprawling region very carefully to avoid backlash based on its own historical imperial overhang. And it has to operate with a chief ally, Japan, whose imperial history in the region is so bloody and controversial that it reverberates every day in the countries it invaded as part of its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Japan has its own sharp quarrels with China over islands in the East China Sea.

Not that China doesn’t have its own controversies to deal, from its imperial past and expansive present policies, to its deep difficulties on the human rights front.

It’s a big and still uncertain future that the Clintons — his Clinton Global Initiative summit every September in New York during the annual opening of the UN General Assembly is one of the biggest events on the global scene — are seeking to help chart. And one that requires long-range thinking, odd as that may seem in this rather insular, ADD moment in American history.

I haven’t exactly been a big fan of the Clintons over the years. I was for Jerry Brown over Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential primaries, Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, and in between, in concert with Arianna Huffington, wrote several critical pieces on the Clinton presidency.

But I’ve never doubted their capabilities, and so during the 2008 Democratic National Convention wrote “Obama Needs Bill Clinton” here on the Huffington Post.

Clinton complimented the US-China relationship in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. She also criticized China’s stance on Syria during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

In November 2008, with Hillary Clinton’s potential appointment as secretary of state under consideration, I wrote here suggesting it was both a masterstroke, for both sides, and a mousetrapthat would enable Obama to keep the Clintons from making trouble for him.

It’s actually worked out very well for both camps.

And it may just continue to work out very well for them over the next four years and beyond.

William Bradley

Posted in: Economy, Politics