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Andrew McKillop
21st Century Wire


Few US secretaries of state ever reached “iconic stature” and that was also the case of Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite what Twitter and Facebook postings, and gushing editorialists of mainstream media outlets might say. For them, she was the Meryl Streep of international development who has now,almost tearfully,hung up her jersey. For them, Clinton leaves office after four years with her “rock-star status” cast in iron, giving her the (very) informal title of the most famous woman in the world.

A more realistic analysis shows that during her four-year tenure she was overwhelmed by the weighty overhang from the Bush years, the conflict of development goals with weapon sales and geopolitical power plays, and constant political bickering about the role and funding of US development aid. All this promises to rapidly erase all trace of “the Hillary years” at the State Department.

As a seasoned political professional, Clinton anticipated this, but surprised many by eschewing the usual path for top diplomats. She broke from tradition by avoiding all serious attempts at solving intractable US-sponsored or US-maintained conflicts, like those in Afghanistan and Israel.

The editorialists pass this off by saying that she was “not looking for a Nobel Peace Prize”. Hmmm…

During her four-year tenure, those tiresome wars were handed over to her special advisors: the late Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan, and George Mitchell for Israel-Palestine but to be sure, neither brokered a peace deal.

Instead, she took the Bill Gates and Bono path to glory and focused her energy on issues considered small caliber but well-meaning: saving children from dying of preventable diseases, connecting poor farmers to markets, increasing food security through market oriented measures, and improving the lot of women whose lack of education, resources and ability to vote “are at the core” of the world’s thorniest challenges, according to Hillary Clinton.


Clinton called her strategy “smart power”. For her, it is crucial to US economic and national security interests but one major problem for this strategy as shown by Arab Spring, is that when women are empowered to vote in former dictatorships, whose repressive juntas and “modern minded generals” were given rock-solid support by the US and all other Western democracies, for decades on end – is that newly empowered women voters, like their menfolk, vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Tunisia, and for sharia law in other newly liberated and emancipated Arab states. Some of course do not, leading to what is happening in Egypt, today. Former State Dept policy brings its chaotic results.

This uncomfortable fact was difficult to talk around, even for a “rock star” Secretary of State. Clinton as former first lady famously declared at a 1995 UN conference in Beijing that “women’s rights are human rights”, and on other occasions said that development aid is a moral duty, but business is business and the US remains the largest arms supplier in the world. Resolving and reconciling arms sales and supplies, with development aid, womens rights, human rights, global health improvement and food issues delivered more than its fair share of “policy stress” for Mrs Clinton during her four-

year term. Her quest for Smart Power led Clinton to visit more countries than any of her predecessors. Her periodic visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the Emirates, Oman and other “friends and business partners” of the US – where it is illegal for a female person to ride in the front seat of a car, let alone vote! – presented many opportunities for Hillary Clinton to put on a headscarf and play the hypocrite. In this possibly unwanted role she was nearly faultless.

For her, the task was “writing the script” for a new type of American engagement abroad, one in which international development is a central pillar. This ID – international development – was instantly and seamlessly translated, or transmutated into the bottom line of how many contracts are won for US big business, anywhere in the world. Clinton of course acted in no way differently from any of her predecessors, peers and rivals: foreign ministers and ministers of commerce, development and aid, from any other major country.

This however, very often in fact, places basic ID on an unequal footing with diplomatic maneuvring and weapons sales, and this recurred during Clinton’s tenure: it was only in part smoothed over by the “massive symbolic significance” she gave to basic ID, using the prose of her friends in the media and the development business.

Even in the weapons business, however, remaining in business is difficult when times are tough. World arms stocks are vast; arms production capacity is also vast; and new entrant producers, from China and Pakistan to Brazil and India operate a cuthroat price-cutting strategy for market share. The overhang from this difficult arms market context shaded Mrs Clinton’s ID pitch throughout her tenure, prompting doubters to pose the question: Did her high profile for ID really lead to results?

On this point, Clinton’s record is frankly mixed. Reforms and new initiatives of the US in the development domain are incomplete, leaving an alphabet soup of development programs spread across more than 20 agencies, often pursuing conflicting goals, and above all permanently threatened by cuts in funding. John Kerry, her designated successor, has kept a deliberate low profile on aid funding.

US TV media appearances including Obama and Hillary on the same platform, resulted in Clinton talking about ‘development’ – while president Obama talked about his foreign policy successes, translated as “winding down the Afghan war and pushing back al-Qaida”.


In 2008, freshly elected, Barack Obama promised to double foreign aid within five years. By at latest 2009 this was a forgotten vow — the financial crisis had taken toll of another victim. Attempts by the development community to lobby for a Cabinet-level aid agency operating independently from the State Department were soon forgotten, as dramatically shown by US aid to Haiti following its devastating earthquake. This aid response – fronted in the media by Bill Clinton and the Bushes – was almost instantly an affair of State – the State

At a press conference in January 2010, Mrs Clinton made it crystal clear that she alone was taking control of all US Federal resources available, and that the US aid agency and overseas intelligence gathering organisation – USAID was reporting to her.

Since that time, the Haiti rescue effort has spilled much digital ink, for and against, but today in February 2013 several hundred thousand Haitians still sleep in the street, under aid supplied tents.

Longstanding development experts, including economists are usually polite about Mrs Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, but few label her stint as “exceptional”. They will say that during her tenure, the State Dept mix of diplomacy, weapons sales and aid was run more or less like it has always been run – that is not particularly well. The hot question, whether openly posed or not remains: should USAID be an independent development- only agency with guaranteed funding, or should it remain under the firm control of the State Department?

Making this an outright killer decision for a career politician, like Mrs Clinton, US efforts in the global health domain, notably, are inherently controversial. Should the US aid contraception in poor countries? Should aid to fighting HIV and AIDS be separated from the fight against tuberculosis, malaria or other “normal diseases” ? To what extent is health a “lever of foreign policy”?

To be sure, the major accomplishment of President Obama’s first term was health reform for Americans — nicknamed Obamacare — but the new department created during Hillary Clinton’s tenure, called the Health Diplomacy Office, treads a complex winding political path in permanent conflict with USAID for health-related funding overseas. Mrs Clinton, exercising political prudence “distanced herself” from any hard and fast decisions in this domain.


USAID was gutted and turned into a contracting agency during the Bush years, and subjected to always decreasing funding. Also under Bush, competing “market oriented” aid agencies were created, with an overseas development flavor but esentially political in their operation, such as the Millenium Challenge Corp. The end result was a chaotic kaleidoscope of development agencies, offices and powers inside and outside of government, across the range of public, private and public/private, making
reform the longstanding major quest of aid professionals, think tanks and all other parties. The abuses of development aid racked up during the Bush years were and are a particular focus of reformists: as one example, following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush gave the Pentagon authority over massive aid programs – but with little surprise to many, audits later revealed that contractors had squandered billions of dollars. A blank check with almost no oversight or proper auditing.

The political business of development is never far from economic business. During the recession that followed the 2008 credit crunch, the US Federal government, like all others, was and still is looking for savings. Development aid was an easy target for cuts, that Mrs Clinton had major problems parrying.

Major achievements under her tenure turned out to be drastically modest. One example her admirers showcase was that USAID “for the first time in history” reduced the cost of US food aid by measures including fewer restrictions on buying food inside recipient countries, cheaper. Here however, US domestic politics instantly reared its head: tensions between Obama and Clinton on reforming US food aid was rife at a couple of levels below the figureheads, especially due to the “longstanding traditional” role of USAID purchases of US domestic-produced crops and food products, at above-market prices.

The White House published what Mrs Clinton called the landmark presidential policy directive on global development on Sept. 22, 2010. Apart from longstanding “traditional” elements, Clinton’s hand is shown by this review highlighting several themes Clinton has championed, from food security to women’s rights and the engagement of the private sector in global development.

This “smart power oriented” shift of US aid policy was explained by Clinton in a November 2011 keynote address at an OECD aid forum in South Korea, where she notably said:

“We need to continue shifting our approach and our thinking from aid to investment, investments targeted to produce tangible returns. And we have to be very honest about it, because wise investors choose their investments carefully.” To anyone who has attended a (Bill) Clinton Global Initiative gathering, this sounded familiar. The secretary of state’s husband, and former US president, struck this chord for years. The Obama administration’s focus on engaging the private sector “to amplify development”, under Mrs Clinton, was nothing if not a sign of the times.

To be sure, Hillary Clinton could delight and enthrall the media, for example right after her investiture as Secretary of State she delighted USAID professionals by adopting the lowly “clean cook stove”, which economizes on wood fuel, as her signature issue. Designed also to remove debilitating smoke that threatens mothers and children with respiratory diseases and blindness, the cook stove came to symbolize how a simple idea can break through the complicated, frustrating business of development, and transform lives.

But Clinton’s goal of “rewriting US aid policy” was always unlikely to succeed, and her attempts always ruffled feathers in Washington, prompting the question: Did she overreach or did she save USAID from extinction? This question remains unanswered, like the linked question: Is fighting global poverty an urgent challenge for the US?

Andrew McKillop is a former expert in policy and programming with the European Commission in Brussels. He writes and consults about the impact of oil prices on the economy and currently advises the ECOHABITAT sustainable housing and property development project near the French, Belgium and Luxemburg borders.

READ MORE HILLARY NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Clinton Files



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