Hillary's Next Step: More Diplomacy or a Move to Defense?

Will Hillary Clinton become the first female Secretary of Defense or stay in the State Department?

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

The most daunting piece of real estate in modern American politics is any podium right after Bill Clinton has relinquished it. The guy is on fire these days, freed from the constraints of elective office and the shackles of the prepared text. And so no one who attended the memorial service for master diplomat Richard Holbrooke envied the lot of Hillary Clinton, who had to follow her husband to the podium and conclude a program that Holbrooke — a fervent connoisseur of speechifying, especially about himself — would have loved. She had to do this jet-lagged out of her skull, having just returned from an intense six-day swirl through the Middle East, and after delivering a monster speech about China that morning at the State Department.

She more than held her own, if a bit more formally than her husband; she is, after all, the nation's highest ranking diplomat these days. But she was a stalwart friend and defender of Holbrooke's, and she communicated her appreciation elegantly. She was also extremely funny — an underused weapon in her arsenal — describing the infamous Holbrookian persistence: "He would follow me onto a stage as I was about to give a speech, or into my hotel room, or on at least one occasion, into a ladies' room in Pakistan."

All of which started me thinking once more about Hillary Clinton's character and career trajectory. She is one of those politicians you can actually watch grow in office. She begins each new assignment quietly, studying the territory, making a few mistakes along the way, but then she gradually gains control of her portfolio and masters it. This was true of her stint on the Senate Armed Services Committee: the most forbidding panjandrums of the uniformed military came to respect her expertise, especially David Petraeus, a particular favorite of hers. It was also true of her presidential campaign, in which she started off stiff and wound up kicking back whiskey shots in steelworker taverns, a woman of the people.

And it's certainly true now, as Secretary of State. She began the assignment with some well-acknowledged skills. After her globe-trotting years as First Lady, she knew how to be an effective public diplomat. But she still had a lot to learn about diplomatic strategy and negotiation. She made mistakes and still does on occasion. (Her Middle East trip was marred by her statement that Jared Lee Loughner was "an extremist.") But her confidence has grown, and her public statements are sharper. Indeed, she has — belatedly — emerged as the Obama Administration's leading voice on human rights. During the week that ended with the Holbrooke memorial, she told the leaders of the Middle East that their countries were "sinking into the sand" by not moving toward democratic reforms (a timely message given the upheaval in Tunisia). And then, in a particularly gutsy moment, she lamented, "The longer China represses freedom ... the longer that Nobel Prize winners' empty chairs in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential." (She was referring to China's refusal to allow the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.)

There is talk now that Clinton's next step will be to slide over to the Pentagon and replace Robert Gates, who is expected to resign as Secretary of Defense later this year. It would, in some ways, be a natural progression for her. It would be another first — the first woman SecDef. It would be an extremely valuable credential if she chooses to run for President in 2016. She certainly has the respect of the military and knowledge of the issues.

I think it would be a bad move, though, for two reasons. The first is that the Secretary of Defense is going to have a lousy, nuts-and-bolts job over the next few years, very much caught up in budget cuts and fighting the military-industrial-congressional complex. There are other candidates better suited to do this. John Hamre, a former deputy secretary, knows the Pentagon's innards as well as anyone. CIA Director Leon Panetta may be best suited of all, with his real-time knowledge of our national-security problems and his history as a fervent budget cutter in Congress and as Bill Clinton's budget director.

But there is a more important reason Clinton should stay at State. "Diplomacy saves lives," Bill Clinton said in his eulogy. "In the end, what matters [about Holbrooke] is that there are a lot of people walking around on the face of the earth" because of his diplomatic triumphs. Hillary Clinton's stature lends gravitas to the work of diplomacy, an art that was denigrated during Bush the Younger's first term and remains sorely undervalued now. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, as relationships from China to Pakistan to Iran fester, this is the moment for diplomacy to be restored to center stage, as senior partner to our military might. That was Holbrooke's obsession. It should be her legacy.