Published January 30. 2013 4:00AM
History will ultimately be the judge, but in the perspective of the present it appears exiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves a place alongside the leading secretary of states in recent history - such as Henry Kissinger and James Baker. The incoming secretary, Sen. John Kerry, has a tough act to follow.
That she took the job at all is a testament to her love of country and desire to make a difference. In 2008 Ms. Clinton lost a tough primary fight. She had entered that election as the heavy favorite to take the Democratic nomination, only to see a freshman senator from Illinois achieve the most improbable of victories. The nation would go on to elect not its first woman as president, but its first African-American.
When then President-elect Barack Obama reached out to his primary opponent to become his secretary of state, there were risks for both.
It could not have been easy for Ms. Clinton to accept a position in which she would be taking orders from the man who had just defeated her. And after a couple of years of campaigning for the presidency, no one could have begrudged Ms. Clinton a break. Instead she accepted arguably the most demanding job in the Cabinet.
As for President Obama, he was adding to his team a member of one of the most powerful political families in U.S. history. The prospects of this young, relatively inexperienced president being upstaged were real. Some in the new president's inner circle warned of letting a rival into the tent.
It turned out to be perhaps the president's best appointment. Ms. Clinton maintained a mutually respectful relationship with President Obama and deftly formed vital coalitions with top officials in the Congress, military and intelligence communities.
Ms. Clinton recognized a changing world - with new emerging powers and shifting spheres of influence - called for changed diplomacy, replacing the muscular and sometimes stumbling foreign policy of the former administration with an approach the secretary called "smart power." She defined it in a July 2012 commentary:
"It is no longer enough to be strong. Great powers also have to be savvy and persuasive. The test of our leadership going forward will be our ability to mobilize disparate people and nations to work together to solve common problems and advance shared values and aspirations. To do that, we need to expand our foreign policy toolbox, integrate every asset and partner, and fundamentally change the way we do business."
In pursuit of this approach the secretary visited 112 countries, traveling about 1 million miles. Under her leadership the State Department appropriately shifted more attention to Asia, placed greater importance on the role of women globally, skillfully used diplomacy and new communication technology to stay on the right side of the "Arab spring" revolutions, and repaired alliances.
Critics ridiculed letting European countries take the military lead in helping the people of Libya overthrow a dictator, but the strategy proved effective. The ability of the United States to generate unprecedented international sanctions to pressure Iran not to go nuclear was impressive, if not yet successful.
Ms. Clinton's biggest failure is easily identifiable - the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that ended in the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The failure of repeated security concerns coming from the consulate to push their way through the bureaucracy and reach the secretary's desk revealed serious, systemic problems.
To her credit, Ms. Clinton took full responsibility. She initiated an outside review of the State Department's handling of the matter, leading to numerous recommendations that Ms. Clinton has ordered implemented.
Speculation has turned to Ms. Clinton's potential run for president in 2016. Polls show she is popular with the American people. Her experiences - First Lady, senator, secretary of state - are unique, but trying to predict the nature of the next presidential election a little more than a week after an inauguration is foolhardy.
For now, suffice it to say the nation owes Hillary Clinton a debt of gratitude for a job well done.