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The invisible secretary of state

The public face of US diplomacy has been noticeably absent for the past month. Partly attributed to her decision to retire but also because of a series of health issues, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not been seen in public since early December of 2012.
First there was Clinton’s concussion resulting from a fall due to dehydration in early December and she was released Wednesday from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital after being treated for a blood clot. Doctors discovered the blood clot during a follow-up exam. The doctors are treating her with anti-coagulants.
Clinton who has maintained a rigorous schedule as secretary of state, traveling a total of 949,706 miles and visiting over 100 countries, initially fell ill following a trip to Europe.
The vagueness of her illness led some politicos to accuse Clinton of suffering from a “diplomatic illness.” Clinton’s initial illness caused her to cancel a trip to the Middle East and from testifying in front of a Congressional hearing on the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
Clinton’s doctors have said that the clot is between her skull and brain and anticipate a full recovery. However, her long-term political ambitions might be affected. Many Democratic Party activists have made it no secret that they want Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016. Clinton would be approaching her 70th birthday during the next presidential campaign season, which combined with her previous hospitalization for a blood clot in 1998 while campaigning for US Sen. Charles Schumer, would bring into question the issue of her physical fitness should she become commander-in-chief.
Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton argues that Clinton’s spokespersons have damaged her politically by being so vague about her illness. Telling FOX News, “I think that they’re trying to walk a fine line that does not affect the potential presidential candidacy that we expect Sen. Clinton to enter into in the near future, after she leaves the State Department. I think it’s the too cute by half approach that’s reflected in the absence of transparency that’s going to end up damaging her and damaging her credibility.”
Keeping the public uninformed about her condition proved to be a disservice to those who follow US foreign policy as well. Clinton’s replacement has been named, Sen. John Kerry. However, Secretary Clinton still occupies a vital Cabinet position, and along with the Secretary of Defense are the face of US foreign policy.
While Bolton’s critique of Clinton and the accusation that she fell ill to a “diplomatic illness” can be attributed to his own political ideology and the likelihood that he would have found a job in a Romney administration, had Romney won, his argument does bear some merit.
Americans expect transparency in their government. Whether negotiations over avoiding the fiscal cliff, Congressional hearings being televised on C-Span, or a transparent election process, Americans expect their system to be mostly transparent.
While the United States is one of the least corrupt countries in the world and Clinton’s absence will do little to change this, the vagueness which surrounded Clinton’s absence was unfortunate. The American people should expect to be informed factually as to why Hillary Clinton could not testify regarding the attacks on an American consulate that resulted in the death of four Americans and resulted in the resignation of several State Department employees.
While her hospitalization should put to rest any speculation about Clinton’s inability to testify before a Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks, sending Deputy Secretary of State William Burns instead, will unlikely dampen any criticisms of the State Department and lax security that resulted in Ambassador Stevens death along with three other Americans in Benghazi.
“We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi,” Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We are already acting on them. We have to do better.”
If Clinton should become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, one of her possible Republican opponents, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, “She (Clinton) is ultimately responsible for the department and US posts around the world. Her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is indispensable to any effort to address this failure and put in place a process to ensure this never happens again.”
By all accounts Hillary Clinton has performed well as secretary of state but no more than many of her predecessors like Dean Rusk, Warren Christopher, Colin Powell or the two most recent women who have held the same position, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.
While Clinton has avoided monumental mistakes like Powell’s assertion of Iraq’s WMDs potential in the buildup to the Iraq War, she has few successes to tout. While she did practice shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East to usher in a shaky cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, a long-term peace agreement between the two sides is still decades away.
Legacies whether at the presidential level or Cabinet level are often recognized years after the fact and Clinton’s is far from certain. One thing is certain. Her successor, Sen. John Kerry, is qualified to build upon any relationships with world leaders that Clinton has established.

John Lyman is editor-in-chief of the US-based International Policy Digest. This column is exclusive to Arab News.