As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton jaw-boned the authoritarian president of Uzbekistan to leave his car and shake hands with people. She argued with the Czech prime minister about democracy. She cajoled Roman Catholic and Protestant women to talk to one another in Northern Ireland. She traveled to 79 countries in total, little of it leisure; one meeting with mutilated Rwandan refugees so unsettled her that she threw up afterward.
But during those two terms in the White House, Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda.
And during one of President Bill Clinton’s major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled.
Value, depth of experience debated
In seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Mrs. Clinton lays claim to two traits nearly every day: strength and experience. But as the junior senator from New York, she has few significant legislative accomplishments to her name. She has cast herself, instead, as a first lady like no other: a full partner to her husband in his administration, and, she says, all the stronger and more experienced for her “eight years with a front-row seat on history.”
Her rivals scoff at the idea that her background gives her any special qualifications for the presidency. Senator Barack Obama has especially questioned “what experiences she’s claiming” as first lady, noting that the job is not the same as being a cabinet member, much less president.
And late last week, Mr. Obama suggested that more foreign policy experts from the Clinton administration were supporting his candidacy than hers; his campaign released a list naming about 45 of them, and said that others were not ready to go public. Mrs. Clinton quickly put out a list of 80 who were supporting her, and plans to release another 75 names on Wednesday.
Mrs. Clinton’s role in her most high-profile assignment as first lady, the failed health care initiative of the early 1990s, has been well documented. Yet little has been made public about her involvement in foreign policy and national security as first lady. Documents about her work remain classified at the National Archives. Mrs. Clinton has declined to divulge the private advice she gave her husband.
An interview with Mrs. Clinton, conversations with 35 Clinton administration officials and a review of books about her White House years suggest that she was more of a sounding board than a policy maker, who learned through osmosis rather than decision-making, and who grew gradually more comfortable with the use of military power.
Her time in the White House was a period of transition in foreign policy and national security, with the cold war over and the threat of Islamic terrorism still emerging. As a result, while in the White House, she was never fully a part of either the old school that had been focused on the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear war or the more recent strain of national security thinking defined by issues like nonstate threats and the proliferation of nuclear technology.
Associates from that time said that she was aware of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and what her husband has in recent years characterized as his intense focus on them, but that she made no aggressive independent effort to shape policy or gather information about the threat of terrorism.
First lady exercised ‘soft power’
She did not wrestle directly with many of the other challenges the next president will face, including managing a large-scale deployment — or withdrawal — of troops abroad, an overhaul of the intelligence agencies or the effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons technology. Most of her exposure to the military has come since she left the White House through her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
When it came to the regional conflicts in the Balkans, she, along with many officials, was cautious at first about supporting American military intervention, though she later backed air strikes against the Serbs and the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
Her role mostly involved what diplomats call “soft power” — converting cold war foes into friends, supporting nonprofit work and good-will endeavors, and pressing her agenda on women’s rights, human trafficking and the expanded use of microcredits, tiny loans to help individuals in poor countries start small businesses.
Asked to name three major foreign policy decisions where she played a decisive role as first lady, Mrs. Clinton responded in generalities more than specifics, describing her strategic roles on trips to Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, India, Africa and Latin America.
Asked to cite a significant foreign policy object lesson from the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton also replied with broad observations. “There are a lot of them,” she said. “The whole unfortunate experience we’ve had with the Bush administration, where they haven’t done what we’ve needed to do to reach out to the rest of the world, reinforces my experience in the 1990s that public diplomacy, showing respect and understanding of people’s different perspectives — it’s more likely to at least create the conditions where we can exercise our values and pursue our interests.”
Crisis at home and terror afar
There were times, though, when Mrs. Clinton did not appear deeply involved in some of Mr. Clinton’s hardest moments on national security. He faced a major one in 1998 — the bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and subsequently whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan. Just days after he acknowledged to his wife, the public and a grand jury that he had had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on targets suspected to be a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and a chemical weapons factory in Sudan.
“It was the height of Monica, and they were barely talking to each other, if at all,” said one senior national security official who spoke with both Clintons during that time.
Asked if she talked to the president about the military choices or advised him, regardless of their personal problems, Mrs. Clinton was elliptical.
“I was very proud of him, he did what he thought he was supposed to do as president based on the best intelligence he had,” she said. “And he was well aware that there would be those that would certainly criticize him for it.”
‘Last court of appeal’
Friends of Mrs. Clinton say that she acted as adviser, analyst, devil’s advocate, problem-solver and gut check for her husband, and that she has an intuitive sense of how brutal the job can be. What is clear, she and others say, is that Mr. Clinton often consulted her, and that Mrs. Clinton gained experience that Mr. Obama, John Edwards and every other candidate lack — indeed, that most incoming presidents did not have.
“In the end, she was the last court of appeal for him when he was making a decision,” said Mickey Kantor, a close Clinton friend who served as trade representative and commerce secretary. “I would be surprised if there was any major decision he made that she didn’t weigh in on.” (Mr. Clinton declined an interview request.)
But other administration officials, as well as opponents of Mrs. Clinton, are skeptical that the couple’s conversations and her 79 trips add up to unique experience that voters should reward. She was not independently judging intelligence, for the most part, or mediating the data, egos and agendas of a national security team. And, in the end, she did not feel or process the weight of responsibility.
Susan Rice, a National Security Council senior aide and State Department official under Mr. Clinton who now advises Mr. Obama, said Mrs. Clinton was not involved in “the heavy lifting of foreign policy.” Ms. Rice also took issue with a recent comment by a Clinton campaign official that Mrs. Clinton was “the face of the administration in foreign affairs.”
“Making tough decisions, responding to crises, making the bureaucracy implement decisions that they may not want to implement — that’s the hard part of foreign policy,” Ms. Rice said. “That’s not what Mrs. Clinton was asked or expected to do as first lady.”
Not overstepping her bounds
Mrs. Clinton said in the interview that she was careful not to overstep her bounds on national security, relying instead on informal access. During the preinaugural transition, for instance, she sat in on some meetings about presidential appointments at the invitation of Warren Christopher, who directed the transition and became secretary of state in the first Clinton term. Participants recalled that she would mostly speak when Mr. Christopher called on her, and tended to make points about placing more women, minority members and allies in key jobs.
She said she did not attend National Security Council meetings, nor did she have a security clearance — though she was briefed on classified intelligence before going on some important diplomatic trips.
“I don’t recall attending anything formal like the National Security Council,” she said, “because I had direct access to all of the principals. I spent a lot of time with the national security adviser, the secretary of state, other officials on the security team for the president. I thought that was both more appropriate, but also more efficient.”
Mrs. Clinton declined to say if she ever read the President’s Daily Brief, a rundown of the latest intelligence and threats to national security provided to the president each day. “I would put that in the category of I-never-talk-about-what-I-talk-to-my-husband-about,” she said. But she indicated, and other administration officials confirmed, that Mr. Clinton would sometimes talk to her about contents of the briefing.
“Let me say generally, I’m very aware of and familiar with what the P.D.B.’s actually are, how they work, what they include,” she said. “And it wasn’t always through the Clinton administration — when I went to Bosnia, for example, I had a full briefing from the military commanders there about what the situation was like.”
A ‘sounding board’ on military intervention
Mrs. Clinton said she was “only tangentially involved” in Mr. Clinton’s first major overseas test, whether to send American soldiers after the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and his forces, a raid that ended in 18 American deaths. Asked if she had pressed for an invasion, she said she had acted “more as a sounding board” for Mr. Clinton.
The same was true during the military confrontation in Haiti in 1994, over restoring the exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which she favored and drew lessons from about joint command of American armed forces.
Asked about her role in Somalia and Haiti, Mr. Christopher said in an interview, “She wasn’t at any of the meetings in the Oval Office or cabinet room, and didn’t take any formal role that I saw.” Mr. Christopher is supporting Mrs. Clinton for president.
Nor was Mrs. Clinton a memorable player on Rwanda. Former White House officials say that no one — not the national security team, not the president, not the first lady — was seriously pushing for American military intervention to stop or slow the unfolding genocide there; the administration’s focus was on confronting the ethnic bloodshed in the Balkans. Mrs. Clinton declined to comment on Rwanda.
A stand for women’s rights
The foreign policy achievement most often credited to Mrs. Clinton came in 1995, with her speech to the United Nations conference on women in Beijing, where she declared that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” She also tangled with Chinese officials, she said, and refused to bow to pressure to soften her remarks.
“She had a good balance of being firm on these issues, even if they clearly covered Chinese sins, but also understanding the need for good relations with China,” said Winston Lord, then the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who briefed and accompanied her on the trip.
In visits to Bosnia and Kosovo after the American-led bombing of Serbia, she entered war zones before officials believed it was safe for her husband to go and acted as a spokeswoman for American interests rather than as a negotiator. Mrs. Clinton had become a champion of the bombing campaign, and many officials — including Madeleine K. Albright and Richard Holbrooke in the administration and Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister — turned to her at times to stiffen Mr. Clinton’s resolve to take on Serbia.
“Bill, you’re the president,” was a refrain that several administration officials said she used when Mr. Clinton was torn between his advisers.
Know your enemy
Mrs. Clinton has disagreed with Mr. Obama’s support for presidential-level talks with leaders of nations like Iran and North Korea, but she said that the Balkans had taught her another lesson: know your enemy. She praised Gen. Wesley K. Clark, then the NATO commander, and Mr. Holbrooke, the administration’s envoy on the Balkans, for socializing and drinking with Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic, as a means of gauging his strengths.
“He’s there — you don’t learn something about him by pointing at him across the ocean,” she said. “If you do have to engage in a bombing campaign, you’re going to have a much better idea of how much pressure it’s going to take to finally break him.”
Her personal interests also drew her to Northern Ireland, where she believed she could help foster peace as a female leader bringing together women split by the sectarian divide. She played host to a memorable meeting, one of the first of its kind, of Catholic and Protestant women in Belfast. “It gave everybody a safe place to come together and start talking about what they had in common,” Mrs. Clinton said.
As she prepared to run for the Senate, Mrs. Clinton took increasing interest in Israel and Middle East peace, touchstones for Jewish voters, among others, in New York. She was not at the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, but she did pepper the Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, with questions, like whether the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was too much the revolutionary to ever make peace, Mr. Ross recalled.
The Middle East situation led to Mrs. Clinton’s first big foreign policy-related problem as a candidate. In 1999, she sat silently, but with apparent discomfort, through an event on the West Bank as Suha Arafat, the wife of Mr. Arafat, accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children with toxic gases.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, who at that point seemed likely to be her Republican opponent in the 2000 Senate race, sharply criticized Mrs. Clinton for not confronting Mrs. Arafat over her remarks and for kissing her goodbye afterward; the incident also led some Jewish groups to be critical of the first lady.
Mrs. Clinton has often said that she learned from the experience and would not make the same mistake again.