Obama's Bad Cop

By Hirsh, Michael | Newsweek, May 3, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Obama's Bad Cop


Hirsh, Michael, Newsweek


Byline: Michael Hirsh

Clinton's played the heavy with Iran, Russia, and even Israel--and her sometimes hawkish views are finding favor with the president.

It was almost like one of those moments in a buddy-cop movie when the two partners who dislike each other at the beginning finally bond while taking on the bad guys. In mid-December Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were in Copenhagen, where the leaders of more than 100 countries had gathered to negotiate a new agreement to combat global warming, and the summit was on the verge of collapse. Clinton later described it as the most disorganized meeting she'd seen since her eighth-grade student council. It "was just disintegrating right before everybody's eyes," she recalled to NEWSWEEK in an interview last week. Clinton and her former political rival, now the president, found themselves up against most of the rest of the world. At the last minute Obama sought a one-on-one meeting with the Chinese leader to rescue some kind of agreement, only to be told that Premier Wen Jiabao and his team still weren't ready to meet (after two years of prior procrastination). "No, we're going in now," Obama declared, looking at Clinton. "Absolutely," she said. "Let's go."

The former political rivals suddenly morphed into a diplomatic version of Starsky and Hutch. "I felt a particular responsibility since I had urged the president to come," Clinton said. "Because I knew nothing was going to happen unless we gave it our all." Striding down the hallway, with the Chinese protocol officer sputtering protests behind them, America's two best-known politicians barged into the meeting room. There they found Wen conferring secretly with the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa; behind the scenes, Beijing had been trying to block all efforts to impose standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying progress on carbon reduction. Smiling and shaking hands, Obama and Clinton worked the room together, as they had each done so many times before as contending politicians. Then the president sat down and started negotiating, with Clinton sliding position papers to him as needed. When the Chinese finally caved, both Obama and Clinton knew that it wasn't just because they had crashed the meeting. Two days before, the secretary of state had flown in to Copenhagen by surprise to deliver a sweetener to help win over developing countries. In essence, it was a global bribe: $100abillion a year from rich nations by 2020 to help poorer countries cope with climate controls. It was political hardball, Hillary style, and it had helped to isolate Beijing. Now Obama was closing the deal Clinton had set up.

The two came away from Copenhagen with a partial triumph and a new sense of maturity--both about their relationship and their sense of how to lead. Clinton later called it one of "the most extraordinary 48 hours she's spent in public life," said her global-warming negotiator, Todd Stern--which is saying something for a woman who's lived through political tumult for 18 years, including several presidential and senatorial campaigns. Clinton told NEWSWEEK that it was important for America to be seen taking the lead in tackling seemingly impossible problems, particularly in an era with rising new powers at the table, if only to show what the country stands for. "We can't just walk out of the arena and leave these important decisions to somebody else because it's messy, it's difficult, it requires compromise. That is what you have to do on the world stage today," she said. "We remain the strongest country in the world, but the way we exercise that leadership has changed dramatically."

Copenhagen also provided further evidence that the sharp differences between Obama and Clinton over foreign policy on the campaign trail were, as many on both sides now acknowledge, largely political theater. In fact, their views of American power had never been that far apart. "We're both, at bottom, problem solvers and practical, realistic people," Clinton says now.

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