Wherever next for Clinton?

Hillary Clinton still has a nomination to the Supreme Court in her sights.

That's what life is like if you're US secretary of state, I suppose. You see President Obama to discuss the future of the Middle East at the White House on Thursday, then fly to New York the next day to be at the bedside of a 63-year-old former US president who has had emergency coronary artery surgery - and who also just happens to be your husband.

Then, within 48 hours, you find yourself in Qatar, making international headlines by telling students on al-Jazeera that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship, before hopping on your modified US Air Force 757 to fly to Saudi Arabia, where you find yourself cracking jokes about camels with 86-year-old King Abdullah at his luxurious desert retreat an hour north of the capital Riyadh.

So what made the determinedly low-profile former senator Hillary Clinton poke her head above the parapets in Qatar and say such inflammatory things about Iran? The reason, I'm told, is that the White House is "trying to drive a wedge" between Iran's 70 million population and its 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard, following President Ahmadinejad's declaration that Iran is now a "nuclear state". Hence Clinton and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, were dispatched to tell Middle East leaders a thing or two about how dangerous Iran has become.

Foreign policy tragedy

Nothing, of course, is more likely to make the Iranian people embrace the Revolutionary Guard than stern lectures from the US that they should not do so. But we should not blame Clinton for yet another American foreign policy debacle, because she is determined to be seen as a loyal foot soldier for Obama, despite the hatred she and her husband still harbour for the 44th US president following the rancorous primaries in 2008.

Ahmadinejad's announcement on uranium enrichment had the White House running in all directions. "Quite frankly, [he] says many things and many of them turn out to be untrue," responded Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman, immediately. "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich [uranium] to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."

But Obama himself apparently saw it all quite differently. "Despite their posturing that their nuclear power is only for civilian use, [Iran], in fact, continue[s] to pursue a course that would lead to weaponisation," he had insisted in an impromptu press conference at the White House just two days before. A week before that, Gibbs had said that Iran posed no threat.

In other words, a conventionally confused US foreign policy tragedy - like so many before, but this time with Obama mouthing the predictable clichés - looms. Hillary Clinton, I suspect, has done her duty and will now duck down below the parapet again, happily leaving Obama to extricate himself from the shambles to come (although, lest we forget, Iran was one of the few political issues on which Clinton stood to the right of Obama in the 2008 campaign, threatening to "totally obliterate" the country).

Taking a post in the Obama administration might have been an agonising choice for Clinton, but for Obama it was clear-cut: he could not afford to alienate half the Democratic Party, which had supported her rather than him. Remember: Clinton won nine of the final 16 contests, picking up 600,000 more votes and 37 more delegates than him. By the time she withdrew, only 150,000 votes out of 36 million divided the two.

In the fortnight after Obama's victory, Clinton faced the choice of continuing her rather humdrum, eight-year career as a New York senator while simultaneously having to raise $12m to repay debts the Clinton campaign had run up - or taking up the prestigious post of US secretary of state and having the Obama campaign, which was left with surplus funds after her withdrawal, take care of the debt.

Sixteen days after Obama had defeated John McCain, Senator Clinton finally decided she would accept Obama's offer and become the 67th US secretary of state. Her curriculum vitae for the post was unusual: she had visited 82 countries as a presidential wife, and delivered countless speeches overseas, but she had never actually been a diplomat.

Justice for Hillary

You would hardly know it from the media, but since taking office 13 months ago Clinton - despite a very painful elbow fracture - has visited 45 countries and flown around a quarter of a million miles in that adapted 757 (the latest trip being the first that was announced by the US state department on Twitter, before the mainstream media had been informed). With­in three days of leaving her husband's bedside, however, she was back in her six-bedroom house in Whitehaven Parkway, just south of the British embassy in Washington DC.

So what does the future hold for her? She says she can't envisage a second term (assuming Obama gets one, that is), being constantly exhausted by travel; and insists, about as convincingly as any politician could, that she won't run for the presidency again. That means either an unlikely return to politics, or the ghastly prospect of retirement with Bill in Chappaqua in upstate New York.

There is one ultimate prize a loyal soldier and lawyer such as Hillary Clinton still has in her sights, however: a nomination to the US Supreme Court. John Paul Stevens, the most liberal of the nine judges, will be 90 this year; Ruth Ginsburg will be 77 and is in bad health. Supreme Court Justice Clinton?

Now that would lead to the mother of all nomination battles

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN