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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Hillary’s Adventures Abroad

We find some exaggerations in Clinton's claims of foreign policy experience.


On March 6 Hillary Clinton claimed that, unlike Barack Obama, she and likely Republican nominee John McCain have "cross[ed] the commander-in-chief threshold." In a CNN interview the day before, Clinton had listed five foreign policy accomplishments. We can’t determine how much behind-the-scenes work Clinton did while first lady, and she certainly took an active interest in foreign policy when her husband was president. Moreover, her time as first lady plus her longer Senate career do give Clinton more foreign policy experience than Obama. But the public record of her actions shows that many of Clinton’s foreign policy claims are exaggerated.

  • Clinton claims to have "negotiated open borders" in Macedonia to fleeing Kosovar refugees. But the Macedonian border opened a full day before she arrived, and her meetings with Macedonian officials were too brief to allow for much serious negotiating.
  • Clinton’s activities "helped bring peace to Northern Ireland." Irish officials are divided as to how helpful Clinton’s actions were, and key players agree that she was not directly involved in any actual negotiations.
  • Clinton has repeatedly referenced her "dangerous" trip to Bosnia. She fails to mention, however, that the Bosnian war had officially ended three months before her visit – or that she made the trip with her 16-year-old daughter and two entertainers.
  • Both Bill and Hillary Clinton claim that Hillary privately championed the use of U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda. That conversation left no public record, however, as U.S. policy was explicitly to stay out of Rwanda, and officials say that the use of U.S. troops was never considered.
  • Clinton’s tough speech on human rights delivered to a Beijing audience is as advertised, though Clinton herself has been dismissive of speeches that aren’t backed by solutions.


Over the past two weeks – beginning with that well-known 3 a.m. ad where she calls herself "tested" – Hillary Clinton has been arguing that she has significantly more foreign policy experience than Barack Obama, her rival for the Democratic nomination. On her Web site, Clinton cites five specific examples of her foreign policy experience: her assistance in bringing peace to Northern Ireland; her work to help open Macedonia’s borders to Albanian refugees; her trip to the Bosnian war zone to promote U.S. policy; her speech on women’s rights delivered in Beijing; and her public statements on Rwanda. Obama’s camp has fired right back with charges that Clinton is exaggerating her foreign policy experience. And when initially pressed to name a "moment" when Clinton was "tested in crisis" her two chief spokespeople responded with an awkward silence.

Officials from Bill Clinton’s administration are largely divided as to the extent and effectiveness of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy role as first lady. For example, Richard Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to the U.N., claims that Clinton’s "intense efforts" in Macedonia "contributed to saving many lives." On the other hand, Susan Rice, also an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, argues that Clinton was never asked to do any "heavy lifting" and says that Clinton’s role was more about "gentle prodding or constructive reinforcement." That Holbrooke and Rice would remember Clinton’s role differently is unsurprising: Holbrooke is a foreign policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, while Rice has the same role with Obama’s campaign.

Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that, as first lady, Clinton did not hold a security clearance nor did she sit in on meetings with the National Security Council. We examined some of the specific examples of Sen. Clinton’s experience and found that most of them are weaker than advertised.

Border Patrol
In a March 5 interview on CNN, Clinton said that she "negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo." Clinton is referring to her May 14, 1999, trip to Macedonia, which shares a border with Kosovo. According to her Web site, Clinton "traveled to the international border on the edge of the war zone" before meeting with Macedonia’s president and prime minister.

We note, first, that Clinton’s claim that the refugee camp was "on the edge of a war zone" gives an exaggerated picture of the risk involved. Traveling to the Kosovo border was more dangerous than remaining in Washington, and the trip did involve some risk. But Clinton did not land in the middle of an active combat zone, and the risks that she did take were not exceptional: Prior visitors to the refugee camp included Richard Gere and Bianca Jagger. For that matter, much of the "war" in Kosovo consisted of NATO airstrikes against the Yugoslav troops who had forced thousands of ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo, and the nearest NATO ground troops were deployed in Albania, more than 100 miles away from Clinton.

More significantly, Clinton did not in fact "negotiate on matters such as opening borders for refugees during the war in Kosovo." Macedonia had reopened its border to Kosovar refugees the day before Clinton’s arrival, as has been widely reported. Clinton now says that she pressed for opening the borders "much wider." In a written statement that the Clinton campaign has circulated widely, Holbrooke, the Clinton administration’s chief negotiator on peace in the Balkans, says that there is "no doubt" that Hillary Clinton’s actions saved lives.

So how much "pressing" did Clinton actually do? According to her official travel schedule, Clinton was in Macedonia for less than nine hours, nearly half of which she spent touring refugee camps. Clinton was scheduled for photo ops with the prime minister at the residence of the U.S. ambassador at 2:20 p.m. At 2:50 p.m., she had a photo session with Macedonia’s president at his residence, followed by a 3:20 photo op with the first lady. That would leave a total of 30 minutes for negotiations, minus time for photos. Indeed, at the time, the New York Times reported that Clinton’s trip was so scripted that "Administration officials chose which refugees Mrs. Clinton would speak with." News reports on Clinton’s own Web site characterize the first lady’s visit as "sweeping through Macedonia" offering "publicity" and "aid."

Update, March 25: Six days after our article appeared, Hillary Clinton’s White House schedule was released to the public. We have since been able to determine that Clinton met with Prime Minister Ljubcho Georgievsky from 2:20 to 2:35. Also attending: Macedonian chief of cabinet Valentin Mitrovski; U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill; Clinton’s aide, Melanne Verveere; and Susan Braden, a member of the national security council. Mrs. Georgievsky, Mrs. Mitrovski and Mrs. Hill also are listed as attending.

Clinton’s meeting with Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov lasted from 2:50 to 3:20. Hill, Braden and Verveere attended the meeting, along with a representative from the State Department and one from USAID.

A Proponent of Peace

Clinton has taken an interest in the Northern Ireland peace process, visiting the area seven times between 1995 and 2004 – making five of those trips as first lady. Clinton has said that she "helped bring peace to Northern Ireland." Of course, "helped" is a fairly weak claim, one that could be made by nearly anyone who contributed in a way that didn’t actively hinder the process. Clinton was not directly involved in the peace negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement. Her work focused on encouraging Irish women to take a more active role in the male-dominated peace talks. There is universal agreement that Clinton "helped." The dispute is about how much she helped.

Figures close to the negotiations are split in their assessments. Clinton’s campaign has been busy sharing some responses with the press. For example, former Sen. George Mitchell – the lead U.S. negotiator – told the Chicago Tribune that Clinton’s visits were "very helpful" and that her work with women was a "significant factor" in contributing to the success of the process. And in a written statement, John Hume, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble for their work on the Good Friday Agreement, said that Clinton provided "decisive support" for the process. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams agreed, telling the Irish Times that "Senator Clinton played an important role in the peace process" and praising her as "extremely well informed on the issues."

But not everyone agrees. Trimble, for instance, remembers things differently, saying that Clinton’s role was mainly that of "cheerleader" and not one of "principal player." One of Hume’s aides – perhaps inadvertently showing why the peace process really did need to have more women involved – opined that Clinton was active "in a classic woman politicky sort of way," although he said that Clinton was "certainly investing some time." And an Irish historian who has written extensively about the peace process told the Tribune that Clinton’s work was "nice" but also "ancillary to the main thing."

Key players agree that Clinton was an active behind-the-scenes supporter of the peace process and that she was an important player in getting women involved in the negotiations. Getting parties to the table is a crucial part of any peace process. But we note that many could claim foreign policy credentials for bringing principal figures together, including U2’s Bono – who convinced Hume and Trimble to appear together for the first time during the referendum campaign and whose photo with the two Irish politicians has been called "one of the enduring images of the peace process."

Dodging Bullets with Sinbad

Clinton has also touted her March 1996 visit to war-torn Bosnia as evidence of her foreign policy experience, and her campaign has made references to a Washington Post article that described the visit as "the first time since Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone." In a December campaign stop, Clinton recounted a harrowing trip, with her aircraft engaging in a tight corkscrew landing to avoid potential sniper fire. As Clinton explained, the unofficial White House policy was, “If it’s too dangerous, too small and too poor, send the first lady."

We can’t speak to what may or may not have happened on the military transport that delivered Clinton to Bosnia. She is right, though, that she visited a potential combat zone. But what she fails to mention is that the Dayton Peace Accords – which officially ended a year-and-a-half of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina – had been signed in December 1995. So by the time of Clinton’s March 1996 visit, the war itself had been over for three months. Indeed, the accords were so successful that by June 1996 Anthony Lake, a member of President Clinton’s national security team, could say with confidence that predictions of "renewed fighting" in Bosnia had turned out to be unfounded. Clinton also correctly quotes the Post. But she leaves out the part of the article that discusses Pat Nixon’s visit to a Saigon field hospital in 1969 and Barbara Bush’s Thanksgiving celebration with American troops in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.

Moreover, Clinton’s visit was part of what the New York Times described as a "good-will tour." Other stops included a meeting at Baumholder Army Base in Germany with the families of military personnel who were deployed to Bosnia and meetings in Turkey and Greece to promote women’s rights. Chelsea Clinton, then 16, accompanied her mother on all the stops; on the Bosnian leg of the tour, they were joined by singer Sheryl Crow and the comedian Sinbad, who came with a host of donated items, including a big screen TV and candy bars, designed to boost the troops’ morale.

Rwandan Pillow Talk

At a campaign stop in Iowa in December 2007, Bill Clinton told a gathering of potential caucus-goers that Hillary advocated the use of U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Rwanda. When asked whether it was true, Hillary Clinton replied with an unequivocal, "It is."

We’re hardly in a position to dispute a private conversation between Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is worth noting, however, that the conversation doesn’t seem to have had any sort of verifiable effect. The conversation is not recorded in the memoirs of either Clinton. And there is no record of the former president raising the possibility of deploying troops with any of his advisers. Prudence Bushnell, the State Department official who held the Rwanda portfolio during the Clinton administration, told the Tribune that the U.S. did not ever consider a military intervention in Rwanda. Bushnell is not affiliated with any campaign. For that matter, the U.S. took an active role in removing the few international peacekeeping forces that had been in place. According to an article in The Atlantic by Samantha Power of Harvard (and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on America’s role in combating genocide), "staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective." Power, of course, was an Obama adviser until her celebrated reference to Clinton as a "monster," but Power’s article was written in September 2001 – well before Obama ran for the U.S. Senate.

Chinese Rights

On March 5, Clinton told CNN that "I’ve been standing up against … the Chinese government over women’s rights and standing up for human rights." Clinton is referring to a speech (you can watch it here) that she delivered in 1995 as part of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Clinton was critical of China’s record on human rights generally and on women’s rights in particular, and her forceful remarks drew praise at home from Republicans and Democrats alike. The Chinese were less pleased; her remarks were blacked out, and only 5,000 party members were permitted to hear the speech. Moreover, Clinton’s speech achieved a diplomatic end: As incentive for the first lady to come to China, the Chinese government released Harry Wu, a human rights activist whom the government had jailed following his conviction on spurious espionage charges.

Clinton is exactly right as to the details of her China speech. Does a tough speech count as foreign policy experience? Clinton frequently says that Obama "offers speeches" while she "offers solutions," so by her own standards, the China speech doesn’t deserve much consideration. We’ll leave it up to you to determine how much China’s human rights situation improved between 1995 and 2007.

– by Joe Miller


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