Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is famous for approaching her various jobs with discipline, and discipline was the message she repeatedly conveyed at the National Defense University Tuesday morning in her “conversation” with Secretary of Defense (and former chief of staff to her husband) Leon Panetta: The world needs U.S. leadership, even in tough budgetary times.

Many of Clinton’s remarks were directed at the congressional “Super Committee” looking at budget cuts. She urged Congress not to let the deficit get in the way of U.S. global engagement, and not to fall into the trap of knowing “the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

“Leon and I will continue to make that case,” she said, pleading for a “holistic” approach to U.S. foreign policy.

As true as it is that the world needs U.S. leadership, when it came down to details, Clinton’s case was considerably weaker, particularly given that leadership is hardly the outstanding characteristic of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy. Cases in point:

  • Lack of interagency cooperation. Clinton argued that over the past two and a half years, long-overdue reforms have made the State Department part of U.S. national security in the 21st century, with civilians working alongside the military on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet this is nothing new; civilian personnel have been there all along. In fact, the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a Clinton initiative, did very little to outline the relationship between State and the Department of Defense (DOD)—a missed opportunity. Furthermore, the National Counterterrorism Communications Taskforce, an interagency group set up under State through the QDDR, has been moving slowly as distrust continues between State and DOD.
  • Definition of “tough decisions.” The economic downturn and budget battle have cast a pall over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, in Clinton’s view. She just returned from a visit to Hong Kong and said the rise of China should be a top priority for the U.S. as a Pacific power. Clinton asked the audience to look to the example of the 1990s as a time when “tough decisions” were made by her husband’s White House. “We would not have been in this place if we had stayed on track,” she said. Of course, those “tough decisions” involved tax increases and deep defense cuts—maybe a warning of things to come, and not exactly a prescription for global strength.
  • Tension on Iraq. On Iraq, Clinton was at clearly odds with Panetta, emphatically correcting his statement that the U.S. will have a long-term relationship with that country. The U.S. combat mission ends at the end of this year, Clinton repeated several times, presumably to make sure Panetta got the message. Questioned by moderator Frank Cesno of George Washington University on whether the recent surge in violence in Iraq might get in the way of these plans, Clinton effectively said “no.”  In the end, Clinton and Panetta managed to agree that they wanted a “normal relationship” with Iraq and that they would respond to any Middle Eastern country that asked for military support and troop training—such as Iraq undoubtedly will after the first of the year.
  • Syria, Libya, and the Arab League. Nowhere was the confusion over U.S. leadership more evident than in the discussion of Libya and Syria, which was hardly a surprise. On Syria, Clinton effectively stated that the U.S. has no influence over the Assad regime. She described Libya as a case for “strategic patience”—a phrase to rival “leading from behind” in sophistry. Furthermore, Clinton described the cooperation in Libya between NATO and the Arab League as the ultimate in “smart power.” Getting quite carried away, she actually said,” We want a lot of people to sing from the same hymn book.” An interesting analogy for the mostly Muslim countries. Presumably the Arab League will be issued an apology before the day is over.

Talking a good game about leadership is not the same as exerting it, and the United States under Clinton and Obama is not doing it. As one astute observer of the Clinton–Panetta discussion said afterward, “U.S. foreign policy at the closing of the Obama term looks like nothing so much as a game of musical chairs, and the United States doesn’t have a clue where to sit.”