Globalist Perspective

Hillary Clinton Does Macedonia

Do First Ladies really need a seat in The Situation Room to either influence U.S. policy — or understand how it is made?

Speaking about foreign policy experience…


  • There was hardly any media coverage of the visit to Macedonia at all. No wonder. There wasn't meant to be.
  • As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton did have a security clearance but didn't attend National Security Council meetings.
  • First Ladies do not necessarily need a seat in The Situation Room to either influence policy — or understand how it is made.
  • In retrospect, it might seem odd to have asked a First Lady to make a trip into what was effectively a war zone.

There is a growing debate over the scope of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience. It has been argued, for example, that to have influenced US foreign policy she would have needed a security clearance — and a seat at National Security Council meetings.

As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton did have a security clearance but didn’t attend National Security Council meetings. So, the argument goes, she has exaggerated her involvement in the creation of U.S. foreign policy and therefore her foreign policy experience.

The problem with this argument is that I saw her play a significant role in the management of a U.S. foreign policy crisis and the world knows that First Ladies do not necessarily need a seat in The Situation Room to either influence policy — or understand how it is made.

It was May 1999 and I was traveling with Hillary Clinton to Macedonia as the National Security Council staffer responsible for Southeast Europe. NATO’s bombing campaign was still going on — and the First Lady was traveling to the most fragile of the frontline states in the Kosovo war with a message from the President.

The message was:

Milosevic will not succeed in his policy of ethnic cleansing and regional destabilization;
America appreciates Macedonia’s efforts to care for the refugees and is committed to the country’s long-term economic well being.
Macedonia must not close its border to Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing the war.

She delivered the message to the two most important political figures in Macedonia at the time — President Gligorov and Prime Minister Georgievski.

They responded by first underscoring the difficulties they faced in hosting 14,000 NATO troops and 240,000 refugees on Macedonian soil in the face of sometimes violent street demonstrations and constant threats of Serb retaliation.

They then assured her that Macedonia would allow many more refugees to cross the border so long as the international community shared in their costs and continued to evacuate a portion to third countries. While it has been pointed out that the government actually opened the border the day before her arrival, her impending visit almost certainly played a role in the reversal.

Had the Macedonian government not been persuaded by her arguments during the visit, moreover, it could have reclosed the border after she left — and criticized the bombing campaign next door. That would have won points at home, but seriously undermined the war effort by encouraging other countries in the region with similar issues to defect.

In retrospect, it might seem odd to have asked a First Lady to make a trip into what was effectively a war zone. At the time, however, it made perfect sense because Macedonia was key to maintaining the stability of a volatile region and needed immediate attention.

In the conduct of foreign policy, high-level trips are often used to create and move policy. In this case, much of the government’s attention was, by necessity, focused on the military campaign itself rather than the regional fall-out. For Macedonia, however, the bombing campaign and refugee outflow were crippling its economy, undermining its ethnic balance — and threatening the stability of its fragile three-party coalition.

Hillary Clinton became the U.S. government’s perfect emissary to shore up Macedonia’s resolve and address the developing economic and humanitarian crisis in the region. I saw her trip in this light — and so did Macedonia’s leadership.

The day before she arrived in Macedonia, President Clinton had given one of his most detailed speeches to date on the atrocities committed in Kosovo by Yugoslav forces and the importance of the NATO bombing campaign in forcing President Milosevic to accept NATO’s war aims.

I remember the two of them talking on the phone late that night to review the situation. I also remember wondering if she ever went to sleep.

After the call, she insisted that we go over the financial assistance numbers one more time to be sure that we were not just making them up and could actually deliver on the promise of economic aid.

The next day, when we arrived in Skopje, there were none of the usual accoutrements of a “symbolic” visit. We flew to Macedonia in a cargo plane to avoid detection by Serb missiles. We arrived without any publicity or fanfare — so as not to inflame passions on the ground, where anti-war protests already had targeted the U.S. Embassy.

Mrs. Clinton’s first stop was the Stenkovic refugee camp. While there, she heard the refugees’ personal stories, some of which visibly shook her.

Mrs. Clinton later met with leaders of the business community, who were concerned about the economic impact of the war. She learned about companies that had been shut down as a result of lost orders and slow downs.

In response, the First Lady underscored the U.S. commitment to help Macedonia, pointed to the supplemental appropriation the Clinton Administration was seeking from the U.S. Congress, and highlighted America’s cooperation with the EU on the creation of a Stability Pact for Southeast Europe.

By any diplomatic measure, Mrs. Clinton’s trip was a big success. Macedonia permitted thousands of refugees to cross the border, the leadership of this fledgling democracy held together — and, as an emissary of the President, her trip successfully galvanized the U.S. foreign policy community into finding ways to support Macedonia and the other countries in the region.

Mrs. Clinton also raised the profile of the Kosovo refugees and paved the way for her husband’s visit to the Stenkovic refugee camp a month later.

From my years of experience in government, I know that a “symbolic” visit usually means lots of food and photo opportunities. As has recently been noted in the press, there was hardly any media coverage of this visit at all. No wonder. There wasn’t meant to be. That’s the nature of diplomacy in a high stakes conflict zone. Mrs. Clinton fit the role perfectly.

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