Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy wonk

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Journal.
January 27, 2016

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Journal.

That led me to wonder: Did Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton really  write an op-ed for the Jewish Journal?

Sure, the Journal, with millions of monthly readers around the world, is now a global community paper. Last August, the White House tweeted that the Jewish Journal is “one of the most widely read Jewish publications online,” which is true, especially if you don’t include The New York Times.

But still, I had a hard time envisioning Hillary Clinton sitting at her desk in a Hanover, N.H., hotel room, pouring another whiskey, tossing one after another crumpled-up draft on the floor and telling her assistant she’d call Bill back after she’s nailed this damn Jewish Journal thing.

A more likely scenario is that someone well versed in foreign policy and perfectly synced to Clinton’s point of view on Israel, ISIS and Iran sent us the draft. Not Hillary, but Hillary-adjacent.

That’s why, when I interviewed Laura Rosenberger the following week, one of my questions was: Did you write the op-ed?

Rosenberger is the foreign-policy adviser to the Clinton campaign. When I asked her how many paid staff are on her team, she allowed herself a laugh. The answer is: Laura Rosenberger. Her role is a window not just into the leviathan that is the modern major presidential campaign, but also into the foreign policy thinking of someone who may very well be our next president.

Rosenberger is 35, friendly, direct and familiar, the voice of someone you went to camp with, but probably smarter.

She describes herself as a wonk with a social-activist bent, which she credits to her religious background.

“So if you look at foreign policy,” said Rosenberger, who, like most millennials, is prone to start her most important sentences with “So,” “many different issues have inequality sort of at their core. And I would say that, for me, actually, I do think that comes from my Jewish roots. Passover is my favorite holiday, because I find very much a driving mission for myself in this, the obligation of the Jewish people who have been free from oppression ourselves to root out oppression wherever we see it.”

Rosenberger grew up in the South Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh, where her mother helped found the Jewish Community Center. The family belonged to the Reform movement: Temple Emanuel, travel to Israel with Young Judea, and summer each year at Emma Kaufmann Camp.

“I think we tripled the Jewish population of West Virginia every summer,” she said.

As her senior year at Penn State began, Rosenberger was torn between working in domestic or foreign policy. That’s when she turned on the television and watched terrorists take down the twin towers.

“This will sound a little bit cheesy,” she said, “but the honest truth is, I woke up on Sept. 12, and I said, ‘This is what I need to do with my life.’ To do everything possible to ensure that that never, ever happens again.”

After earning a master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service, she landed a two-year fellowship at the State Department. And when that was done, she stayed — taking on positions in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs and on the Korea desk. Promoted to special assistant to the undersecretary for political affairs, she traveled to Cambodia to work on Khmer Rouge war crimes and reconciliation. Rosenberger went on to manage a political unit that provided support and briefing materials for diplomats involved in the U.S. and Chinese bilateral relationship.

China was the subject of Rosenberger’s first meeting with Secretary of State Clinton. Clinton surprised the new hire by asking specifically about individual Chinese dams on the Tibetan plateau.

“She knew their names,” Rosenberger said. “And she knew the names of the rivers they were on, and she knew the larger strategic implications of allowing the Chinese to control the water resources in the region, and the implications of that for South Asia — particularly India.”

The combination of Clinton’s grasp of the details, as well as her ability to see the big picture, wowed Rosenberger. When Rosenberger’s boss at State, Jake Sullivan, joined the Clinton campaign as its policy director, he asked Rosenberger to come on board.

While Clinton hits the campaign trail, Rosenberger divides her time between Washington, D.C., and New York City. 

Her 18-hour days begin around 6 a.m., when she reviews the morning’s briefing paper that was prepared even earlier by campaign interns. She emails that to Clinton, then spends the rest of the day meeting with campaign staff and advisers from dozens of foreign-policy advisory teams, grouped by region. She works with senior staff and the communications team to help convey what Clinton thinks. Then there are fundraisers, public speaking and research. She collapses around midnight, sleeps a few hours and starts over. I asked if she had a partner, children. She does not.

“I have colleagues who do this with young children,” she said. “They’re the ones that really amaze me.”

As for the occasional op-ed, such as the one for the Jewish Journal, she refused to take credit. It’s a very collaborative effort, she said, and Clinton herself is engaged at every step.

“But surely someone had to type it,” I said.

Rosenberger stuck to her guns.

“It’s a collaborative effort.”

I ran through the main points of the op-ed, the stances we got the most reaction to.

I asked whether the former secretary was having any second thoughts about the Iran nuclear deal she supported.

“No,” Rosenberger said. “She was very clear that the deal isn’t perfect, but she believes that, on balance, it is best, looking at the various options that we have. We’re in a better position to address those activities when dealing with an Iran that does not have a nuclear weapon than we would be if we were dealing with an Iran that has a nuclear weapon.”

Then what would President Hillary Clinton do about Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles without derailing the nuclear agreement?

Rosenberger said Clinton would use sanctions to target the “bad actors, the individuals, the companies, the networks that are facilitating these kinds of activities.”

I asked if Clinton would restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I think she’s very realistic about the fact that it’s a difficult time right now on these issues,” Rosenberger said. “At the same time, she continues to believe that a two-state solution is the only sustainable path, and thinks that we really need to make sure we continue to look at ways to do that in the future. I don’t think that she has any illusions about how easy or hard this would be.”

In a campaign season dominated by the lack of nuance (“We’ll bomb the desert into glass”) and the sense that candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders speak directly from the gut, no advisers allowed, I wonder whether Clinton’s — and Rosenberger’s — predilection for nuance, depth and collaboration will help or hurt.

These days, Rosenberger sees very little of her former boss at the State Department. But in Rosenberger’s best-case scenario, I asked, would she want to accompany Hillary Clinton into the White House, maybe celebrate Passover, her favorite holiday, there?

Rosenberger tried for a rehearsed answer — something about what an honor it’s been to serve — then stopped herself.

“Let’s get through Iowa first.”

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

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