Clinton engaging on the world stage

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 9, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speeches and interviews during her recent whirlwind, three-day visit to India offer quite a few lessons.

Take, for example, her handling of the effort to get India to reduce — if not eliminate — its purchases of crude oil from Iran. The idea, of course, is to strengthen the sanctions against Iran in hopes of preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

India and China have been Iran’s major customers. And India’s appetite for oil will increase 3.2 percent this year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Until recently, Iran had been India’s No. 2 supplier, after Saudi Arabia, some 350,000 barrels a day last year, or almost 10 percent of its annual oil needs. But this year India’s refineries cut back on their purchases of oil from Iran, and by 2013 India’s imports from Iran are expected to drop to 7 percent of its needs.

“India has reduced its dependence on Iranian oil,” Clinton said Tuesday during a CNN interview. “I know their refineries have stopped asking for orders to purchase Iranian oil, so they certainly have taken steps.”

She also pointed out that her energy coordinator, Ambassador Carlos Pascual, was coming to India to offer suggestions for alternative sources of oil.

But Clinton later took it a step further, showing that she understood the price of the sanctions for India’s leaders.

“If you’re an Indian politician or an Indian business owner or an Indian citizen who is desperate to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and get them electricity and, you know, keep the lights on, this is a hard decision for them, because they have been historically looking to Iran for a significant percentage of their oil,” she told a National Public Radio interviewer.

Her statement took me back 50 years to one of the first things I learned from Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), then the renowned chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“If you don’t understand the domestic problems of the country you are dealing with, you cannot have a successful foreign policy,” Fulbright told me. Every country’s foreign policy, including that of the United States, is rooted in its domestic policies, he said.

Clinton arrived in India after spending the previous week in China, having participated in the wide-ranging Strategic and Economic Dialogue as well as negotiating over the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, legal activist.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Clinton discussed the gains created during the past three years through “personal relationships and understanding between [Chinese] individuals and our government institutions that are absolutely critical for us to be able to discuss the full range of challenges we both face.”

She expanded on an earlier statement in China about finding a way for an “established power,” meaning the United States, to coexist with “a rising power,” China.

“The United States is going to remain a power, the predominant power economically, politically, militarily, for a long time to come,” she said. “We recognize that China is a rising power. There will not always be a convergence of our interests or even our perceptions about what is happening in the world. So how we manage this relationship is absolutely critical to peace, security, prosperity, individual freedoms — you name it.”

In short, powerful nations should always keep talking at different levels because “we need to be sure that no issue predominates or undermines the potential for reaching agreement on other equally important issues.”

The secretary of state also showed her passion for young people, and particularly women — subjects outside the normal diplomatic field.

On Monday she spoke at the prestigious La Martiniere School for Girls in Kolkata, India.

She told the audience that she appears at such institutions because “for me, the work that I do every single day, the miles that I fly, are about trying to see what all of us together can be doing to bring peace and prosperity to the world, because most of the world’s population are young people. That’s true in India, but it’s true in most places in the East, and particularly in Asia and South and East Asia.

“It’s a little difficult actually getting out and around as a first lady or as a secretary of state, but we’ve really tried to break through the official boundaries,” she said.

The day before she had met with “extraordinary young women who’ve been rescued from the sex trade and who are being worked with by a variety of organizations here in West Bengal.”

Why did she do it? Because, she said, “To talk to them about their lives helps to put the work that I do on the official level into a broader perspective, because for me it’s really about whether or not at the end of the day those of us in these positions have made life better for people or not.”

If you know Clinton, you know she believes that.

Her plans for her future come up all the time, and it was no different in India.

At La Martiniere School she said she “was very excited” when she ran for president and “there will be an election that will elect a woman, but I think our political system is about the most difficult to navigate for men and women, but particularly for women.”

Asked directly why she had been “saying no to 2016” and another presidential race, Clinton said, “I feel like it’s time for me to kind of step off the high wire. I’ve been involved at the highest levels of American politics for 20 years now, and I’d like to come back to India and just wander around without having (laughter) the streets be closed and a lot of security around. I just want to get back to taking some deep breaths, feeling like there’s other ways that I can continue to serve.”

That’s the real Hillary.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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