Clinton's Travels Reveal Duality in Approach
Sunday, March 8, 2009
ANKARA, Turkey, March 7 -- When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with foreign officials, the initial welcome is formal, as in "Greetings, Madame Secretary." But invariably, the officials slip into calling her "Hillary" -- a global brand name on par with "Diana" or "Tiger."
Clinton's celebrity status -- and her skill at exploiting it -- were again apparent during her first visit as secretary to the Middle East and Europe this past week.
At a private dinner with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, she was the center of attention, patiently answering questions from her counterparts -- who took the unusual step of bursting into applause after the meal.
When she spoke to hundreds of young political activists at the European Parliament on Friday, President Hans-Gert Poettering gushed that there is "enormous goodwill toward you" in Europe. He later paid her what he probably considered the ultimate compliment -- that her answers "mostly could have been said by Europeans."
But compared with her visit to Asia last month, this trip had a different diplomat on display.
In Asia, Clinton generated headlines with frank remarks, such as when she questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and said she expected to make little progress on human rights in China.
This week, she was more cautious, especially in the Middle East. She was often careful to hew to talking points, and her answers to reporters' questions were more opaque. She also was less available for sustained give-and-take with the reporters traveling with her. Not counting short news conferences, she conducted one briefing for reporters on her plane in seven days of travel.
In Israel, she never publicly mentioned long-standing U.S. concerns about settlement expansion in Palestinian territories. When questioned about settlements in Ramallah, on the West Bank, she avoided uttering a word that might have upset Israeli leaders: Instead of "settlements," she referred to "that issue."
Clinton conducted no interviews with Israeli media, even though secretaries of state generally take time to meet with Israeli reporters. Nor did she meet with Palestinian reporters; instead, she met with a group of high school students, who asked her mostly personal questions.
But, in contrast to the "listening tour" of Asia, Clinton was much more diplomatically active. Throughout the week, she engineered an effort to reach out to nations, especially adversaries, that the Bush administration had spurned.
She dispatched two senior U.S. diplomats to meet with top Syrian officials on Saturday; she extended an invitation to Iran to be part of an international gathering on Afghanistan; and she tried to "reset" relations with Russia by winning NATO approval to restore high-level meetings and by having dinner with her Russian counterpart.
In each case, Clinton said she would look for areas in which the countries could work with the United States, while acknowledging and confronting topics of disagreement.