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Clinton's Candor Abroad Draws Mixed Reviews

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

BEIJING, Feb. 22 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's blunt and unadorned style of diplomacy has been evident throughout her first trip as secretary of state the past week in Asia. She questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and admitted that she expected to make little progress on human rights in China.

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To a certain extent, these comments crossed taboo lines in international diplomacy. U.S. officials generally do not say their sanctions have failed, or speculate about the future government of another country, or suggest that a carefully watched human rights dialogue is largely a farce.

Clinton's willingness to speak frankly -- combined with an extensive effort to get beyond ministerial meetings in order to hold town hall meetings and conduct local television interviews in the countries she visits -- suggests she will put a distinctive personal stamp on the Obama administration's foreign policy. What is emerging is something less rigid, less cautious and more open.

Before her meetings in Beijing, for instance, Clinton said she would raise human rights issues with Chinese officials, "but we pretty much know what they're going to say."

Clinton's comments have stirred outrage in the human rights community, where she was viewed as a hero for having confronted the Chinese government in 1995 over its record. Activists say that without public, sustained international pressure on human rights issues, nothing will change in China.

Clinton says she does not understand the fuss. In her view, speaking clearly -- and not obfuscating through diplomatic artifice -- helps enhance the policy, rather than undermine it.

"I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking," Clinton told reporters traveling with her. "And I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious."

Before leaving China on Sunday, Clinton wrapped up her week-long trip by visiting a state-sanctioned church and then meeting 23 women involved in legal, poverty and health-care organizations aimed at helping women and promoting gender equality.

Many of the women had previously met Clinton when she was the first lady or a senator. The one-hour session underscored Clinton's contention that working with such nongovernmental civic organizations can do as much to promote women's rights and human rights as does jawboning the Chinese government.

Gao Yaojie, an 82-year-old AIDS activist, told Clinton of being monitored and hassled by government agencies, declaring, "I am not afraid." But several others told the secretary of state that grass-roots organizations have grown fast and have had an increasing impact on Chinese society since they first met with her more than a decade ago.

In foreign policy circles, Clinton's remarks on human rights have stirred consternation that she is giving up possible leverage with China before any dialogue has begun. Others say that she is inviting criticism from Capitol Hill and human rights groups that undermines her ability as a diplomat.

But some experts have defended her, saying she should be commended for speaking frankly. The Bush administration was frequently criticized for having a hypocritical approach to human rights, claiming to promote freedom but treating differently friends and foes with similarly poor human rights records.


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