Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tense exchanges with Pakistani civilians and Arab diplomats over a harrowing week of foreign stops exposed the confining limits of her office.
On her most ambitious and contentious overseas trip as secretary of state, Clinton had to resort to damage control after she appeared to mangle the Obama administration’s message on frozen Mideast peace talks.
And while she scored points back home by standing up to angry Pakistanis who confronted her about drone-launched U.S. missile strikes, her blunt questioning of the resolve of Pakistan’s government exposed American impatience with the country’s incremental steps against terrorists.
In each case her extraordinarily public approach to diplomacy – for better or worse – reflected not only her personal style but also President Barack Obama’s promise to reach out openly to friend as well as foe.
What remains less clear is whether Clinton’s hot-button politician’s persona works any better at producing international results – let alone clarity – than a more classic diplomat’s cooler tact.
There were no breakthroughs, and it’s too early to know how her public and behind-the-scenes performances in Pakistan, Abu Dhabi, Israel, Morocco and Egypt will play out. But Clinton emphatically followed through on a pledge she made last month when she said the time had come for the U.S. government to communicate more aggressively abroad and challenge U.S. critics on their own turf.
From here on, she said then, “we’re going to be in the mix and we’re going to be in the mix every day.”
It is a boldly political take on taking on the world, and Clinton is relying on some of her old campaign trail tricks and moxie to press America’s case.
In Pakistan, she aggressively sold the administration’s stance against al-Qaida during several crowded “town hall” public forums that had been her stock-in-trade during the 2008 presidential primary run against Obama.
But despite finding some success in Africa and Asia earlier this year communicating Clintonian warmth with foreign audiences, Lahore was not Portsmouth, N.H.
And a brash in-your-face style that won voters’ hearts and minds in the U.S. may have come off as confrontational to skeptical Pakistan civilians who responded in kind.
In Lahore, Clinton certainly won domestic consumption brownie points by saying what many Americans have complained about for years – that Pakistan’s government had done little to root out al-Qaida’s upper echelon.
“Al-Qaida has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002,” she said bluntly. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to. And maybe that’s the case. Maybe they’re not getable. I don’t know.”
Pakistan’s leaders were not pleased – waiting until Clinton departed to slap back. But even when she had a second chance to scale back her remarks, Clinton softened them only by a hair.
She also dinged Pakistan’s leaders for diminishing their standing in Washington by complaining about tough new conditions set by Congress for providing billions in new aid.
“For the United States Congress to pass a bill unanimously, saying that we want to give $7.5 billion to Pakistan in a time of global recession when we have a 10 percent unemployment rate, and then for Pakistani press and others to say, ‘We don’t want that,’ that’s insulting,” she said.
That wasn’t what the Pakistani government wanted to hear, but it seemed to reflect Clinton’s determination to show the Pakistanis that they can complain about U.S. counterterrorism tactics and about strings attached to U.S. aid – but not without hearing the administration’s own concerns.
Clinton’s toughened public stance was less in evidence, though, when she turned to the stymied Mideast peace process. Instead of bluntness, she struggled repeatedly to cater to both Israeli and Arab concerns, making no headway in getting either side to move closer.
In Jerusalem, trying to mollify Israeli reluctance to agree to halt all future settlements as a pretext to renewed peace talks with Palestinians, Clinton floated an Israeli proposal that would restrain – but not stop – more West Bank housing.
Palestinian and Arab diplomats reacted with outrage, and the Clinton who had been tough in Pakistan was forced to backpedal. Arab officials questioned whether the U.S. had tilted toward Israel and abandoned its position that continued Israel settlements are illegitimate and must be brought to a full stop.
Clinton’s comments reflected a realization within the Obama administration that conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will not accept a full-on settlement freeze and that a partial halt might be the best lesser option. Her appeal seemed designed to make the Israeli position more palatable to the Palestinians and Arab states.
Clinton had traveled to the region reluctantly, concerned her visit might be perceived as a failure without clear results, according to several U.S. officials. She agreed to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders after pressure from the White House, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.
In Marrakesh, Morocco, two days after her controversial comments in Jerusalem, Clinton issued what she called a clarification. But she was dogged by questions about the settlements issue for the rest of her time abroad.
Asked Wednesday before departing for Washington what she believed she had accomplished, Clinton focused on the depth of the challenges she faced, not on what the trip delivered – or failed to deliver.
“Every issue that we touched on during this trip is complicated and difficult,” she said. “Each requires patience, perseverance and determination to see them through. If these were easy questions with simple answers, I wouldn’t have made this trip.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – Robert Burns has been covering national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.