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Clinton moves quickly on diplomatic fronts

The secretary of State was greeted with applause in the Middle East and Europe, but she and the administration face hard work ahead.

March 08, 2009|Paul Richter
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears on a talk show during a visit to Ankara, Turkey, Mar. 7, 2009.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears on a talk show during a visit… (Osman Orsal / Associated…)

GENEVA — If anyone doubted that the "restart" button has been pushed on U.S. diplomacy, look no further than the T-shirt worn by a young gay rights advocate at a question-and-answer session in Belgium last week: "I [Heart] Hillary."

"I must call on this young man," the new secretary of State said.

In her trip through the Middle East and Europe last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton was warmly received in most places by audiences who are fascinated by the life of the former first lady -- and delighted that George W. Bush resides once more in Texas.

She was applauded vigorously by reporters at a news conference in Egypt, a highly unusual gesture from Arab journalists toward a U.S. official. Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, some of whom felt shut out by the Bush administration, grilled her in a private meeting on the Obama administration's intentions, then applauded as well.

Love-fests aside, Clinton moved with a speed few expected on her second voyage as secretary of State. Billed as no more than a modest "listening tour," Clinton's trip offered the most complete picture yet of how the new administration hopes to overhaul American relations with the world.

Clinton took steps toward possible new relationships with Syria and Iran that could redraw the map of the Middle East. She declared herself committed to plowing ahead to build a separate state for Palestinians, despite widespread skepticism about the prospects for such a project.

She held the administration's first high-level meeting with the Russians, trying to build a relationship around President Obama's willingness to take a new look at the controversial missile defense system that the Bush administration began erecting in Eastern Europe.

Yet the Obama administration's initiatives that intrigued the world last week merely represented an opening bid. The offers of better ties that Clinton put in motion followed the advice that the White House has been getting from many sides -- moderate Arab states and the Europeans, among other world powers.

In many ways, this was the easy part. The hard part, some administration officials acknowledge, lies ahead.

The administration has now made a series of gestures to try to win over the Syrians to a better relationship, a change that could deprive Iran, and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, of a key source of support. But the Syrians have done little in return.

Clinton proposed an international meeting on Afghanistan that could bring together U.S. and Iranian officials to collaborate on a subject of mutual concern. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said at his weekly news briefing Saturday that Tehran was willing to contribute to security in Afghanistan, and suggested that it might attend the meeting.

"We are ready to help Afghanistan any way possible," Hassan Qashqavi said in response to a question about the conference, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, applauded the administration's moves and promised to collaborate on issues such as arms treaties, Iran and nonproliferation. But the Russians left the U.S. side still uncertain about a chief concern: a Russian contract to sell long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

And Lavrov's body language seemed to suggest that he hasn't lost his taste for tweaking the Americans, as he did often during the Bush years. Russia's top diplomat needled Clinton because her staff had misspelled a Russian word on a small gift she gave him.

Clinton acknowledged that the other side may not be won over easily, or, in some cases, at all. She told an Arab foreign minister who was worried about a possible U.S.-Iranian alliance not to fret, because the Iranians probably wouldn't agree to negotiations with the United States on their nuclear ambitions, a senior U.S. official said.

In fact, when speaking of the U.S. overtures, Clinton said in almost the same breath that the United States was prepared to go ahead without the other countries, if necessary. In the case of Iran, she said that once the United States had exhausted its diplomatic channel, it would begin arguing to allies that they now had no choice but to intensify economic and political pressure on the Islamic state.

The secretary, who has made two long trips in three weeks, was mostly sure-footed in her public appearances, but in Brussels she showed some fatigue.

In appearances Friday, she mispronounced the names of two European Union officials and said that American democracy "has been around far longer than European democracy." The statement brought clucking from the crowd, who remembered Greece's democratic past.

And Clinton's foray into Middle East diplomacy suggested more hard work is ahead.

Her goal of continuing work toward a Palestinian state was applauded by many world leaders, but it appears to put her at odds with Israel's likely next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still trying to form a coalition government. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party, has been skeptical of recent efforts to create a separate state.

Palestinians were cheered last week when Clinton criticized Israel's plans to raze 88 houses in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to make room for an archaeological and historical center. But they noted she was going no further on the issue than the Bush administration had, and that she did not refer to the Israeli presence in the West Bank as an "occupation," as Bush once did.

So it appeared that not everyone was as sure of a fresh start with the new U.S. administration.

The Palestinian newspaper Al Quds complained that she was now "Condoleezza Clinton."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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