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There are, however, three qualities that could make her a memorable Secretary of State. She brings a vision of departmental reform the need to elevate foreign aid programs to the same status and rigorous scrutiny as diplomacy that could change striped pants into chinos in the developing world. She is also the first elected politician to hold the office since Edmund Muskie briefly did during the Carter Administration, which has enabled her to better understand and interact with the politicians who run places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. But most important, she is an international celebrity with a much higher profile than any of her recent predecessors and the ability second only to the President's to change negative attitudes about the U.S. abroad.
She has the potential to become the most powerful public diplomat the U.S. has fielded in quite some time, although her performance so far, at home and abroad, has occasionally been perplexing. At home, she has often seemed tentative and deferential. In a conversation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aired by CNN in early October, Clinton's cautious formality took a backseat to Gates' brisk, humorous confidence on policy issues. Abroad, she seems far more confident, at times to the point of recklessness, as in Jerusalem.
Independence and Candor
In the last week of October, Secretary Clinton moved squarely to the center of the world stage, attempting, at the behest of her special envoys, to improve the rocky alliance with Pakistan and nudge the Middle East pugilists into talks. In the course of the trip, there were the first stray wisps of a hint that Clinton wanted to begin asserting her independence, as the Administration, facing roadblocks across the world, struggled for a firmer foreign policy tone after an opening nine months that might be called the Rodney King "Can't we all just get along?" phase.
During her three days in Pakistan, she ran a gauntlet of town-hall meetings and media interviews that may have been unprecedented, to use the word of the week, for a U.S. Secretary of State. The trip, planned by Holbrooke and Pakistan specialist Vali Nasr, offered an unusually subtle itinerary for a U.S. diplomatic mission. A visit to a Sufi mosque that had been bombed by Sunni extremists, for example, sent a powerful message to Pakistan's moderate Islamic majority. "We saw her praying there," an academic named Shala Aziz told me, "and, for the first time, I'm thinking, The Americans have hearts."
The big news was that Clinton allowed herself to be hammered with hostile questions from students, talk-show hosts and Pashtun elders and that, on occasion, she pushed back, raising incredibly sensitive issues, like why no one in the Pakistani government knew where Osama bin Laden was, even though he had been in the country since 2002. Press accounts either emphasized the embarrassment of a Secretary of State's getting pummeled or fixed on Clinton's undiplomatic bluntness. But they missed the point: her candor, her willingness to listen to and acknowledge criticism, had begun to undermine the prevailing Pakistani image of the U.S. as arrogant and bossy, more interested in having the Pakistani military fight its war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban than in having a true strategic partnership. The contrast was especially sharp after George W. Bush's eight years of unqualified support for the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. "In the past, when the Americans came, they would talk to the generals and go home," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a government spokeswoman and Member of Parliament. "Clinton's willingness to meet with everyone, hostile or not, has made a big impression and because she's Hillary Clinton, with a real history of affinity for this country, it means so much more."
There are no toasts at state dinners in Pakistan, because there is no alcohol. There are opening statements, though, and Clinton's delivered impromptu on the first night of her trip after tossing aside her notes was surprisingly emotional. Earlier in the day, President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, had presented the Secretary with an album of photos from her first visit to Pakistan, in 1995, and a framed photo of Bhutto and her two sons with Clinton and daughter Chelsea. "It did bring tears to my eyes," Clinton said at the state dinner in her honor at the presidential palace, "because I so admired your wife. She gave her life ..." She faltered then, choking up, but quickly pulled herself together, talking about the "reasons why we do what we do to provide opportunities for all."
Clinton's first trip to Pakistan as First Lady in 1995 had been a transformative experience for her the beginning, I believe, of the process that made her a plausible candidate for Secretary of State. I traveled with her on that trip; when we set off, she seemed depressed and even more private than usual. The Democrats had cratered in the 1994 congressional elections, and she had been trounced in her efforts to enact a universal health care plan. It was a very personal defeat; as Clinton traveled the country trying to sell the plan, crowds shouted her down and cursed her. Privately she admitted she was shocked by the hatred. The trip to South Asia seemed a bit of a vacation it was Chelsea's spring break but also a retreat to a more demure, First Ladylike role after two years as health care policy czar, although it proceeded in a decidedly wonky, Hillarian fashion. Jackie Kennedy had gone to India and famously ridden an elephant; Hillary Clinton traveled to five countries and packed her schedule with visits to NGOs.