Struggling to Control the Message, Hillary Clinton Completes Tough Trip Abroad

Tension and miscues mark secretary's visits to Pakistan and the Arab world.

November 4, 2009, 1:39 PM

Nov. 5, 2009— -- It has been a tough trip abroad for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguably her most challenging since becoming America's top diplomat.

Unlike previous trips where her star power outshined her critics, Clinton was confronted time and again in the past week with intense skepticism about U.S. policy during stops in Pakistan and the Arab world, and some of her remarks did more to ruffle feathers than iron out concerns.

During a three-day visit to Pakistan, Clinton sought to expand U.S. cooperation there beyond the controversial military and counterterrorism missions. She reached out to students and prominent journalists in town hall-style meetings and interviews where she announced hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance for humanitarian assistance, education, and energy projects.

The meetings were similar to those Clinton has held on every trip abroad, from India to Moscow, where her popularity ensured at least cordial interactions. In Pakistan, however, her celebrity proved no match for the skepticism of U.S. intentions among the population there.

Clinton was bombarded at every turn with questions, mostly pointed though polite and many grounded in fact, about the use of U.S. drone aircraft to attack top terror targets inside Pakistan, U.S. support for the government of former President Pervez Musharraf and strings attached to U.S. aid.

For the most part, Clinton parried each query deftly and tried to explain U.S. policy, separating fact from rumor. She did, however, appear exasperated at times. At a town hall meeting with students in Lahore, Clinton tried to convince them of the need to pursue terror targets in remote parts of the country.

"I mean, if you want to see your territory shrink, that's your choice," she said at one point. "But I don't think that's the right choice."

Later the same day, Clinton took off the diplomatic gloves and said bluntly what had been whispered by U.S. officials for years; that Pakistan had not made the necessary effort to go after top al Qaeda leadership believed to be hiding within its borders.

Secretary of State in Hot Water

"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," Clinton told a group of prominent newspaper editors. "And maybe that's the case. Maybe they're not getable. I don't know."

Asked Wednesday about the reception she received in Pakistan, Clinton told NPR in an interview: "They had this sort of pent-up frustration with the United States. And, as you know and as you saw, I listened and and tried to convey understanding of all of their questions about our policy, going back years.

"The reaction that I got in Pakistan was overwhelmingly positive and I've been reading a lot of the blogging and the reaction on the press in part because they're not used to anyone from the United States government coming and opening herself to their concerns. Theyre just used to having somebody say, 'Take it or leave it, with us or against us, go forward or not.' And, so, I think we're building a stronger base for our relationship," she added.

At her next stops in the Middle East, Clinton again found herself in hot water.

She waded into the delicate business of brokering Middle East peace where her comments with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked more unease among Arab countries at a time when Clinton is trying to bring the two sides together for peace talks.

"This is the tightrope of all tightropes, and I'm well aware of that," Clinton acknowledged in her NPR interview.

Clinton praised Netanyahu's plan to freeze new settlement construction for a period of months and called the decision to allow already approved projects to continue "unprecedented."

The remark, however, drew immediate fire from the Arab world, which perceived a softening of the Obama administration's position on settlements. Clinton and President Barack Obama had previously called for an end to all Israeli settlements.

At an earlier meeting that day with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Clinton had suggested Netanyahu's plan as a means to begin negotiations but Abbas' chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was later quoted as saying the deal was a non-starter.

Within a day, Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries with relations with Israel, issued statements supporting the Palestinian position and Clinton soon found herself on the defensive.

At meetings in Morocco Monday, Clinton sought to reassure Arab leaders, saying publicly that Netanyahu's plan was "not enough."

She reiterated her message the next day during interviews with Arabic language television networks al Jazeera and al Hurra at which she urged all leaders in attendance to do what they could to advance the peace process.

Still, regional opinion remained skeptical and Clinton hastily arranged a trip to Egypt to address Arab concerns in person.

Clinton Controls the Message

In Cairo this week, Clinton again rolled back her remarks on Netanyahu's settlements plan, saying the Obama administration believes settlement activity should be halted forever.

Her efforts appear to have paid off, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit telling reporters that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians should be restarted.

Asked by NPR whether her remark in Jerusalem had created any lasting damage to the peace process, Clinton replied: I don't think it created a long-term problem but it certainly created a lot of questions."

It marked a successful recovery for Clinton but she'll have little time to savor the victory.

After arriving back in Washington late Wednesday night, she was scheduled to spend two hectic days in her Foggy Bottom office as the Obama administration finalizes its plan on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan before she departs again this weekend for her next trip overseas.

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