Low-profile Clinton emerges for major speech

The secretary of state emerges from behind the scenes

By Vincent Rossmeier
July 15, 2009 11:01PM (UTC)
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Since she became secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has traveled to nearly two dozen countries but has largely stayed out of the media spotlight. On Wednesday afternoon, though, she stepped back into it, delivering what the administration billed as a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Everything about the speech appeared to be an attempt to present Clinton as a powerful leader on world affairs despite her relative invisibility thus far: An administration official described the address as "muscular" and Politico's Ben Smith noted that "The seating chart ... seems designed to beat back the perception that high-profile envoys have diminished her power; Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, and Dennis Ross are seated in the front row."


The speech itself reiterated many of the Obama administration's foreign policy goals, with Clinton outlining six major priorities, including increased commitments to stopping nuclear proliferation and supporting human rights around the world. But a significant part of the speech was a defense of the administration's commitment to diplomacy -- even in the case of Iran. While she called the Iranian government's recent violent reaction to the protests over the nation's election "deplorable and unacceptable," Clinton said that the administration will continue to try to engage Iran in dialogue, though she added, according to her prepared remarks, that the U.S.'s patience was not unlimited:

Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success ... But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation ... We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage ... Yet some suggest that this is a sign of weakness or naiveté -- or acquiescence to these countries' repression of their own people. That is wrong. The President and I believe that refusing to talk to countries rarely punishes them. And as long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table. Negotiations can provide insight into regimes' calculations and the possibility -- even if it seems remote -- that a regime will, eventually, alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community.

Clinton advocated the use of "smart power" that begins with diplomacy. However, in keeping with the assertive nature of the address, she also offered some strong words for any potential enemies of the U.S., saying:

Not everybody in the world wishes us well or shares our values and interests. Some will seek to undermine our efforts. In those cases, our partnerships will help constrain or deter their actions ... And to these foes and would-be foes, let me say: You should know that our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. You should never see America’s willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends and ourselves vigorously when necessary with the world’s strongest military. This is not an option we seek. Nor is it a threat; it is a promise to the American people.

Clinton urged the Arab nations to take a more active role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also emphasized the U.S.'s ability to take responsibility for its actions and misdeeds, citing the nation's involvement in the Mexican drug trade, duty to curb global warming and goal of shutting down Guantanamo Bay as examples.


Even if Clinton -- and the administration -- intended the speech to be her return to the spotlight,  the major cable news networks didn't play along. Both CNN and Fox News opted to continue their coverage of the Sotomayor hearings and the developing Florida murder mystery rather than air Clinton's speech in full. Interestingly, the White House also scheduled remarks by President Obama at the same time Clinton was addressing the CFR.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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