Secretary Clinton to the Fore

This afternoon, in her most high-profile remarks yet in her capacity as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton articulated a sweeping view of United States foreign policy, from Iran to the Middle East to Europe. She argued that a greater emphasis on diplomacy, cooperation, and engagement, coupled with traditional power, would strengthen American interests and modernize global institutions in the 21st century.

In an hour-long speech and then a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Clinton peppered her remarks with personal notes last heard on the campaign trail. But she mostly focused on making the case for what she again called "smart power," a common sense approach to international affairs that stressed common interests even with countries less-than-sympathetic to the United States.

She said the administration did not have the luxury of avoiding "trying to do too much" because so many critical issues and conflicts hung in the balance, and that the United States needed to address the "urgent, important and the long-term all at once."

"We have the right president," she said, significantly, and "now all we have to do is deliver."

Clinton made a point of lingering over some of the most tangled international conflicts and greatest obstacles to American security.

On Iran, Clinton said the administration happily watched the "energy" with which Iranians voted in presidential elections, but observed electoral "irregularities," and was then "appalled" by the violent crackdown that followed the demonstrations protesting the accounting of that vote.

As a result, she said, the Obama administration's invitation to greater dialogue between the two nations had been adversely affected.

"Prospects have certainly shifted in the weeks following the election," she said.

But she did not take the possibility of diplomatic engagement off the table, saying the Bush administration had essentially outsourced American foreign policy on Iran and suffered for it.

"I want to be in the middle," she said.

She addressed critics who have argued that the Obama administration's policy of engaging Iran is both naïve and dangerous by saying, "We know very well what we inherited with Iran," and acknowledged that Iran had failed to take positive steps to convince the international community that it was not seeking to build nuclear weapons.  (Iran, she said, "doesn't have a right" to nuclear weapons.)

But Clinton argued that there was a benefit in purely "offering to engage Iran," though she also argued that "the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."

Later, during a question-and-answer session, she reiterated that point, saying, "This is not a door that stays open no matter what happens," but also refused to discuss, so as not to negotiate in public, what the United States would do if Iran did not positively engage, continued to seek nuclear power outside of the international framework, and generally continued to act in a way threatening to the United States and Israel.

On Israel, Clinton also broached the issue of settlement activity, a contentious subject that has led to sharp disagreements between the Israeli and United States governments, as well as fueling debate at home about Israeli policy.

"We have been working with the Israelis on the issue of settlements," she said, later refusing, again to avoid stepping on negotiations, to comment on whether the United States would now consider supporting settlement growth that had already begun to continue, which would undercut her previously unequivocal comments that all settlement growth had to stop.

The Obama administration has succeeded in convincing traditionally hawkish defenders of Israel here in the United States to cut it some slack in putting demands on Israel on the settlement issue, as long as the United States also required sacrifices and progress from the Palestinians.

Along those lines, Clinton was careful to add that "while we expect action from Israel, we respect that these issues are politically challenging."

Clinton, who was a dependable pro-Israel hawk during her tenure as a senator from New York, made clear that it was not up to the "the United States or Israel alone" to bring peace to the region and called on Palestinians to "refrain from any action that would make any meaningful negotiation less likely."

And she put the onus on neighboring Arab states to help foster peace in the region.

"The Saudi peace proposal was a positive step but we believe that more is needed," she said. "Sending messages of peace is not enough."

When asked about the administration's approach to Hamas, and whether it would consider bringing them into negotiations, she held fast to the quartet principle that Hamas needed to renounce violence, recognize Israel and hold to previously agreed upon treaties before they would be welcomed as a constructive partner.

More broadly speaking, Clinton said that the Bush administration's failure to live up the nation's ideals in recent years had hampered its ability to lead, but "it is temporary," she said.

Then she provided what was intended as a blueprint for that new leadership.

She reasserted the centrality of American leadership in the world but emphasized solving problems in concert with other nations. Along with traditional issues in the portfolio of the secretary of state, including energy, nonproliferation, the defense of democracy and standing up for women's rights and human rights, Clinton included economic stabilization as part of her purview.

She said that NATO and other intergovernmental bodies would need to be "transformed and reformed" to meet the challenges of a much more globalized world, and argued that in order for institutions like the World Bank and groups like the G8 to remain relevant, they needed to fulfill to their commitments and perform better. She said that the United States needed to forge new and stronger partnerships with an array of nations, including Russia, Turkey, China and India, to face down economic problems, but also common threats like Al Qaeda, and cited President Obama's speech in Cairo as evidence of the administration's belief that the United States needed to reach out to the international grass roots and make its case directly with people of the world.

She spoke about the administration's commitment to "principled engagement" with nations that disagree with its policies, and said that telling "our partners to take it or leave it or insist that they are either with us or against us" amounted to diplomatic "malpractice."

Economic development and the dispatching of American civilians to improve conditions in conflict areas, she said, was critical to American foreign policy, though should not be misinterpreted as a softening commitment to use any means to protect American national security.

Clinton's speech, the first major address of her six months as the nation's leading diplomat, though not the face of its foreign policy—that has gone to Obama—also echoed some of the humanizing notes she developed on the campaign trail. She also showcased her biography more front and center than she has since Obama was inaugurated.

She said that as first lady and then a United States senator representing New York, she had had the opportunity to represent the United States around the globe for 16 years and had seen the "bellies of starving children," but also young girls sold to slavery, women denied property and rights, and men dying of treatable diseases.

But in a passage that may one day be viewed as early evidence that Clinton was using her present position to pave a future run for office, she also sought to tie American foreign policy, and its consequences, back to everyday Americans, "people who inspire me." She talked about parents struggling to pay the mortgage and health care, autoworkers in Detroit and farmers.

"Our foreign policy must produce results for people," she said.

A complete transcript of her remarks is here.

Secretary Clinton to the Fore