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Clinton focuses on soft power

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

During her five-day trip to Europe, Hillary Clinton went from down-to-the-wire negotiations in Zurich over Armenian-Turkish reconciliation to discussions on Afghanistan and Iran in London.

Hillary Clinton answers a question at Echo Moskvy radio station, 14 October 2009
Hillary Clinton has peppered her trips with "soft" events

These continued in Moscow after a detour through Dublin and Belfast - where she popped into a pub for a beer and appealed to the Northern Irish to stick together.

It all ended in Tatarstan, a Russian republic, where the US secretary of state, eager to leave the big capitals behind, came to have a first hand look at Muslim-Christian coexistence in the 1,000-year-old capital of Kazan.

Although Iran and Afghanistan dominated many of the conversations, there didn't seem to be a specific theme to the trip and the only common thread to the locations was the general geographical area of Europe and Eurasia.

But there is a common theme to her travels in general from her first trip to Asia in February to her marathon tour of Africa in August - soft power.

God-given potential

Whether she's in Russia talking about Iran's nuclear programme, in South Korea discussing the threat posed by Pyongyang, or in Northern Ireland appealing to rival factions not to return to the bad old days of violence, Mrs Clinton continues to fill her schedule with "soft" events during which she meets students, women's activists or human rights advocates.

Critics say Mrs Clinton's focus on soft power is a result of her being marginalised

She talks about the books that have had an impact on her life, raises awareness about rape as a weapon of war, and makes repeated references to people's God-given potential. (In fact so often, that some reporters who travel with her and attend her events regularly just use the short-hand "GGP" when taking notes.)

It is difficult to assess what impact this public diplomacy is having on America's image abroad or on advancing the foreign policy goals of President Barack Obama's administration.

Mrs Clinton said Russia might support sanctions on Iran

She may be mostly preaching to the converted or adding to the surge of goodwill towards the US after Mr Obama's election, though this could help appease anti-American feelings in some corners.

Mrs Clinton, who already has her own star power from her days as first lady, also presents a stark contrast to Condoleezza Rice, her predecessor, who conducted her foreign policy in a more rigid, academic style, sticking mostly to official meetings during short trips that were run with military precision.

Critics say Mrs Clinton's focus on soft power is a result of her being marginalised - town hall meetings about women's rights are all she has left after the major foreign policy files like the Middle East and Afghanistan were outsourced to special envoys.

She has only been to Israel once and has yet to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan as secretary of state.

'Delegating power'

Officials in the administration who wished to remain anonymous gave differing analyses of her role.

I'm not one of these people who feel that I've got to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV in every moment of the day
Hillary Clinton

Some argued her heart was not in it and insisted she did not carry much weight in the policy-making process, while others defended her strongly, insisting it was difficult to overestimate the key role she played in conversations and decisions on everything from Afghanistan to Iran and the Middle East.

But women and human rights issue also seem genuinely important to Mrs Clinton, and this explains why her trips continue to be filled with soft power events.

She herself continues to be asked whether she feels sidelined on the big issues, and is getting noticeably annoyed about it.

"I find it absurd… I find it beyond any realistic assessment of what I'm doing every day," she told US network NBC recently.

"I believe in delegating power," she said. "I'm not one of these people who feel that I've got to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV in every moment of the day."

The secretary of state did start off her tenure by keeping a relatively low profile, launching wild speculation in Washington that she was blocked from the influential US network Sunday morning shows.

But she is slowly increasing her face time on TV, and almost 10 months into the administration, a Gallup poll has found she is more popular than the president himself, at 62% versus 56%.

Inside game

And it certainly doesn't look like she needs to scream to get President Obama's attention.

When reporters asked Clinton once what she found most surprising or unexpected about her job, she said it was the amount of time she spent at the White House.

Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates in Washington, 5 October 2009
Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates have praised each other

For months, she seems to have quietly played the inside game, building alliances and studiously learning the ropes of her new job, finessing her position on a wide range of foreign policy issues she may have not given much thought to as a New York senator or even a first lady.

She now finds herself with one unusual, but powerful ally in the administration, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates.

Rarely have a secretary of state and a secretary of defence been on such good terms.

The department of diplomacy and the department of war have often been at war with each other, notably during President George W Bush's administration.

"Most of my career, secretaries of state and defense weren't speaking to each other," Mr Gates said at a forum on 5 October. "And it could get pretty ugly, actually."

These two secretaries meet often, speak regularly on the phone and "seem to take up permanent residence in the White House Situation Room," as Gates put it in a recent profile of Clinton published in the Washington Post.

And as a decision about the US strategy in Afghanistan looms, the pair look set to speak with one voice and be the decisive vote on troop numbers, strategy and implementation.

Writing in the New York weekly magazine, John Heilemann said that "while no one will ever call it the Hillary doctrine, it will be the kind of quiet win that leads to greater internal power for her in the future".



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