Page last updated at 23:12 GMT, Sunday, 8 March 2009

Clinton's gaffes and gains on tour

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Hillary Clinton is back in Washington after another whirlwind, five-country foreign trip that provided a further glimpse into her style as Secretary of State and details of the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Hillary Clinton at the Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, on 2/3/09
The leitmotiv of Mrs Clinton's trip was outreach - to friend and foe
In what seemed to be an all-out diplomatic assault, the leitmotiv was outreach - to foes and allies, past and present.

Mrs Clinton invited Iran to attend the Afghanistan conference at the end of the month and sent two envoys to Syria to explore the possibility of a dialogue with Damascus, which has had strained relations with Washington since 2003.

She started thawing icy ties with Russia and its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who had a testy relationship with her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

After meeting Mrs Clinton, Mr Lavrov said: "I venture to say we have a wonderful personal relationship."

Nato allies and European parliamentarians were enthused by Mrs Clinton's declaration that the US wanted to re-energise transatlantic ties.

The president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, then told her there was a lot of goodwill towards the US.

Meanwhile, in Ankara, she praised Turkey's role in the region, holding it up as an example of a secular Muslim democracy in an attempt to buttress ties strained by the war in Iraq as well as Turkey's own internal politics.

Setting the stage

The strategy seems designed to harness the goodwill that Mr Poettering referred to - and which everybody spoke about after Barack Obama's election - before the window of opportunity closes.

While Washington reviews its policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and other regions, Mrs Clinton and President Obama are setting the stage and reaching out to those who may be needed to implement the new policies.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini talks to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Nato headquarters, 5 March
Mrs Clinton was well received by European leaders in Brussels
And with countries like Russia or China, Washington is trying to focus on common interests and areas of possible co-operation - such as Afghanistan and climate change - in the hope it will make it easier to broach other subjects.

But selling America abroad also remained a high priority and Mrs Clinton's public diplomacy, which she started in Asia, continued throughout this trip, as she held events with women and young people in the Middle East and Europe.

She was personable, shook hands, smiled, talked about her personal life, and showed she could be quick on her feet, unfazed by gaffes.

She attracted fewer crowds than in Asia, where she filled auditoriums, perhaps because the subject matter here was much drier and revolved more around conflicts and violence.

But in some ways, her efforts seemed successful.

At the end of her press conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, where she promised the US would work hard to pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the Egyptian press corps erupted in rapturous applause.

A senior state department official said he had never witnessed anything like it in his 20-year-long career working on the Middle East.

In Brussels, where Mrs Clinton visited the European Parliament - the highest-ranking US official to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1985 - her speech was met with enthusiastic nods, smiles and then a standing ovation.


But her approach to public diplomacy also raised eyebrows. One Arab leader in private confided he was puzzled by Mrs Clinton's reaching out and shaking hands with everyone she met on her way into her meeting with him - including, apparently, the doorman.

And then there were the gaffes - goodwill gestures lost in translations, arrogant statements and mispronounced names

His aide wondered whether she was running a political campaign.

Her outreach events in the Middle East were small and in some ways unconnected to efforts to reach peace.

In Israel, she met women entrepreneurs and representatives of NGOs, while in Ramallah she met Palestinians studying English through a US-funded programme.

Critics said that while it was good to meet with locals, it might have been better to meet with NGOs directly involved in peace efforts on either side of the divide.

And then there were the gaffes - goodwill gestures lost in translations, arrogant statements and mispronounced names, which seemed an odd throwback to the days of President George W Bush and his struggle with foreign names.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presents Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a mock reset button
Mr Lavrov was not taken with the state department's Russian language skills
To symbolise Washington's desire to turn a page in its relations with Moscow, Mrs Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a small red box with a "reset" button.

Unfortunately, the Russian translation for the word "reset" was wrong - instead staffers had used the word "overload" or "overcharge".

Mrs Clinton was quick on her feet, laughing heartily when Mr Lavrov told her they had got the word wrong - both of them then referred to the overload of issues to deal with and the desire to hit the reset button on all of them.

But beyond getting lost in translation, one wonders whether it was wise for the representative of one nuclear power to present her counterpart from another nuclear power with any button at all.

Punishing schedule

And in Brussels, there was also some consternation when Mrs Clinton said American democracy had been around longer than European democracy.

She also referred to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana as High Representative Solano and called Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benito.

In Geneva, after the meeting with Mr Lavrov, she struggled to pronounce the name of the Russian president and never quite got it right.

Towards the end of what was a gruelling trip with a punishing schedule, the missteps are perhaps not too surprising - but they will be picked upon by critics.

Still, the goodwill that surrounded her visit, and the star appeal she has as a former First Lady, New York senator and presidential hopeful, meant that overall both she and her hosts felt the trip was a clear success.

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