Clinton pledges tough diplomacy and a fast start
WASHINGTON: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday deflected calls for greater limits on her husband's fund-raising, struck a sharper tone toward Israel on violence in the Middle East and emerged from a daylong confirmation hearing headed for swift approval as secretary of state.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton showed a mastery of the issues that won praise from her fellow lawmakers, and outlined a muscular view of American foreign policy that she said would put diplomacy front and center in the Obama administration.
On most important issues, including Iraq and Afghanistan, Clinton broke little ground, saying that she did not want to undermine President George W. Bush before President-elect Barack Obama took office. But she left little doubt that she intended to be in the thick of all of these issues.
"I assure you that, if I am confirmed, the State Department will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-looking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world," she said.
Clinton was one of five officials picked by Obama who faced hearings on Tuesday as Senate leaders laid the groundwork for confirmation votes next Tuesday.
The only testy notes in a day of cordial exchanges came when Republican senators warned that Clinton could face conflicts of interest because of foreign donations to the charitable foundation run by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Hillary Clinton stood her ground, saying that restrictions hammered out between her husband and the Obama transition team were "probably as close as we can get" without hampering the foundation's work.
In addressing the spiraling violence in Gaza, Hillary Clinton spoke more fully than either she or Obama had done previously, and she seemed to part from the tone set by the Bush administration in calling attention to what she described as the "tragic humanitarian costs" borne by Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Clinton said she was "deeply sympathetic" to Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks by Hamas militants from Gaza, a stance that has been central to the Bush administration's message.
But Clinton also said that the price being paid by Palestinian civilians as well as Israelis "must only increase our determination to seek a just and lasting peace agreement" that included a Palestinian state. Her emphasis on the civilian costs of the violence in Gaza suggested that the incoming administration might be more inclined than President George W. Bush has been to urge restraint on the Israelis.
The top Republican on the panel, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, was among those who expressed disappointment over Clinton's refusal to accept further restrictions on her husband's fund-raising. But he told Clinton that he still intended to vote in favor of her confirmation. "Your qualifications are remarkable," he said.
Other senators tried with limited success to plumb how the next administration would conduct foreign policy differently from the current one.
On issues as varied as Iraq reconstruction, arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, Clinton described a fortified State Department that would be an equal partner to the Pentagon. She noted that Robert Gates, who is staying on as defense secretary, has also urged that the State Department be given additional resources and that diplomats play a more active role.
Although Clinton ranged widely in five hours of testimony, speaking in detail on topics that included the coming negotiations in Copenhagen on climate change, she acknowledged that the eruption of violence in Gaza was likely to dominate her first days as secretary of state. She reiterated her opposition to direct negotiations with Hamas unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
Still, Clinton said that "real security for Israel, normal and positive relations with its neighbors," as well as genuine security for Palestinians, must continue to be America's ideal.
"As intractable as the Middle East's problems may seem — and many presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a solution — we cannot give up on peace," she said.
Likewise, Clinton predicted a grinding process of diplomacy with North Korea, saying the United States would continue to press the government in Pyongyang on its nuclear program through multiparty talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Bill Clinton did not attend the hearing, but he cast a shadow over it. His foundation, which includes several initiatives to improve health and living standards around the world, has accepted large contributions from foreign governments. Donations have included multimillion-dollar gifts from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brunei, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, Qatar and Taiwan.
"This was bound to be a dilemma from the moment the president-elect asked you to be secretary of state," Lugar said.
In the day's only tough questioning, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, challenged Hillary Clinton to pledge that her husband's foundation would report its donations on a quarterly basis. The memorandum of understanding between Bill Clinton and the Obama team stipulates annual disclosure.
"I really do think this poses a lot of real and perceived conflict issues," Vitter said.
Hillary Clinton deflected the questions, saying, "This is an agreement that has been worked out between all the parties." At one point, the committee's chairman, Senator John Kerry, intervened to dispute Vitter's claim that the Clinton Global Initiative, which is a venture of the foundation, does not disclose its donors.
Under questioning, Clinton defended her husband's acceptance of donations from foreign governments, but pledged to keep a close eye on the issue. "I hasten to add," she said, "my career in public service is hardly free of controversy."
The generally polite tone of the hearing was set at the start by Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, who is the new chairman of the panel, but who had hoped to be picked as secretary of state himself. He said that Hillary Clinton's "presence overseas will send a strong signal that America is back."
Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, sat in the row behind her.
In addressing other issues, Clinton noted that Obama favored more engagement with Iran but offered no details.
She was more specific about American policy in the Darfur region of Sudan, saying that Obama might impose no-flight zones or other sanctions to rein in the actions of pro-government militia forces.
Clinton said little about the next administration's approaches to Iraq and Afghanistan. But transition officials said that in addition to keeping Gates as defense secretary, Obama would be keeping another holdover from the Bush administration on his national security team — Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who will keep his job coordinating Iraq and Afghanistan policy out of the National Security Council.
In addition to her answers on foreign policy, Clinton made it clear that the State Department would have a higher profile on economic issues, which, she noted, had implications for relations with Russia. She also laid out an ambitious agenda for working on women's health.
"Of particular concern to me," she said, "is the plight of women and girls, who comprise the majority of the world's unhealthy, unschooled, unfed and unpaid."
Clinton noted that Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, had worked on microfinance in Indonesia and that she had been scheduled to attend a microfinance forum at the women's conference in Beijing in 1995, in which Clinton took part. Dunham, she said, was too ill to travel.
"We will be honored to carry on Ann Dunham's work in the months and years ahead," Clinton said.