Clinton: "We Are Under no Illusions"

America's chief diplomat sounds off on Iran, North Korea and Team Obama

By Harry Siegel
|  Monday, Aug 10, 2009  |  Updated 6:54 AM CDT
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Hillary Rodham Clinton: The Diplomat

AP

Sec. of State Clinton stayed mum on what her husband told her about his meeting with N. Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

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In a wide-ranging interview taped while she was in Nairobi last week, Hillary Clinton on “Fareed Zakaria GPS” said that her differences with Obama during the campaign were "maybe [a] difference in degree, not kind," and said she had no worries about foreign policy power moving from the State Department to the White House, noting, "I'm not exactly a shrinking violet."

She also defended her husband's mission to North Korea, and dismissed the claim by Bush's ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, that Clinton's trip encouraged hostage-taking and "benefits Kim Jong Il a lot more than the United States," according to an advance transcript of the interview.

Clinton, who laughed when Bolton was brought up, said, "you know, it is absolutely not rewarding them. It is not in any way responding to specific demands. It is recognition that certain countries that I think are kind of beyond the pale of the rule of law hold people and subject them to long prison terms that are absolutely unfair and unwarranted. And maybe it’s, you know, the fact I have a daughter, but I believe that if we could bring these young women home, we should bring them home."

Clinton declined to divulge what former President Clinton said about the trip, saying, "I have spoken to him on the phone, but I have this policy, I never talk about what I talk to my husband about, Fareed."

And Clinton seemed to take a harder link in Iran, while also saying that "we, in retrospect, handled it pretty well," by "doing a lot to really empower the protesters without getting in the way."

Clinton also hit out at the "show trial" she said Iran was now holding, and deemed them "a sign of weakness. It demonstrates, I think, better than any of us could ever say, that this Iranian leadership is afraid of their own people, and afraid of the truth and the facts coming out."

And she said that "we are under no illusions" in the American offer for dialogue with the Iranian government, and suggested that the window for negotiations may be closing:

"We were under no illusions before their elections that we can get the kind of engagement we are seeking. The president has also said, look, we need to take stock of this in September. If there is a response, it needs to be on a fast track. We're not going to keep the window open forever."

Turning to Afghanistan, she stressed not the American troop presence, but the need to build up a viable Afghan army and police force, which would presumably be a precursor to U.S. troops departing:

 

"We needed to integrate military and civilian assets and try to build up the Afghan national army and an Afghan police force as quickly as possible," she said, later adding that "first and foremost is helping us expedite the training of an Afghan national army that will help our forces hold ground and then take over that responsibility."

And she praised Obama's health reform efforts, and suggested that the consensus had shifted toward the need for reform since her bid to remake the system in the early 1990s:

"Back in ’93 and ’94, when I was on the frontlines and taking all the incoming fire on this issue, people didn’t really accept in their gut that we had to do this. They kept thinking there’s another way out of this, and it’s not that bad. And we’ll try, you know, managed care, and we’ll try more HMOs. We’ll try all of that.

"And now all these years later, we realize that we have some fundamental problems with our existing system that have to be addressed. So I actually agree that at the end of the day, with all of this negotiation and back and forth, you know, we’re going to come up with something."

She spent several minutes of the interview assessing President Obama, who she said had a "really serious professional operation" for foreign policy, and her role as his Secretary of State:

ZAKARIA: And then we get to the unusual circumstances of your becoming secretary of state. There was a lot...

CLINTON: "Unusual" is an understated way of saying that.

ZAKARIA: There's no way -- no way around talking about this partnership or this relationship...

CLINTON: Right.

ZAKARIA: ... with Barack Obama.

CLINTON: Right.

ZAKARIA: Because it is very unusual in the American political context to have the chief rival of a presidential candidate then become part of his cabinet. And people have often referred to the experience of Abraham Lincoln picking William Henry Seward.

CLINTON: I think that, in many ways, the policies that President Obama and I talked about during the campaign were maybe difference in degree, not kind. We have a -- a world view that says America should be leading by example. You know, it's not the-- I think my husband said, actually, it's not the example of our power, but the power of our example that we want to convey.

And so when the president asked me to consider this, I was personally very surprised. And I became even more surprised when accounts of the campaign came out and said that he'd been thinking about it for some time.

But I also believe that what I brought to the job, the real commitment that I have to being not just effective but being part of a team that's effective, which the president knows -- we served in the Senate together-- has really worked out better than anybody could have predicted. I think our personal relationship has, you know, certainly deepened and broadened over the course of the last six and a half months. The time that we spend together, the difficult problems that we wrestle with.

 

But also, the team -- Bob Gates and I, Jim Jones and I, others who work with us -- are really open. And Henry Kissinger said to me that he was very surprised. It was the first administration he could remember where, if he talked to me and then he talked to somebody in the White House, he got the same story. And it's because we really try to hash out problems in private. We really understand the significance of the responsibilities that we shoulder at a time of, you know, great peril and promise in American history. And the president is a disciplined, decisive interlocutor in the meetings that we have.

ZAKARIA: Do you worry, though, that with a president who is very interested in foreign policy, as President Obama is, with a national security staff which has many of his old campaign aides on it, that inevitably power will move more and more closely to the White House and things will -- policy will be made there?

CLINTON: No. I don't worry about that for a couple of reasons. First of all, because I'm not exactly a shrinking violet. And my opinion are not only sought, but listened to. And I appreciate that very much.

And obviously we do our homework in the State Department so that when we tee-up something, we can both explain it and defend it. And I have a great team, Jim Steinberg, Jack (ph) Lew, Cheryl Mills, and everybody from the political side. And then these extremely professional foreign service and civil service people.

So we are the implementers, there is no doubt about that. The White House cannot implement policy. But the partnership between the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and occasionally other -- the intelligence departments, both the DNI and CIA, and then others coming in, you know, is truly a team effort.

And I think that the White House, in a complicated world with a government as big as ours, has to coordinate. I mean, that is one of its principal roles. And I think the NSC is really growing into an understanding of how best to fulfill its role.

It cannot implement, it cannot execute. And you need very good, solid relationships with the rest of the government to make sure that your policies and your -- the direction you want to set are actually followed up on.

So when it comes to making policy, I think that we've had such a seamless ongoing dialogue about everything. That -- you know, I've been around Washington long enough, unfortunately, to know that there will always be people who want to take credit wherever they are or who want to, you know, try to take advantage over somebody's disadvantage.

But there has been so little of that. And instead, it's a really serious professional operation.

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