The Cable

Holbrooke trumpets Clinton leadership after address

Six months into the job, Hillary Clinton set out today to raise her profile and rebut Beltway chatter that the U.S. secretary of state has been somewhat eclipsed by the international star power of President Barack Obama, her former Democratic primary rival, and that big-name envoys such as Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell are taking the lead on the most pressing U.S. foreign-policy challenges.

Holbrooke, buttonholed shortly after Clinton's speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, vigorously dismissed such talk as nothing but a "journalistic construct." He said that Clinton was deep in the weeds with him on formulating U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and noted that the two of them had earlier this week spent 30 minutes with David Lipton, a Larry Summers aide who was being sent to Pakistan to do an economic assessment. He argued that the fact that several former cabinet-level officials work for Clinton is a sign of her strength, and pointed out how, regarding his own portfolio, Clinton had spoken extensively in her remarks and in the subsequent question-and-answer session about such intricacies as the agricultural component of U.S. Af-Pak policy.

The presence of Holbrooke, Mitchell, climate change envoy Todd Stern, newly transferred to the National Security Council Middle East strategist Dennis Ross, Policy Planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter, her deputy Derek Chollet, and former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, plus a couple hundred other of Washington's foreign-policy elite, demonstrated the speech's perceived importance.

Before the secretary's address, as a few senior State Department officials milled about in the foyer, one pulled a reporter aside to offer a few thoughts. Clinton's remarks would be taking what Obama said in Cairo and "connecting the dots," the "how," the "strategy," the official said on condition of anonymity. In that June 4 speech, the U.S. president sought to recast American relations with the Islamic world and urged Muslims to help him confront "violent extremism in all of its forms."

Clinton referred explicitly to Obama's Cairo speech today. "In approaching our foreign policy priorities, we have to deal with the urgent, the important, and the long-term all at once," Clinton said. "But even as we are forced to multitask ... we must have priorities, which President Obama has outlined in speeches from Prague to Cairo, from Moscow to Accra. We want to reverse the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent their use, and build a world free of their threat. We want to isolate and defeat terrorists and counter violent extremists while reaching out to Muslims around the world.

"We want to encourage and facilitate the efforts of all parties to pursue and achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East," she continued. "We want to seek global economic recovery and growth by strengthening our own economy, advancing a robust development agenda, expanding trade that is free and fair, and boosting investment that creates decent jobs. We want to combat climate change, increase energy security, and lay the foundation for a prosperous clean-energy future. We want to support and encourage democratic governments that protect the rights and deliver results for their people. And we intend to stand up for human rights everywhere."

Given how both the White House and the secretary's advisors have aggressively rejected any suggestion that Clinton has seemed at times somewhat marginalized within the administration, it seemed odd that Obama would be giving remarks on healthcare five minutes into Clinton's big speech, which was shown on CSPAN.org but not apparently televised live.

The president was discussing a totally different subject and to a totally different set of reporters, one White House aide explained, dismissing the significance of the scheduling overlap. Cable networks are only paying attention to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings anyhow, he said. Earlier today, administration officials familiar with Clinton's preparations for the speech had noted how closely she was consulting on it with the White House and with top administration principals.

Clinton, subject to an intensive, six day a week, six to eight week regimen of physical therapy after surgery to repair a broken elbow, notably did not wear her sling to the CFR speech. Asked if that was indeed the case, an advisor confirmed she wasn't wearing the sling, whose Secretary of State seal she had jokingly showed off at a press conference last week. "She takes it off a lot," the advisor said. (Still a politician, notes former Clinton speechwriter Heather Hurlburt.)

Clinton's speech today emphasized that the United States is working in partnership with other countries to achieve its national-security interests, repair alliances and relationships that had frayed during the George W. Bush era, and make diplomacy, engagement, and development policy key tools of U.S. national-security policy. Clinton also reiterated U.S. policy that it's Iran choice whether to engage or be further isolated, and said that time was not endless for the Iranian regime to respond to the offer for negotiations.

"Neither the President nor I have any illusions that dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success of any kind, and the prospects have certainly shifted in the weeks following the election," Clinton said. "But we also understand the importance of offering to engage Iran and giving its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation. .... We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."

You can read her full remarks here. Clinton departs tomorrow for India and the ASEAN conference in Thailand.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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