Clinton gets warm reception from Senate colleagues

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton promised to return diplomacy to the center of U.S. foreign policy, to abandon ideology and oversee a more aggressive, better-funded State Department as she began on Tuesday what likely will be a quick and relatively painless path to confirmation as secretary of state.

Clinton got a warm welcome from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She implicitly criticized the unilateral, military-dominated approach that characterized much of the Bush administration.

"I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted," Clinton said in her opening remarks.

"We must use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal," she said. "With 'smart power,' diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy."

On some of the key crises facing the incoming Obama administration, however — Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Sudan's Darfur region — Clinton declined to lay out the specifics of her plans and President-elect Barack Obama's, pending policy reviews.

In several cases, she embraced positions that are similar to President George W. Bush's.

For example, Obama won't negotiate with the militant Palestinian group Hamas, locked in fighting with Israel in Gaza, unless it renounces violence, recognizes Israel's right to exist and abides by past peace agreements, she said.

On Iran, Clinton said twice that Obama wouldn't rule out military force to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Still, she said, "We're going to be trying new approaches" with Iran "because what we've tried has not worked. They are closer to nuclear weapons capacity today than they were."

On Cuba, Clinton renewed Obama's election promise to ease restrictions on U.S. citizens' visits and remittances to relatives on the island.

Democrats and Republicans predicted that Clinton would have little problem being confirmed.

In the day's only testy note, several Republican committee members expressed concern about potential conflicts of interest from the sweeping global activities of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and his nonprofit William J. Clinton Foundation. The foundation, which works on HIV/AIDS, climate change and poverty, has accepted more than $131 million from foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Norway.

The lawmakers pressed Clinton and her husband to go beyond a promised annual disclosure of donors to the foundation, which last month released a list of contributors for the first time.

"The core problem is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to curry favor with the secretary of state," said the ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

Lugar proposed four more steps he said the Clintons could take to increase the transparency of donations. The Clintons, however, rejected additional curbs on foreign donations to the foundation and agreed to just one of the proposed changes, to provide more detail on donations in its annual disclosure.

In a tense exchange with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Clinton made clear that she planned to go no further.

The former president wasn't at Tuesday's hearings, but the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, was, sitting just behind her mother.

The confirmation hearing captured a unique Washington moment: A former Democratic presidential candidate, Clinton — who was chosen by Obama, her Senate colleague and primary rival — appeared before another former presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., now the committee's chairman. Kerry, by some accounts, had hoped to become Obama's secretary of state.

In last year's heated presidential primary, Clinton had called Obama naive and unprepared to handle the international dangers facing a new president. Obama, for his part, challenged Clinton's international credentials beyond having visited foreign countries as first lady, a largely ceremonial role.

However, Clinton's and Obama's views of the world appeared in sync on Tuesday. She noted that they're both committed to ending the war in Iraq with a "responsible" withdrawal of troops. That had been a point of difference between them during the campaign.

"The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principle and pragmatism, not rigid ideology; on facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice," she said in a not-so-veiled dig at Bush.

Clinton signaled that revitalizing the State Department and other civilian agencies working overseas will be a priority, and she noted that she's chosen two deputies: James Steinberg for policy and Jacob Lew, who'll oversee budget and management issues.

Civilian agencies saw their budget and authority eclipsed by the Pentagon during the Bush years, she said.

"The disparity of resources is such that when you've got more than 10 times the resources going to the Defense Department," she said. "The Defense Department has been, in effect, re-creating mini-State Departments."

On another issue of both policy and management, Clinton said the Obama administration would give greater priority to arms control, including a new nuclear treaty with Russia, than Bush did. She pledged to reinvigorate the State Department's arms control section, saying she and her transition team had found it "significantly degraded."

Kerry said that he hoped to have a vote on Clinton's nomination by Thursday.

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