Credit: Kim Ghattas.
(WOMENSENEWS)–The phones were ringing incessantly. The world was calling. Countries around the world had always obsessively and irrationally craved attention from America, but now it seemed that everybody wanted to be touched by Barack Obama and his secretary of state.
European countries competed for an audience with Hillary Clinton at the State Department. The British and German foreign ministers both arrived for visits on the same day, Feb. 2, 2009.David Miliband got to go first. After the talks, he declared before the cameras that the United Kingdom admired and respected Clinton as an ambassador of America and “everything good it stood for.”
Clinton lunched with the Germans. Then came the French. They all pleaded for her to visit the Old Continent on her first visit abroad. The Europeans believed that a quick visit from Clinton would perfectly seal the reconciliation with America that had only just started toward the end of the Bush administration after the deep rift caused by the Iraq War. The reconciliation could only feel real with a proper visit from the new Democratic administration. No promises were made and most visitors left with a signed copy of Clinton’s autobiography, “Living History.” Clinton spoke to the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on the phone.
“Hi, this is Hillary, how are you, Mr. Minister?” she began. They talked about the close ties between Italy and the United States, and by the time the call ended, she was calling him by his first name.
“I look forward to seeing you in Washington, Franco,” she ended. On the other side of the Atlantic, the minister was startled by the rapid transition in tone and by the unexpected warmth of this woman who had always seemed cold and distant on television.
In her first few months in office, Clinton took all the calls and welcomed all the visitors her schedule could accommodate from South Africa to Brazil, Lithuania and Afghanistan. Part of repairing America’s standing in the world meant reaching out both to leaders she had known for years as well as making new connections, to ensure they knew they had access to her. She was making a very conscious investment for the future, when she would need these leaders. And for days on end, grown men would gush and beam at the cameras as they stood next to the politician turned diplomat.
If there was one thing Clinton didn’t need to learn, it was how to be in the limelight: She seamlessly fit into the role of a popular secretary of state, reveling in the attention of her foreign counterparts, attention that came with none of the bitter sniping of American politics.
The world was nearing a state of hysteria as governments everywhere waited for Washington to announce which country Clinton would visit on her initial voyage as secretary of state. Newspapers around the world were full of speculation and advice about where Clinton should go first.
On the seventh floor, Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines, Cheryl Mills and the deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg were drawing up a list of options. Europe was a traditional destination for the first visit, but the new administration wanted to signal change. The Middle East was still roiled by the Israeli military campaign code named “Cast Lead” against the radical militant group Hamas in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The war had erupted in December 2008, right after the American presidential election, and had stopped just before the inauguration. Obama had signaled his commitment to the Middle East on his second day in office, but there was no reason to plunge Clinton into the quagmire of this conflict so quickly when all the talk was still of hope.
The world was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. In her many phone calls to leaders around the world, Clinton had picked up on a strange combination of hope and anxiety. People still wanted American leadership, but the economic crisis had further tarnished the veneer of American invincibility.
“What is America going to do? What are you going to do about your own economy? If your economy goes down, how many more are you going to take down?” they asked her. Their questions implied more troubling concerns: “What do you stand for? Who are you?”
Clinton believed deeply in American leadership. She was pained by the questions, and the world’s perception of her country.
Asia on Top
What better way to signal confidence and try to get the world economy back on track than by sending the chief diplomat of the biggest economy in the world to visit the countries with economy No. 2, China, and economy No. 3, Japan? Suddenly, Asia moved to the top of the list. Jeffrey Bader, the man in charge of Asia at the National Security Council at the White House, had been advocating for this as well, and Clinton needed no further convincing; the choice resonated with her own priorities.
During her presidential campaign, she had said America’s ties with China would be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in the 21st century. Abedin, Sullivan, Mills and the rest of the team started to painstakingly put together the itinerary. Japan, neglected by the Bush administration, forgotten even by Bill Clinton on his last presidential trip to the region, won top honors: the golden first visit. Indonesia was to be the second stop, followed by South Korea and China. Not since Dean Rusk in 1961 had an American secretary of state chosen Asia for a first trip. Rusk had gone to Thailand.
The Japanese were ecstatic though surprised, and the foreign ministry was flooded with media inquiries about why Clinton had chosen Tokyo as her first stop. What did it mean? They pored through their records to find out if an American secretary of state had ever chosen to visit Japan first but found nothing. There was no precedent. The Japanese foreign minister then declared the new U.S. administration clearly prioritized the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the visit was a “significant move.” Every country on the itinerary made the exact same declaration. If showing up is half the battle, this battle had already been won before takeoff.
From the Book “THE SECRETARY: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power” by Kim Ghattas. Copyright 2013 by Kim Ghattas. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.
Kim Ghattas has been the BBC’s State Department radio and TV correspondent since 2008 and travels regularly with the secretary of state. She was previously a Middle East correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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