- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has delighted reporters repeatedly during her travels by speaking off the cuff, but is she also speaking off the mark?

Compared with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former first lady and senator from New York has committed only minor diplomatic gaffes. Still, twice during her trip to Asia last month, Mrs. Clinton made comments in which the accuracy was questioned by specialists and later had to be “clarified” by the State Department.

At a press conference in New Delhi on July 20, she was asked by an Indian reporter whether the United States opposed the transfer of sensitive reprocessing and enrichment nuclear technology from India to other countries.

“Well, clearly, we don’t,” she said. “We have just completed a civil nuclear deal with India. So if it’s done within the appropriate channels and carefully safeguarded, as it is in the case of India, then that is appropriate.”

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The Indian reporter got excited, because what he heard was a policy change. Since the beginning of the U.S.-Indian negotiations on the civil nuclear deal in 2005, both the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to allow India to transfer sensitive technology, citing proliferation concerns. Now Mrs. Clinton was saying the opposite.

A diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi immediately noticed the discrepancy and alerted the State Department, which speedily compiled “press guidance,” anticipating questions from reporters about the secretary’s remark.

“U.S. policy on restricting transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology, equipment and facilities has not changed,” the guidance said. “Efforts… to restrict transfers of [such] technology are not aimed at India, or any other country, but reflect our global nonproliferation efforts.”

The department tried to explain the confusion by saying that Mrs. Clinton “was referring to the fact that the United States has granted India advance consent to reprocess U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel.”

Washington’s arms-control community also noticed the secretary’s comment and immediately tried to correct it.

Mrs. Clinton “either misspoke or was badly advised about the United States’ policy regarding the transfer of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in an e-mail the following day, providing a detailed history of the U.S. position on the issue.

Later that week, during a visit to Thailand, Mrs. Clinton said in a BBC interview that the United States has “no relations” with Myanmar, a longtime U.S. adversary also known as Burma. She was describing efforts by U.S. allies in Southeast Asia to get the country’s ruling military regime to allow at least some political openness.

“We are not involved in it — we don’t have relations with Burma — but that’s the kind of activity that’s going on,” she said.

In fact, unlike the situation with Iran and North Korea, there is a U.S. Embassy in Myanmar. Despite the strained relations between the two countries, they have maintained formal diplomatic ties. State Department officials said Mrs. Clinton meant they do not have “full” diplomatic relations, meaning that the embassy is headed not by an ambassador, but a lower ranking charge d’affaires.

During her six months in office, Mrs. Clinton has gained a reputation for speaking her mind, even when that might not be the most diplomatic thing to do.

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