Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended her legacy as America's top diplomat Thursday and praised President Obama for making the nation "stronger at home and more respected in the world" than it was four years ago.
When the Obama administration came to power in early 2009, it faced "two wars, an economy in freefall, traditional alliances fraying, our diplomatic standing damaged, and around the world people questioning America's commitment to core values and our ability to maintain our global leadership," Mrs. Clinton said.
"That was my inbox on day one as your secretary of state," she told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While Mrs. Clinton told the group that "the world remains a dangerous and complicated place, and of course, we still face many difficult challenges," things look better than they were then.
"A lot has changed in the last four years," she said. "Under President Obama's leadership, we've ended the war in Iraq, begun a transition in Afghanistan, and brought Osama bin Laden to justice."
"We have also revitalized American diplomacy and strengthened our alliances, and while our economic recovery is not yet complete, we are heading in the right direction."
In general, America's "global leadership is on firmer footing than many predicted," Mrs. Clinton said a day before she is slated to resign from her post and be replaced by Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Obama administration critics, and most Republicans, assert that the opposite is true. U.S. strategic interests, they argue, have actually undergone a significant regression during Mrs. Clinton's tenure at Foggy Bottom.
Nowhere is this more evident, the administration's detractors say, than in the Middle East. The Obama administration, they argue, has waffled on whether to support pro-democracy activists seeking to overthrow Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Many conservatives say the cost of that delay is one reason for Washington's chilly relationship with Egypt's new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood.
If nothing else, the U.S. appears to have missed an opportunity to exert influence when it was still possible during the months surrounding Mr. Mubarak's ouster.
The Obama administration — Mrs. Clinton included — took a similar posture toward pro-democracy activists in Iran during the so-called Green Revolution in 2009, and later in Syria, which has since deteriorated into a bloody civil war.
During her speech Thursday, Mrs. Clinton suggested the region is destined to present challenges during the coming years for the United States.
"Ongoing turmoil in Egypt and Libya point to the difficulties of unifying fractured countries and building credible democratic institutions, [and] the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians shows little sign of easing," she said.
"In Syria, the Assad regime continues to slaughter its people and incite inter-communal conflict. Iran is pursuing its nuclear ambitions and sponsoring violent extremists across the globe, and we continue to face real terrorist threats from Yemen and North Africa."
"I will not stand here and pretend that the United States has all the solutions to these problems. We do not," Mrs. Clinton said. "But we are clear about the future we seek for the region and its peoples. We want to see a region at peace with itself and the world — where people live in dignity, not dictatorships, where entrepreneurship thrives, not extremism.
"There is no doubt," she added, "that getting to that future will be difficult and will require every single tool in our toolkit."
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