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.
On her way to Seoul in February, she talked openly about North Korea’s power succession — a topic that has been a public taboo for U.S. officials. As she headed to Beijingsoon after, she said that human rights should not be allowed to “interfere” with the broad and important U.S. agenda with China.
During last month’s Asia trip, she suggested that Washington could extend a “defense umbrella” to its allies in the Persian Gulf if Iran fails to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Her aides were quick to clarify that her idea has not been formally discussed by the administration and was only intended to show Iran that having a nuclear weapon would not necessarily make it safer.
Administration officials also said in private that Mrs. Clinton, beginning her sentence with the word “if,” had broken the rule of not engaging in hypotheticals when speaking publicly. They explained that it is her genuine desire to give real answers to questions, rather than stick to scripted talking points — the practice of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
Thomas R. Pickering, former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration and a retired career diplomat, said that the desire described by Mrs. Clinton’s aides sometimes clashes with her limited diplomatic experience in previous jobs.
“Her talking points might have assumed she knew more than she did, and she added on to buttress her credentials,” Mr. Pickering said.
Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration “needs to be more disciplined in its public message” about Iran.
“At a minimum, U.S. officials should coordinate their messages internally, preview them with key allies, and deliver them consistently,” he said. “Where policy differences exist, they should be addressed upfront and privately when possible, rather than aired publicly.”
Mrs. Clinton, evoking her role as a mother, also raised eyebrows when she compared North Korea to an “unruly teenager” in constant need of attention.
“What does being a mother have to do with relations with North Korea?” asked an exasperated Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center.
Kim Holmes, vice president of the Heritage Foundation and former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, attributed Mrs. Clinton’s performance to a “combination of being new to the nuance and details of diplomacy and the old habit of the politician of being able to wiggle out of saying any number of things that may be questionable.”
“It is fine to elaborate and explain policy in new and interesting ways, but you really have to have a strong background and knowledge to do it right,” he said. “She’s not there yet.”
Ironically, it fell upon Mrs. Clinton, during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on July 26, to do damage control regarding Mr. Biden’s latest undiplomatic comments.
The vice president had told the Wall Street Journal that the Russians “have a withering economy” and a “banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years.”
Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Mr. Biden’s “analysis of Russian economic and demographic trends was largely on the mark,” but “his prognosis of Russia’s inevitable cooperation is questionable at best.”
“Because Moscow perceives a number of Western policies as a challenge to its great-power status, Russia will be less likely to make concessions,” she said. “Vice President Biden’s remarks may be a classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”