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Clinton Faces Questions on Bid to Become Top Diplomat

January 13, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate confirmation hearing began Tuesday, when she answered questions on a range of foreign policy issues. Clinton also defended herself against criticisms of conflicts of interest linked to foreign contributions to her husband's charitable foundation.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Hillary Clinton arrived on Capitol Hill this morning to try out for a new role, as president-elect Obama’s choice for his secretary of state. The laundry list of challenges awaiting the incoming administration, she said, is long and daunting.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, D-N.Y., secretary of state nominee: Our nation and our world face great perils from ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the continuing threats posed by terrorist extremists, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, from the dangers of climate change to pandemic disease, from financial meltdown to worldwide poverty.

The 70 days since the presidential election offer fresh evidence of these challenges, new conflict in Gaza, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, mass killings and rapes in the Congo, cholera in Zimbabwe, reports of record high greenhouse gases and rapidly melting glaciers, and even an ancient form of terror — piracy — asserting itself in modern form off the Horn of Africa.

GWEN IFILL: In making the case for her confirmation, Clinton also sketched out Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy.

HILLARY CLINTON: The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology, on facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.

I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy. This is not a radical idea.

Containing Iran's nuclear ambitions

GWEN IFILL: Sen. John Kerry, who was his party's nominee for president in 2004, is the Foreign Relations Committee's new chairman. He set the tone for the hearing by asking Clinton about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: Is it the policy of the incoming administration, as a bottom line of our security interests and our policy, that it is unacceptable that Iran has a weapon under any circumstances and that we will take any steps necessary to prevent that or is it simply not desirable? I think, as you said, it's in no one's interest, which is less than the formation of the prohibition.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, Mr. President -- the president-elect, Mr. Chairman...

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I will take that.

HILLARY CLINTON: It was a Freudian slip. The president-elect...

SEN. JOHN KERRY: We're both subject to those, I want you to know.

HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, indeed, indeed, on this subject, especially.

The president-elect has said repeatedly it is unacceptable. It is going to be United States policy to pursue diplomacy with all of its multitudinous tools to do everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

As I also said, no option is off the table.

I think it's fair to say that the president-elect, as recently as this weekend, has said that we're going to be trying new approaches, because what we've tried has not worked. They are closer to nuclear weapons capacity today than they were.

So we're going to be looking broadly, but in consultation.

Clinton elaborates on Middle East

GWEN IFILL: It fell to Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold to press Clinton about the status of forces agreement in Iraq.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, D-Wis.: Please share your vision of how you will follow up on president-elect Obama's pledge to redeploy the bulk of our troops from Iraq in 16 months.

HILLARY CLINTON: There is some differences in timing, but the important aspect of the so-called SOFA is that the United States government under President Obama will be withdrawing troops and the Iraqi government not only accepts that, but wishes to facilitate it.

So we look to begin moving our combat brigades out of cities and towns and villages hopefully by June, and then proceed with the withdrawal and, in some instances, redeployment of some of those troops to Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: Noting that her role would focus on diplomatic, rather than military action, Clinton nevertheless acknowledged that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would increase.

HILLARY CLINTON: It is the highest priority of the president-elect. He has put forth what he calls the "more for more" strategy. That if there are to be more troops from the United States, there also needs to be more support for that mission from NATO.

There needs to be more work done by the government of Afghanistan and the people. And I would add that the "more for more" strategy is not just on the military side, it's on the civilian and development side, as well.

And it is imperative that we work with our friends in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, because this is not only about denying al Qaeda and other extremist groups safe haven, this is about persuading those two countries that their security and their future is also at risk.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton also mentioned global women's issues in her opening statement. And California Democrat Barbara Boxer pressed the point, showing graphic and horrifying pictures of women abused worldwide, amid religious extremism, human trafficking, and war.

HILLARY CLINTON: It is heartbreaking beyond works that, you know, young girls are attacked on their way to school by Taliban sympathizers and members who do not want young women to be educated. It's not complicated: They want to maintain an attitude that keeps women, as I said in my testimony, unhealthy, unfed, uneducated.

And this is something that results all too often in violence against these young women, both within their families and from the outside. This is not culture. This is not custom. This is criminal.

Senators raise potential conflicts

GWEN IFILL: Committee members, led by ranking Republican Richard Lugar, queried Clinton on conflict-of-interests questions that have been raised about the funding of former President Clinton's Global Initiative.

HILLARY CLINTON: When it was all submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, they said there was no inherent conflict.

Now, I hasten to say that my career in public service is hardly free of conflict, Senator. So, I have no illusions about the fact that, no matter what we do, there will be those who will raise conflicts.

But I can absolutely guarantee you that I will keep a very close look on how this is being implemented. I will certainly do everything in my power to make sure that the good work of the foundation continues without there being any untoward effects on me and my service and be very conscious of any questions that are raised.

GWEN IFILL: The Clinton Foundation has released a list of its donors and has agreed to future State Department review. But Clinton would not agree to release the names of all donors who give $50,000 or more.

Senators touched on other international issues only lightly, including concerns in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza.

HILLARY CLINTON: I think on Israel, you cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is just, for me, a -- you know, an absolute. You know, that is the United States government's position. That is the president-elect's position.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton is scheduled to relinquish her New York Senate seat only once she is confirmed.