Secretary is en route to Russia right now to discuss the new START treaty and meet with the diplomatic "quartet" on Middle East peace. Meanwhile, here are some recent Clinton headlines.
•"With subtle shift in nuance, Hillary Clinton reiterates U.S. stance on Israel" (Washington Post)
•"Clinton to call Netanyahu soon amid row" (Agence France-Presse)
•"Foreign minister: 'Not reasonable' to stop building in East Jerusalem" (CNN)
•"Mrs. Clinton's hissy fit" (Washington Times)
•"Nirupama Rao briefs US on talks with Pakistan" (Indo-Asian News Service)
•"Pakistan, Afghanistan high in Rao's talks in US" (Indo-Asian News Service)
•"Clinton, Okada to meet in Washington or Canada in late March" (Associated Press)
•"Okada unlikely to present Clinton with Japan's plan on Futemma" (Associated Press)
•"Clinton looks forward to an inclusive Iraqi government" (Kuwait News Agency)
•Yesterday, Clinton met with 22 female Iraqi provincial council leaders. Her remarks are here.
Today's the supposed big day: U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraqi cities. While U.S. troops step down, Iraqi troops are supposed to step up. But can they?
Secretary Clinton is confident they can. In a press briefing yesterday, she said, "[T]here is a great deal of confidence in the fundamental ability of the Iraqis to begin to protect their citizens." She added that despite the bombings of the last few weeks, "our assessment is that the Iraqis are ready, willing, and able to step up to this."
She -- seen above with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad on April 25 -- called the withdrawal a "significant milestone in the responsible withdrawal of our forces from Iraq and in Iraq's journey to become a stable, sovereign, self-reliant state."
Yes, Iraqi units are better trained and equipped than in the past. But that was never the problem. Rather, the point of failure was political. Sunni death squads and Shiite militias knew what they were fighting for, while an Iraqi soldier didn't necessarily.
He ends ominously:
I hope I am wrong, and that Iraq really is embarking on a new course this week. But I don't think so. So I think the real question now is: How fast will the unraveling occur?
What's Clinton going to do if Iraq does unravel? She said the United States remains prepared to help out if needed. Obviously, she's constrained by whatever President Obama wants to do, but if -- heaven forbid -- Iraq falls apart, she'll be facing some pretty tough questions at her future news conferences.
Photo: Hadi Mizban-Pool/Getty Images
After yesterday's trilateral, Secretary Clinton is back to bilaterals today, as her schedule below shows. She meets again with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (let's hope there's no reset button involved this time).
10:30 a.m. Bilateral with His Excellency Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
10:45 a.m. Bilateral with His Excellency Makhdoom Shah Mehmood [Qureshi], Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
11:00 a.m. Bilateral with His Excellency Miroslav Lajcak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Slovak Republic
12:00 p.m. Bilateral with His Excellency Sergey Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
1:15 p.m. Working Lunch for His Excellency Sergey Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
3:45 p.m. Bilateral with His Excellency Franco Frattini, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Italian Republic
Just when we thought Clinton would only be making 57,622 miles of foreign trips in her first 100 days as secretary of state, she made a surprise trip to Iraq and Lebanon this weekend. (Above, she speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, right, with an interpreter's assistance.)
This trip came right after four suicide bombings in two days killed more than 160 people in Iraq. Was this supposed to be a "Hillary to the rescue" moment? Secretary Clinton played down the spike in violence, however, reports the Washington Post. She told reporters that the suicide bombings were "a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction" and that there was "no sign" sectarian violence was flaring up again. For the sake of Iraq, let's hope those comments don't end up being vaguely reminiscent of when former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in 2005 said the Iraqi insurgency was "in the last throes."
At a town hall-type meeting, she sought to reassure Iraqis of the United States' commitment to their country, even as U.S. forces are set to withdraw from Iraqi cities in two months and the number of U.S. troops in the country is planned to plunge from about 140,000 to 50,000 or even fewer by the summer of next year.
One human rights activist told Clinton, it "looks like to us that the situation of Iraq is not so important or it's not in the same level of importance for the new administration."
In her response, Clinton said, "[We] are very committed, but the nature of our commitment may look somewhat different because we're going to be withdrawing our combat troops over the next few years." She emphasized that the United States should provide greater support for civilian projects.
Added to the fact that the United States is also bogged down with its Great Recession and problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's understandable that Clinton's remarks sound contradictory. U.S. troops are going to be leaving while suicide bombings just spiked, and Clinton said the United States is as committed as ever.
One Iraqi journalist told Clinton: "[F]rankly, some people are afraid and concerned what will happen as a result of that withdrawal. … [T]here are so many people here and so many citizens who do not have enough trust and confidence in the Iraqi forces."
What a situation Clinton has inherited. What would you do if you were Hillary?
Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister office via Getty Images
Secretary Clinton held a very interesting Town Hall meeting today with State Department employees. The Q&A session covered a great deal of ground - the role of special envoys, the relationship between State and Defense, and benefits for same-sex partners working in war zones - and Hillary had great responses on the whole and was fast with a quip, joking about food in the cafeteria and how she "sometimes totally forget[s]" having run for president.
But her response about private military contractors surprised me - and contradicts her past positions. On the presidential campaign trail, Clinton was vehement in her opposition to using private military contractors in Iraq. And last February, she was the sole cosponsor in the Senate of a bill that would require the Secretary of State to ban all use of military contractors in protecting State Dept. employees. According to the bill,
Not later than 6 months after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall ensure that all personnel at any United States diplomatic or consular mission in Iraq are provided security services only by Federal Government personnel.
But today at the Town Hall meeting, she backpedaled:
QUESTION: Good afternoon, Madame Secretary. My name is Chris Dilworth. I’m an intern from Indiana University. I’m interning in the Bureau of Human Resources, Department of Resource Management and Organizational Analysis. My question is a quick one. Will you ban private military contracts?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we have, as you know, expressed a lot of concern about private security contracts. The Department ended the Blackwater contract in Iraq. But here’s the dilemma, and take Iraq as the example. We are going to be withdrawing our troops. Now, the President’s working right now on how to sequence the withdrawal and how to do so in as safe and effective manner as possible. We believe there will be an important role for our civilian employees.
How we provide security and safety for those performing civilian functions is a very difficult question. The military assets will be diminishing. The numbers of civilians in Iraq, to go back to Steve’s question, will also be decreasing. But there will be a corps of, you know, Foreign Service and Civil Service and foreign nationals who will be performing the work of the United States of America. And I, for one, as your Secretary, want to make sure that they have necessary security.
So we’re working that out. This is one of the issues on a long list of issues about Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. I certainly am of the mind that we should, insofar as possible, diminish our reliance on private security contractors. Whether we can go all the way to banning, under current circumstances, seems unlikely, but we ought to be engaged in a very careful review of where they should and shouldn’t be used, and under what circumstances. And that’s what we’re doing right now.
As senator, Hillary accused outfits such as Blackwater as having "compromised our mission in Iraq" and "endangered U.S. lives." Her new vantage has apparently softened that stance?
And for the comments: Do you think the State Department should use private military companies to protect its employees overseas?
Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
Madam Secretary is an obsessive blog about all things Hillary Clinton. From her policies to her pantsuits, Madam Secretary delivers up-to-the-minute news, analysis, and gossip about America's top diplomat.