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Clinton adapts style in trips to Asia, then Middle East

ANKARA, Turkey — When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with foreign officials, the initial welcome is formal, as in "Greetings, Madame Secretary." But invariably, the officials slip into calling her "Hillary" — a global brand name on par with "Diana" or "Tiger."

Clinton's celebrity status — and her skill at exploiting it — were again apparent during her first visit as secretary to the Middle East and Europe last week.

At a private dinner with European foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, she was the center of attention, patiently answering questions from her counterparts — who took the unusual step of bursting into applause after the meal.

When she spoke to hundreds of young political activists at the European Parliament on Friday, President Hans-Gert Poettering gushed that there is "enormous goodwill toward you" in Europe.

But compared with her visit to Asia last month, this trip had a different diplomat on display.

In Asia, Clinton generated headlines with frank remarks, such as when she questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Myanmar, also called Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and said she expected to make little progress on human rights in China.

Last week, she was more cautious, especially in the Middle East. She was often careful to hew to talking points, and her answers to questions were more opaque.

But in contrast to the "listening tour" of Asia, Clinton was much more diplomatically active. Throughout the week, she engineered an effort to reach out to nations, especially adversaries, that the Bush administration had spurned.

She dispatched two senior U.S. diplomats to meet with top Syrian officials on Saturday; she extended an invitation to Iran to be part of an international gathering on Afghanistan; and she tried to "reset" relations with Russia by winning NATO approval to restore high-level meetings and by having dinner with her Russian counterpart.

In each case, Clinton said she would look for areas in which the countries could work with the United States, while acknowledging and confronting topics of disagreement.

By week's end, Clinton could claim progress, at least in terms of process:

• In Syria, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and other officials met for about four hours with Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and White House official Dan Shapiro. "We found a lot of common ground today," Feltman said. "It is my view that Syria can play an important and constructive role in the region."

• Iran responded positively to Clinton's plans to invite it to the conference on Afghanistan, an overture that could bring the secretary face to face with her Iranian counterpart by the end of the month.

• The atmosphere at a dinner meeting in Geneva on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was strikingly different from Lavrov's often-stormy sessions with Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. "I venture to say we have a wonderful personal relationship," Lavrov said.

Clinton adapts style in trips to Asia, then Middle East 03/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 10:12pm]
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