Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that she intends to revitalize the mission of diplomacy in American foreign policy, calling for a “smart power” strategy in the Middle East and implicitly criticizing the Bush administration for having downgraded the role of arms control.

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of state sailed smoothly through an array of non-contentious questions, signaling the likelihood that she will be confirmed swiftly. By the end of a morning session that lasted a little over three hours, Clinton appeared to have made no stumbles and encountered no challenges to her basic vision for foreign policy.

Clinton, who will relinquish her seat in the Senate when confirmed, spoke confidently of Obama’s intentions to renew American leadership in the world and to strengthen U.S. diplomacy.

“America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America,” she said, her daughter Chelsea seated behind her in the audience. “The best way to advance America’s interest in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions. This isn’t a philosophical point. This is our reality.”

The panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, praised Clinton, calling her “the epitome of a big leaguer” whose presence could open new opportunities for American diplomacy.

But Lugar also raised questions about the issue of former President Bill Clinton’s fundraising work and its relation to her wife’s new post. Lugar said that the only way for Clinton to avoid a potential conflict of interest due to her husband’s charity is to forswear any new foreign contributions. The Indiana senator said the situation poses a “unique complication” that requires “great care and transparency.”

The Senate also was holding confirmation hearings for four other Obama choices for Cabinet and top White House positions. Appearing were Peter Orszag, to head the Office of Management and Budget, and Robert Nabors II, for deputy director of OMB; New York housing official Shaun Donovan, to be secretary of housing and urban development; Steven Chu, to head the Energy Department; and Arne Duncan, as education secretary.

Chu promised that if confirmed as energy secretary he will aggressively pursue policies aimed at addressing climate change and achieving greater energy independence by developing clean energy sources. At his hearing, Duncan said that the No Child Left Behind law should stop punishing schools where only a handful of kids are struggling.

In laying out a general vision for American foreign policy under Obama, Clinton spoke in a clear, unhurried voice and looked at ease. She sat alone at a small, black-draped desk, with a retinue of advisers behind her. Her husband was not present. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the former president was watching the hearing elsewhere with his wife’s mother.

“President Clinton wanted to make sure the attention was focused on Sen. Clinton,” Vietor said.

The Senate hearing room was packed with ambassadors, current and former diplomats, supporters and aides sitting cheek by jowl. Dozens of photographers ringed Clinton as she spoke.

In discussing the problem of peacemaking in the Middle East, Clinton referred to her husband’s extensive, though ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to strike a comprehensive peace deal.

“As intractable as the Middle East’s problems may seem and many presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a resolution, we cannot give up on peace,” she said. She said that she and Obama are “deeply sympathetic to Israel’s desire to defend itself” against Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza Strip but also worried about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“We must also actively pursue a strategy of smart power in the Middle East that addresses the security needs of Israel and the legitimate political and economic aspirations of the Palestinians; that effectively challenges Iran to end its nuclear weapons program and sponsorship of terror, and persuades both Iran and Syria to abandon their dangerous behavior and become constructive regional actors.” she said.

Lugar, who has played a leading Senate role in arms control issues, applauded Obama’s stated intention to engage Russia in more arms control talks and pursuing efforts to improve international controls of nuclear materials that could fall into the hands of terrorists. He said that during the Bush administration the State Department had been a “reluctant or almost nonexistent partner” in that effort. Clinton said she intended to bring more arms control experts back into the State Department, where arms control functions had been “significantly degraded” under Bush.

At the outset , Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Clinton on whether Obama sees a nuclear-armed Iran as unacceptable at any cost, or merely undesirable.

Clinton responded: “The president-elect has said repeatedly it is unacceptable. It is going to be United States policy to pursue diplomacy – with all of its (tools) – to do everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. As I also said, no option is off the table.”

She said the new administration would pursue a broader approach to the problem of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Iraq, Clinton said ending the war is a priority. The first step will be moving troops out of cities by June, in line with an agreement already established between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government. The agreement calls for all U.S. troops to be gone by the end of 2011. Obama has said he believes the withdrawal can be accomplished more quickly.

“It is being done within the context of the status of forces agreement, which (has) now clearly set forth the path that both the Iraqi government and the United States government intend to follow,” Clinton said. “There is some differences in timing but the important aspect of the so-called SOFA is that the United States government and President Obama will be withdrawing troops and the Iraqi government not only accepts that but wishes to facilitate that.”

 

Copyright 2009 Associated Press