Clinton's final lap turns into a sprint

West BankBill ClintonBarack ObamaTravelIsraelAung San Suu KyiMyanmar

When Air Force One landed in Myanmar on a muggy morning earlier this week, President Barack Obama made a point of having his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at his side as he descended to the tarmac.

The three-nation trip was likely the last joint foreign excursion for the former political rivals, intended to emphasize Obama's vow to refocus attention on Asia and to be a victory lap for Clinton, who helped guide some of Myanmar's democratic reforms, as she prepares to step down next year.

But the growing bloodshed in the Gaza Strip has overshadowed the pageantry, underscoring how little progress Obama and Clinton have made in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.

After a series of late-night calls to the Middle East, Obama on Tuesday ordered Clinton to fly to Israel from Cambodia to try to defuse the latest conflict, a decision that deepened U.S. involvement in the crisis more than a week after the violence erupted.

Aides said the calls convinced the president he had to become more engaged.

Clinton met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Tuesday in Jerusalem. She plans to go to the West Bank on Wednesday to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, then fly to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Aides said Obama called Morsi at 11:30 p.m. Monday from Cambodia, and then again three hours later from Air Force One as he returned to Washington.

He spoke to Netanyahu between the calls to Morsi, who is leading efforts to forge a truce between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

"President Obama underscored once again the importance of working for a de-escalation to the conflict in Gaza," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with the president.

Rhodes said that "any resolution to this has to include an end to the rocket fire" by Hamas militants into Israeli cities and towns, but "the best way to solve this is through diplomacy."

He said Obama did not ask Netanyahu to hold off sending ground troops into Gaza, a move almost certain to escalate the crisis and the number of casualties.

State Department and White House officials also avoided using the term "cease-fire," suggesting that they may be satisfied with something less than a formal halt to hostilities, at least for now.

Clinton's trip — her fourth to Israel during her tenure — comes at a time of some criticism of the administration for conducting its diplomacy by telephone rather than in person.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel during Bill Clinton's administration, wrote Tuesday on foreignpolicy.com that the administration should interrupt its "pivot" to Asia and turn its attention to the Middle East.

If a cease-fire, or something close to it, is announced, analysts in Washington speculated that Hillary Clinton could use U.S. influence to pressure the parties to maintain whatever peace follows.

"She's there as a guarantor," said Robert Danin, a former senior State Department official in the Middle East who is now an analyst with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.

The trip is one more high-stakes mission for Clinton, who over the past four years has logged nearly 1 million miles serving the man who defeated her in her bid for the White House. She and Obama worked together more collegially than seemed likely after the bitter 2008 Democratic primary campaign.

She has not been the decisive voice on the administration's most momentous decisions, experts say, but she has been a loyal lieutenant who has used the reflected glow of her international celebrity for the benefit of the White House.

And she could relate to foreign leaders as a fellow politician and former first lady.

On the most recent Asian trip, Clinton at times appeared to be the veteran statesmen of the two.

When Obama and Clinton visited the ailing king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, at a Bangkok hospital, Obama introduced himself to the 84-year-old monarch for the first time, while Clinton was paying a repeat visit.

"Your majesty, it's a great honor," Obama said.

"Hello again," Clinton followed. "It's so good to see you again. And my husband sends you his very best regards."

In Yangon, Myanmar, when Obama and Clinton went to the home of dissident-turned-politician Aung San Suu Kyi, Obama greeted her with a slight bow and handshake, in traditional fashion, and walked toward the entrance.

But Suu Kyi turned and waited for Clinton. They hugged like old friends.

Obama appeared to take little notice of such moments. And Clinton tempers them with deferential protocol. After her embrace with Suu Kyi, Clinton then hung back a step, letting Obama and Suu Kyi walk ahead to the door.

Rhodes described Obama and Clinton as "close friends," although the chemistry doesn't always come through. Shortly before she left for Jerusalem, Clinton reflected on her last trip with the president.

"It's been great. It's been bittersweet, nostalgic, all the things you would expect," she said.

khennessey@tribune.com

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