First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton departed Friday for a 12-day, five-nation tour of South Asia that will further expand her role as First Lady while posing ticklish diplomatic problems.
Her tour of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka will make Mrs. Clinton the most prominent American to visit those nations since President Jimmy Carter 15 years ago. With her international renown, Mrs. Clinton and her tour may help dispel impressions that the United States has for years been slighting the subcontinental nations, particularly India.
Yet Mrs. Clinton also faces a delicate task. While she clearly intends by her presence to underscore her beliefs about the need to help women advance, she must take care not to appear to be preaching in some of the world's most traditional societies.
Women now hold top government posts in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, yet women generally have scant opportunity for social or economic advancement.
The trip "is a highly significant political event in itself but she just has to make sure she's not there in missionary mode," said Selig Harrison, an Asian scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mrs. Clinton has continued to exert powerful influence behind the scenes at the White House since last fall's Republican electoral blowout. But she has tried to recast her public role around her broader concerns about women, children and health.
This solo mission goes beyond the role undertaken on foreign trips by earlier First Ladies, notably Jacqueline Kennedy and Rosalynn Carter.
But Mrs. Clinton in recent days has tried to deflect suggestions that she will push any reforms during the visit.
"I'm not about to go and try to tell anybody what to do," she said in an interview with Cable News Network. "I think that is not my role." Such commentary would be presumptuous, she added.