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Clinton’s candor lifts eyebrows

For years as North Korea defied the West with its nuclear program, U.S. officials considered international negotiations their best chance, if not their only hope, for dealing with the renegade regime.

So it came as a jolt when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed to say recently that the Obama administration was throwing in the towel on the talks. The idea that North Korea would take part, she said, was “implausible, if not impossible.”

It was just one more burst of candor bolstering Clinton’s reputation as the most outspoken among recent chief U.S. diplomats. In other remarks over the last month, she has compared China unfavorably to Iran, and said the U.S.-backed government in Pakistan was “abdicating” to the Taliban.

Critics contend that in diplomacy, it is sometimes better for disagreeable truths to remain unspoken. But admirers call Clinton’s frankness refreshing.

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“She’s saying the emperor has no clothes,” said L. Gordon Flake, a longtime Korea watcher and president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “She’s saying the things that nobody else would say but that 99% of the people in Washington agree with.”

Clinton’s straight talk has set off some speculation that she might be trying to raise her profile and influence in an administration that is crowded with foreign policy heavyweights, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, special Mideast envoy George J. Mitchell and Vice President Joe Biden.

Aides say that at times they have urged Clinton to reconsider her approach, but have been rebuffed. Her manner is said to sometimes arouse concern in the State Department’s regional bureaus, which generally are the first to hear foreign governments’ complaints.

Clinton’s comments may not seem to be insulting or impolitic on their face. But coming from the nation’s chief diplomat, they have raised eyebrows.

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In a visit to China in February, Clinton said Beijing’s stonewalling on human rights wouldn’t impede U.S.-Chinese cooperation on other issues. This month, she said she found China’s involvement in Latin America, like Iran’s, to be “quite disturbing,” even though many experts view China’s activities there as benign.

Clinton’s view on North Korea’s “implausible” chances of involvement in negotiations followed her public speculation, rare for any top official, about the stability of the country’s leadership amid rumors that its ruler, Kim Jong Il, had suffered health setbacks.

That speculation was something that “Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell never would have said,” Flake said, referring to Clinton’s two immediate predecessors. But “she’s an experienced, self-confident politician, and she feels well-studied enough to do it.”

But her tough words on Pakistan may have made it harder for the government, whose citizens are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions, to go after militants, said Brian Katulis, a foreign policy specialist at the liberal Center for American Progress. By doing so, Pakistan would appear to be knuckling under to U.S. pressure, he said.

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“Perhaps the statements took a serious situation a couple of steps too far, and impeded the natural process of the government responding to a threat they saw themselves,” he said.

A State Department official contended that Clinton’s denunciation of Islamabad led to greater cooperation from Pakistan, which last month launched a military offensive against local Taliban fighters.

“They weren’t doing anything before she said that. Then after she said it, they suddenly were taking it pretty seriously, and met with greater success,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of diplomatic sensitivity.

Still, Clinton’s comments stirred enough concern that another senior administration official, briefing reporters afterward, said Clinton’s words needed to be considered “in the larger context of what she said the next day,” when she softened her stance.

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John R. Bolton, known for blunt talk as the Bush administration’s U.N. ambassador, said Clinton’s comments on China and human rights may have given Beijing a signal that it could ignore any U.S. pressure on the issue.

“Whether it made sense for her to say it publicly -- in effect giving away the issue without getting anything in return -- is very much open to question,” Bolton said.

He said it was hard to judge her candid remarks because she may have diplomatic goals that aren’t apparent. But he added that she may be failing to distinguish between her job as chief U.S. diplomat and her former post of senator, where “you express your opinion all the time and often there are no political consequences.”

Clinton insists that telling it like it is can only help diplomacy.

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“It’s worth being perhaps more straightforward and trying to engage other countries on the basis of the reality that exists,” she said in February during her Asia trip. “And so that’s how I see it, and that’s how I intend to operate.”

Aides said Clinton and President Obama, who speak more than once a week, share views on many areas of foreign policy. Obama, who generally prefers his top lieutenants to steer clear of controversy, State Department officials said, has not faulted Clinton’s approach.

Yet Clinton has not yet appeared on Sunday news talk shows, though other officials have been cleared several times to talk about foreign policy. The usual practice for such programs is for the White House to decide who will be offered to the networks as guests.

The State Department official said Clinton has been asked to appear, but has been prevented by her travel schedule.

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Regardless, Clinton is getting her message out, in a way that some analysts believe is designed to strengthen her hand in the administration.

“A lot of this is tied to the fact that she’s an assertive personality and she wants to lay down what’s her territory,” said analyst Katulis. “If she wants her department to be able to get things done, it makes sense to show some muscle.”

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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