On the Plane

Clinton Hailed For Just Showing Up

By Glenn Kessler
PHUKET, Thailand--In academic foreign-policy circles, there is the "realist" school and "moralist" school. Now add to that the Woody Allen school of foreign policy.

As the filmmaker and comedian once said, "80 percent of success is showing up."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is taking that sage philosophy to heart. Judging from the local media accounts of her trip to Thailand, she is getting enormous credit within Southeast Asia for simply attending the annual regional security forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Many of her predecessors, including Colin L. Powell in George W. Bush's first term, also dutifully attended the meeting. But not Condoleezza Rice, Bush's second-term secretary of state.

Rice was never a fan of alphabet-soup talkfests like the ASEAN Regional Forum--which brings together the foreign ministers of more than 20 countries. She often found a reason to skip the annual two-day gathering, such as a trip to the Middle East to prod peace talks, and dispatched her deputy in her place.

(Rice was also not inclined to participate in the self-effacing song-and-dance routines that foreign ministers are expected to perform at the meeting's official dinner. But Clinton lucked out--the skits have been canceled this year.)

In any case, Rice's decision to skip ASEAN was widely viewed as a slap at Southeast Asia. The United States, diplomats in the region said, simply didn't care about Southeast Asia and had ceded the region to China. Yes, that's an awfully broad interpretation of the thinking behind a decision to skip what is usually a 24-hour visit to a single international conference. But, so much of international diplomacy is about symbols and signals.

Clinton has milked the symbolism for all it's worth, declaring "The United States is back" when she landed in Bangkok on Tuesday for talks with Thai officials. Her statement generated headlines in the Thai press even before she headed to this resort island Wednesday for the actual conference.

The Obama administration is adding to the symbolism with substantive steps to solidify ties--in effect, the other 20 percent of success. Clinton on Wednesday signed ASEAN's Treaty on Amity and Cooperation, a relatively toothless friendship pact that the Bush administration nevertheless refused to sign. She also will announce that the United States will become the first non-ASEAN country to establish a diplomatic presence at ASEAN, which is headquarted in Jakarta, Indonesia. The naming of a full-fledged ambassador would trump China, which did not take such a step during the Bush years, even as Beijing made diplomatic and commercial in-roads in Southeast Asia.

The Obama administration is also investing greatly in its ties with Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia. U.S. officials believe Indonesia, which is a majority Muslim democracy, has the capacity to be one of the great emerging powers in the world. President Obama also spent several years of his childhood in Indonesia, giving the administration a unique personal connection to the region.

By Washington Post Editor |  July 22, 2009; 5:46 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Asia, July 2009
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Hillary is a pro, as is becoming evident even to people who don't care for her.

Condoleeza was a Bush favorite, most often seen in clamour shots descending from a plane. She obviously didn't care much for the tough stuff. Better to return to the cosy upper levels of academia.

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