On the Plane

With Clinton, Parsing Each Statement

By Glenn Kessler

PHUKET, Thailand--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's words made the reporters traveling with her sit up in their seats, newly attentive as the chief U.S. diplomat stopped dishing about her relationship with President Obama and her failed White House run.

Suddenly, Clinton was talking about Iran's leaders, imagining how the United States and its Middle East allies might respond "once they have a nuclear weapon."

"So we will still hold the door open, but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling actions, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region," Clinton said during the interview with two chatty Thai television hosts Thursday morning.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon."

The press corps wondered: What did "defense umbrella" mean? That kind of sounded like Clinton was extending the nuclear umbrella, now available to European and Arab allies, to the Middle East. And why didn't she add the standard language that a nuclear bomb was unacceptable and that Iran would never get it? That sounded like she had essentially accepted as reality that Iran would get the bomb, and now they were getting ready for Plan B.

Clinton's aides tried to snuff out the feverish speculation. After checking with Clinton, one staffer told reporters she wasn't making any new policy. The defense umbrella merely referred to already announced discussions to upgrade the military capabilities of Persian Gulf allies, the aide said. Look at the statement in full context, he added. She wasn't talking about what the United States would do once Iran got the bomb, but outlining how Iran should consider the consequences that might result from such an acquisition. Clinton was, in other words, simply posing a hypothetical.

That led to a big "hmmm" among the reporters. A basic rule of diplomacy, after all, is never answer hypotheticals or offer them. Those words can quickly be perceived as reality.

Even after Clinton insisted "I am not suggesting any new policy" in a follow-up news conference, some journalists were convinced she had made news. Others, including me, were wary of drawing a major shift in policy from an offhand comment or two during an informal television interview. Had Clinton been speaking in the Mideast, or making a policy address, her statement would carry much more weight.

But a case could be made that Clinton's comments, no matter how innocent, provided a window into the administration's thinking that had not been revealed before. They really were thinking of Plan B--a major shift.

In many ways, diplomatic coverage is like writing about fog. Phrases and sentences are closely studied for possible changes in policy. Clinton has learned the hard way that some of her blunt and unadorned language can generate headlines she did not anticipate or want.

Reporters faced another calculation. If not the Iran comment, which quickly drew condemnation from an Israeli official, what was the news of the day? There wasn't much out of the regional security conference Clinton was attending here. At a news conference, Clinton had offered U.S. investment in Burma in exchange for the release of detained human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi--a shift in U.S. policy on an issue The Washington Post has covered extensively. Once I decided her Iran comments did not amount to a shift in policy, therefore, focusing on the offer to Burma seemed like an obvious choice. But some of my competitors ran with the earlier comments.

Reporters traveling with the secretary of state have to make these choices constantly--and there usually is not a clear right or wrong answer. The secretary is responsible for her own words. If the Obama administration eventually pushes for a nuclear umbrella for the Persian Gulf, history will record it was first raised by Clinton in Bangkok on July 22, 2009. Or her words may fade into the mist of time, a one-day news story that emerged briefly from the fog of diplomacy.

By Washington Post Editor |  July 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Asia, July 2009
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