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Analysis: Clinton charm, candor scores in Asia

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[February 23, 2009]  BEIJING (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton charged through Asia determined to remake America's image abroad, raising eyebrows and a few hackles with charm and candor as she spread the Obama administration's message that change has come to Washington.

In Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China, the former first lady used her superstar status to press points on North Korea's nuclear program, reassure jittery allies and neglected friends of U.S. support, and push cooperation on climate change and the global financial crisis.

InsuranceOn her first overseas trip as President Barack Obama's chief envoy, Clinton also hit a few bumps as she championed the administration's idea of "smart power," which combines traditional diplomatic contact with elites and hands-on encounters with the masses.

She infuriated many supporters by toning down the traditional U.S. emphasis on China's human rights record. She alarmed State Department purists with a candid, on-the-record assessment of a previously taboo topic, a possible change in leadership in secretive North Korea.

In unusual public comments, she likened much of diplomacy to a high-stakes stare-down and dropped in a healthy dose of criticism for President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team. She accused them of needlessly alienating much of the world with arrogance and ignorance.

Clinton, who split time in Asia between official meetings and informal group gatherings with students, civic leaders and journalists, was unrepentant. And, she unabashedly said she would use her and Obama's personal popularity to make their nation's case.

"A lot of international diplomacy is a head game," she told reporters in Seoul, South Korea, bluntly describing the administration's outreach to governments in North Korea and Iran and explaining her willingness to dive into crowds to make personal connections with foreigners.

"This is a work in progress, but I think it is more effective approach than adopting this kind of hands-off, name-calling, under-no-circumstances attitude," Clinton said, referring to the Bush era.

Her comments, midway through the frenetically paced trip, came after she had enthralled young audiences in Tokyo, Seoul and Jakarta, Indonesia, with anecdotes about her childhood, her husband and her daughter, and charmed leaders in each capital with her ebullience.

"It's glorious to meet you," a Tokyo University student told Clinton at her first town hall meeting. It turned out to be a preview of the joyous receptions she would get in both public and private settings.

In Indonesia and South Korea, crowds seemed enraptured by her presence. Audiences asked questions well outside the realm of foreign policy -- about motherhood, romance, career choices, beauty tips and her musical tastes.

"Such a great honor for me to be here," one Indonesian journalist gushed. "My question is you are probably the most popular U.S. secretary of state here in Indonesia. How do you deal with this and how do you think this would affect Indonesia-U.S. bilateral relationship?"

One of several female South Korean journalists asked how Clinton managed to look "very young and energetic" given her grueling schedule.

"I look very young? Oh my goodness, I hope somebody is recording this!" the 61-year-old Clinton said.

Clinton clearly was pleased with such one-on-one contact, saying later: "Having the ability to kind of get down into the population in a way that creates a receptivity toward American policy is a significant advantage."

At her last stop in Beijing, where she was seeking Chinese help in stabilizing the global financial crisis and combatting climate change, powerful State Councilor Dai Binggou nearly swooned. "You look younger and more beautiful than you look on TV," he said.

Clinton appeared to blush, then composed herself and replied: "Well, we will get along very well."

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Such interaction -- a blend of flirtation and steely resolve -- appears to be just what she has in mind to make the new administration's case.

"I see our job right now, given where we are in the world and what we've inherited, as repairing relations, not only with governments but with people," Clinton said.

"I think President Obama has an extraordinary capacity to (engage) because of the really positive feelings that he personally engenders," she said, attempting a bit of deferential modesty to her former campaign rival and new boss. "To a lesser degree I have some of the same capacity."

Clinton was unapologetic for ruffling the feathers of cautious career diplomats back in Washington when she broke years of silence and an unwritten ban on speculation about North Korea's reclusive leadership by suggesting there may a succession crisis to replace Kim Jong Il.

"I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking," she said, dismissing concerns that her comments might antagonize the North, inflame tensions and damage prospects for resuming stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

"I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious," Clinton said. "Maybe this is unusual because you're supposed to be so careful that you spend hours avoiding stating the obvious."

"But you know, that's just not productive, in my view," she added.

Clinton brushed aside harsh criticism from human rights advocates who were bitterly disappointed when she said concerns about China's checkered record in the area would have to take a back seat to broader economic, climate and security issues.

She ignored an appeal to make a public statement declaring that human rights would be central to the administration's China policy. Instead, she said the matter was just one part of a comprehensive approach to Beijing.

That approach, which she said would be pursued with other nations as well, will be a hallmark of the administration's personality-driven foreign policy that will see her travel widely in the coming months, officials say.

"There's a real hunger for the United States to be present again," Clinton said.

"Showing up is not all of life, but it counts for a lot, and especially when you are the most powerful country in the world, if you're not paying attention, people are going to feel like somehow they're not important to you."

[Associated Press; By MATTHEW LEE]

Matthew Lee covers the State Department for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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