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Secretary Clinton: Dutiful diplomat? Or 2012 candidate?

So far, she's hewed so close to the Obama party line that she sounds like a clone of the president.

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On the foreign front, she is insulated from political damage in critical areas by the appointment of prestigious special envoys (George Mitchell to the Middle East, Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dennis Ross to Iran).

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This has prompted at least one former US diplomat to exclaim: "How many secretaries of State do we have now?" Should the envoys succeed in their difficult diplomatic assignments, Clinton would gain prestige as the managing architect. (Should they fail, they will all be writing books in retirement.)

One area in which Clinton is putting her own stamp is public diplomacy, the art of presenting truthful information about America to audiences around the world. In earlier years, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was America's principal vehicle for this. When the cold war ended, Congress ran it down and merged its remnants with the State Department.

Clinton says USIA was "unfortunately marginalized" but does not see it emerging again as an independent agency. She is encouraging the use of new technology, such as blogs and online social networking, but faces criticism that traditional media such as radio are being shortchanged. She is promoting cultural exchanges, replicating such cold-war measures as the dispatch of jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to Iron Curtain countries.

Her nomination of Judith McHale, a media and communications executive with no prior public diplomacy experience, to be undersecretary for public diplomacy, has drawn some criticism from observers. It is not at all clear that the personnel, resources, or techniques requisite for the task at hand are adequate.

Whether another run for the presidency still lingers in Clinton's dreams, only she knows. But for now she is concentrating on being a smart diplomat and loyal foot soldier in the Obama administration.

John Hughes served as assistant secretary of State, associate director of USIA, and director of the Voice of America, in the Reagan administration. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.