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Hillary Clinton: A quiet brand of statecraft

Hillary Clinton has been loyal to President Obama, her one-time rival. Now she's seeking to redefine U.S. foreign policy for a new century, even as the latest mideast peace talks test her skills as a negotiator.

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And she has demonstrated the value of having a tested politician as secretary of State – and not only because of her ability to relate to average people in a world where that kind of connection increasingly matters to US foreign-policy goals. She has built on her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee to deepen a relationship with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The two cabinet members have forged a crucial State-Pentagon relationship at a time when Mr. Gates and other military leaders are calling on the civilian arm of American global reach to take on more of the duties – like nation-building – that the military assumed by default in places like Iraq.

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But she also has credibility with her colleagues, the many foreign ministers who are politicians themselves and who appreciate Clinton's grasp of the challenges, if not outright limitations, public opinion often poses.

"People forget that most foreign ministers are also political leaders, especially among our allies," says James Steinberg, one of Clinton's two deputy secretaries and a national-security expert who also served in the Clinton White House. "She can relate to politicians. She knows the particular pressures they face, and that allows her to be particularly effective."

Foreign-policy practitioners and observers alike profess a uniform respect for Clinton's hard work and her mastery of the briefs she takes on. Still, some admit they have less of a feel for where she wants to take US foreign policy.

"Frankly, it's hard for me to place her," says George Herring, a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and an expert on secretaries of State. "She seems to have become an effective manager of the [State] department, which is not always the case, but she does not appear to have put her trademark on anything at this point."

A not-uncommon take on Clinton had her spending the better part of her first year casting about to secure a place for herself in the administration. That perception was fed by a couple of factors: Vice President Joe Biden's keen interest and close involvement in foreign affairs – Obama made Mr. Biden his go-to guy on Iraq – and the high-powered special envoys Obama named. Either former Sen. George Mitchell, named as Middle East special envoy, or Richard Holbrooke, whose portfolio contains Afghanistan and Pakistan, could have been secretary of State in his own right, experts note.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush and former assistant secretary of State for nuclear proliferation issues, says someone of Clinton's stature "must be finding it hard to play such a limited role and not be a central figure in foreign-policy decisionmaking." He compares her to Colin Powell, under whom he served, as "the State Department's envoy to the president, and not the other way around."