WASHINGTON-It wasn't a year ago that then-Sen. Hillary Clinton called then-Sen. Barack Obama's plans to meet with the world's dictators without preconditions "irresponsible" and "naive."
Wednesday, as secretary of state to now President Obama, Clinton defended the administration's outreach toward Iran and Venezuela, among others.
"Our engagement, which we have no illusions about, puts us on much stronger international footing," she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is always in our interest to explore and test the waters."
The chair of the committee, Howard Berman, D-Calif., expressed concern that Iran has continued its aggressive pursuit of nuclear capabilities, at the same time the administration has been reaching out to the government-most recently expressed in a letter Clinton delivered to Iranian officials at The Hague at the end of March. Iran's deputy foreign minister has said his government has no intention of negotiating with Americans.
Criticism has mounted concerning the Obama administration's attempts at direct dialogue with Iran, especially following Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments at the U.N. anti-racism conference on Monday, where he called for the annihilation of Israel, referred to the Holocaust as a myth, and accused Israel of being "racist perpetrators of genocide." Still, the State Department maintains that the speech would not "preclude" direct diplomacy with the Iranians.
The continuing detention of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and the disappearance of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran-whose presence in the country the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge-have also served as examples against negotiating with Iran. Clinton called Saberi's detention "unfair, unprecedented, unjustified."
On the nuclear question, Clinton said the administration would pursue more crippling sanctions at the same time as it pursues diplomacy.
Media furor broke out last weekend when President Obama shook hands with leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whom President Bush had snubbed. Chavez in turn has called Bush "the devil" and a mass murderer.
Obama has said that Chavez has "interrupted the region's progress."
Clinton said the president shouldn't be afraid of shaking Chavez's hand, adding that she found Chavez's obvious set-up "amusing."
The countries' frosty relations are, she said, "the result of eight years of isolating him. He's a very sociable guy. He's finding friends in places we wouldn't like him to find friends."
So she said the administration would seek friendships in a way the past administration had not-to "build up the reservoir of goodwill. We're going to have to see it paid down."