WASHINGTON - Although Bill Clinton is not expected to attend today's Senate confirmation hearing on his wife's nomination to be secretary of state, the former president will loom large in the proceedings.
Hillary Clinton will be peppered not only with questions about foreign donations to Bill Clinton's foundation, but also about how she plans to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs - international crises that her husband made great efforts to solve, but ultimately passed on as unfinished business to future administrations.
As Hillary Clinton lays out her worldview today, presenting what aides say will be the most detailed account yet of how President-elect Barack Obama's team intends to handle problems around the globe, many observers are looking forward to a return to the pragmatic approach espoused by Bill Clinton, who relied on high-level negotiations, special envoys, and international treaties to advance US interests.
And while some conservatives have pointed out that the Clinton approach failed to resolve some important conflicts in the '90s, other foreign-policy observers feel it's a solid starting point for the Obama administration.
"The Clinton name is a good brand," said Rick Barton, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, adding that Bill Clinton's approach to troubled areas like the Middle East "was as successful as anybody's."
But aides to Hillary Clinton have sought to distance her from her husband's era, highlighting instead her shared vision with Obama. Part of the discomfort stems from Hillary Clinton's desire to dispel the notion - cultivated during the bitter primary campaign - that she differs with Obama significantly on key foreign policy tactics.
On the campaign trail, Clinton dismissed Obama's willingness to sit down with Iranian leaders as "naive," but yesterday, transition officials said the two were in complete agreement on how to move forward with Iran, starting with overtures by lower-level officials. "She was never against engagement with Iran," said a transitional official who is well versed on Clinton's foreign policy views. "Campaigns magnify differences."
Perhaps one of the most urgent lines of questioning today will be on Obama's so far fairly muted response to the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop Hamas rocket fire. More than 900 Palestinians have been killed.
Hillary Clinton's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been shaped in part by the front-row seat she had for her husband's attempt to bring about a historic agreement. In 1998, she accompanied Bill Clinton to Gaza, on the first such visit of a US president, raising high hopes for a deal between Israel and then-Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. She also caused a sensation when she endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, going further than her husband's stated policies.
But the next year, her political career nearly ended when she attended an event at which Arafat's wife launched into an unscripted tirade accusing Israel of poisoning Palestinian children. The hug Clinton gave Suha Arafat that day sparked a furor among Jewish voters in New York, where she was planning a Senate run.
Since then, Clinton has been unwavering in her support for Israel, backing the security fence that extends into the West Bank and that creates hardships for Palestinians. She has traveled to Israel twice as senator, but never returned to Palestinian areas.
Watching the peace deal that her husband poured so much political capital into dissolve into another round of fighting offered a hard lesson on how even the most painstaking diplomacy can fail, according to two officials close to her. But she still frequently touts the benefits of working toward peace, making the point that during the Clinton peace process, no Israeli was killed in an attack.
"I believe she is in full agreement with President-elect Obama that it's important to work on this issue from day one and sustain American diplomatic engagement through to the end of the administration," said Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton's ambassador to Israel and author of "Innocent Abroad," a new memoir of the former president's Middle East diplomacy. "The Clinton name still carries great cachet in the region, both with Arabs and Israelis, so that's a considerable advantage."
Not everyone is so sanguine about Bill Clinton's foreign policy achievements. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations said that President Clinton left many problems unresolved, like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. "Certainly life was more pleasant in the 1990s than it has been in the last eight years, but you can make a pretty strong case that some of that has been turning a blind eye to the kinds of things that cause trouble," he said, referring to Bill Clinton's failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
It may be hard for Hillary Clinton to escape echoes of that past, as many of the foreign policy heavyweights who are being considered for key diplomatic posts played key roles in her husband's administration, including Dennis Ross, a career diplomat who helped broker an interim agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in 1995, Richard Holbrooke, who helped broker the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia, and Wendy Sherman, a Clinton-era special adviser on North Korea policy who is also a close adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Still, advisers said Hillary Clinton will take a forward-looking approach, in lock step with Obama. "I think the guidance that she is going to take, first and foremost, will be from the president-elect, who has said that he wants a foreign policy that is based on engagement, and that puts diplomacy at the center of his approach," Sherman said in an interview yesterday. "They want to use every tool at their disposal. In some cases, that will be special envoys; in some cases, that will be a task force approach; in other cases, the secretary of state herself will be the point person."
Hillary Clinton, who won't resign her Senate seat until she is confirmed, has left nothing to chance. She has digested thousands of pages of briefing materials in recent weeks, held mock hearings, studied her fellow senators' areas of specific interest, and reached out by phone or in person to every member of the committee, aides said.
She also hammered out an agreement with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and ranking Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, that resulted in her husband's disclosure of all past donors to his foundation and its Global Initiative, as well disclosing people who donate in the future.
The donations, which include millions of dollars from Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and foreign entities connected to China, Taiwan, and Dubai, are sure to draw additional questions. But several Republicans said yesterday they expected most queries to center on questions of policy.
Lugar asked Hillary Clinton 168 questions in advance of the hearing. Aides said he would post her answers, which he received yesterday, on his website.