WASHINGTON -- In her first appearance before Congress as U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton fielded questions for more than three hours on a wide range of foreign policy topics from Azerbaijan to Africa, terrorism to climate change.
But Clinton stressed to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that the centerpiece of the United States' counterterrorism strategy is the disruption, dismantling, and defeat of Al-Qaeda, and the prevention of their return to safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Clinton said the United States believes that the extremist element operating within Pakistan "poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."
"We cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state, which is, as we all know, a nuclear-armed state," Clinton said.Triple ThreatsReports
have emerged that Taliban militants are now wielding effective control of the strategically vital Pakistani district of Buner, just 100 kilometers from the capital, highlighting what appears to be an increasing threat from insurgents.
In what were unusually sharp comments from a White House official, Clinton laid the blame for the increase in extremist activity at the feet of the Pakistani government, which she said "is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists."
Washington has long considered Pakistan a key ally in the international campaign against terrorism. The Obama administration has asked Congress to approve its request for $76 billion to tackle the triple threats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Clinton's pointed remarks came during a question-and-answer period with lawmakers about the agreement
that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari recently signed
to allow harsh Islamic religious law, or Shari'a, in the Swat Valley. Religious conservatives had lobbied for the agreement, and some observers see it as evidence that Zardari has lost control
of part of the country.
Clinton said the United States is deploying intensive diplomacy throughout the international community in an effort to boost the number of countries committed to addressing what she called the "urgent challenge" in the region.
In March, more than 80 countries and organizations participated in an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, and a donors' conference in Tokyo recently raised over $5 billion for aid and reconstruction efforts.'No Illusions' On Iran
Clinton told lawmakers that Iran and its nuclear program are one of the highest foreign policy priorities of the Obama administration, and suggested that the old U.S. policy playbook has been thrown out.
"We're deploying new approaches to the threat posed by Iran and we're doing so with our eyes wide open and with no illusions," Clinton said. "We know the imperative of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. After years during which the United States basically sat on the sidelines, we are now a full partner in the P5+1 talks."
Iranian officials insist the country's nuclear program is aimed at the peaceful production of energy, but the U.S. and many other countries believe it is at the heart of an effort to achieve a nuclear weapons capability.
Clinton emphasized that she and her team at the State Department have adopted an approach to Iran that involves working with U.S. allies around the world, in the understanding that the effort to engage Iran stands a greater chance of success if more countries are united against its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The secretary also noted that the U.S. reached out to Iran personally by inviting a delegation to attend the Hague conference
on Afghanistan earlier this spring.
Such outreach will continue, Clinton said, but only if Iran proves a willing partner. If diplomacy should fail, the United States is working with other countries to develop a sanctions program that will be “as tight and crippling” as necessary.
"I want to assure you that we will be operating on dual tracks," Clinton said. "Yes, we are more than willing to reach out to the Iranians to discuss a range of issues, assuming they're willing to reach back, as the president said in his inaugural address: We'll hold out our hand, they have to unclench their fist. But we are also laying the groundwork for the kind of very tough...'crippling sanctions' that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful."
As Clinton was testifying, the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, reported that the Iranian government would welcome a "constructive" dialogue with the international community about its nuclear program, but that it has no intention of halting its uranium-enrichment activities.
The report was in response to an invitation from the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany for a new round of talks.
U.S. relations with Iran are more strained than usual these days, after Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in jail by an Iranian court on charges of spying. The United States has called for her immediate release and Clinton expressed hope that she would be freed soon.
"Roxana Saberi...is being held in an arbitrary and a terribly unfair, unprecedented, unjustified way," Clinton said. "She should be able to come home, and we hope that we can achieve that."
During her testimony, Clinton also noted that the State Department was vigorously pursuing a diplomatic resolution with Armenia and Azerbaijan over the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh.
More broadly, she said the Obama administration is committed to pursuing a diplomatic agenda premised on strengthening U.S. ties with democratic partners in Europe, Asia, and the western hemisphere.
Clinton also touched on the U.S. administration's human rights agenda, saying it is committed to expanding civil society and promoting a development agenda that gives people the "raw materials of progress: from education and health care to sound institutions and the rule of law."