June 21, 2011

It's rare that anyone in any U.S. administration says something remotely critical of Saudi Arabia, or mentions a controversial subject for fear of annoying the Saudis. So when Secretary of State Clinton did so this morning she had to have considered her words with some care and thought.

From the NY Times:

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton’s advocacy for women’s rights – as First Lady, Senator and now Secretary of State – is well known. And yet she found herself facing criticism for not being outspoken enough on one issue: Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.

In a series of letters and statements this month, a coalition of Saudi activists has pressed Mrs. Clinton to use the State Department’s bully pulpit to support its campaign against the kingdom’s ban, expressing disappointment earlier Tuesday that she had not yet spoken out. Then she did.

“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” Mrs. Clinton said, when asked about the criticism at an appearance with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department. Of the women’s campaign, she added, “I am moved by it, and I support them.”

The campaign — waged largely online inside Saudi Arabia — called on women to drive in collective protest last Friday, an event that appeared to draw a much smaller number than organizers had hoped.

Maureen Dowd, who on her good days can write a decent column, had some praise for her comments but wished that Clinton had been more forceful, urging her to Sing Out, Hillary.

It would have been thrilling if Hillary 2011 had simply channeled Hillary 1995, when, as first lady, she made her bodacious speech in Beijing, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights.”

In her memoir, Hillary wrote that, despite pressure against it, she was determined to give that speech because she was fed up with “the crucial concerns of women” getting sacrificed “to diplomatic, military and trade issues.”

So it was startling on Monday when Saudi women activists, struggling to bring the Arab Spring to the medieval House of Saud by urging women to drive, chided Hillary for her silence.

Clinton’s office responded that the secretary had used “quiet diplomacy” — raising the issue, and more pressing ones, in a call with the Saudi foreign minister on the Day of Driving Dangerously.

By Tuesday, the secretary of state — who has worked hard for women under the radar and whose legacy will be shaped by her support of women’s rights around the world — realized that she needed to be a bit louder.

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