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Dogged diplomacy marks Hillary Clinton’s legacy

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed as South African jazz singer Judith Sephuma invited her to dance at a gala dinner in Pretoria, South Africa, in August.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/FILE 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laughed as South African jazz singer Judith Sephuma invited her to dance at a gala dinner in Pretoria, South Africa, in August.

WASHINGTON — Last summer, as the fighting in Syria raged and questions about the United States’ inaction grew, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred privately with David H. Petraeus, director of the CIA. The two officials were joining forces on a plan to arm the Syrian resistance.

The idea was to vet the rebel groups and train fighters, who would be supplied with weapons. The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and President Bashar Assad’s eventual removal.

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Clinton and Petraeus presented the proposal to the White House, according to administration officials. But with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a reelection bid, they were rebuffed.

A year earlier, she had better luck with the White House. Overcoming the president’s skeptical aides, she persuaded Obama to open relations with the military rulers in Myanmar, a reclusive dictatorship eager to emerge from decades of isolation.

As she leaves the State Department, the simplest yardstick for measuring Clinton’s legacy has been her tireless travels: 112 countries, nearly a million miles, 401 days on the road. Historians will point to how she expanded the State Department’s agenda to embrace issues like gender violence and the use of social media in diplomacy.

And yet interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials also paint a more complex picture: of a dogged diplomat and a sometimes frustrated figure who prized her role as team player, but whose instincts were often more activist than those of a White House that has kept a tight grip on foreign policy.

The disclosures about Clinton’s behind-the-scenes role in Syria and Myanmar — one a setback, the other a success — offer a window into her time as a member of Obama’s Cabinet. They may also be a guide to her thinking as she ponders a future run for the presidency with favorability ratings that are the highest of her career, even after her last months at the State Department were marred by the deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.

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In an administration often faulted for its timidity abroad, ‘‘Clinton wanted to lead from the front, not from behind,’’ said Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan who is now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Clinton made her first official trip to Asia, a choice that spoke to her diplomatic ambitions as well as her recognition from the start that many big-ticket foreign-policy issues in the Obama administration — Iraq, Iran, and peacemaking in the Middle East — would be controlled by the White House or the Pentagon.

In Afghanistan, several officials said, Clinton hungered for a success on the order of the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War. But when her special representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, who had negotiated that agreement, fell out of favor with the White House and later died, those dreams died with him.

Then came the Arab awakening, a strategic surprise that eclipsed America’s pivot to focusing on Asia and plunged Clinton into a maelstrom. It reinforced her conviction that anger at decades of stagnation would sweep aside the old order in the Arab world.

After Britain and France argued for intervening to defend Libya’s rebels against Moammar Khadafy, Clinton played an important role in mobilizing a broad international coalition and persuading the White House to join the NATO-led operation.

But it was Syria that proved to be the most difficult test. As that country descended into civil war, the administration provided humanitarian aid to the growing flood of refugees, pushed for sanctions, and sought to organize the political opposition. Yet it was not willing to arm the rebels, fearing it might be drawn into the conflict or the weapons might fall into the wrong hands.

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