Once again, Hillary Clinton is in the awkward position of being called on to support a foreign protest movement in the Middle East, and doing so without damaging diplomatic relations with the nation where said movement is occuring. At first it seemed her plan was to avoid getting dragged into the campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but yesterday she endorsed the effort, while managing distancing herself from it.
The New York Times reports that on Friday, the day women were encouraged to drive to protest the ban, Clinton called Saudi Arabia's foreign minister to discuss the issue. Her State Department spokeswoman wouldn't say exactly what they talked about, and noted that sometimes situations call for "quiet diplomacy."
Saudi activists have been pushing Clinton to publicly support the Women2Drive movement for weeks, and yesterday morning the group Saudi Women for Driving issued an open letter saying they were disappointed in the woman they "consider a friend and one of the foremost champions of women's rights around the world." The letter read:
Secretary Clinton: quiet diplomacy is not what we need right now. What we need is for you, personally, to make a strong, simple and public statement supporting our right to drive.
We understand that the US-Saudi relationship is complex, and that there is a time for quiet diplomacy and there is a time for public diplomacy. But in our opinion what has happened in Saudi Arabia over the last month - the launch of the largest women's rights campaign in Saudi history - constitutes a moment that calls for public diplomacy, a moment in which it is incumbent upon champions of women's rights like yourself to deviate from the norm.
It's unclear if Clinton read the letter or independently realized that a private phone call wouldn't suffice, but when she was asked about her lack of response during a press conference later yesterday, she said, "What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right ... I am moved by it, and I support them." Then she clarified that the movement doesn't really involve the United States, so our precarious relationship with Saudi Arabia shouldn't be strained by her backing the movement:
"I know there is an active debate in Saudi Arabia on a range of social issues," she said. "For our part, we will continue in private and in public to urge all governments to address issues of discrimination and to ensure that women have the equal opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potential. But I want to, again, underscore and emphasize that this is not about the United States. It's not about what any of us on the outside say. It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government."
Support from foreign leaders certainly helps add legitimacy to the campaign, and several Congresswomen already voiced their support last week. Though Clinton probably deemphasized her role for diplomatic reasons, she's right that the focus should remain on heroic Saudi women like Manal al-Sherif, who are actually putting themselves at risk to demand their rights.