Hillary Clinton and the Rise of Smart Power

Hillary Clinton is an expert at deriving maximum benefit from limited power--which means Obama's top diplomat is using a whole new set of tools

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Diana Walker for TIME

Clinton aboard a C-17, on her way to meet with rebel leaders in Tripoli.

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Clinton's endurance is legendary. She maintained a punishing 18-plus-hour-a-day schedule on her weeklong swing from Libya to Central and South Asia. At the end of her day in New York City last September, with its endless one-on-one meetings, public appearances and forums, Clinton sat down in a closed session with the 27 E.U. Foreign Ministers and listened as each aired opinions on U.S. foreign policy. Even as glazed looks settled over her staff, Clinton retained an easy and relaxed demeanor, speaking off the cuff and calmly responding to bitter criticism of the U.S.'s veto threat against a vote on Palestinian statehood.

Clinton says she intends to leave the Administration after one term--a respectable four-year run. Her relationship with the White House is professional. The public still finds Clinton, who turned 64 on Oct. 26, fascinating--and a potential Commander in Chief. A TIME poll in early October of 838 likely voters found that Clinton does far better than Obama in head-to-head matchups against potential 2012 opponents, beating Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points and Rick Perry by 26. That has led to speculation that she might run for President again in 2016, something her closest staff dismiss. Nearing the start of her eighth decade might not seem an ideal moment for a presidential campaign, but Clinton learned long ago that conditions are rarely ideal for anything, in politics or diplomacy.

"As we look at how we manage the Arab Spring," Clinton told TIME, "we are trying to influence the direction, with full recognition that we don't have ownership and we don't have control. And there's a lot that's going to happen that is unpredictable. But we want to lead by our values and our interests in ways that, regardless of the trajectory over the next decade, people will know the United States was on the side of democracy, on the side of the rule of law ... And that will, I hope, be a strong antidote to the voices of either fatalism or extremism."

That is not exactly a realist's view of the changing 21st century world, nor an idealist's. But Hillary Clinton is betting her legacy that it is a powerfully American one.

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