By Frida Ghitis
If you want to find a harsh crowd for an American official, send him - or her - to Pakistan. That's why reviews of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's stop in Islamabad during her latest dizzying tour of international trouble spots should make us take notice.
"Drum roll for Hillary," wrote Rizwan Ghani in the Pakistan Observer, "because she has hit a home run."
Hillary, as she is known around the globe, does not earn accolades just for her cheerful smile. She is tough as nails. In fact, she's much tougher than her boss, President Obama. And her mastery of complicated issues can leave observers' jaws dangling from their hinges.
The Pakistani daily Dawn spoke of her "Iron fist in a velvet glove," as it described her taking on Pakistani officials over tense problems, including Afghanistan, the Taliban, China-Pakistan nuclear cooperation, Indo-Pakistani water disputes, and so on.
And that was just one stop on the trip. In South Korea, she sent one of the strongest messages this administration has issued to Pyongyang, and then walked right up to the edge of the DMZ, within inches of nervous North Korean soldiers.
On Afghanistan, no U.S. official can deal more openly and effectively with President Hamid Karzai. And speaking of Afghanistan, remember that Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired? The piece showed his aides tearing down just about every administration official, but added, "Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal's inner circle."
In fact, Clinton, who was supposed to ignite the flames of conservatives' hatred, is becoming more popular every day across the political spectrum. Her hawkish foreign policy views gain her support on the right, and her well-known views on domestic policy keep the home fires burning on the left. The two fields intersect in one of the areas where she displays the greatest passion, her signature foreign- policy issue: the need to empower women in poor countries in order to transform the world.
Nobody has worked more successfully to advance this vision and put it into practice. Since she electrified an audience in Beijing in 1995, declaring that "it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights," her run for the presidency and her time as America's top diplomat has helped girls everywhere aim higher and forced oppressors of women to deal with a woman if they want to speak with America. Her town-hall meetings around the world promote America's values and human rights.
Clinton, whose approval ratings easily surpass those of the president and the vice president, has acted as something of a bad cop to Obama's good cop. It's impossible to know how much of what she says is directed by the White House and how much is her personal message.
She was always much more hawkish than Obama on Iran's nuclear program, for example, showing skepticism that his "outstretched hand" would nudge Tehran to change course. Her doubts proved correct, and Obama is now pushing the line she advocated two years ago.
On Israel, she spoke harshly to the Netanyahu administration, surprising Israelis who had learned to trust her over the years. But now the White House is sounding more like Hillary did in the old days.
Not long ago, an interviewer asked if she would serve eight years as secretary of state. "No," she said, "I really can't." The globe-trotting job is absolutely exhausting. And when the obligatory question comes - would she run for president again? - the obligatory answer is always no.
At 62, Clinton is not too old for another run, especially if it comes in just two years. Republicans have been promoting the idea. After all, a Democratic challenge to Obama could help secure a Republican victory in 2012.
In a Wall Street Journal column, former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, a Republican, listed Obama's troubles and suggested Hillary could prove to be the Democrats' savior - if not at the top of the ticket, perhaps as Obama's running mate. (No comment from Biden on that.)
Hillary was too busy planning Chelsea's wedding and strategizing against dictators to answer the suggestion. She would not run against an incumbent Democrat. But it's too early to know how 2012 will look. If unemployment does not improve; if Obama's ratings continue to slide; if Obama decides not to run - there are a lot of ifs. But remember, Hillary Clinton is still hitting home runs. And there's always 2016.