Hillary Rodham Clinton, admired and attacked as a strong woman in her own country, came to Pakistan on Sunday to admire and consult with another one: Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who greeted the first lady at a luncheon for prominent women with a sisterly joke on the perils of power.
“The first lady does not know it, but according to newspapers in Pakistan, Mr. Asif Zardari is de facto prime minister of the country,” Bhutto said, referring to her husband, who often is painted as a sinister threat behind the throne and who had met Clinton’s plane on her arrival in a driving rain 12 hours earlier.
“He says, ‘Only the first lady can appreciate it’s not true.”’
In fact, Clinton’s first stop on her 12-day, five-nation official visit to South Asia is a study in the subtle role of spouse without portfolio.
In her biggest solo venture since the collapse of her health care plan last year, Hillary Clinton is reintroducing herself as a first lady not only of the United States but also of the world, wading into a region thick with the geopolitical goo of nuclear proliferation, financial aid and human rights abuses.
Clinton’s aides said most of those issues had come up, at least elliptically, in a 25-minute private talk with Bhutto, but that Clinton had not raised them.
And the first lady’s staff made it clear that such an agenda is the stuff of Bhutto’s scheduled meeting with President Clinton in Washington next month. The prime minister is likely to try once again to assure Washington that her country is not trying to develop nuclear weapons, the possibility of which has been the main irritant in American-Pakistani relations and has led to a congressional ban on any new aid since 1990.
On this trip to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Hillary Clinton is determined to emphasize what she calls “the human issues” of health, education and social progress, especially for women and children in a region of dreadful poverty.