Kerry Takes Softer Line Than Hillary on Saudi Women Drivers

But neither diplomat has made women's rights a defining U.S. foreign policy issue

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On a fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry toed a careful line when asked about growing protests by Saudi women who are demanding the right to drive.

“[I]t’s no secret that in the United States of America we embrace equality for everybody, regardless of gender, race, or any other qualification,” Kerry told reporters in Riyadh. “But it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure. … There’s a healthy debate in Saudi Arabia about this issue, but I think that debate is best left to Saudi Arabia.”

That’s a milder line than the one Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, adopted when she was asked about the issue in June 2011. Clinton replied that she was “moved” by the protest movement, which she called “brave.”

“I am moved by it and I support them,” Clinton said at the time. “We have raised this issue at the highest level of the Saudi Government. We’ve made clear our views that women everywhere, including women in the Kingdom, have the right to make decisions about their lives and their futures. They have the right to contribute to society and to provide for their children and their families. And mobility, such as provided by the freedom to drive, provides access to economic opportunity, including jobs, which does fuel growth and stability. And it’s also important for just day-to-day life, to say nothing of the necessity from time to time to transport children for various needs and sometimes even emergencies.”

Kerry’s comments were far more cautious, though he did say that the issue had come up at a luncheon that day, and that Saudi officials “know exactly where” the U.S. stands on the question. The State Department’s top spokeswoman also made clear as recently as Oct. 26 that America “supports [Saudi women’s] ability to drive.”  But Kerry offered no direct encouragement for the protesting women, nor any criticism for the kingdom’s policy.

To be fair, Clinton wasn’t actually in Saudi Arabia when she spoke, whereas Kerry was standing within arm’s reach of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Pressing the issue might have defined news coverage of a trip whose goal was to soothe relations at a moment of tension with the Saudi royals. Clinton may have made the same concession to diplomatic mores in that setting.

And while Clinton frequently spotlighted women’s issues as Secretary of State, she didn’t treat them as paramount. The woman who delivered a famous 1995 speech on the treatment of women in China when she was First Lady, for instance, rarely pressed human rights issues with the Chinese government in public during her tenure as top diplomat, as she pursued urgent Obama administration priorities like the world economy, global warming and Iran.

Nor did Clinton argue for NATO forces to extend their stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to protect the rights of women. Writing for TIME in 2001, Clinton argued that protecting women’s rights was critical to Afghanistan’s future. As Secretary of State she did stress the point in public. But the U.S. will be leaving the country at the end of 2014, even though Human Rights Watch predicts a “dark future” for Afghan women after that happens (“[T]here is a glaring absence of consideration of similar safeguards for women’s rights in the years ahead,” HRW warns). Look no farther than this unforgettable TIME cover image to see what that might mean.

Not even Clinton could make a winning argument for having American troops to fight and die on behalf of Afghan women’s rights. Anyone with a heart is sympathetic to oppressed women everywhere. But that’s rarely enough to define U.S. foreign policy, as John Kerry demonstrated in Riyadh yesterday.