By Jamie Crawford
Before breaking off her trip to Asia to fly to the Middle East to address the crisis in Gaza, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the midst of what in many ways was the start of her world farewell as America's top diplomat.
During a historic stop this week in Myanmar at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated Nobel laureate and advocate for Burmese democracy, Barack Obama made a point to praise Clinton on what would likely be their final foreign trip together as U.S. president and secretary of state.
The symbolism of the trip's importance, and Clinton's role, was captured through the image of her walking off Air Force One with Obama – the first by a sitting president to the former pariah nation.
"This is her last foreign trip that we're going to take together, and it is fitting that we have come here to a country that she has done so much to support," Obama said referencing Clinton's own history-making trip to Myanmar last December.
"I could not be more grateful, not only for your service, Hillary, but also for the powerful message that you and Aung San Suu Kyi send about the importance of women and men everywhere embracing and promoting democratic values and human rights," Obama said.
When Suu Kyi came to greet the two on the tarmac, Clinton noticeably held back, letting Obama have his moment. She's proven a loyal Cabinet member, perhaps unimaginable a few years ago at the height of their bitter fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
But an Obama spokesman said that was all water under the bridge.
"They spent basically the entire flight alone in his personal office on Air Force One just reminiscing about the last four years," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters on the trip about the flight from Thailand to Myanmar.
"But, as the president said, it wasn't just the last four years; they have been through a lot together over the last five or six years. And, in fact, unique among people, they have been at this, working as hard as they can, for five or six years now," Rhodes said.
Before the stop in Myanmar, Clinton had already traveled to Australia with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for meetings with their counterparts, and then to Thailand where she met Obama. There were also two international summits in Cambodia on the schedule before she was scheduled to head back to the United States – that is until the stop in the Middle East was added to the itinerary.
Crisis in the Mideast
As the crisis between Israel and the rulers of Hamas in Gaza worsened, Obama and Clinton worked the phones calling leaders around the world. In announcing Clinton would head to the Middle East on Tuesday, the White House spokesman underscored it came after the president and secretary of state discussed where things stood.
"They agreed that it makes sense for the secretary to travel to the region," Rhodes said.
Obama dispatched Clinton to meet with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in an attempt to arrest a situation spiraling dangerously out of control.
It's a something all who have come before Clinton have been called on to do. Travel the world with dizzying frequency – many times to a crisis region for a last ditch attempt at high stakes diplomacy to try and cool tensions.
Clinton, who is globally popular, made history this past June when she became the first secretary of state to visit more than 100 countries when she landed in Latvia. Since then, she has made multiple stops in Asia and Africa, and also visited Russia, Haiti and Peru.
Clinton has no official overseas travel announced beyond the current trip, but there is always the potential to go to Brussels next month for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, not to mention an unending series of crisis elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa that might demand some additional travel.
The trip to the Middle East may also provide an opportunity for Clinton to rehabilitate her record which has been tarnished following the September terror attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Questions have arisen over whether the State Department did enough to address the security concerns of U.S. diplomats and personnel working at the compound, and why she did not take the lead in explaining the U.S. understanding of the armed assault in the days immediately following.
What is certain is that Clinton does not intend to serve in Obama's second term.
"I think after 20 years, and it will be 20 years, of being on the high-wire of American politics and all of the challenges that come with that, it would be a - probably a good idea to just find out how tired I am," she said in an interview with CNN earlier this year about stepping down even if Obama was re-elected.
"I'm aiming to leave shortly after the inauguration; that's my plan," she told the Washington Post in an interview a week before Obama won a second term. "I'm not really open to staying longer, but I also know that we have to be conscious of the work that has to be done. And again, I'll have to talk to the president."
Her spokesman later said she would stay until a new secretary of state is confirmed, a common practice for outgoing Cabinet members.
But the prospect of who will fill her shoes has become a more complicated question in recent days.
Speculation has centered on Susan Rice, who currently serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, as the most likely candidate to be nominated by Obama. But her explanation of the administration's response to the Benghazi attack has come under intense criticism by Senate Republicans who would ultimately vote on any nominee.
"Let's see what happens here, but we will do what ever is necessary to block the nomination that's within our power as far as Susan Rice is concerned," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said at a press conference last week. Just this week, 97 House Republicans sent a letter to the president declaring their opposition as well.
It is still a guessing game as to precisely when Clinton will announce her resignation. She is thought to want to remain on the job at least until a congressionally ordered investigation of the Benghazi incident is completed.
Regardless of what happens, she has made it clear that her time as America's top diplomat is coming to a close, and with it, a long career on the national stage who's every movement seemed to garner scrutiny across a range of issues.
In an interview during a trip to India with CNN's Jill Dougherty earlier this year, Clinton seemed to be looking to her coming retirement when she was asked about how her appearances were being discussed in the blogosphere.
"I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now, Jill, because if I want to wear my glasses, I'm wearing my glasses. If I want to pull my hair back, I'm pulling my hair back. And at some point it's just not something that deserves a whole lot of time and attention, and if others want to worry about it, I'll let them do the worrying for a change."