In this moment of national confusion and public despair with officials in Washington, variations on the following cry have often been heard, "Somewhere in the world there must be an American political leader with a vision of tomorrow, a focus on what is really important and an ability to translate rhetoric into success."
I'm pleased to report that there is. If it has escaped your attention it's because that politician has been on the other side of the world the past couple of weeks advancing American interests and the policies of the president with meaningful results and exceptional skill.
That politician is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is just completing an around-the-world mission that has taken her from the economic frontlines of the eurozone crisis to the markets of tomorrow in Asia. The trip, obscured in the noise around the debt ceiling debate, has been a real triumph for the Obama administration and has revealed that many of its policies over the past two years are now bearing significant fruit. It has also revealed the State Department's deftness and bench-depth in dealing with an Asia agenda that is vastly more important in every respect than virtually anything that has been discussed inside the beltway for months.
Given that most trips by senior officials, even secretaries of state, are more often than not a series of pro forma efforts in diplomatic box-checking, the scope and results of the Clinton trip are worth noting. In Greece, she conveyed at a critical moment, America's unequivocal support for that country's economic recovery plan. When visiting Pakistan, the site of America's most difficult relationship, her performance was even hailed in the local press. The Pakistan Observer carried an article stating, "Drum roll for Hillary because she has hit a home run." Her India visit was also widely hailed producing progress on a number of fronts from counterterror cooperation to opening up investment flows between the two countries. More importantly, it also continued the important work that will be a central legacy of her efforts at State which is the elevation of the U.S.-India relationship to being a centerpiece of America's 21st century foreign policy.
The focus on the U.S.-India relationship is, as the trip also revealed, part of an even broader reorientation of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. This administration was the first in U.S. history to enter office acknowledging that China was America's most important international counterpart -- one that was both vital partner and challenging rival. But, rather than simply acknowledging this fact and focusing on that relationship, Obama, Clinton and their Asia team have systematically worked to establish a foundation for managing that relationship. What is more their choice was not kow-towing or bluster nor was it the blunt instrument of containment. Rather than have chosen what might be called broad engagement, deepening not only the relationship with Beijing and with potential counter-weights like India, but also systematically and often invisibly working to strengthen ties with many of the smaller countries in Asia.
The approach was clearly illustrated during several other stops on Clinton's trip. In Hong Kong on July 25, she delivered an address to the American Chamber of Commerce which was not only a model for a sweeping, specific, thoughtfully-argued policy address, but which revealed a clear vision for the future of America's relationship with China and the rest of the region. It did not hesitate to press the Chinese to abandon unfair economic practices and to embrace the openness healthy markets demand. It was effectively built around the enumeration of four core principles: markets be open, free, transparent, and fair. But it also underscored the mutual dependence at the center of the relationship and outlined a systematic strategy for how to build upon it. It did not stop there, however. It addressed as effectively as anything I have heard the nature of the current debt-ceiling debate in an effort-successful to date at ensuring continuing Asian market confidence. And it emphasized the importance the United States places on deepening ties elsewhere in Asia, from the Korea-U.S. trade agreement the administration is pushing hard to win passage of to links to ASEAN's rising economies. The full text of the speech is worth a read and appears here.
Prior to the visit to Hong Kong, Clinton attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia, and actively engaged with not only many of the region's leaders but made real substantive progress on issues from re-opening conversations with North Korea to managing a constructive multi-national approach to addressing tensions in the South China Sea. These meetings were also a chance to advance the systematic strengthening of relations with all the region's players, including many that have often been overlooked by the United States. This process has over the past two years included both establishment of formal policy dialogues with many countries in the region and also work on issues from reform in Myanmar to those associated with the Mekong River delta area that have been an important part of the Obama team's Asia strategy.
Regional diplomats not only give Clinton high marks for her efforts and in particular for this trip, but they also cite her top lieutenants including Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. One of Washington's most respected senior diplomats specifically cited to me the contributions of Campbell in helping Clinton shape the regional strategy, in managing complex core relationships with China, Japan and Korea but recognizing the importance of other players as well. "He is the most effective assistant secretary of state for East Asia in modern memory," said the official. "No one else even comes close and I have high regard for many of them."
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
It would be too easy to say that Barack Obama has been a big loser so far since the onset of operations against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. It would also be wrong. The Obama administration has mishandled many elements of the crisis, but nothing they have done wrong thus far is irreversible and in terms of the simple objectives of imposing a no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi, the effort has been effective.
Further, whatever the criticism of Obama may be, his intentions have been both defensible and sound: The desire to forestall a humanitarian disaster and to do so through multilateral mechanisms were worthy and responsible goals. The challenge thus far has been in the execution ... although clearly, the risks going forward remain high and were this to result in a protracted U.S. involvement, unacceptable costs, a stalemate on the ground that left Qaddafi in power or the installation of a new government that ultimately proved to be as bad or worse for U.S. interests than its predecessors, then we would have to revisit our list.
Meanwhile, at this stage of the game, the five biggest losers associate with the whadeveryacallit (see Jay Carney's convolocution above) are:
Much as the Libyan people were only the number five beneficiary of events so far in our winners list because the outcome is so uncertain, Qaddafi is only the number five loser of the major international military onslaught targeting his regime because it is not certain how this will all end up for him. With the UN's promise not to put boots on the ground, Qaddafi's tenure in office could be a long one and absent a "lucky" missile strike or a major increase in the effectiveness of opposition forces, a stalemate in which he retains considerable power over important chunks of Libya seems a strong possibility. Another alternative which might not be so bad is exile and the prospect of living with billions of dollars and all the Ukrainian nurses that can buy (which is a lot). So, while the most advanced military forces in the world are working against him, right now Muammar still is clinging to hope of a better tomorrow ... or any tomorrow ... which could prove to be a very unsatisfactory outcome from the political perspective of some of his leading international adversaries. That said, my money is on him not surviving as Libya's leader and in any event all his attempts at remaking his image over the past half decade have been undone and he has been permanently restored to his much deserved lunatic pariah status.
While the forces in the field have been performing admirably, the early days of this operation in terms of the alliance's political operations haven't been pretty. The world's most important, powerful, experienced, best-equipped military alliance has all the toys a middle-aged coalition could want but someone seems to have misplaced the instruction manual for smooth establishment of a command structure. From the minute they committed to this there have been arguments about who is in charge, about goals, about tactics, about basing, about burden-sharing, about virtually everything that alleged friends could possibly fight about. While the attacks NATO has carried out have apparently been effective, it is still unclear whether in the long-term they will be making the region any safer. Further, and more damagingly, they have revealed real problems in the ability of the alliance to work together on the kinds of conflicts with which they are most likely to be confronted in the near future. The apparent decision, a week into the crisis, to put a clear NATO command structure to be in charge helps matters considerably ... but the delays in getting there also underscore the kind of fault-line issues bedeviling the participating countries. This will all be papered over once this draws to a close but going forward, resistance of countries like Germany and Turkey to participation in undertakings like this could remain high for some time to come.
3. Arab League
Not that they had much credibility to begin with and not that many people expected much of them when it came to championing either democracy or even the basic human rights of the people of their region, but the Arab League at least during the early days of this operation did the near impossible and reduced the value of their role as a force of good within their region by their inability to follow up on their welcome promise of playing a key role in containing Qaddafi. Again, it's possible that they could undo the damage that has been done by stepping up their commitment of men and materiel to the mission -- and today's welcome announcement of substantial air support from the UAE buttresses the commitment of the Qataris in important ways -- but there are plenty in the coalition who acted in response to their promises who are absolutely furious at how so many members of the League have proven to be all keffiyeh and no camel on this issue. (A reference to the old Texas slam about posturing would-be ranchers who were "all hat and no cattle" for those of you wondering where I was going with that.)
Viewing points 3 and 4 above, one can't help but worry that at the dawn of what could be a new era in international affairs, an essential idea has been set back by messy execution. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, America and the world both were motivated to move away from the ugly inequities of a one superpower world dominated by a we-can-do-it-all-ourselves USA. The only alternative was better sharing of responsibilities for decision-making and problem-solving when it came to global problems. Barack Obama's willingness to embrace that new approach in the face of this first real 3 a.m. phone call type crisis of his presidency was welcome and the right thing to do but it could produce more damage than good if critics ultimately feel we did the right thing in the wrong way. If the message about multilateralism is that it is slow or messy or costly or politically damaging, it will not only become harder to rally allies in the future but in the U.S. unilateralists will have a case in point to use when next they want to drop the hammer on someone without benefit of the blessing of the international community.
It is a good thing that William Safire, the New York Times redoubtable lover of words and their meanings is dead because if he weren't the White House press statements on this crisis would have killed him. We don't have to start with the good and capable Jay Carney's ill-considered coherence-limited characterization of the Libya conflict cited in the title of this post. We can turn to Ben Rhodes' clarity-challenged clarification of whether or not the U.S. was seeking regime change cited in an earlier post this week. Or we can go to Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough's appearance on the PBS NewsHour which was described by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin as "He was asked questions. He answered them. And in the end you had no idea what he said." (For our international readers let me note that the Washington Post is not seen as a crazy right wing mouthpiece of the Republican Party.) Speaking however of crazy Republicans, they are not immune from the disease currently affecting Washington, either. Take Newt Gingrich who may have finally stuck a stake through the heart of his already slim chances of being a credible candidate for president when he offered two completely contradictory positions on intervention in Libya within the course of a couple of weeks. (Although his creative "patriotism excuses infidelity" stance -- also known as the flag-made-me-do-it excuse for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife -- is likely to ensure him a few male votes should he ever run.) It is almost as if the underlying foundation of the United States's current foreign policy is Newton's Third Law of Motion, paraphrased to suggest that for each guiding principle of our actions there is an equal and opposite principle to which we also adhere. We're leading and we're not. We're for regime change and we're against. We're for democracy in some places but not in others. For those seeking comfort, there are always the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For those worried by the trend outbreak of double-talk there is however the fact that Fitzgerald offered that observation in an essay called "The Crack-Up."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The White House clearly has a problem on its hands. The launch of the military intervention with Libya has been messy at best. The fog of war is supposed to be restricted to the battlefield, but for the moment it seems to have settled in over the White House. Here are just a few of the contradictions and confusions swirling about at the moment:
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was on the record as saying the U.S. had no strategic interests in Libya. Now, he must coordinate an American involvement that would be irresponsible unless indeed such interests existed.
The President and his team made it clear through their early remarks that America would not be in lead in this mission. But the Pentagon over the weekend let it be known that Americans were indeed in command but plans were being discussed for a hand-over at some unspecified point in the future.
The involvement of the Arab League was allegedly a critical catalyst for U.S. support, but military support has been slow to materialize, minimal when it has, and political opposition to key components of the mission -- like bombing to neutralize threats on the ground -- has emerged.
The involvement, according to the President and his team would be short, limited to protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi. While the quick dispatch of Qaddafi would be the best protection for the Libyan people, other possible paths are just as likely at this point: a short involvement that leaves Qaddafi in place and Libya divided, which would be a very unsatisfactory outcome strategically and politically, or a long one that ends up in Qaddafi going to ground, resisting the rebels thanks to his considerable resources, and ultimately requiring a much more extensive international involvement than is currently contemplated. In short, the involvement is unlikely to be as neat nor its outcome as clear-cut in its benefits as was advertised.
The principle underlying the involvement was the protection of the Libyan people from abuse at the hands of their government. Syrian troops fired into crowds of their people this weekend: will the same principle soon apply there? In Yemen? In Bahrain? In Iran? In the Palestinian territories? It is impossible to imagine that it will apply in any of these places thus undercutting the idea that any principle was involved at all.
The President has argued he has consulted with Congress on his actions. The disagreement with this idea seems to begin on Capitol Hill where in one of the few bipartisan displays in recent months, both Democrats and Republicans have complained that what consultation that did take place was perfunctory and inadequate.
The President's men are very agitated that the New York Times narrative that they were led to war by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Gayle Smith and are now arguing the President was the leader of the move to act. While the final decision clearly rested with the President, the Amazons In-Charge narrative is going to be hard to dial back because these strong, capable women did actually drive the decision process against the opposition of Gates, Donilon, Brennan and others. Worse, the delay between the initial instance in which Secretary Clinton advocated the idea and the time it was ultimately implemented have created many complications that make the involvement much more difficult...and those delays are traceable to uncertainty on the part of the President and his close White House advisors.
The move to multilateralism was belied by a trip to Brazil in which the President effectively rebuffed Brazilian desires to win his support for their candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- support he has already given to India. All the Brazilians got was a non-committal "we'll look into it" and were left to digest why India was treated differently. The U.S. had wanted a more compliant Brazil on issues like Iran's nuclear program, but the message to the Brazilians is that the Indians were rewarded strategically for undertaking a nuclear weapons program while the Brazilians who avoided this step were penalized for having a different opinion on nuclear issues.
Both India and Brazil abstained on the UN vote on Libya making the distinction between the two even more hard to defend. This issue by the way offset within Brazil's government whatever perceived "success" the Obama trip has had via photo ops for the President in Rio favelas. Combine this with the forced resignation of the US Ambassador to Mexico this weekend and you have a pretty lousy week for U.S. Latin relations coinciding with a presidential trip to the region that was optically very difficult given the entire Libya issue.
The White House needs to be decisive and move quickly to undo the problems of the past few days. The President began the process of trying to address these issues during his press conference in Chile, but the real heavy lifting will begin when he arrives again in Washington. At that point, both he and the American public will have a clearer picture of the situation on the ground in Libya.
Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama. Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness of the actions it triggers will weigh heavily on how the American president is ultimately viewed.
This is not because Libya is such a vital issue. It's significant to be sure and certainly the plight of the rebels combating Muammar Qaddafi warranted strong action. But the Libya vote may someday be seen as especially important to perceptions of Obama and his effectiveness as an international leader because it is so emblematic of how he would like to handle world affairs. This was Obama the multilateralist, willing to trade fast, decisive action for the support and legitimacy of working within the U.N. system. This was Obama the president of a nation fighting too many wars and with limited means seeking to let others lead, take risks and share in the burdens of keeping the world safe. This was Obama, the un-Bush, out from under the complications of inherited wars that frankly have made him sometimes look like W 2.0, showing in effect, how he personally would like to handle the use of force going forward.
If the intervention is seen as timely, the rebels are effectively supported and Qaddafi's gains of the past few days are reversed, it will be hailed as successfully demonstrating that there is an alternative to unilateralism and that there may be an alternative to America playing the role the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass described as being that of "the reluctant sheriff." If it works, the fact that the U.S. and its allies managed to turn five likely "no" votes into abstentions thus clearing the way for action will be seen as masterful diplomacy and a feather in the cap of Hillary Clinton who faced down considerable head-winds not just overseas but within in the Administration to make it happen.
However, if the action is seen as too little too late and Qaddafi is able to consolidate his victories and remain in power, then Obama strategy and tactics will certainly be questioned and characterized as too deferential, hesitant and a signal to brutal governments that getting tough on opponents pays off. The American declinists will have a field day as will both international bad guys and Obama's political opponents back home.
In either case, with America and its president less inclined to act alone and ever seeking ways to shift the job of keeping the peace globally to others, this Libya case should be viewed both in terms of what it means to the situation on the ground in that warn torn country and as a possible test-case of a new approach to world affairs, one that Barack Obama would ultimately like to be able to take credit for leading.
It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama's multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach -- if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests -- whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people -- and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
This morning's New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels.
First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or be damaged by it. It is still too early to know how many states will be affected or what the effects of the revolutions will be. Several scenarios are plausible. In one, prolonged upheaval, Iran may benefit as the alliance that existed against it is compromised. In another, a shift to democracy, Iran may or may not benefit depending on the orientation of the government, but in all likelihood it would be damaged as more democratic governments are likely to be both more open to the rest of the world and an inspiration to the repressed people of Iran. In a third, a new generation of strongmen emerges, you could theoretically have pro-Iranian Islamic states take hold, but the reality is, given the long-term history of Iran within the region, old anti-Iranian alliances would recoalesce. This is especially true because new regimes would likely have large military components comprising experienced officers who have been in anti-Iranian stance throughout their careers.
Iran is certainly working to take advantage of the current uncertainty, using Hezbollah, Hamas, and related networks to promote both the instability it seeks and voices that it considers friendly. But Iran is not, and cannot ever be, "of" the Arab world. The cultural and historic barriers are too great. And therefore, the notion of it somehow creating an enduring network of states aligned to it is far-fetched.
This point about Iran however, does bring into focus a bigger point about the nature and future of the remarkable wave of revolutions currently sweeping across the region. Just as Iran is in the Middle East without being, in the minds of its Arab neighbors, a real part of their world, so too has the great problem of the Middle East at large been that for a variety of historical, political, and cultural reasons it has been in the world without having been of it.
The cultural disposition of the region has been to set itself apart, to create barriers to integration to the rest of the world, and in fact, to view integration with the rest of the world as a threat. This is a generalization, of course. There are hugely sophisticated global business leaders from the region, and there are cosmopolitan pockets within each of the countries of the Middle East. But for intentional and unintentional reasons -- education, religious views, political ideologies, social stratification, deliberate policy choices made by ruling regimes -- the benefits of integrating into the global economy have not been as available to people from the region as they have been to others in the Americas, Europe, or Asia.
The regional experts assessing the situation in the New York Times article are viewing what is happening purely in terms of old paradigms and politics. But one of the most important questions raised by the current situation is whether we are not seeing merely the latest round of political musical chairs, but rather we are seeing something deeper and more profound that could alter historical patterns. This is not, by the way, just an abstract question. It has very practical strategic implications for how the world outside the region handles the remainder of this period of change.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the Egyptian people in the wake of days of rioting was a masterpiece of insensitivity. With his citizens in the street expressing their needs, he addressed his own. He spoke of poverty and concern for his people, but his message was something far darker. He was making a stand for the status quo.
Watching him, ghostly in the stark podium lighting designed to hide what hints of his age his hairdresser and doctors could not, it was clear that this was an old man comfortable in the old ways of the Middle East. As such he was as much a remnant of Egypt's past leadership as any mummy in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, just as brittle, frail, and ready to turn to dust.
His sacrifice of his cabinet also evoked ancient practices, as well as the last ditch measures of autocrats throughout history. His ministers -- many of whom were not objects of the people's anger -- were used as cannon fodder, a way to test whether the old president's position would hold. The hours and days ahead will determine whether it was enough: whether there are real reforms he might actually entrust his new government with or whether he is betting that his lifelong ties to the military will protect him in ways that his political savvy no longer can.
He is a man out of touch with his people and his times. Like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, he is a symptom of the greatest problem the region has faced over the past several decades: its self-absorbed, corrupt leadership. From Algiers to Kabul, an arc of autocracy extends across nearly all of the greater Middle East, denying citizens the right of self-determination, buying international favor with oil or political deals, ignoring educational needs, the rights of women, and the investments needed to compete in the global economy.
But with each starkly out-of-touch pronouncement like that from Mubarak today, the arc trembles a bit. Certainly, the fall of Ben Ali started it quivering. In Yemen and in Jordan, demonstrators tested the waters to see if progress might be made there. We have already seen the potency of the Green Revolution in Iran and recognize that even when the autocrats seem to win the day, they only postpone the inevitable. You can't keep the cell phones and the Internet and Twitter accounts off indefinitely and compete in the modern world. You can't deny a future to populations dominated by the young and expect enduring stability.
In Israel, leaders are deeply ambivalent, fearful of instability in a country that has been vitally important to the region's stability -- and even more fearful that what they perceive as an even weaker, minority regime in Jordan might totter. At the same time, on some level they cannot help but note that not only do these uprisings underscore their nearly unique role as a democracy in the region (we will see what reform in Iraq brings) but even more importantly, they illustrate clearly that Israel is far from the biggest problem the region faces.
It is tempting for "realists" everywhere to cling to stability over the questions that opening these countries to self-determination might raise. But we should all have long since passed that point of hesitation. Either we are for the principle or we are not. Either all people deserve these freedoms or they do not. Someday historians may draw a direct connection between President Barack Obama's call for reforms and a new relationship between the United States and the people of the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and the events of this winter. We can only hope that it is connection marked by U.S. actions that are consistent with the high ideals espoused by the president.
In the words of Secretary Clinton today, we have hope that will be the case. In the "Made in the U.S.A." marking on the tear gas canisters being used against the Egyptian protestors we see the potential ugliness that can come from that old-fashioned form of flawed pragmatism that is a hallmark of US foreign policy -- the form in which we make a deal for today's stability that puts us on the wrong side of tomorrow's revolution.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The Obama administration has thus far been pitch perfect in its public statements regarding the unrest in Egypt. Learning from its ill-considered silence in the early days of the Iranian protests, it has offered a balanced message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it exactly right with "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity … to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." And Robert Gibbs's deft "Egypt is a strong ally" sent the unmistakable message that our long-term interests lie with the Egyptian people and not with any particular individual or leadership group … while at the same time reflecting an appreciation for embattled, aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's past cooperation with the United States.
That said, the uprisings in Egypt also signal a new period in the administration's foreign policy that will pose conundrums that make the riddle of the Sphinx look like a snap in comparison.
The complex challenges are, of course, hinted at in the choice the United States faces with regard to the Egyptian turmoil. The student uprisings raise the prospect of a more representative government in the country … and also the possibility that the uprisings we saw in Iran and then in Tunisia that preceded the Egyptian events might signal a moment of generational transition that could remake the region's politics. But they also raise the possibility of instability and of the uprisings being co-opted either by hard-liners who use them as an excuse to clamp down or by other even more radical, fundamentalist elements who seize on the upheaval to make their own moves.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
You can tell a lot about a major summit between world leaders by what happens in the weeks leading up to it. That's when staff scurry around trying to nail down "deliverables" -- agreements that might be signed, initialed, announced, dusted off, and signed again, that sort of thing -- and fine tune the optics of the upcoming meeting. Tensions are typically defused in advance. Good news is often played up to produce a positive mood.
That's just what has been happening in the run up to the visit of China's President Hu Jintao to Washington. The Chinese foreign minister blew through town last week, meeting with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Tom Donilon and allowing both sides to test out their language about how important the relationship is while also testing thrusts and parries on currency policy. Our North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth went to Beijing to seek progress on cooperatively managing the vexing Mr. Kim. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is in China right now seeking (unsuccessfully thus far) to reboot military cooperation that broke down in the wake of last year's decision to sell more arms to the Taiwanese.
At the same time, as is also typical with such a visit, we have members of Congress like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) flexing their muscles and warning that China had better adopt "fairer" currency policies or else. And sometimes we have seen other actions designed to send messages to the rest of the world to place the upcoming meeting in context -- or at least international actions that cast an important light on the upcoming meeting whether intentionally or otherwise.
Read these tea leaves and you can tell a lot about the largely formal high-level summit to come. In fact, these pre-summit periods are actually where the real work usually gets done with the most important summits typically being so carefully orchestrated that it's almost impossible for anything to actually spontaneously occur out of them.
So, what have we learned? Here are a few highlights:
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
From its start, I have viewed the Iran sanctions regime the Obama administration has helped devise with great skepticism. However, if recent reports are to be believed, the sanctions may someday be seen in retrospect as a vital element of an effective strategy to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the possibility is beginning to emerge that they could be seen as part of what may someday be seen as one of the signal triumphs of Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
My initial concerns about the sanctions program were several. First, it was my sense that such sanctions programs tend not to be terribly effective where authoritarian regimes are concerned. Next, sanctions tend not to be effective if they do not are not supported globally by all the economies interacting with the country facing sanctions. Third, in the case of these sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese carved out elements that protected important components of their own trade with Iran. Fourth, my sense is that the Iranians are engaged in a cat and mouse game with the international community in which they make a few seemingly constructive moves, even appear to make concessions, and then continue on with their nuclear development work behind the scenes.
My sense was also that international diplomatic and economic pressure would simply not be enough to really impede their program -- especially if the threat of the use of force to punish them if they did not back down was not credible. And the message from the administration was not tough enough on that last point.
However, when last week, the departing boss of Israel's intelligence service, Meir Dagan, stated that in his view the Iranian program had in fact been set back to the point that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons until 2015 at the earliest, it suggested that whatever was being done was working. No one, for obvious reasons, takes the Iranian threat more seriously than the Israelis (although WikiLeaks confirmed for all how worried the Iranians make all their neighbors). If they who had been saying two years ago that the Iranian threat would reach a critical level within a matter of a year or so were now saying it has been pushed out several years, it was more than just an interesting sound bite.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images
Stephen J. Solarz, who died Monday afternoon at the age of 70 after a long, courageous battle with cancer, was a member of the U.S. Congress' "Watergate Class" of 1974. He served 18 remarkable and illustrious years in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the Democratic Party's most respected foreign-policy leaders. He was so bold and courageous in his calls for the United States to pull back its support for the corrupt and abusive regime of Ferdinand Marcos that Corazon Aquino dubbed him "the Lafayette of the Philippines." He played an instrumental role in leading support for the first Gulf War. He attacked human rights abuses and worked to broker the end to brutal conflicts. He chaired both the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Subcommittee on Africa.
With such a record, it was no surprise that he was considered for years to be a likely future secretary of State. He studied foreign affairs avidly, immersed himself in his travels, worked tirelessly and did not suffer fools lightly. I know this because when I began working for him shortly after I left graduate school, I surely qualified as a fool -- if not by disposition then by virtue of my utter ignorance. But he generously not only gave me my first professional opportunity, but for the following 30 years he patiently shared his insights, his wisdom, and his humor, and offered an example I will remember and treasure the rest of my life.
As Steve used to joke, he "represented a district that would have elected Mussolini if he were a Democrat." It was the Brooklyn of Coney Island and Midwood, of Ocean Parkway and Avenue U, a district "with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv" and thus one that not only tolerated his interest in the rest of the world but encouraged it. Having a congressman who knew and quoted Abba Eban or Yitzhak Rabin was a plus even in a country where some mind-boggling percentage of members of the House didn't (and don't) even have passports. Of course, as his press secretary I spent hours squirreled away in his offices in the district, writing press releases about new subway escalators and the thrilling periodic visits to DC where we would work on issues closer to my heart and his, from East Timor to arms control, from the Middle East to the latest diplomatic crisis.
I remember vividly the time he took me on my first visit to the White House during which he invited me in to a meeting with then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Just the three of us. Me, perhaps 22 at the time. Brzezinski at his intimidating best. Solarz, not forty yet, holding his own, advancing his points with grace and eloquence.
Eloquence mattered to him. There was a school of politics back then in which rhetorical command was still highly valued, something more than today's soundbites or cable news sniping. Solarz, like the Kennedy brothers or Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Eban, the ultimate master, spoke in perfectly formed paragraphs, always seeking the right balance of dignity and substance, humor and sharp points where needed.
His intensity could be off-putting. Truth be told, he was not -- despite his nine electoral victories -- a natural politician. He alienated enemies and, sometimes, friends. In Washington, an old maxim is that you need both a great inside game and a great outside game. He ruffled enough feathers with his lack of attention to the inside game that when he hit turbulence toward the end of his time in Congress, potential allies stepped away from him. Opponents in Albany carved up his district in a way that forced him to choose between running against his friends and running in a district with which he had precious little connection. He chose the unfamiliar district, was a political fish out of water, and lost in the Democratic primary in 1992. It might have been a moment of opportunity. He was only 52. Two months later, a Democrat would be elected president and perhaps he could begin his long foretold ascent to the job he was best suited for, the one in the big office in Foggy Bottom.
His name came up to be ambassador to India, a post he would have filled exceptionally well. But an old enemy from the State Department raised the issue of a questionable contact he had made in Hong Kong and once again, potential allies retreated into the shadows and did not point out that the assertions made about him were absurd reasons to block the career of a man who had devoted his life to exceptional public service. It was an episode of gutless Washington at its worst and the American people were the ultimate losers.
Solarz went on to a distinguished post-congressional career, continuing to immerse himself in foreign policy, to lead the search for lasting solutions to the most complex international problems and to provide warm, wise advice to his friends and love to his dear family.
And then he got sick. And then he died. And now the memories come flooding back and it is clear that we are sorely in need of everything he was -- a dedicated student of foreign policy, a believer in the old school doctrine that national interests always trumped partisanship, a man who placed principle before reflexive loyalty and even self-interest, a guy with a sense of humor and a good heart … a mensch-statesman.
When he lost in 1992, the New York Times ran an article about the reactions to his loss. Solarz himself was quoted as saying that one of his few regrets was leaving office before Saddam Hussein did. Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, another of the very best Congress has produced in the past several decades, is reported to have sent Steve a note saying: "Few events of the last several months have saddened me more than the realization that you may be leaving."
I can't help but feel the same way right now. But I was cheered by one of the valedictory lines Steve himself offered -- because of its characteristic humor and the way it evokes Steve as well as by its message. "I take comfort in Abba Eban's observation," he said, "That politics is the only profession where there's life after death." That is, of course, especially true of men whose public contributions were of genuinely historic magnitude and whose private kindnesses have touched thousands.
Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post
The subtitle of this blog has been "How the World is Really Run" since the day it was launched, an editor's play on the title of a book I wrote. But I am today inclined to lend that subtitle out to the publishers of the most recent tidal wave of information from WikiLeaks. Because the 250,000 State Department cables contained in the release offer up no single revelation as striking as the overall message they contain: The dark shadowy world of diplomacy and international intrigue is working just about precisely as you suspect it is.
Behind the scenes, diplomats are sending private assessments of foreign leaders back to their bosses. Those assessments are often not entirely flattering. But what would you expect? Further, of all the assessments revealed among the WikiLeaks documents, none fly against perceptions that have long been public. Sarkozy thin-skinned? Berlusconi vain and partying way too hard for an old man? Putin and his cronies collaborating with the mob? The Karzai family corrupt? Saudis financing terror? Other Gulf leaders looking the other way? If you are surprised, then you have not been paying attention.
It is even less surprising, if such thing is possible, that those diplomats are busy trying to collect information on foreign leaders or that behind the scenes they are sometimes saying things that are at odds with their public statements. Does it make sense that Yemen's leaders would rather it look as though they were the ones striking against terror threats within their borders rather than letting the United States do it? Or that Arab leaders might take a tougher line on Iran behind closed doors? Or that the United States might be critical even of its allies from time to time? The real shock would be if these things were not true.
The landscape described by WikiLeaks is vivid, adding details that are colorful, sometimes embarrassing, and, occasionally, even thought-provoking. In the colorful department of course, we have everything from suggestions of inappropriate behavior from a member of the British Royal family (wouldn't we be more shocked by revelations of appropriate behavior from them at this point?) to descriptions by top diplomats of the Chechen president dancing at a Dagestani wedding with a gold-plated automatic shoved into his belt. In the embarrassing department we have vignettes as diverse as one featuring the Afghan vice president arriving in the United Arab Emirates with a suitcase full of illicit cash, or another featuring the White House auctioning off meetings with President Obama in exchange for countries taking in prisoners from Guantanamo.
What is thought-provoking is that it seems virtually every country that is a neighbor of Iran seems to be more inclined to see action taken against the Iranian nuclear program than is the United States… although frankly given the history and cultural fault lines in the region, this may actually be an argument for giving the U.S. approach more credence and support. Also emerging from the documents is a picture of just how dangerously immature China's foreign policy remains. The country is clearly continuing to be too inclined to cosset and support rogue regimes, an approach that is clearly out of sync with China's broadening international interests or its desire to be treated seriously as a leading nation. Finally, in this category, these documents make clear yet again -- from the repeated mentions of corruption in Afghanistan to deeply unsettling perspectives on the vulnerability and risks associated with the Pakistani nuclear program -- that the United States' involvement in that part of the world has us tied up with very bad actors and is likely to end up producing very unsatisfactory and possibly even tragic outcomes.
There is one other subtext that runs through all this, one well highlighted in a very good analytical piece on the releases by Timothy Garton Ash in the British newspaper the Guardian. The cables not only reveal that the world is run much as you expect it would be but for all the venality, hypocrisy, callousness and irresponsibility that is part and parcel of such assumptions, from time to time elements of it run precisely as you actually would hope they would run. For example, there is repeatedly revealed within the U.S. state department a high degree of professionalism, competence and courage. The best U.S. diplomats -- like Bill Burns, now undersecretary of state for political affairs, or ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson -- provide dependable insights in their communications and show no hesitation to send back assessments that will surely ruffle feathers back in Washington.
The WikiLeaks cables shine light on dark corners of international affairs only to reveal that for the most part, what is going on is what we thought was going on. The light enables us to see details, many fascinating, some disturbing, that also helps us better understand the nature of the world in which we are living and the risks we are facing. As a consequence, on a net basis, the newspapers that first broke the release -- the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde -- performed a useful service and did so with seemingly admirable restraint and judgment if their descriptions of their dialogue with officials regarding the releases are accurate.
That said, it must be acknowledged that yet another dimension of how the world is really run that is revealed through these releases is the means by which they were made public in the first place. If the U.S. continues to see fit to grant security clearances to three million individuals and all the information in these leaks can be as easily transferred as they were first to a fake Lady Gaga CD and then to the Internet or a thumb drive then we must expect that just like intrigue, deception, bad policies, and earnest public officials trying to advance their national interests, breaches of security like these will become a permanent part of the landscape of international affairs. If such leaks are really as odious and dangerous as many in the United States government are now asserting (a view with which I am sympathetic) then the place they ought to begin assigning blame is on themselves for allowing the creation of a system in which one more widely understood fact of the way the world works is that most secrets are very hard to keep.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
In a single, unexpected stroke President Barack Obama may have made his trip to India one of the most important of his presidency. By announcing his support for Indian permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, Obama advanced a number of important goals.
First, he went a long way toward establishing a truly special relationship between the world's largest democracy and the United States. He embraced an issue that was important to Indians and, despite the certainty of Pakistan's public unhappiness with the decision and China's less public but nonetheless undoubted discomfort with it, he showed courage and vision in doing so.
Second, he found an issue that could measure up to or even trump the Bush administration's nuclear deal with India, thus ensuring a strong sense of momentum in a relationship that must move forward if both countries are to rise to the challenges of the new century.
Third, he underscored that his administration was serious about turning rhetoric about rethinking multilateralism, and working with a new set of powers, into action. While working within the framework of the G-20 was a step in that direction, that process actually began two years ago under the Bush administration. Adjustments made in the structure of international financial institutions were another positive step, but frankly were rather underwhelming, leaving behind serious representational imbalances.
Admittedly, what the president said in his speech to the Indian Parliament -- "in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member" -- is rather open-ended. Especially when taken in the context of, for example, the extended period of unproductive support we have offered for Japanese permanent membership. Still, the president's statement implied that without permanent membership for India on the Security Council, the United Nations would not be seen as "effective, credible and legitimate." That is not just true (which it is) or an important point from India's perspective (which it also is), but it has major implications for other countries that have a legitimate claim to a similar role.
These other countries, as noted in a quick but insightful commentary from Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations, would certainly also include Brazil and Germany. This would make the first tier of new candidates a class of what Patrick calls "four great democracies." Others will cavil and some will argue their merits. But what Obama has done with this statement is to move U.N. reform forward in an important way.
Now, of course, the real work needs to be done. The United States should, at the earliest possible moment, begin a renewed push for translating these words into actions. This will take diplomatic deftness and will require a willingness to begin a process of major-power horse-trading that could well have repercussions across the entire international system. Ideally, the United States will undertake this with a clear vision of how it would like to see the system remade, and with an express willingness to alter, and in some cases diminish, the role of the great post-World War II powers. This is not only the path to a more just and effective system, it is also the path to a system offering fairer burden sharing, a point which may make these changes easier to sell both in Washington and among a group of cash-strapped Atlantic allies. The view should be holistic and represent a sense of where existing institutions need to be strengthened or revamped, and where new institutions need to be cultivated. Virtually no major international institution should be exempted from such a reassessment. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the regional development banks, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, etc., must be reviewed during this process.
Though it is also true that everything cannot happen at once, Obama boldly and appropriately found an issue that could be a lynchpin of such a process of reform. What will make today's remarks a true watershed -- and thus make the current trip a true success -- is if they lead to tangible progress soon, a worthy goal for the remainder of Obama's term.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip!
It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder's brother's Lincoln this one involves -- according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally -- 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force One, 13 cargo aircraft, three helicopters, and the private aircraft of a coterie of fat cat hangers-on. And instead of heading to Emily Dickinson College to comfort the grieving roommate of Fawn Liebowitz (by treating her to an evening at a local roadhouse to listen to Otis Day and theKnights) this one includes stops in India, Seoul,Korea for a G20 meeting that will involve more slippery smooth talking than"Otter" Stratton could ever muster, Japan, and Indonesia.The rumor that Obama is visiting Indonesia to consider locating his presidential library there is untrue and was denied by the White House moments after Mitch McConnell started to spread it, thus ending the three hours and twenty-two minutes of civility following Tuesday's elections.
For Obama, the trip is bound to be a relief. In fact, a variety of pundits are peddling the idea that given likely gridlock, congressional investigations, and general acrimony at home, that this trip will mark the beginning of a period during which the president will focus on international issues. As the theory goes, presidents can elevate themselves on the international stage without being dragged down by the Congress. Like many such theories, of course, this is nonsense. Nothing would seal Obama's fate as a one-term president quite as fast as a refocusing away from the domestic economic issues that torment his employers, the U.S. electorate.
Furthermore, given those domestic economic problems and the problems associated with our recent overseas misadventures, the United States is going to be both considerably less forward-leaning overseas, considerably more inward-looking generally and, in all likelihood, despite the "trade" sub-theme of the upcoming trip -- which is really a form of mercantilist chest-thumping -- more protectionist going forward.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Tom Jobim, the songwriter who wrote "The Girl from Ipanema," once observed, "Brazil is not for beginners." It is an insight that was shared with me this weekend by a wise friend in Brasilia.
He was not writing about the woman who decisively won Brazil's presidential election on Sunday, Dilma Rousseff. Despite the assertions of her critics, the woman already known to Brazilians simply as Dilma is no beginner. Those critics and some of her soundly defeated opponents are fond of saying that because she had never run before for elected office she might not have the political skills to manage Brazil's fractious Congress or even her ten party coalitions. But this overlooks the long and remarkable road that brought her from being a guerrilla combating Brazil's military regimes of the 1960s to jail and torture, to getting her degree in economics to a path of local government leading to Lula's cabinet to his invaluable chief of staff.
Furthermore, this kind of criticism overlooks her crafty and tenacious work behind the scenes when Lula's administration was battered by scandal and she played such a central role in holding it together and getting it back on track that from then on many in the government considered her "Lula's prime minister."
No, my friend was not writing about Dilma or anyone else in Brazil. He was writing about the policy community outside the country that is now going to face the challenge of shaping a relationship with the new administration. His point was that as a major, complex, rapidly changing power, Brazil has transcended and made obsolete old formulations about its nature and role. Brazil, he was suggesting, requires new thinking which in turn requires a kind of sophistication -- a more nuanced understanding and creativity that was often lacking in policymakers from traditional powers, particularly the United States. His comments particularly resonated with me after a series of meetings and events in which I have participated during the past few weeks all of which focused on Brazil and Latin America.
During several such gatherings in Washington, in surroundings where you would expect to see the crème de la crème of Western Hemisphere specialists, the level of discussion was frequently frustrating. Many of the views heard were those of superannuated relics of what is certainly the weakest regional policy community in America. Most still see everything in the Americas in terms of left vs. right distinctions which are pretty much meaningless today, as former traditional leftists turned stewards of economic orthodoxies like Lula and Dilma illustrate. These veterans of America's often rather ghastly Latin American policies are fighting Fidel and the contras in the steamy jungles of their minds. On the other hand, some of the younger analysts view Brazil as part of a kind of mystical BRICtopia where economies grow to the sky and upheaval and economic shocks are permanently things of the past. (Things are so fizzy there right now that this is as dangerous as underestimating Brazil's growing geopolitical clout.)
Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.
It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).
This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.
While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
The word is that the decision to hammer Bibi Netanyahu on Friday for Israel’s settlements screwup last week came directly from President Obama.
He was apparently very upset at the seeming contempt the Israelis showed for the vice president and by extension for the president himself and his administration. In addition, Obama, like many of his top aides, felt that the Israeli action was undermining U.S. standing at a critical time in American efforts to both advance the "peace process" and to weave together tough, effective international sanctions on Iran.
Here's the problem: This is one of those diplomatic flareups that may trigger fire drills in the governments and polemic fireworks from pundits but which, upon analysis, is really much less than meets the eye. It's actually a fake crisis.
First, of all, on the face of it the Israeli action seems genuinely to have been much more of a screwup than a calculated affront. And if someone was trying to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship, it seems certain they represented a fringe group and not the Netanyahu government. Subsequent statements of defiance by Netanyahu regarding building within Jerusalem were more in response to U.S. efforts to make additional political hay out of the dustup than they were related to the initial misstep.
Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign-policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.
Further, the United States can't really turn its back on Israel and embrace the Palestinian side any more closely than it has because there is really no there there. And were the United States to ally itself more closely to the Palestinian position (as I believe some at high levels wish they could), the administration knows they would inevitably find the Palestinian authorities made gaffes of the magnitude of this most recent Israeli blunder on an uncomfortably frequent basis -- thanks to the fact that the Palestinian government is more defined by rifts than by meaningful accomplishments.
Finally, most importantly, the U.S. argument that the Israelis need to be seen to be more quietly cooperative with U.S. efforts or Obama won't be able to effectively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program is undercut by the fact that the United States won't, in the end, actually stop the Iranian nuclear program. We just don't have the domestic will or the international support to do so. Just as each successive deadline for Iranian compliance with international cease and desist requirements has evaporated so too will the illusions that the U.S. can engineer anything like effective sanctions against the Iranians in an effort to penalize them for their noncompliance.
Containment is rapidly replacing engagement as the false hope on which the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be built. (Engagement was dependent on the other side wanting to engage back. Containment is dependent on the government or some other rational actor exercising effective control over all nuclear warheads. Neither precondition will, I'm afraid, prove to have been sufficiently certain to warrant betting our vital interests on it.) In any event, when the Iranians do ultimately go nuclear, the United States will want and need a strong relationship with Israel more not less.
This has created the current, almost bizarre, set of circumstances. Everyone, including the Israelis, agree Netanyahu's government made a big-league error last week. (In a way, it's a real breakthrough: finally something that everyone on all sides of the Israeli-Arab divide can agree on.) But the reaction of the United States, regardless of all the robust language and diplomatic dressing down of top Israeli officials, is indicative of weakness not of strength.
The bigger message that will be unintentionally have been delivered to the world at the end of all this is that the United States is willing to get fierce with its friend Israel over a perceived insult but that we are likely to remain ineffective in the face of self-declared Iranian enemies' efforts to destabilize the entire Middle East with nuclear weapons. This is not only a problem for the president because the outcome is so dangerous. It's also that "tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law
anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which
the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein's mother's
morning sickness in light of her son's reimagining of the universe.
Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the inside-the-beltway food fight of the past few months will likely fade quickly from memory as Americans start to "own" the provisions of the bill. (If not, all of Washington is going to soon have to see what provisions the new law will make for people with cable news-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.)
And if it passes -- which, flawed as it is would be a landmark and long overdue revision to America's social contract -- White House health care czar Nancy DeParle's reputation would be made because she would be seen as a key player in advancing a long-elusive goal of progressives from coast to coast. Whatever missteps the White House may have made along the way, she will be among those redeemed by finally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Of course, if the bill fritters out at the last minute, her career prospects will follow a different trajectory.)
This fact raises in turn another question. Just how are the rest of President Obama's Romanov dynasty full of 30-odd czars doing?
The answer is hard to tell judging from the newspapers.
This is true in part because newspapers have devoted most of their
coverage recently to Eric Massa's permanent tainting of the once
wholesome sport of snorkeling. It's also true because there were so
many darned czars created that it's hard to keep track of them all. But
mostly it's true because the president's decision to appoint so many
"czars" was a classic rookie mistake that has not really worked out
very well for anyone.
Certainly, it did not work out well for the czars who came and went like "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones who was Glenn-Becked into oblivion or "Car Czar" Steve Rattner who is now trying to work a deal to avoid further legal headaches associated with his allegedly unsavory practices in winning business from the New York State pension fund back in his hedge fund days.
But most of the czars who were originally appointed are still in place. It's just that in most cases the only people who know it are their families or the bureaucrats they scuffle with every day. You see one of the big problems with the whole idea of "czars" is that on the day after their investiture each of them discovered that the government is full of other people who thought they had the same responsibilities.
Just ask AfPak Czar Richard Holbrooke who has been largely overshadowed by the military's big man in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, and the State Department's other man in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Some of this may be, according to reports, Holbrooke's own doing, due to rough patches in his relationships with the Afghans, the Pakistanis and some of his colleagues in Washington. (It was probably a miscalculation to try to apply strong-arm tactics with Hamid Karzai that were reminiscent of his very successful tough-guy confrontations with Slobodan Milosevic years ago. The problem being that whereas Milosevic was a bad guy who was going down, an enemy being defeated, Karzai was a bad guy who was our alleged ally, one who strongly believed we needed him more than he needed us.) Holbrooke has also, according to White House sources, not been a great favorite of Obama's. This is particularly bad in an administration in which seeking the favor of the president has taken on an importance that is in fact, much more reminiscent of the historical czars than is the role being played by anyone with this now devalued moniker.
This is a key point. Not only have the czars seen their role diluted by bureaucratic competition but they were never really given the authority their informal titles implied. This is a classic failure of government and business managers everywhere -- giving people responsibility for an issue without truly giving them the authority to manage or lead it.
Does anyone for a moment think George Mitchell is really in charge of America's role in the Mideast Peace Process? Does anyone even really know what Mitchell is doing? In the State Department there is constant buzz that Mitchell is an inscrutable "black box"... and that people like Under Secretary Bill Burns, people in the regional bureau and, of course, Secretary Clinton can and should be playing a more central role in shaping strategy than Mitchell. Mitchell's team hasn't helped his standing with the White House much by going around taking shots at White House Middle East expert Dennis Ross in private meetings with Middle Eastern governments. Which has led the White House ... both within the NSC and the Vice President's office to get more involved, etc. The point is ... there are lots of players and Mitchell is no more a czar than was Ingrid Berman playing Anastasia.
Paul Volcker was a "czar" with responsibility for advising the president on financial reform. But for most of his term he has been ignored, being rolled out periodically for photo ops to show him as a validating grey head. His Volcker Rule gained traction when it was clear many other reforms were faltering. But the reality is Volcker, like the others is more a prop than a czar. It's not that he or they are unwilling to work or even that they don't have a huge amount to contribute. (I suspect we'd all be better off if AfPak were really quarterbacked by Holbrooke or financial reform were led by Volcker. These guys are among the very best the Dems have and the way they are being treated is like turning Albert Pujols or Kobe Bryant into reserves, playing them off the bench.)
I suspect Holbrooke at the moment has to be wondering whether he actually had more influence ... or a higher profile ... as a private citizen who deservedly was seen as a Democratic Secretary of State in waiting. Volcker, I am told, knew what to expect and took on the job because he knew it would periodically afford him influence, that sooner or later he would be needed or heeded.
"Green Czar" Carol Browner must feel the same way. Not only have her priorities faltered but she has been overtaken in traction by other members of the "Green Cabinet" and compromised by the fumbling on the Hill. On international matters, the State Department's climate negotiator had the clear lead although his efforts have encountered stiff headwinds, on other issues Science Czar John Holdren has won more traction, on others Steven Chu's team at Energy have. And while all this would be denied by the players in question if asked about it in public, you have to ask yourself why the experienced and respected Browner, in the middle of an issue the president has set as one of his priorities, would be on everyone's short list to be among those making an early departure from the administration?
Other czars have simply faced the bandwidth problem ... their issues have not risen to prominence in the midst of an agenda set largely by an economic crisis and a desire to move on a couple key issues such as health care and managing the revolving door that is our Middle East troop deployment strategy. Or alternatively, they just haven't been able to make much progress or have faced unforeseen setbacks. Our Auto Industry Recovery czar, Ed Montgomery, and our manufacturing czar Ron Bloom, have seen their efforts remain hostage to the sluggish economy ... and it doesn't look like our bailout of Chrysler is, in the end, going to do much good. Our Guantanamo czar has found getting out of Guantanamo is tougher than expected. Our Wall Street Pay Czar has had influence over only a few companies and while he has tried to manage that the rest of the financial community has been thumbing their noses at any idea of bonus restraint. Dennis Ross who was designated as the "Central Region" (Iran) Czar has worked hard -- and he like Holbrooke is one of the very, very best out there -- but ultimately U.S. policy will cede nuclear weapons status to Iran and our earnest but likely-to-be ineffective sanctions efforts will be seen as futile.
And so on. Admittedly our "Great Lakes Czar" can report that Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior are all roughly where we were when Obama came into office and Joshua DuBois our Faith-based Czar certainly has not seen a major fall in America's collective need or hope for some higher power to make sense of things. Because, as is almost always, the higher powers we create -- even when they are given grandiose titles like czars -- almost always disappoint for one reason or another. Hopefully, soon Obama will recognize this and make a long over-due return to the kind of simpler org chart that is almost always more effective.
GPO via Getty Images
It's the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists ... who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)
Let's start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that's not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn't it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That's reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it's about them.)
And the Big Winners?
While reading the obituary today of former Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, his Nobel Peace Prize win struck a chord. Even with today's news of an ever so slight diplomatic opening with North Korea, the "sunshine policy" and the hope that surrounded it seems so long ago. We can still hope for the best of course but one can't help but wonder if this is one example of the peace prize that may have come too prematurely or was too fueled by momentary optimism.
Which got me to thinking about other Peace Prize winners. The list, stretching back to International Red Cross Founder Jean Henry Dunant and French pacifist Frederic Passy in 1901, includes many extraordinary figures who worked tirelessly for regional or world peace. But some names do stand out who raise the question "just what were they thinking?" Or they speak to great PR more than great achievements. Or they once again invoke the triumph of hope over experience.
Who are the most dubious recipients of the prize in its 108 year history? I thought you'd never ask. Some of these choices are pretty controversial. Some I am of two minds about myself. But I thought I would toss them out and see what you thought.
Here are the ten most questionable laureates in reverse chronological order (which also is almost precisely the ascending order of dubiousness):
Sometimes diplomatic initiatives produce progress. But sometimes they produce just the illusion of progress. The best known example is that our efforts to promote democracy worldwide have produced a major uptick in the number of countries that conduct elections but that in many of those countries that's as far as democracy goes. In fact, from Russia to Venezuela the appearance of democracy is used to legitimize rulers with anti-democratic intentions.
The Obama administration is going to need to be very careful to make sure that we don't fall into the same trap with "engagement." Just as we need to upgrade our definition of democracy to include not just elections but checks and balances, the preservation of the rights of minorities, and the other legal guarantees necessary to ensure the survival of the culture and intent of true democracy, we are going to need to ensure that we don't accept as the fruits of engagement empty gestures or other forms of pseudo-progress that actually empower, elevate or play into the hands of problem regimes without actually advancing our interests in material ways.
The release of John Yettaw to Senator Jim Webb illustrates just how tricky the engagement calculus is. Yettaw is the Missouri man who said a vision compelled him to swim a lake to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Burmese democracy champion who has been under house arrest for most of the past two decades. His entrance into the home in which Suu Kyi is confined resulted in a three year extension of her term of house arrest despite the fact that she had nothing to do with the incident. This term was cut to 18 months by the leader of Burma's military regime Than Shwe. Nonetheless, the central wrong here is that a woman whose party enjoyed a massive victory in Burma's quickly and brutally quashed 1990 effort at democracy, a woman the Burmese people had selected to be their Prime Minister, is now going to be unjustly imprisoned for another year and a half for something she did not do.
Yettaw is thus a pawn in a bigger game and to the supporters of Suu Kyi it appears the U.S. has been played in precisely the way that was discussed on this blog last week. Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sub-Committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, comes out with his man and his headlines and support for his conclusion that a thaw in the U.S. relationship with Burma would benefit us. But the injustice against Suu Kyi is prolonged even as her jailers receive a reward for undoing a secondary wrong that they had already capitalized on as a pretext for continuing policies that amount to nothing less than keeping a boot on the throat of the Burmese people. In other words, thanks to this intervention, both the arrest and the release of John Yettaw provide benefits to the Burmese regime and none to democracy, Suu Kyi or America's true interests in the country.
Apparently, according to preliminary reports, one of Webb's more substantial diplomatic "successes" was being allowed to see Suu Kyi. But according to a story by Seth Mydans in the New York Times, during that visit Suu Kyi and Webb may even have had a disagreement over the issue of continuing sanctions against the Burmese regime. Mydans suggested that Suu Kyi felt they had value. Webb reportedly argued that since so many countries in the region did not honor the sanctions that they were unenforceable and thus not a useful tool. While there is an undeniable practical reality to Webb's point, sometimes sanctions are useful even if they are not 100 percent effective, especially if the cost to the sanctioner, the U.S. in this case, is comparatively minor. In other words, since sanctions are a diplomatic tool, the metrics used to assess their value need to be more than just economic. If they send a message, advance a principle and complicate the lives of the targeted country or regime without causing damage to us that outweighs the (even limited) benefits then retaining them may make some sense. Just as winning a diplomatic "victory" may not make sense if it actually, on balance, benefits an adversary or undercuts our national interests or both.
Is there a path to engagement with the Burmese leadership that might be worth pursuing? Of course. And it may well be that gains from Webb's visit outweigh the negatives. It is too early to tell because thus far all the Burmese have done is what is easy for them and the only way to measure progress will be when they start doing things that are hard -- like freeing Suu Kyi or actually allowing free elections to take place.
There is never harm in dialogue that clarifies or advances our position. We should even be willing to shrug off claims by the other side that such dialogue represents a "victory" for them if it is we are net beneficiaries -- as I believe we were in the case, for example, of the release of the two American journalists from North Korea. In that instance, we got back Laura Ling and Euna Lee and the North Koreans at best, got a photo op with a stony-faced former U.S. president. Here, we got our prisoner back but in so doing appeared to be doing so by throwing Suu Kyi further under the bus and, inadvertently no doubt, underscoring differences between us and the revered leader of that country's democracy movement. We got one addled American but the Burmese junta got a "leave her in jail free" card and the perception that the U.S. might be willing to move forward with further engagement on better terms than might have been available in the recent past (better for the regime, not necessarily better for the 2100 political prisoners in Burma.)
The Bill Clinton visit was engagement with a purpose and with a carefully limited downside. The Webb visit, at first glance, appears not nearly so deft. The commitment to engagement with Iran falls somewhere in the middle with our reluctance to condemn the Iranian government's repression of its own people following a seemingly stolen election seen as either not giving enough support to reformers or, alternatively, not "tainting" the demonstrators with our support. It all depends on who you talk to. In yet another case, that of Cuba, we seem to be willing to require a clear quid pro quo for every future concession we may make, a much stricter standard than seems to be the case in some of these other instances. (Cuba must move toward democracy. Burma must move toward what? Repression that doesn't involve Americans? To my mind, until Suu Kyi is released a substantial change in our policy is not called for.)
Webb says he was not an official emissary of the administration. Bill Clinton said the same thing. Clearly, in both instances this particular bit of diplomatic kabuki theater is transparent to all. Webb is the regional subcommittee chair on a critical Senate subcommittee, he is close to the administration, was briefed by them before his trip and promises to brief them on his return. At no time did they renounce the trip and he traveled on a U.S. government plane. His visit was official and the credit for the release of Yettaw and the potential negative consequences of the mission must accrue to the president and his team.
Personally, I think making engagement a centerpiece of a new U.S. foreign policy is a major positive development for which the administration deserves great credit. But as with any such new initiative, we need to be careful about how we approach it prior to getting all the bugs worked out. The Webb mission, even with is success in terms of securing the release of Mr. Yettaw, winning a session with Suu Kyi and engaging in a rare exchange with the leader of the regime, raises important concerns that need to be addressed if the new policy is to work to our best advantage in the future.
CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images
We have come to the conclusion of the first six months of the Obama presidency. I know. It seems like a lot longer to me, too. In fact, to me history is starting to look kind of like that Steinberg map of the United States from New York's perspective. Most of the map is New York, then there's a thin strip of New Jersey, then there is a brief stretch of nothingness in which you find Kansas City, Nebraska, Las Vegas and some rocks and mountains and then there is L.A.. Same with history: the Obama Epoch looms large, next comes the fire swamps of the Bush era, then Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are standing there waving, then a couple of wars, a cowboy movie, Abe Lincoln, and then George Washington.
Nonetheless, despite this skewed perspective, I have been following Obama's foreign policy team pretty closely this past half year and I think it is time for an interim report card. Note: all these evaluations are entirely subjective and can be raised in the future by bribing the teacher with free rides on Air Force One or tuna salad sandwiches in the White House mess. Also: I'm going to offer grades for individual performance and then, in my next post, grades for key initiatives because it is hard to know just who is driving what or deserves credit for which portion of which initiatives.
Barack Obama, Grade: A
Woody Allen said 85 percent of life is just showing up. Well, in this case, for this first six month period, 85 percent of Barack Obama's foreign policy grade is for just showing up. In the first instance, just for showing up in Washington and showing George Bush and his policies that were anathema to so much of the world to the door. In the next several instances from showing up at summits or meetings in London, Prague, Paris, and Cairo (among other places) and sending a message that America is entering a new phase in foreign policy in which engagement, multilateralism and pragmatism will drive U.S. actions. Of course, we all know that the first six months' core policy of "I'm Barack Obama and you're not" won't carry on much longer. There are problems that need to be solved and some of them are complicated by the small fact that they are actually insoluble. But for now, give the guy credit. He has actually installed himself at the center of the foreign policy apparatus, put foreign policy atop his list of priorities and has been an engaged, informed chief executive and commander in chief. In fact, if anything, he has made himself too important to U.S. foreign policy and he needs to delegate more. But that'll come...because he'll have no choice.
Joe Biden, Grade: B
The fact that he is even on this list is to his credit. Most VPs disappear without a trace on the foreign policy front. And after the Cheney example, there was every reason to think the next VP would be permanently sealed into that undisclosed location. But Obama has turned to Biden for his experience, has made him a partner in policymaking and has made him a spokesperson for the administration on key issues. Does he sometimes stick his foot in it? You betcha. But so far no real damage has been done and Obama has often turned to Biden (supported by a good team of advisors like Ron Klain and Tony Blinken) for guidance that has, reportedly, been taken very seriously.
Rahm Emanuel, Grade: A-
Emanuel is the most powerful White House chief of staff since Sherman Adams (in the Eisenhower administration). That's saying something since White House chief of staff is one of the most powerful jobs in the world...and one of the most consistently under-estimated. Rahm is in the room at key meetings and is a critical force to be reckoned with. He has played a crucial role in making key political appointments, he has shaped policy discussions, he has worked the Hill. In fact, if I were a foreign leader and I couldn't get to Obama himself, I'd probably go to Rahm before Hillary or Jim Jones. But that's just me. 'Cause I have a soft-spot for "self-hating Jews." Why is it an A minus? Well, you just can't get an A in foreign policy when you piss so many people off. And further, it doesn't serve the president well to have so much foreign policy power concentrated in the immediate office of the president (David Axelrod, Greg Craig, Valerie Jarrett, and others have weighed in on big issues here often causing some to thing the hub of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is not the NSC but wherever the president and his staff are.)
Jim Jones, Grade: B
Tell them all to go to hell, Jim. The reality is that despite all the negative buzz ... mostly from people inside the administration that wanted or still want your job ... the Obama NSC was set up quickly, is running smoothly, is staffing the president well and hasn't recommended that he invade Iraq. (Admittedly you did recommend pushing forward in AfPak and that will likely prove a very serious mistake...but we'll get to that later.) While one of your colleagues said "he just isn't suited for a job demanding 12 hour days and attention to detail", you are there when the president needs you and you add important value on the military front. You're still spinning up to speed on foreign policy per se and you may have let delegating go too far (give a guy in Washington too much rope and he's likely to use it to try to hang you) but I say, you're off to a good start.
Tom Donilon, Grade: A
You're Jones's number two and he has fully empowered you to be the chief operating officer of the NSC. Thus far, the reports from all quarters are that the inter-agency process is working well, that you're a big time problem solver and that your quiet professionalism is paying off. Not bad for a guy whose previous foreign policy high water mark was being the force behind the glory that was Warren Christopher. And for all those folks eager to push Jones in front of a train, careful. No matter what the conventional wisdom is now, look at history. Number twos at the NSC often get to be number one.
Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, Grade: B+
You guys are Obama's boys, his body men, and seen as real power players as a result despite your respective traditionally second tier roles as mouthpiece for the NSC and NSC chief of staff. You have the president's trust and that is better than any title in Washington. That said, careful gentlemen. In-fighting in Washington is a long, often subtle game and he who is up today is almost certainly he who has a target on his back tomorrow. Denis, you've got big time reporters steaming at your "arrogance" (their word, not mine...please, don't hurt me...) and you've made a few missteps...like getting out in front of State's negotiations to restore an Ambassador to Syria...that have generated some ill-will elsewhere in the administration. Even among people who slap you on the back daily.
Hillary Clinton, Grade: A-
Your first job was to scotch that buzz that you would be stealing the president's limelight, working against him. But you've got experience with letting a guy stand in the spotlight while you do a lot of the heavy lifting...and the senate choice to be a "workhorse and not a showhorse" served you well, too. Frankly, they should have used you more, earlier. No one in the administration other than the president is a more effective spokesperson, has more impact overseas, or works harder to get it right. No one other than the president is even close. Your role will almost certainly grow. Only missteps to note: you skipped off the talking points on North Korea and then the Gulf defense umbrella in the past couple weeks ... but frankly, in both cases, you advanced the administration's interests. And some members of your team at State are viewed as Team Hillary and not as foreign policy pros, common in early days, but they need to work to reach out to the foreign service and prove themselves.
Robert Gates, Grade: A
Gates is perhaps the best example of the American national security technocrat the country has produced in the past half century. His smooth, service-to-his-country oriented, transition from serving as George Bush's SecDef to Barack Obama's was masterful and has helped keep Iraq and AfPak from dominating the news even more than they have. He has spoken truth in terms of cutting back on defense waste and he has done what he has done for every president, provided trusted, measured advice. But those who know him are looking forward to the memoirs. He is a measured man but he has strong opinions that can be expressed rather colorfully. Look out Don Rumsfeld.
Special Envoys, Grade: A
I don't much like the proliferation of special envoys throughout the U.S. government. But the guys on point for big foreign policy initiatives have dived in and made a difference early, notably Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell. (Dennis Ross's role changed too soon to judge, but reports are he is adding very real value at the NSC now.)
Holbrooke still uses the first person singular too often but there is literally no one smarter or more capable on the entire Dem foreign policy bench. When people say Obama has a team of envoys all of whom could be Secretaries of State, they mean Holbrooke (Mitchell could, too, of course, but Holbrooke is at another level of knowledge, experience and energy). Mitchell has done well to build trust on the Israeli-Palestinian issues and the result has been that there is hope for progress on Syria and ultimately for movement toward a two-state solution. He is playing a big role making that possible.
Okay ... so you probably think, soft-headed former Clintonite is giving these guys a free ride. Not so fast. I think the team is very solid and doing pretty darn well all things considered. But as for their policies? Er...um...I'm a bit more concerned there. But you are going to have to wait for those grades until Monday.
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images
Senator Charles Grassley, one of the six power brokers featured in the New York Times story today on the inner circle of senators who are shaping health care legislation, may not be one of the three Blue Dog Democrats on the group, but that doesn't stop the Iowa Republican from being pretty dogged when it comes to his own pet issues.
According to today's Congress Daily, the Finance Committee's ranking member has slammed the brakes on the confirmation of Thomas Shannon to be ambassador to Brazil. His reason? He seeks what is euphemistically called a "clarification" of Shannon's confirmation hearing statement that eliminating the tariff on ethanol imports would be "beneficial." Of course, by "clarification" the Senator means a complete reversal slammed down Shannon's gullet by administration higher ups.
In letters to Secretary Clinton and USTR Kirk Grassley wrote:
A clear signal of the President's stance on this issue would decrease the possibility of confusion in America's heartland and in Brazil regarding the ethanol tariff if Mr. Shannon were confirmed as Ambassador to that country."
Since Shannon, most recently U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and by consensus the most talented and successful individual to hold that office in at least two decades, is one of America's very best diplomats he will of course, be far too circumspect to offer Grassley the "clarification" he deserves.
Let me try however. U.S. ethanol tariffs are indefensible on any level, yet another example of the system of agricultural welfare that has burgeoned in the United States thanks to that good old fashioned combination of backroom and checkbook politics that make America great. There is not a single credible analyst of biofuels (which is to say one that is not paid for by or affiliated with American agriculture) who thinks that corn ethanol makes a hint of sense. It is hopelessly inefficient and with every new development regarding next generation biofuels only grows more so. Brazilian sugar cane ethanol, the main target of the tariffs, is produced as much as eight times more efficiently. As such, it offers a cheaper, more abundant, more environmentally friendly alternative to American consumers at a time when one would have thought that concerns about reducing dependence on foreign oil and combating climate change would be at the forefront of our concerns.
But once again, America's electoral system rears its ugly head. So long as presidential campaigns begin in Iowa, Iowans like Grassley will use the system to put the interest of their state's three million citizens and the most vocal special interests within their midst like the corn lobby, ahead of the three hundred million or so of the rest of us. Further, in so doing, Grassley seeks to preserve yet another dimension of America's system of farm protection and subsidies that costs tax payers tens of billions each year, forces food prices higher (according to the likes of Nobel Prize winner Joe Stiglitz) and is the single biggest distortionary factor in the world trading system. I understand why he is doing it. It's just a shame he can. The system allowing individual senators to hold up presidential nominations is regularly abused and needs to be reconsidered.
It is now July and the Obama administration does not have its own ambassador in Brasilia, capital of one the rising powers that is most important to us in the world. The guy who is there now, Bush's appointee Cliff Sobel, is widely regarded by Brazilians (and anyone else who is paying attention) as a joke whereas Shannon is seen as the crème de la crème of the U.S. diplomatic service and is a nominee viewed with great enthusiasm by the Lula administration. The Shannon pick said "Brazil is important." Grassley's move says "all politics is local."
It will be interesting to see how this plays out given that Grassley is so important to the prospects for health care reform. Grassley, who is as canny as they come in the Senate, knows the hand he holds and is betting he can get the Obama team to commit to keeping the tariffs as part of the wheeling and dealing associated with health care. I wouldn't bet against him.
As they say around state fair time in Des Moines, "ain't nothing like a corn dog."
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
During the first part of their meetings, it looked like G8 leaders gathering in Italy had taken a page out of the books of small children everywhere, elevating the wish list to new diplomatic prominence.
Unable to fulfill the hopes of their constituents to actually do anything meaningful about the global economy, nuclear proliferation or the rapid onset of climate change, the officials meeting in L'Aquila instead produced a barrage of strongly worded aspirations. To whom they, the most powerful men and women in the world, were appealing is open to speculation although there were rumors of naked dancing in the moonlight and animal sacrifices. (Italian insiders however, urged that not too much be read into these rumors as they typically accompany any party thrown by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi...a man who combines the best of many of his famous countrymen, the low-key restraint of Roberto Benigni, the touching spirituality of Pope Alexander VI, and the values of the Roman Emperor Caligula -- as portrayed by Malcolm McDowell in the Bob Guccione classic of the same name.)
Among the wishes expressed by G8 leaders for us during the first day or two of the meetings were: a more peaceful, prosperous, temperate planet (also rainbows, unicorns, and butterflies). And yet no specifics as to how to achieve these goals were agreed upon. However, in lieu of the next summit, there is talk of simply buying the world a Hallmark card instead.
Given the likely future for the G8, however, as it has been unable to cast aside certain members who make it look hopelessly outdated (that would be you, Italy) and replace them with other, actually important countries, some critics suggest that in lieu of a wish list what the G8 might be better focusing on is a bucket list -- a list of things the G8 should do before it dies. Paradoxically, of course, the apparent agreement among the members of the G8 that something new and more representative of the way the planet works is in fact one of the two signs of real progress that the meeting produced.
It was confirmed by President Obama who, during his almost 40 minute post-G8 press conference, signaled that he has learned important lessons from his early summit experiences. As quoted by Agence France Presse, he said:
I think we're in a transition period. We're trying to find the right shape that combines the efficiency and capacity for action with inclusiveness.
"And my expectation is that over the next several years you'll see an evolution and we'll be able to find the right combination. The one thing I will be looking forward to is fewer summit meetings."
For those of us who have been calling for a new more inclusive "steering committee" for the community of nations, the search for a better country mix is good news. For those of us who like to see the President of the United States making better use of his time, the hope for fewer summits also is. (And despite the almost reflexive impulse some have to withhold credit from the prior administration...which seems churlish given how little credit they actually have any reasonable claim on...it is worth noting that Obama's focus on finding a successor to the G8 carries forward a process that really began in earnest when, last November, President Bush's team sought a G20 meeting to deal with the global financial crisis rather than a G8 meeting.)
In addition to this progress on an important point of process, the G8 leaders did make a hard commitment of $20 billion in farm and food aid for the world's poorest nations, another real accomplishment. We can always do more in this area...and should...I still feel that it is within the power of the leading nations to focus on and eliminate the daily deaths of 40,000 or so children from preventable causes like lack of access to clean water, adequate food, or medicine. It almost certainly would cost less than the stimulus money that will end up being wasted worldwide (which is not to say that all stimulus money is wasted...quite the contrary...rather it is to say we could make a big dent in the problem with just the spillage.)
So after a G8 meeting that gets a mixed grade and a semi-eulogy, Obama is off to Ghana...an excellent choice for his first visit to Africa as president. This will undoubtedly be a highlight of his trip and is certainly one place where who he is and how he is different from his predecessors will not only play well but will meaningfully advance the interests of the United States in the region.
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
In discussing last week's Aspen Ideas Festival with a friend yesterday, I mentioned that for all the big name policy types floating around Aspen Meadows and offering their views on the world that the highlight for me had to be standing behind "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi in the hot dog line. (Yes, they had little hot dog stands located at different spots where you could get free hot dogs.)
What's better than free hot dogs? Standing behind Padma Lakshmi while getting free hot dogs. This was even better than standing near Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Felix Rohatyn, and the Carlyle Group's David Rubenstein in the dinner line the night before. And not just because the gourmet nitrite and nitrate free hot dogs were so tasty. Padma was stunning, charming, and a magnet for all the little something-or-other fellows they had floating around Aspen imagining that someday they would be the aging millionaires and wiener-eating big thinkers who made up the rest of the crowd.
So as I described the scene, needless to say, my friend and I started to discuss what Salman Rushdie, to whom Lakshmi was married for several years, had that we didn't have. This in turn led to the creation of a new term and a new disorder from which I believe my friend and I now both suffer: fatwa envy. This is caused when a death sentence from one or more Imams suddenly transforms an otherwise ordinary looking man into something sexy, mysterious, and dangerous. After a certain point in life, it is really the only path open to some of us.
As a consequence, I am making it my stated objective to do whatever I have to in this blog to alienate at least one Imam, preferably one with a low fatwa threshold (so I don't have to be too offensive, as it is not in my nature.) I also am hoping it is an Imam with a very small, peace-loving following so it doesn't lead to anything untoward, like my premature death, which would undermine all the benefits of having the fatwa placed on my head in the first place.
(I will acknowledge that this approach may not work as Lakshmi explains her otherwise mystifying attraction to Rushdie at least in part because he reminded her of her father who she described as being "the most sexy, manic, in-shape, lean, tall, handsome man I have ever met." This is not a description that has ever been used to describe me, fatwa or none. In fact the only word from that list that has ever been used to describe me is "man" and that is only used by aging hippies who yell at me on the highway, "Hey man, get out of the way." This doesn't matter so much because, of course, my wife is every bit as lovely as Padma...the only real difference being that my wife did not have a part as a lip syncing disco singer in the immortal Mariah Carey movie, Glitter. Further, being from the Midwest, my wife did not require a fatwa. The fact that I was a kind of cranky Jew from New Jersey was plenty exotic enough for her. To this day I believe she still thinks a "knish" is a small, mountain-dwelling cousin of the chipmunk....and I believe the only member of her family to be circumcised was injured in a power tool accident.)
One group of people not likely to end up with any of that fatwa glamour any time soon are the leaders of the G8, who today continue their meetings in Italy. That's because in the wake of the recent fraud and brutality from nuclear weapons seeking, terrorist-sponsoring Iran, even as the discredited Iranian leadership warned of a "crushing response" to further protests, our men and women in L'Aquila, leaders of the world's most powerful countries, offered the following collective statement: "meow."
Admittedly, the G8 leaders were trying to portray their stance on Iran as tough. For example they condemned the recent violence in Iran and said the detention of foreigners and journalists was "unacceptable." They then said they would give Iran until September to accept negotiations over nuclear issues or else expect sanctions. As articulated by Canada's spokesperson, "All G8 nations are united. There is a strong consensus at the table that unless things change soon, there will be further action."
Of course, what he wasn't saying (and he wasn't saying much) was that they couldn't take a stronger stand because the Russians, ever helpful, obviously not persuaded by the recent visit of President Obama, simply would not accept action now. So "action" got punted till a September 24th and 25th G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. As for the Iranians, since what they want is time, any such deferral has to be viewed as a victory. And the fact that we couldn't mobilize the G8 to even describe a more detailed, credible track to sanctions now when the Iranian leadership has provided the icing on the yellowcake of its nuclear program with its recent stolen election and murders of its own citizens suggests we are going to have a tough time getting anything meaningful done ever.
Other than the unconvincing saber rattling of the G8 press release, the closest that they came to any additional action on either matter was, when thanks to the early departure of China's Hu Jintao who had to rush home to quash unrest in his own country, Barack Obama filled an open slot in his agenda with a meeting with Brazilian President Lula. At this meeting, Obama asked Lula to try to use his influence to get Iran to back away from developing its nuclear weapons capabilities. While I'm all for using every channel availability to us, offering up this punt to the Brazilians (whom we have been hectoring for years to avoid developing their own nuclear weapons capability) as a high point of our diplomacy on this issue at the Summit suggests how little of substance was actually accomplished.
So what's the message being sent to Tehran and Pyongyang and other would-be proliferators these days: the biggest real risk you face from creating a nuclear weapons program in today's world comes from the paper cuts you might incur while reading the impassioned press releases of the "great powers."
In other news, an AP story carried in this morning Washington Post, entitled "Drunken man shocks Spain with his generosity," described how an inebriated British citizen arrived yesterday at the airport in Mallorca started handing out wads of cash to passers-by. Needless to say, unsettled by the largesse that was the only thing that distinguished the gentleman from the other drunken Brits in the airport, the Spanish police immediately arrested the man. However, the story does have a happy ending and Prime Minister Brown was put on an aircraft back to the G8 meeting hours later.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Washington is a city of oxymorons. It is a city of garden variety morons, as well. On the oxymoron side we have old favorites like "military intelligence," "compassionate conservative," and "government organization." On the moron side...well, in U.S. politics we have morons on both sides.
Now we have something new however, as in Washington the oxymorons and the morons are coming together in the form of America's latest reality television extravaganza (we really needed another): "Real World Washington." This is a unique double oxymoron in that it calls itself real but, like most reality TV, it is not...and because it is suggesting, fancifully, that there is somehow a connection between Washington and the real world. As for the morons, well you need only visit the bars around the DuPont Circle neighborhood location of the Real World set and you can view for yourself the cast in all their beer-soaked glory.
At first I wondered to myself how it was that a show like "The Real World" could have become MTV's longest-running hit, now in its 17th year. After all, it's pretty formulaic. Semi-attractive young adults including at least one or two with deep psychological problems are put together in a house in which they: drink, puke, appear to grope one another in grainy night-vision camera shots, and then fight about who groped whom.
Of course, thinking of it that way, I naturally started to wonder why it took so long for the show to come to the home of American politics which have been featuring all these activities for years. (For those of you who are more insensitive than I, insert Teddy Kennedy joke here. And for those of you who don't have the stomach for such humor but still want a laugh at the expense of all that Kennedy family groping, see this link about a new book on America's zany royal family.)
Once I started thinking about politicians and groping and the real world, however, my thoughts immediately drifted eastward, out over the Atlantic, and in the direction of the world's most famous aging libido, that of the host of this week's G8 Meeting, Silvio Berlusconi. This in turn led to a thunderbolt of inspiration akin to that which struck another famous Italian in the Berlusconi mold, Michael Corleone, when he first saw the ill-fated Apollonia Vitelli. What about the Real World Berlusconi-style? What about Real World L'Aquila? Once we get the G8 leaders to Italy, why don't we lock them in a room until they actually produce something productive? And let's put it all on video! Big Brother for Big Brother!
And to keep it interesting we can add elements of other reality shows. For example, how about a taste of Real Housewives Berlusconi-style, while we're at it. Just locking Silvio and his really (justifiably) angry, estranged wife Veronica Lario in a house for the enjoyment of tv audiences everywhere would be irresistible.But throw her in with a bunch of other world leaders? See what happens when Silvio shoots an ill-considered glance in the direction of Michelle Obama? Who's wailing on him first? Veronica, Barack or Michelle? (My money is on Michelle.) Sadly, of course, Veronica is passing on the G8 Summit, forcing the Italians to turn the wife of their president to be the hostess for the affair.
We still have plenty of fun cast to choose from, however, given that the meetings in Italy will actually be attended by more than 25 countries, including all the G20. Just think of the potential gang we could feature in the house that meet the Real World formula for diversity and mayhem.
Given the fact that Berlusconi will be joined in Italy by members of the G20, the cast can be expanded to included a diverse enough group of lively characters to make this one version of Real World actually look a lot more like the real world than its many predecessors. South Africa's Jacob Zuma is, for example, a party all by himself with four wives, three other fiancés, perhaps as many as 18 children, and a list of run-ins with the law that would allow him to play the bad boy role. China's Hu Jintao was reportedly fond of singing and dancing in his teen years and therefore might add a little lift to those party nights out. And although Brazil's President Lula and Zuma may only have achieved the fourth and fifth grade in school, respectively, this actually makes them educationally over-qualified by Real World standards.
Sadly for the Real World premise...and for the real world...not many of the visiting leaders are women so we will have to rely on host Berlusconi to add a few of his close personal friends to add a little sexual tension to the show. But what with party credentials of the crowd gathering in L'Aquila and the help of Il Cavaliere it's clear this could make for fine viewing. If we wanted to make it something more than that...and something more than the bland communiqué machine G8 meetings typically are...we could add a different reality show twist, à la say "Big Brother" or "Survivor," in which participants are voted out after each week. Except in this instance, what we could do is rely on the general odiousness of hanging out with pols around the clock to motivate the cast to want to leave the house, but then not let them out unless they actually get something done in their negotiations. Think how that system would change the nature of summits. Although my fear is that rather than producing more productive meetings of government leaders, the requirement that they get something done would actually lead to the end of summits altogether.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Talent is important. There is no doubt about it. But character and attitude are defining. Yesterday, nearing the end of the longest set in the 133-year history of Wimbledon, locked in a titanic struggle with an opponent who was playing heroic tennis, Roger Federer said he told himself that "at 13-13 in the fifth set, I'm exactly where I want to be, just a few points from victory." Sure, you can look at things negatively, but my positive side is important and I really believed right until the end."
If Federer has an equal in the world of sports in terms of character and attitude, it is his friend, another who is the best to have ever played his sport, Tiger Woods. Yesterday, he too stood at a turning point in a tournament, having lost sole possession of his lead thanks to a bad shot on the preceding hole. "You can go either way," Woods is quoted as saying in today's Washington Post, "You can win the tournament or you can lose the tournament." Of course, once again, Woods like Federer summoned what was necessary to win. As Barry Svrluga wrote in the Post, "pressure, with Woods, is like an old, dear embraceable friend." It is not a friend because it feels good. It is a friend because his extraordinary gift for handling pressure, like Federer, is what separates him from his opponents time and time again.
These events, juxtaposed with the death of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Obama's trip to Russia and to the G8 meeting, drive home an important message. David Halberstam's classic book about McNamara and his colleagues during the Kennedy administration is, of course, called The Best and the Brightest. It is a phrase that has worked its way into the language, often invoked about the glittering prizes Obama has surrounded himself with. What has been forgotten is Halberstam's message. The title was ironic. Being the best and the brightest is not enough. More than anything else, character matters. The ability to rise up and play at your best in the face of the greatest pressure is why often those with seemingly limited tools from Lincoln to Truman, outperform the academic superstars and those with the fancy degrees, like Carter or George W. Bush. (Of course, it didn't help Bush that he was neither the best nor the brightest nor possessed of the character of a great leader.)
We already have some clues as to what may test the character of Obama's national security team. His meetings today in Russia suggest one relationship which is certain to do so. Despite the face-saving "framework agreement" (a Washington euphemism for a decision to keep talking in spite of differences so serious that they kept the sides from providing any real progress for the leaders to hail in their meetings), it is clear that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not going to be an easy one for Obama. Last week he took a couple of swipes at Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and yesterday he offered encouragement for reforms proposed by Putin's protégé, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Whether this was deft maneuvering was debated in today's papers but it is clear that the U.S. administration is uncomfortable with Putin's often confrontational, often anti-democratic, sometimes overtly anti-U.S. stance.
As noted here last week, senior State Department officials feel Russia has been far from helpful on the issue of Iran's nukes. It has been provocative in its own near abroad. It has used its energy supplies as a cudgel that heightens regional tensions. And it is not making matters easier by demanding the U.S. back away from plans for an East European missile defense as part of any arms deal. Obama & Co. have been properly tight-lipped on this but I'm concerned that their impulse is to give in on this issue -- at least in part because they are starting to believe their own rhetoric that the missile defenses are designed primarily to keep out Iranian ballistic missiles. Iran is of course, a concern. But so too is Russia. In fact, let's be honest: it is a hostile, highly armed, economically and socially challenged Russia that remains the main reason to have such a defense. If not because of threats they post today then because they may well pose serious threats in the future. (And if you don't believe missile defense works well enough to fight for it...view it purely as a useful bargaining chip.)
It would almost certainly be politically easier to cave on the missile defenses in order to win some progress on an arms deal with Russia. Just as it would be politically easier to proceed with a deal with Iran on nukes even if we don't really believe they will honor it or let us effectively monitor them. Just as it is politically easier to take a partial solution on health care or half a loaf on climate change. The looming question is whether this an administration that talks a good game but folds when the going gets tough. (And of course, I'm hopeful it's not.)
The Russians we know will press and press and bully and bully. The question is whether Obama will be able to respond shot for shot, holding his ground, remaining focused on his true goal, which needs to be not winning a round of negotiations but rather winning in the bigger contest of ensuring a more stable world in the long term. Frankly, the fact that reports out of Russia suggest some turbulence is encouraging to me, a sign of a U.S. team that is holding its ground. (Although I can't help but comment that I think it is a little weird that neither the Secretary of State nor the Deputy Secretary of State is accompanying the president on this trip. Elbow injuries notwithstanding.)
On arms control, we learned over the weekend new details about Obama's formative thinking on the issue thanks to a New York Times article exploring a paper he wrote on the subject while a student at Columbia. He has clearly been grappling with this issue a long time and as described in his Prague speech on his last major trip to Europe, he has described ambitious goals. If he can use concessions to the Russians on missile defense to advance those goals meaningfully, if he can use them to get the Russians to be more effective in helping to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, if he can use them to move Russia toward leading us to a meaningfully improved successor to Start I and that agreement in turn to build good will to move toward further reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles and ultimately toward a new NPT, excellent.
The difference between sports stars and presidents of course, is that when the character of presidents fail, we all lose. And when it succeeds, we all benefit. Watch the news this week from Moscow and Italy to see whether we can see whether Obama is learning the lessons of Federer, Woods...and McNamara.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
My mother would not approve. The bane of my childhood...which was essentially the story of Alexander Portnoy playing softball with Beaver Cleaver and Richie Cunningham in the land of "The Ice Storm"...was her insistence on a thank you note for every occasion. Get an embarrassing set of pajamas from Grandma? Immediately drop everything and send a thank you note. Get $10 from Uncle Max that could have been used to purchase a perfectly wonderful Revell model P-51 Mustang but which your parents hijack and use to buy a new pair of shoes from Tom McCann? Too bad, there will be no staying up late to watch "My Mother the Car" if you don't write a thank you note. Orthodontist slit your gums while installing a torture contraption in your mouth? Probably ought to send a thank you note, just in case.
There was a valuable lesson in this (for which, ironically, I have yet to send my mother a thank you note.) Gratitude makes a difference. Without it, the beneficence dries up and the giver no longer feels so good about giving and your brother and sister end up getting the better presents. (Or the orthodontist develops a grudge against you which is a very bad thing.)
I think it's time to send my mother to Pakistan. And then to Afghanistan. And then to Baghdad. And then perhaps on to a few other choice spots from Honduras to North Korea. This hardly seems like a reward for an exemplary life, but she could teach these folks a lesson or two about gratitude. And then, when she is done with the tour ... and she develops her own perspectives on just how little our efforts at generating gratitude in these places are actually benefitting the United States ... perhaps she ought to come back here and provide a lesson or two for the administration and for some folks on the Hill, perhaps starting with Senator Kerry. Because not only is the United States suffering from something that appears to be much like a global gratitude deficit...it may well be that the problem is with our expectations and our mechanisms for manifesting our (not so selfless) generosity to the less fortunate (or strategically significant) worldwide.
A prime illustration of the problems we face comes in the form of today's New York Times story "In Refugee Aid, Pakistan's War Has a New Front" by Jane Perlex and Pir Zubair Shah. The article describes how the United States is losing the bidding war for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis and how Islamists are edging us out. The authors observe:
Although the United States is the largest contributor to a United Nations relief effort, Pakistani authorities have refused to allow American officials or planes to deliver the aid in camps for displaced people. The Pakistanis do not want to be associated with their unpopular ally.
At the same time, the article goes on to describe how hard-line givers from the Muslim world are using their donations to effectively promote anti-U.S. and anti-Western views. Meanwhile it notes, even American NGOs are saying we shouldn't advertise the U.S. origins of aid shipments because it is likely to inflame hostility. Seems to me like a lose-lose proposition for us there. I mean, I understand the humanitarian rationale behind giving for the sake of giving but really, isn't the purpose of government aid to advance a government objective? Isn't it clear that's precisely what we are not successfully doing in Pakistan?
But the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people are not the only ones who don't seem to appreciate our aid (or who are happy to take it but would like to continue hating us just the same). In Afghanistan, the Karzai administration would not exist without the United States. Is it showing its gratitude by combating the corruption via which our aid is wasted? Is it showing it by making even the slightest effort to embrace the most fundamental universal values of respect for groups like women or journalists? Read the reports out of Kabul. They just don't seem to appreciate all we have done for them.
Neither, it seems does the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Now, I can see plenty of reasons why the Iraqi people would be pissed off at America. The illegal invasion of their country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their people and the devastation of their economy come to mind. But I'm not talking about the Iraqi people here. I'm talking about a government that knows full well that even after the pullback of U.S. troops from the cities, it depends on the continuing presence of U.S. forces in the country to ensure national stability and its grip on power. Couldn't they have toned down the celebrations of "liberation" from the Americans just a trifle to reflect the fact that the United States is continuing to invest so much in their ability to hold on to power?
We spent much training the Honduran military that conducted that country's coup earlier this week. We have pumped serious aid money into North Korea to combat famine. We give the Egyptians, the Palestinians, and the Israelis plenty of cash and there seems to be a competition among them to see who can stall our objectives in the region most effectively or creatively.
Now, I realize we don't need to give aid money to people whose situations are stable. Aid tends to go to places where there are myriad challenges. But something is clearly not working here. The reflexive notion that we should write checks because it will generate goodwill seems not to be working. Clearly part of the problem here is with our expectations. And part of the problem here is with our history and perhaps we need to reconcile ourselves to unappreciated generosity for a while as a way of offsetting years of alienating people worldwide. But clearly another part of it is that we are a little ginger in our communications with our allies on these points...at the very least the governments who depend on us for survival ought to be nudged into a more constructive message with all due care to nuance the message to take into account local political realities.
Finally, the U.S. government aid apparatus remains one of its most dysfunctional. Early in the Obama transition there was talk of spinning out U.S. AID and related agencies into a Department of Development and Aid. I am generally anti-adding new departments to the government. But this was a pretty good idea. Economic peace-keeping and nation-building have been among our prime missions internationally over the past several decades whether we like it or not. But because we don't like it we have resisted building the kind of inter-disciplinary capacity to do it right...to recognize that provision of aid in post-conflict or conflict situations has completely different requirements (mostly political) than it does in development situations and that we need to more effectively blend pacification and economic missions. We need a civilian side Goldwater-Nichols to promote better collaboration and coordination among economic and political agencies in the fulfillment of this mission and better coordination with the military which still reluctantly does much of the heavy lifting in this area.
And beyond what we need, the world needs my mother. This is true on many levels. But in this instance it is because those who depend on our aid need to realize that regardless of who is president in Washington, all politics and history aside, the financial reality is that it is going to become harder and harder for the United States to continue providing aid as we have in the past and that average Americans (and even above-average Americans) are going to be soon looking even more energetically than in the past for excuses to shut the spigots. And that's saying something because aid has always been really unpopular in the United States, it's one of the reasons we give less as a percentage of GDP than most developed countries. Absent the thank you notes (which could be a nice card or possibly just making an effort to help the United States achieve our goals) the gratitude deficit could quickly translate into an aid deficit for those who are accustomed to receiving.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.