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."
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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.
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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.
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Reading this weekend's New York Times's article on the deftness and ease with which the rich in Pakistan avoid paying taxes, an idea struck me. Well, actually to be perfectly honest, it struck my father -- who passed it along to me. The fact that he is currently lying in a hospital being pumped full of mind-altering drugs doesn't in any way undermine the quality of the idea. In fact, it just makes me want some of those drugs.
Because it is an idea of striking clarity and manifold levels of appeal.
In short, it may well be that two of the biggest threats facing the United States America -- the decay of nuclear Pakistan and the rise of the Tea Party movement here at home -- suggest a grand solution fraught with opportunity (and delicious ironies).
We need to keep an eye on Pakistan, but can't officially send troops there. Further, we can't afford to keep the ones we have in Afghanistan (who are actually there to keep an eye on Pakistan ... shhhh ... don't tell anyone) there indefinitely. And beyond that, we don't want to put our valued troops needlessly at risk.
At the same time, at home we are confronted by a new political movement whose leaders drape themselves in the flag and then proceed to espouse a worldview that is alternatively un-American (anti-immigration in a nation of immigrants, anti-personal freedoms like choice, pro-infusion of politics with religion) and ante-diluvian (anti-science, pro-vigilantism, pro-solving problems at the point of a gun). They are out of place here and lord knows -- given our history of success without them -- they are expendable.
The tea-baggers want a country? Let's give them one: send them to Pakistan.
It's a marriage made in heaven. Admittedly, there may be some disagreement as to which heaven, but let's leave that to them to work it out.
Think of the ways the Tea-bagger worldview makes Pakistan a much more natural place for them to live than America:
Here is a country with a large population committed to policies rooted in the values and outlook of centuries ago and a large group of Americans with a similar nostalgia for hangings, gunfights, superstition, racial and religious conflict and witch hunts. So theoretically, despite Pakistan's historically documented, deeply rooted strain of anti-Americanism, this may well be the one group of Americans with whom they have the most in common and thus, the ones with the best chance of building the bridge we need between our two cultures. And if we had to learn to live with less of the mean-spirited, misguided shrillness of the bagger rhetoric, I think we could handle it. And if it all ended badly for all involved, well, we could probably live with that, too.
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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.
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As promised -- trumpet fanfare -- "The Winners and Losers of the Decade." Or, as I like to think of it, "The Winners and Losers of the Oughts," in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade's numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that we did not do.
George W. Bush: It almost seems too easy. But upon reflection, it's not even close. Bush wasn't just born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- he inherited America, the world's sole superpower, with a budget surplus and clear skies ahead. When we were attacked on 9/11, the immediate consequence was unprecedented support for him and for the country. And yet, almost immediately thereafter, he started on a catastrophic set of missteps and bad decisions that had alienated the world by the end of his term. George W. Bush was not just the biggest loser produced by the American political system in the past decade, he was in all likelihood one of the worst presidents in American history and he presided over what was almost certainly the worst international relations calamity since, I don't know, maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts.
How did he get there? What was the worst of all the bad choices he made? Was it invading Iraq or picking Dick Cheney to be his vice president in the first place -- or more properly, letting Dick Cheney choose himself? In the literary biz, we call that foreshadowing ... but in the history biz they will almost certainly call it the beginning of the end for a president who undercut American stature like no other, compromised our historic values and at times, seemed like he could barely speak English.
Not only does he get my nod for loser of the decade in the United States, he takes the international crown as well. All hail George W. Bush. Thanks to his bumbling in the highest office in the land, he also achieved the rarest form of comic apotheosis: He became the punch line that didn't even need a joke. Sadly, for us all, it will always hurt when we laugh.
Al Gore and the American People: There are losers and then there are those who lost. For the remainder of our lives we will always wonder what might have been. Seldom have there been forks in the road of history as clear as the 2000 U.S. presidential elections. The difference between the two candidates was as thin as the sheet of paper on which the politically stacked Supreme Court reached its compromised decision. In retrospect, it is ever more clear that the election was stolen and America, and countless victims worldwide, were sent hurtling toward a destiny that we and they did not deserve. Gore later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work battling climate change and has handled the defeat and its aftermath with a grace that would warrant the prize had he done nothing at all. But we cannot help but think how much more we would have done by now to combat climate change had he been in office, how much stronger our relations would be with the world, how many innocents killed by our wars in the Middle East would still be alive. It is the decade's defining political defeat.
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?
Secretary of State Clinton went to Russia to discuss the possibility of putting sanctions on Iran. The Russians pushed back hard and publicly. The State Department weakly responded that they hadn't come to Moscow looking for anything in the first place.
The Iranians taunt us with their open nuclear ambitions and we don't have much to credibly offer in the way of sanctions (see above) and so we find ourselves grasping at straws in terms of an international dialogue with them. We are forced to take proven liars at their word because there is no realistic Plan B.
The North Koreans do as the Iranians do. They taunt knowing there will be no meaningful retaliation, especially if they dangle the possibility of progress with negotiations even as they flaunt the spirit of those negotiations.
Our ally in Afghanistan bald-facedly steals an election because he knows he has us over a barrel, believing we need him more than he needs us and that in any event, we won't punish him for his indiscretions. Our reaction is grumbling and strong language and planning for him to remain in his misappropriated office.
On Afghan policy there is an all-in, all-out debate and it increasingly looks like the president will split the difference between both sides. David Ignatius writes in today's Washington Post:
Obama's deliberative pace is either heartening or maddening, depending on your perspective. Personally, I think he's wise to take his time on an issue in which it's so hard to know the right answer. But I worry that the White House approach will soften the edges so much that the policy itself will be fuzzy and doomed to failure.
On the Hill, again the difference is split on health care and the Baucus plan backed by the administration doesn't meaningfully address the core concerns that triggered the debate about health care reform in the first place -- issues like universal coverage or the need to substantially reduce health care spending or the need to get the books to balance.
During the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, at a lunch as the meeting drew to a close, the Chinese walked in and demanded that a paragraph in the final statement on climate change be cut. Everyone in the room was gobsmacked and stopped eating while the Chinese representative blithely consumed his lunch. One of those present asked, "Where were the Americans? Why was there no pushback? The Europeans were furious."
Peter Feaver wrote for FP an article chiding Hillary Clinton for not having taken a bold stance, making an issue her own thus far. Quite apart from the fact that I think his analysis was faulty, the reality is that the tough stances come from above, the president is the one who draws the lines in the sand. As far as decisive administration's policies are concerned, the title of her book on the subject might read, It Takes a President.
Right now, even his strongest supporters -- and I count myself among them -- are worried that much as Abe Lincoln was the great rail splitter, Barack Obama may become known as the great difference splitter. A former senior official, active on the president's campaign sat in my office just yesterday worrying aloud about whether this is just learning curve behavior or whether we are drifting toward Jimmy II. There is a place for deliberation and compromise in the quivers of wise leaders, he argued, but there is also a need to be decisive and sometimes to push to fulfill a vision or defend an ideal or an interest.
There are real merits to being the no-drama Obama of campaign fame. But in a world in which the Chinese or the Iranians or the North Koreans or Republicans or wings of the Democratic Party are inclined to push as hard as they can until they meet real resistance, it's fast coming time for the president to show he is willing to lose some friends and even some battles to defend his principles or the national interest. It can be a fist of steel in a velvet glove, resolve born of reflection, but there are a lot of supporters of Obama worry that he is a man who sending a message that there are no consequences for crossing him. On Afghanistan, on health care reconciliation, on his upcoming trip to China, on climate, there are chances looming for him to show that he knows what he wants and that he is willing to fight for it. I'm hopeful this is the moment he really will start to come into his own as president.
It was recently reported that Obama's favorite phrase is "Let me be clear." I think the response to that of his concerned supporters would be, "Please do." It's the path that is most likely to have them once again singing, "Mild thing, I think I love you."
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Despite a growing desire on my part to avoid the cage-match side of blogging, it is hard not to respond to Christian Brose's post "What is David Rothkopf smoking?" Brose seems to have, in President Obama's words, become all "wee-wee'd up" over my article in Sunday's Washington Post. I respond, of course, as a public service because so much of what he said provides a useful insight into how far we have come since the days of the Bush administration and how desperate Bush apologists are to find a way to suggest that their man and the policies they promoted were not actually the nadir of American foreign policy.
I should note however, that I also do this reluctantly because I think Brose is a pretty good writer and a fairly thoughtful guy. Still, when someone suggests that I have been a member of "the foreign policy hoi-polloi that went into intellectual hibernation in 2004 and only awoke this January" I figure, it's probably OK to offer a few words on behalf of my views. (Although it does explain the acorn residue I found in my cheeks.)
I will ignore for a moment the fact that Brose clearly is willing to spot the world the first term of the Bush administration as indefensible and focus on his core notion that somehow the years Condi was at State were almost indistinguishable in intent, concept and execution from what we have seen to date from the Obama team. It should be noted that coincidentally Brose was a speech-writer at State during the Bush administration.
Let's take his points one at a time:
That's the key point about these early days of this new foreign policy team. All administrations talk about partnerships and new relationships. To my mind, this one seems to believe what it is saying and is doing something about ... and at the very least is not as transparently hypocritical about such matters as was its predecessor. That in and of itself is perhaps the transformation most of the world was most hoping for.
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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
It's only Wednesday and it has been a fraught week. In fact, I am totally ready for the weekend. In just the past three days, we have watched as:
Obama conducted an entire televised press conference without once accepting a question from a reporter from a major newspaper. Personally I think this reveals more about Obama's weaknesses than those associated with the newspaper industry. (Meanwhile, based on his performance Tuesday night, our President simultaneously started a rumor that there are actually two Obamas, one an inspirational leader who Michelle sometimes takes out for big public occasions, and the other who is a tax accountant with the charisma of a tube sock.) Meanwhile, Obama's economic crash test dummy Tim Geithner testified on the Hill winning kudos from the market but gradually grimmer and grimmer assessments from economists and thoughtful writers like the FT's Martin Wolf.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Mexico even as Obama framed that country's drug violence as a top concern of the U.S. and hearings on the subject were a highlight on Capitol Hill. Personally I am worried about Secretary Clinton and it's not all that Mexican violence that I feel puts her at risk. Rather, if history is any indicator, the real danger she faces is associated with the fact that she currently has a higher approval rating than the President. (If she doubts me on this, she should call Colin Powell and see how that worked out for him.)
Housing starts were up, markets were up and yet somehow it did nothing to tame the throbbing headache and sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach that has been reported by well, everyone everywhere. It's gotten to the point that I'm comforted by those reports of a killer asteroid hurtling toward the planet because it looks the giant Advil we all need. (Just kidding. There is no asteroid. You are still going to have to figure out how to survive during retirement on the $11.26 left in your 401-K.)
In other developments in astro-physics, black hole of charisma Gordon Brown went to the European Parliament and was gutted and filleted like a trout by a British MEP named Daniel Hannan (which you can view yourself thanks to the wonders of YouTube). And speaking of YouTube, the Chinese government once again made the world's most populous country seem very small indeed by blocking the site after a video the Chinese assert was a fake seemed to show a Chinese policeman beating a Tibetan demonstrator to death. Finally on the foreign policy front, the seductive Bibi Netanyahu managed to get Ehud Barak (who once infiltrated Syria in a drag...draw your own conclusions) and the Labor Party to clamber aboard his coalition's bandwagon, thus giving it more diversity and political credibility. (It has been hinted that should Barak ever again appear in a dress he could face prosecution and perhaps physical danger from UN High Commissioner for Crimes Against Fashion Tim Gunn.)
Yet for all these things, or perhaps in spite of them, we may well look back on this week and determine that the most important thing that happened was that Ratan Tata, Indian mega-mogul, fulfilled what many thought was an impossible personal ambition when he launched his new $2,200 Nano microcar. It is, as far as an "everyman's car" precisely what the Ford Model T hoped to be, but of course, for most of the planet, was not. It truly opens the door to car ownership for hundreds of millions of people. If it is as successful as predicted, and cars, being produced at a rate of 1,000,000 per year according to Tata, are back-ordered into 2010, it will undoubtedly signal a boom in an entirely new category of vehicles. Chevrolet plans to launch a micro car next year...if there is a Chevrolet next year. And while the prospect of the proliferation of cars like the Nano creates new challenges regarding pollution (although Tata says it has lower emissions than a motorcycle), because of their light weight and the limited speed or horsepower seen as necessary for such vehicles, the category could become an area in which alternative energy options are particularly effective. Even without this though, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Yvo de Boer said, "I am not concerned about it (the Tata Nano) because people in India have the same aspirational rights to own cars as people elsewhere in the world."
The world being what it is, of course, today, two days after the Nano launch, Standard and Poors downgraded Tata Motors due to the fact that they didn't feel even high demand for the vehicle could offset the company's other problems. This is a good news bad news story. Because if the global economy continues to circle the drain, there may be increased demand for the Nano in many formerly developed countries. Like ours. In fact, Tata plans a U.S. launch of the vehicle in three years. Tata is clearly a visionary. I wonder what he knows that we don't know.Ritam Banerjee/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.