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the likely future for the G8, however, as it has been unable to cast aside certain members who make it look hopelessly outdated (that would be you, Italy) and replace them with other, actually important countries, some critics suggest that in lieu of a wish list what the G8 might be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.
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You could tell it wasn't going well. The conversations with Medvedev and Putin were tense, the body language awkward. The speech at the New Economic School laid an egg. The press seemed bored with the visit of America's rock star president. And as for real results, well, there weren't any.
Looking for explanations in an article Clifford Levy and Ellen Barry in today's New York Times called "In Russia, Obama's Star Power Does Not Translate," a range of possible answers were rolled out: Russians are jaded, Russians don't go for U.S. political posturing, Obama's speeches don't translate well, and, according to one person who ought to understand politics, a Russian circus designer, "Russians are the smartest people in the world." (A fact they have carefully hidden behind a veil of hundreds of years of economic and political catastrophe.)
Somehow, the formula that has been working for Barack Obama since early in 2007 suddenly seems to have gone cold. It is not enough simply to be him or to roll out Michelle and the girls (all of whom joined him in Moscow...unlike say, his top two State Department officials). What's more, it's not just Russia. Oh sure, the press still swoon in most corners of the world and crowds and political leaders still get all fluttery when first exposed to America's charming, thoughtful, intelligent, young president. But we are now starting to see what happens when being Barack Obama is not enough. We are now starting to see the shortcomings of the new administration's approach wherein the president has actually been the policy.
He has said we had changed and offered himself as evidence. He has been what we have offered to friends in terms of visits, access and calls. He has been the headline grabber, the spokesperson, the new voice of America. He has enabled the administration to take inherited policies and wrap them in Obama-paper with Obama-glitter all over it and all of a sudden, the old was repackaged into appearing new. Where there have been differences, as with the concept of engagement, the change has been sold as a difference between him and his predecessor, with his speeches describing what was new and the possibility of interacting with him being the potential pay-off.
This played big during his early trips overseas, the novelty value was high and the eagerness to move on from the painful prior era was great. At the G20 meeting, at the Summit of the Americas, in Cairo, the concept of "president as policy" seemed to be working. But now we see where it is not. Not in Russia. Not with the Iranians who are happy to accept engagement and anything else that will be given to them but no strings, please Not with Hugo Chavez, who hammed it up with Obama in Trinidad but led his misfit chorus in reflexively hammering the United States after the coup in Honduras. Certainly not in North Korea.
It seems that having the president as policy works best with the people who are pre-disposed to like us and to some extent with the young and the disenfranchised. But with the hard cases, with our enemies, it falls painfully and dangerously flat.
In these instances, the new president is discovering that something much more than personal diplomacy and smile from the genuinely appealing Obama clan is needed. In these instances, we are going to need to go back to the drawing board and do the grunt work of foreign policy, the tough negotiations, the nuanced position changes, the threats, the cajoling. It's a very different game from American politics and, in fact, is often completely unconnected to it. What works here, very often does not play at all overseas.
There is a problem with this new reality. It requires a coordinated, multi-tiered, high-functioning foreign policy establishment. It needs the State Department to be in a central role. It needs the NSC to work both as a policy development and policy implementation mechanism and the National Security Advisor to be seen and respected...like the Secretary of State...as key advisors. It requires that the foreign policy of the United States is not centered too heavily either the president or the executive office of the president -- although the president will always remain the ultimate key. It is perfectly appropriate for the president to be part of the product, part of the rewards offered, and the mastermind...but he needs to move beyond campaign mode to something new. It is much akin to the entrepreneur of a successful company recognizing that for the company to grow further, to become a mature organization, he is going to need a mature structure that depends less on him and more on delegation of power to effective lieutenants and their teams.
We're not there yet. The secretary of state and the State Department have been visibly marginalized. She has become a kind of behind the scenes player. She's not on the Sunday morning shows. The president or the vice president handles the big media assignments (often not sounding exactly like they were on the same page). The National Security Advisor, for all his personal strengths, is viewed as a bit of a lost cause five months into the presidency. One of his predecessors in the job said to me when asked whether he viewed General Jones as failing in the job, "to me, on that issue, where there is smoke, there is fire." Tom Donilon, Jones's deputy, is seen to be managing the NSC process. Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, Obama confidantes, are seen to be working closely with him and his inner office team (Rahm Emanuel, the VP, David Axelrod, Greg Craig and others) to play the leading role in shaping policy.
Clearly neither Hillary Clinton nor Jim Jones is a weak person. But all power in the U.S. national security apparatus flows from the president. And there is no denying that, despite the fact that they show up at work every day and go through the motions, that their roles don't measure up to many of their predecessors and the structure that is emerging suggests problems to come.
It's time to move out of campaign mode and into governing mode. It's time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It's time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.
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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.
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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.
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Somebody needs to do a new wiring diagram for Washington. Because much has changed and much is changing about the way power and influence flow through this town and while some of it is related to having a new president in place, some of it is linked to other technological, political, and social trends. In fact, while motives and many techniques for getting things done in Washington might look very familiar to the old time fixers and back room pols, much would be as alien as a lunar landscape.
Here are just a few random observations from the past few weeks that lead me to this conclusion:
The stark reality is that there are fewer business people at senior levels of this administration that at any time in decades and the Obama team is much more plugged into other interest groups: NGOs, academics, career politicians, lawyers, regulators, etc. What's more big divisions are emerging within the business community as some old school types hold on hoping that 2010 brings a reversal of fortune for the Democrats while others are being more proactive on issues like health care, energy and climate policy, seeking a seat at the table as a sea-change comes to the public sector-private sector relationship and underlying principles in those areas.
It used to be that energy and climate policy in America (and a lot else) was heavily influenced by groups like big oil and the auto industry. Now, as one senior energy executive put it to me, "we just don't have the access we used to. The American Petroleum Institute is completely discredited in the eyes of most of the people in this administration. We can't get in to see anyone."
As for the allies in the auto industry, well, the auto industry ain't what it used to be. And what's left is more heavily dominated by union voices than ever before (when it isn't guided by the interests of the bureaucrats who are in charge of managing the political capital the president has invested in saving GM and Chrysler). The old one-two punch of two of America's most politically powerful industries is gone.
Again, this is hardly news unless you've been sleeping in a cave somewhere for the past few years. But it is really striking to me how in the recent past places like Politico, Real Clear Politics, the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Drudge, the political blogs and even sites like this one are driving the buzz. Look at the links between what's talked about on broadcast media and where the idea started and these days, more often than not, it isn't the op-ed writers any more. It's palpable in private conversation. Want further proof? From the White House to local embassies, there is a new, concerted focus on shaping web opinion.
Most of the people in the Washington policy community don't seem to get these changes and, as a result, they are losing influence. Most think tanks have lagged in their adoption of new media and when they get on the bandwagon they are doing little more than creating web-based newsletters and channels for releasing old fashioned papers. They still view policy ideas as inert products to be released every so often and they don't recognize the on-going, dynamic, more inclusive nature of the modern policy influencing process. Compounding the challenge, some of the most influential think tanks have been decimated by losses to the administration (Brookings, CAP, CNAS) creating a paradox: at the moment of their greatest influence they are least able to take advantage of the situation. Personally, I think that any think tank that does not realize their entire model of membership, communication, collaboration, fund-raising...even their role in life...needs to change is on a trajectory to irrelevancy.
State Department types have long lamented the gradual shift of power to the NSC over the past several decades. But 24 hour news cycles have made everything political and thus relevant to the White House and it's only natural that it becomes the locus for most big decisions. But within this several-decade-long trend a new trend has emerged. Power continues to increasingly shift to the White House...but within the White House, the shift is away from the NSC per se and more toward the inner office of the president. This was a trend begun during Bush with the outsized role played by his vice president. But it has been maintained...though in a different form...in this White House with a super-engaged and confident president at the center of everything, as the main foreign policy spokesperson and with his closest personal political advisors playing an outsized role in many policy decisions. Rahm Emanuel may be the most powerful chief of staff since Sherman Adams. David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Greg Craig, and the vice president and his staff are also very influential as are folks like Dennis McDonough and Mark Lippert more thanks to their personal relationships with the president than their official titles at the NSC.
Honestly, I think that power is generally shifting away from the diplomatic community. Ambassadors are superfluous as direct contact between higher level government officials becomes so easy and commonplace. Embassy row is a destination for cocktail parties only these days in Washington and a kind of vestigial limb reminding us of the way things worked back in our parents' day. But even within the diplomatic community, influence is shifting. The fact that the BRIC ambassadors meet once a month to coordinate policies is a sign of this shift. Ambassadors of traditional allies like those from Europe and Japan are less significant. The Chinese ambassador, because of the formalities involved in communicating with that government remains more significant. Colombia's ambassador used to be very important. No more. Mexico and Brazil are really the only two Latin ambassadors that matter any longer.
It's no small thing that we have created the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund to pull us out of the economic morass...even if it is the first such fund entirely debt-financed, and even if the stimulus money is only trickling out. (If Viagra stimulated as slowly as the government's package, Pfizer would also being administered by the White House by now.) But given this newly expanded role of the government, the people who administer these funds at cabinet agencies have become extremely powerful and on many visiting business peoples' must see lists.
These are just a few anecdotal observations. They understate the impact of new media on politics and influence in Washington. And old money politics still remains in place far more than one would have hoped. In some parts of Washington...on Capitol Hill, for example...dinosaurs and Paleolithic ways still rule. But my sense is that if you were to make a list of the 25 most truly influential people in Washington...particularly on the media and policy community side...you would see a new and surprising array of faces. A subject for another blog perhaps.
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Whereas during the early stages of the upheaval in Iran, the United States seemed to be practicing a new form of tantric foreign policy, come Honduras what we saw from the Obama administration was more a page out of the Kama Sutra for Teenage Boys. It was emphatic, fast, and we bent over backwards to demonstrate that neither were we involved nor were we still caught up in the reflexive left vs. right tug-of-war of the Cold War days. It won Obama big points with regional leaders reaffirming his status as the most innovative new yanqui leader since Joe Torre.
Of course, another reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one ... regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today. No wonder the State Department's official mascot is the pushmi-pullyu.
And while it may well be that someday U.S. actions with regard to the situations in Iran and Honduras will someday be viewed as absolutely appropriate, questions remain. Does the fact that Iran conducted an election legitimize their government, whether or not that election was fair or other fundamental rights of the Iranian people were denied? Will we treat them as though nothing has happened, as though Neda were still alive, the next time we sit down to negotiate with them? And in the case of Honduras, we now must wonder what we should do if the missteps of President Zelaya's opponents (well described in an op-ed by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in today's New York Times) will empower him on his almost inevitable return to that country, making it easier still for him to follow through on his ambition to rewrite the constitution so he can serve beyond current limits. This may look and feel fair and even democratic, but using the power of the majority (or of office) to lock into place the power of a single individual or political group is actually neither.
You don't have to look too far way, of course, to see the potential damage such an approach can cause. In fact, it is clear that Zelaya, a charter member of the Hugo Chávez fan club, was contemplating the kind of political sleight of hand that rewrote the rules in Venezuela.
Immediate policy responses aside, what the juxtaposition of the Iranian and Honduran examples clearly illustrates is the ongoing set of problems associated with a too simplistic view of democracy and its role as a key metric in determining U.S. policy.
Our embrace of such a view over the past few years has sent the message that the mere act of publicly conducting a vote is seen as a shield behind which all manner of misdeeds can be undertaken with impunity. In Iran's case the illusion of democracy is used to excuse, forgive and enable fraud and repression. For Hugo and those seeking to emulate him, it is used to cloak the undermining of important elements of the rule of law.
The technique has been used with ever-growing chutzpah from Moscow to Zimbabwe. It is the blending of hypocrisy and democracy into a cocktail that could be known as "democrisy." And that cocktail is a particular weakness of U.S. foreign policy at the moment. This is in part our own doing. We're the ones who elevated the unidimensional, ballot-box-centric definition of democracy to a near-theological concept. But as we have seen again in recent weeks, a society that votes but has no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of religion, no free press, no provisions to protect minorities from tyranny of the majority, and/or a disregard for the rule of law is no more a democracy than a dog that walks on his hind legs is a principal ballerina for the Bolshoi.
We knew it all along, of course. But we were so eager to salute the spread of democracy as an American triumph that we started taking credit for a bunch of lowest common denominator democratic revolutions and the rise of tinpot Jeffersons when we should have been more circumspect and demanding. Voting without the intent to honor basic rights is no more a sure step on the road to real democracy than making out in the back seat of your car is a step on the road to marriage.
Ten years after Fareed Zakaria's introduction of the idea of "illiberal democracy" and 220 years after the Federalist Papers, we ought to know better. Of course, a cynic might argue that we do. It often suits us to use a minimalist definition of democracy and we do so as manipulatively as any of the populists or authoritarians we decry. We use it to justify inaction against regimes when we simply don't want to get involved for one reason or another -- because in Iran we have other fish to fry, because we want to feel like things are going better than they are in Afghanistan or, similarly, because we want to feel ok about getting the heck out of Dodge (Baghdad and Fallujah) in an Iraq where the government can hardly be said to be sufficiently transparent or effectively representative of the views of the Iraqi people.
Such an approach is convenient for us. But we can hope it will evolve. Just as it is reasonable to decry the coup in Honduras as a throwback to the days when Woody Allen's Bananas looked like a documentary, so too might we hope for a time when the hemisphere and the world might move beyond acceptance of the edition of "Democracy for Dummies" that has become the standard textbook for demagogues and start embracing and demanding higher standards from its elected leaders.
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Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.
Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.
Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada.
But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.
The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.
The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.
Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley.
Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.
This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.
In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.
It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.
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Too much voting, not enough free press. As we have seen in Iran, that's the problem bedeviling many would-be democracies worldwide. The people vote with their ballots, the governments vote when the tallies are taking place or later in the streets, and throughout the open flow of information is impeded or neglected as a priority. It's also the problem with many of the democracy promotion programs that have been offered up by the United States and the international community during the recent past. It's the formula for what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed "illiberal democracy" and for what citizens in ill-served countries know is sham.
From Russia to China to Venezuela, you have voting and claims that some form of democracy is operating. But in each case, as in Iran, such claims are undercut by the reality that free speech is being quashed. In just the past few days alone we have seen stories of the Chinese government's regulations requiring that computers sold in that country contain software enabling the government to censor Internet access. The alleged target is pornography but the software also enables the government to block access to sites they deem politically objectionable. Also, today's Wall Street Journal contained a story talking about the sophistication of the Iranian government when it comes to the tools it uses to control Internet access in that country. And we have seen that they are equally comfortable with the blunt instruments of press suppression from expelling journalists to floating bogus stories to beating the opposition to death.
The U.S. State Department made a demarche to the Chinese protesting the censorship. That's an encouraging and important step. But we need to go further. Not only do governments need to ratchet up their emphasis on the centrality of a free press to any democracy -- and take a stronger stand against those who pretend at representative government -- they also need to find a better way to collaborate with and if necessary regulate or impede those companies who provide Internet and other media censors with the technologies and tools they need to do their jobs. It is absolutely appalling that supposedly "enlightened" companies like Google trumpet their saintly behavior on the environment and other PC issues and then work behind the scenes to enable censorship and thus the evisceration of the fundamental human right to access to the truth about their lives.
Outreach and achieving common standards and an agreement to adhere to them would be a good first step. But because ultimately, some businesses will need stronger disincentives not to do business with government censors, we should reflect the centrality of a free press in programs that deny U.S. government contracts to technology, software or consulting companies that enable such suppression. In fact, better still would be an agreement among all democracies to do so. We can start with Europe and NATO and work out from there. Perhaps other forms of international agreements may also be possible. Certainly, we should attempt to advance the idea of the Internet as a free global commons. For those with concerns about pornography, let families rather than governments wield the tools to make those value judgments about content.
What is clear is that while modern technologies make it much harder for authoritarian regimes control access to information as they once did, they also provide new tools which can corrode and choke off important avenues of expression and information flows. With its diplomatic challenge to China, the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to grapple with this problem. But they and all governments who are supposedly committed to free societies can go much further.
For over two centuries we have believed that the legitimacy of governments derived from the consent of the governed. But, of course, that famous concept does not go far enough. The legitimacy can only be derived from informed consent. Anything less is less than true democracy.
After all the flying I've been doing the past couple weeks, I was genuinely sorry to hear today's story of the Continental Airlines pilot who died while flying back from Belgium.
While resisting the tasteless temptation to observe that dying after having visited Belgium strikes me as needlessly repetitive, I have to say the story hit home because on my flight last night back from Latin America I was actually surprised that the "cabin service director" did not herself expire mid-flight. This woman was so old that at one point during the flight I thought I could actually hear her osteoporosis. While I admire her for setting such a good example for other senior citizens by continuing to work, I do feel that her insistence on wearing a leather flying helmet and a jaunty scarf she held on to from her days in the Lafayette Escadrille was a bit unnerving to the other passengers. It wasn't too unnerving however, because we hardly saw her. Being that this was a flight on a U.S. carrier from Latin America, she did not actually feel compelled to speak to a single passenger during the flight (I don't think I'm exaggerating here). She just sat up front and every so often would make an announcement that was so unintelligible that it made Jimmy Carter's mumblings the other day on behalf of Hamas seem coherent.
Speaking of that other octogenarian, you couldn't help but be struck by two things while watching Carter offer the weight of the office bestowed upon him by the American people to lend support to the Hezbollah-backed group of allegedly reforming terrorists. (You can imagine the 12 step program Hamas is running to keep its guys "political": "Hi, I am Khaled and I am a terrorist. I have not launched a missile at a nursery school in 17 weeks.")
The first was: "Aha! Here is an American president who is not afraid to stand up for an Iranian political movement."
The second was that for once I wish Walt and Mearsheimer were right, and that taking a stand that was anathema to the Israel Lobby really did mean the end of a political career in the United States, because Jimmy is well past his sell-by date. (For more on this last point, see Jeffrey Goldberg's observations on "The Taboo That Won't Shut Up.")
Carter's signature message was "Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself." The view is so typically one-sided in its selective recollection of history -- he neglects to note who, for example, fired the first 10,000 or so missiles in the recent confrontation -- that it would make Carter the Flat Stanley of U.S. politics were it not for the fact that Flat Stanley actually had two dimensions. (And I say this as someone who believes that the international community and the Israelis owe it to the Palestinians to help them heal and to find a sustainable solution that offers both them and their neighbors dignity, security, and a chance at prosperity.)
Finally, as a parent, I found myself misting up a bit at Chastity Bono's recent reappearance in the news. (Since her father ended up being a Congressman, I think it's perfectly appropriate to discuss her in this blog. Chastity is a Washington insider once-removed. Although frankly as a lesbian child of celebrities, she probably makes it as a Washington insider entirely on her own what with this being a Democratic administration and all.) In any event, given the fame of her parents, you can't help but feel for poor Chaz, wondering how she was going to make a name for herself. Yet, here she has done it. With her decision to have a sex-change operation, she boldly went into the one area of plastic surgery her iconic mother never considered. (Which is saying something, as the only thing left about Cher that is authentic is the signature on her monthly retainer checks to the plastic surgeon she keeps on call.)
And the international affairs insight in the Chastity Bono story? (Besides the fact that post-surgery she will be the only other person still using the same first name as one-time National Intelligence Council nominee Chas Freeman.) Well, presumably if she could find someone who would sew a pair on her perhaps we might look into a way to do the same for our current foreign policy.
Irresistible sexist jokes aside, I am pretty sure our current problem is not so much the amount of testosterone in our system -- the feminist in me actually thinks you can never have too little -- as it is the vaguely masochistic impulse to effectively respond to every threat or provocation with an Oliver Twist-like, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
I'm one of those guys that the conspiracy theorists love to hate.
I not only believe that we need stronger global governance mechanisms, I believe that the reinvention of our global governance system is one of the great shared missions of the world for the century ahead. Whether it is strengthening institutions that regulate trade or climate, finance or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or whether it is creating multilateral enforcement mechanisms with real teeth, the international system of nation states and very weak multilateral mechanisms we currently have is showing its age and is simply not up to satisfying the obligations of the social contract in the global era. In the eyes of the conspiracy maniacs ... weakened by too much time staring at anti-Bilderberg, anti-Davos, anti-World Jewish Conspiracy Web sites ... this makes me a world government guy and a threat to the natural order. (Which apparently is manifested in a libertarian fantasy land of white guys living in shacks and RVs far from the influence of any cultural tradition but their own. The notion of one nation under Toby Keith seems a little dubious to me, but then again, most of these guys think people like me would best serve as hood ornaments.)
Having said that, watching the UN continue its kabuki theater concerning North Korea makes me want to shut the place down, convert it to condos and remit the funds to the former member states. Even in a down New York real estate market it is almost certain to be a better return on investment for the dollars poured into that white elephant on the East River than "outcomes" like the proposed sanctions on Pyongyang. This is particularly tragic since containing and ultimately eliminating the threats posed by states like North Korea and other proliferators seems to me a vital role for the UN or at least for some international mechanism. But you can't stand up to the bad guy without a spine and the UN has been an invertebrate by design since it first crawled out of San Francisco Bay in April 1945. No one wanted anything like a strong world governance structure back then and so they built a talking shop that makes most freshman philosophy seminars look like decisive drivers of global change. Basically the organization was designed along the lines of the conflict resolution sessions my daughters' elementary school used to use when students got into a fight. The combatants would be sat down in a room, asked to explain the problem, and then told to apologize and make up or else. Of course the "or else" was the equivalent of the great parental technique of counting to three, you didn't know what might happen once you got to the point of no return but you were sure it was bad.
To my eldest daughter's credit at one point she got into a fight with a budding bitchlet from the grade ahead of her and when asked to say they were friends, she refused. She sensed that there would be no repercussions. Who knew that my adorable little cupcake and Kim Jong-Il would have that much in common.
He must be sitting there with his 26 year-old son, Kim Jong-Un, his recently anointed successor, in their badly paneled rumpus room full of tapes of old American movies playing their favorite video game (Grand Theft Plutonium) and cackling at the wimps on Manhattan Upper East Side. Seriously, I can hardly understand how in a city in which every cab driver is prepared to get all up in your grille about the most casual comment, these UN folks can manage to negotiate the basics of daily life. It takes more gumption than they have ever displayed to get a waiter to bring you a menu at most Manhattan coffee shops. (I've seen "Gossip Girl." I know how that part of town works. Blair Waldorf would have Ban Ki Moon braiding her hair and carrying her books to school within seconds of their first meeting.)
In essence, the new tough stand of the UN, orchestrated by the United States, has two parts. In the first, we essentially reiterate what we've said in the past about interdicting shipments of weapons materials. But this time, folks, we say it with feeling. There is no commitment by anyone to actually stop or inspect North Korean ships and there is no UN mechanism obligating or even sanctioning the use of force. We also plan to cut off financing options for the starving country ... except those that pertain to humanitarian or development needs. Of course, money is fungible and the government has shown a real willingness to spend on arms in the past while letting its people eat grass, so why we think this tactic won't just produce more humanitarian and development needs ... which in turn will be met ... is beyond me.
In all the articles on these developments, the usual suspects at think tanks and in the diplomatic community say all this matters because this time the Russians and the Chinese are really pissed off. Yes, maybe. But apparently not pissed off enough to actually collaborate in the production of anything that might actually change North Korean behavior. (Their approach, written on the package every North Korean bomb comes seems to have been lifted from a shampoo bottle: Threaten...negotiate/buy time for program development...win aid packages...repeat as necessary.) How was it all described by that UN expert from Stratford-on-Avon? "A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (They didn't call it the Globe Theater for nothing.)
Oh yeah, by the way, I'm still in India. I'm writing this while periodically looking up to watch the small fishing boats come into the Back Bay from the Arabian Sea. Great people, great meetings, great food and yes, if you must ask, I do keep my mouth closed in the shower to avoid becoming the host to any local bacteria (with whom I have had bad experiences in the past.)
Also, for the record, on the broader point of this blog, despite my being a very big fan of this wonderful country and a big supporter of it having a much bigger role on the international stage and in America's foreign policy priorities, I don't like the nuke deal we cut with them either. I've said it before and I will say it again, the world's complacency on proliferation will produce one or more of the great tragedies of the century ahead. (As in the North Korea case, the international community has developed and seems to be sticking to a three-speed plan on proliferation these days: cooperate with proliferators, cut them a lot slack or cut them a little slack. Just in case you wanted to know what was responsible for that ticking sound you hear...)
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Because Foreign Policy, when done right, is not a noun but a verb, I'm leaving the country. (Ok, so it's never a verb. I'm having premature jet-lag. But you get the idea.) None of this arm-chair punditry for me. I'm going out where you can taste that clash of civilizations and walk the flat earth. (And that's just eating and trying to get to my plane at most airports.)
During the next week and a half my business will be taking me to four continents. Admittedly, four continents in eight days is borderline insane for someone who has to fly commercial but think of all the time it will give me at 35,000 feet to contemplate the big issues and provide juicy blogs full of local color.
Consider it my Sleep Deprivation and Digestive Distress (S Triple D) World Tour...and view it as your chance to get a window on the world as I hobnob with cab-drivers, bellmen, secretaries who don't understand a word I am saying, and drug sniffing dogs. Naturally, to the extent that major developments break anywhere in the world, I will be there to offer a distinctly outside the Beltway perspective on them. And all of it will be viewed through the lens of crushing exhaustion that will add special color to it -- like hallucinations, imagery of large insects crawling all over my body, paranoid fantasies of hotel shampoo bottles coming to life, that kind of thing.
So now, in the grey light of dawn, I head to the airport with my primary achievement thus far being the ability to get all that I need for the trip into my carry-on luggage. This does not mean I am traveling light. My suitcase and briefcase together weigh roughly the same as any car from the Kia line of fine, Korean-made, automobiles. (Although I worry my luggage may actually have lower fuel efficiency.)
Barack Obama has made it a new world in which everyone loves Americans. And I am ready to go out and collect my hugs and free drinks.
More news as it happens...
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama's speech today, welcome as it was in tenor and intent, sought to test whether American identity politics could effectively translate into a new form of U.S. identity diplomacy. While there has always been some element of playing to cultural and historical affinities in international relations, it is telling and rather worrisome that a speech offered as a centerpiece of the new president's Middle East policy spoke to a type of relationship that has seldom if ever been similarly invoked in U.S. diplomatic history-that between our country and a religion.
Seventy-eight times in his 55-minute speech did President Obama use the words Islam or Muslim, their variants or make mention of Islamic texts, language or institutions. The central thesis of the speech was that the United States needs to redefine its relationship with the Muslim world. And while it is hard to be against strengthening our relations with any group, this approach does contain a trap. It posits the existence of something that does not really exist. With over a billion members, "the Muslim world" encompasses a group so geographically, culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse as to be almost a meaningless term.
Further, as some critics have rightly pointed out, despite the occasional acknowledgement that Muslims may exist in Asia, Africa or the United States, the speech was primarily addressed to the Muslims of the greater Middle East. Not only does this unintentionally marginalize Muslims who are not Arab or Persian, upon further examination the focus on that region reminds us that our problems are not with Muslims per se but with often deeply divided subsets of that group with other sect-related, national, tribal or other identities. This in turn underscores why repairing relations with Islam is not a highly meaningful goal from a practical standpoint (because Islam is hardly monolithic and our relationship with it is hardly central to solving the problems we face).
While the purpose of the speech seemed to be to try to engender better will toward the United States and our new administration...and while it may have succeeded in this respect...from a diplomatic perspective one can only get so far by appealing to an entity that doesn't really exist. Ultimately the representatives of the U.S. government have to sit down with representatives of local governments and most of the governments in the region are not known for their responsiveness to the needs or moods of their people. Even among those that are democratic such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, divisions among Islamic sects or between fundamentalist and moderate factions are likely to trump generalized views that this U.S. administration is less offensive to Muslims than the last one.
In the United States, identity politics work because churches or synagogues mobilize voters. In the Islamic world the effect is likely to be much less easily translated into political movement. This is not to say that today's speech does damage to the United States. That could only happen if the administration were to expect too much of it in the way of meaningful consequences.
In the end, I guess I am of the school that believes in the strictest and most far reaching interpretation of the separation between church and state. There's no place for the cozy relationship that has emerged between the two in U.S. politics or in the politics of the Middle East. And there is no place for it in U.S. diplomacy. In the first instance, it is a matter of principle that should divide the two. In the second, it is a matter of practicality and a sense of history. To my mind, America should have no relationship with Islam to repair...or with any other religion. Our government should be blind to such issues and treat all countries with tolerance and respect. Which is just one more reason why today's speech, for all the merits clearly underlying its conception and evident in its execution, made me uneasy.
If you are looking for a unifying theme to describe the overarching policies of the Obama administration, you will find it coming from the least likely source: Hillary Clinton's State Department. I don't say the source is unlikely because HRC is doing a bad job. She's actually done very well. It's just an unlikely source because for reasons that have to be more than an accident, the department itself seems to have become the equivalent of Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. It, and particularly the Secretary, is off the radar. Everyone in DC these days is talking about how she hasn't appeared on a morning show. The Hill had a piece the other day on "The Incredible Shrinking Clintons." Richard Holbrooke has a much higher profile than his boss. Certainly, Bob Gates has had a higher profile and even the nearly invisible Jim Jones has gotten more press recently if only because of the leaked articles about some of his early (and I believe overstated) missteps.
Anyway, the theme and the metaphor that ties so much of what has been going on is "hitting the reset button," made famous when just such a button was delivered, mislabeled, by the state department to the Russians who were the first focus of what has become reset-mania. In addition to attempting to restart that relationship with our former arch-enemies, you can see evidence of the same mentality everywhere. We are attempting to hit the reset button for GM and Chrysler by pushing them through the bankruptcy process (the same one we spent tens of billions to avoid months earlier).
Today President Obama heads to the Middle East to hit the reset button on our relations with the Muslim World. Problems in Iraq and AfPak? Hit reset. Frayed alliances? Reset. Economy in the tank, Wall Street a mess? To many observers the impulse has been less toward sweeping reform and more toward getting things back to the way they were (with modest changes). In other words: reset. Demonstrating that no issue is too marginal or too antiquated for the focus on resetting, you need look only 90 miles away to Cuba. We even seem to be approaching health care by trying to hit the reset button to take the debate back to the days before the Clinton health care plan cratered and set health care reform back for more than 15 years.
Of course, the impulse to hit the reset button is pretty natural given the toxic nature of many Bush-era policies. And the reset button metaphor works for all of us in the information age and is undoubtedly better than suggesting that we cleanse ourselves of all the Bush dirt and toxins by climbing into the shower together.
But as any computer user knows, hitting reset doesn't work all the time. It's kind of magical when it does...to the extent that it seems inexplicable to most of us. But it would be a big mistake to make too much policy based on the notion that President Obama has -- to mix metaphors slightly -- the equivalent of the Fonzie touch, the ability to make a jukebox (or Bushed-up policy or relationship) work with a slap to its side. (I don't think it's mixing metaphors that much. The Fonzie touch is the '50s equivalent of the reset button.)
But here's the problem: if your computer is broken, the motherboard is fried, the demon viruses are at work on your data -- the reset button doesn't work. Same is true with broken companies, broken relationships, and broken global economies. Sometimes you may get signs that things are spluttering back to life but without real, material changes the problems will re-emerge. Sometimes you will get nothing at all.
In this respect, going to the Middle East to "restore relations with the Muslim world" sounds great in the reset context...Obama certainly achieves the main goal (and to some extent the primary deliverable) of Resetism, he demonstrates he is not George W. Bush. But it is unlikely to do much to actually fix the problem. It may help, to be sure. But many of the biggest problems that we have with regard to the Muslim world aren't actually problems we created or exacerbated. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, the President's two regional destinations, are anything like democracies...or for that matter are they home to anything like enlightened governments. Economic mismanagement and corruption are chronic and widespread and a bigger source of regional instability than many other issues that achieve more prominence. They are home to human rights violations, abominable treatment of women and tolerance of radical factions who are as big a threat to the Arab world as they are to the U.S. or any of our allies. These places are breeding grounds for risk to our interests and even doing the right thing and underscoring that the U.S. embraces Islam and all peace-loving Muslims, doesn't get down to the hard business of resolving tensions between the Arab and Persian worlds, the Sunnis and the Shiites, radicals and moderates, reformers and authoritarian rules or Arabs and Israelis.
Further, we need to remind ourselves that we are not the primary cause of the problems we face. We may have exacerbated some. There is no defense for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or for the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died thanks to our invasion of Iraq. But neither is there any defense for 9/11, terrorism directed at anyone, or state-supported hate mongering. Our support for Israel may inflame the Arab world but even when we acknowledge Israeli policy failures or brutality, even when we condemn them and work against them, we are only addressing part of the problem.
As a consequence as President Obama wings off to the region, it heightens my sense that there is as at least as much reason for the leaders of the Muslim world to come to America to restore relations with us, to make amends and commit to change, as there is for the President to go there and do so. Indeed, there is much more given the level of dysfunctionality within their societies and their long record of miserable treatment of their own people.
Similarly, the reset button won't fix GM or Chrysler. Admittedly, doing what we should have done six months ago, letting the companies go into bankruptcy and be stripped down to more efficient pieces will help. But U.S. ownership certainly will not (and has not...save for all that writing of big checks.) Merging with Fiat probably won't either. I think the odds are pretty high that we will look at the U.S. monies spent on the auto industry as the most expensive golden parachute in history, designed to make the demise of failed companies as painless as possible and not really terrible effective at identifying, preserving or fostering value within either of them. There is a reset hope in all this -- strip 'em down and let them regrow like a backyard shrub-but without creativity and truly new thinking, neither of which will come from the government or the labor unions who have gained too much sway in all this given their roles in creating the problem, these efforts will likely be frustratingly costly and unsuccessful.
The list goes on. If there were core problems associated with the creation of new invisible unregulated risks in the global financial systems, even restoring growth to markets and the U.S. economy is not a fix. The risks will remain until addressed. To restore US-Russia relations really requires a fix in Russia and not here. To restore U.S.-Cuba relations to their rightful place in our foreign policy, we need to transfer it to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Caribbean, normalize, and start treating like we should in much the same way we handle Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. In short, to achieve the ambitious goals the Obama administration has set and the American people seek, we need to rethink, reinvent and remember where the real problems lie...and not just hope that the world is as easily rebooted as our PCs.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Once again, the Obama administration has put the lie to the idea that they represent the end of politics as usual in Washington. And once again, the self-inflicted wound comes courtesy of those wonderful folks at White House personnel whose gaffes and misjudgments have produced many of the most notable missteps of the otherwise successful first few months of the Obama Era.
But their latest moves, the announcement yesterday of a raft of diplomatic appointments, do more than remind us that the gap between ideals and actions is Washington's version of the Grand Canyon. They raise a larger question about the nature and practice of U.S. foreign policy: Do we even need ambassadors anymore?
Of course, if your impulse is to answer the question by saying, "sure we do. If we didn't have ambassadors where would we send all the campaign donors and political hangers-on for whom we couldn't find plum jobs in Washington?" then you not only understand Washington but you understand where I think Obama went wrong yesterday and why my question about the need for ambassadors is genuinely open to question.
Now, not all of the administration's ambassadorial appointments yesterday are open to criticism. Two exceptionally important jobs were given to excellent candidates. Tom Shannon, a gifted career diplomat who most recently was the assistant secretary of state in charge of the Americas is going to Brasilia where I suspect he will remain the single most important official in the Administration dealing with Western Hemisphere issues. Tim Roemer, the former Indiana congressman and 9/11 Commission member is headed to New Delhi where his closeness to the president, his understanding of American politics and his smarts will help move the U.S.-India relationship right to the top of those most important to us in the world where it ought to be.
But some of the appointments suggest that whenever the new ambassadors enter a room, they should be piped on deck with the ka-ching of a cash register or at least a chorus or two of Abba's "Money, Money, Money." Most notable among these is the decision to appoint a tech lawyer named John Roos as the ambassador to Japan despite having little experience in the region, no diplomatic background, and no political background besides having raised over $500,000 for the president. To the face-conscious Japanese, already reeling from their economic nightmare of the past decade and China having supplanted them as America's top diplomatic priority in the region, this has got to come as a blow...which is no way to start an ambassadorial tenure. The message is clear: U.S. political fund-raising matters more than mastery of the diplomatic interchanges with the world's second largest economy and our primary democratic ally in East Asia.
Similarly, to our number one ally in Europe, the UK, we send Louis Susman, another big time fund-raiser whose credentials include having been a vice chairman of financial invalid Citibank (who knew overseeing the decline of an American financial institution would become the great path to top government jobs that it has been in this administration?) and a director of the St. Louis Cardinal's baseball team. To France, the decision is to send another fund-raiser, this one whose most notable credential is having been the President of the Muppets. (He once ran the Jim Henson Company.)
Other campaign friends ended up with good posts such as Vilma Martinez, an employment lawyer who once ran the Mexican-American legal defense fund. That the Argentines will wince that we think somehow think one size Latina fits all posts and that experience on Mexican-American issues will translate into knowledge of how to deal with challenges in Buenos Aires will soon become apparent. Revealingly, beyond the Shannon appointment -- which itself came only after a long and heated battle between the State Department and the White House about whether to give the slot to a career foreign service officer or a political appointee -- the three other career diplomats who were named to slots yesterday got assignments in Iceland, Kosovo and Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Of course, Obama is not the first to send unqualified fat cats off to be America's face to the world (and there is a certain element of truth-in-advertising there that is refreshing amid the finally buffed bullshit of diplomatic intercourse). But this only underscores my core point. If a job is meaningless enough to be entrusted to someone who is unqualified to do it, do we really need to fill that post? This point is made especially forcefully when even the most important such jobs (like Japan) are being filled by political bag men. Further of course, anyone with much exposure to foreign policy knows that to our closest allies and most important enemies, dealing with ambassadors is often viewed as being at the bottom of the food chain. It is too easy today to pick up the phone or send ministers to speak to cabinet secretaries or sub-cabinet officials to meet with sub-cabinet officials or even to arrange exchanges among leaders than to entrust really important communications to intermediaries who need to pass it up through multiple layers in the State Department and/or the White House before they reach the eyes of anyone who is actually a policymaker. Furthermore, with the proliferation of special envoys in this administration...diplomats who report directly to the Secretary of State or the President...being a regular ambassador is rendered even more of a bag-carrier or logistical coordinator role.
Once upon a time, we need diplomats because they served as our primary means of confidential communications with other governments. They played a vital role. They carried secret communications back and forth. Heck, they even had attaché cases named after them. (And other things. Poinsettia plants, for example, are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.) But today, for the purposes of most really important diplomatic exchanges there is almost always a better conduit than the ambassador and for the ones that aren't that important, do we really need someone in a special ceremonial post? Or someone who doesn't understand the country or diplomacy? Unless of course, our main objective is to raise money from these countries which, come to think of it, could be a growing responsibility of U.S. ambassadors in the future and could justify some of these recent Obama appointments.
For really important relationships, we need permanent high-level representation. But those relationships are comparatively few and in those cases, we need a special breed of highly empowered, highly experienced people...people who look more like Tom Shannon or perhaps Tim Roemer or Jon Huntsman...and not the others. A good rule of thumb might be: If you think a job can go to someone with no regional, diplomatic or relevant national security experience, then perhaps we ought to really be thinking about whether we need the job rather than who should fill it.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Reading today's New York Times article on how former Bush Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad is now in line for a position in the Afghan government, I was wondering where all those folks who are constantly going after the "dual-loyalties" they attribute to some pro-Israel American Jews would come out on this development. Khalizad played a major role in shaping U.S. policies that brought billions of U.S. dollars plus troops to the region and now he is in line to actually become part of the local government we put in place and are protecting with American blood. This makes the Washington-Wall Street revolving door look positively bland in its implications and potential conflicts of interest.
So come on guys, if it bugs you that sometimes Jewish American journalists write pro-Israel articles, you ought to have a field day with this...that is if it is really the perceived dual loyalties you object to...and not the nature of one of those loyalties in particular.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Today, in the nation's capital, began our new, fun for the whole family National Af-Pak Festival. Goat on a stick for everyone!
Unfortunately, despite White House efforts to prepare for this event, the real leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were unable to make the trip to Washington. So, the president has had to make do with the two figurehead leaders of these countries -- Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai, two dubious, often bumbling, albeit popularly elected clowns who leave us with the impression that these neighboring Stans were both named in part after Stan Laurel.
Of course, theirs is a dark kind of comedy, more in the vein of say, Kurt Weill or the Coen Brothers. To get a sense of just how bleakly comic it is, just watch Zardari's attempt to spin America in his interview with Wolf Blitzer yesterday (lampooned today by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). It's the least convincing effort to use the media to persuade the world that a faltering, inadequate leader was actually up to the job since George W. Bush's last press conference (though to be honest, Zardari makes Bush look like Pericles.) Karzai has been little better. It was only a few weeks ago that he appalled us with a merengue around the issue of legalizing rape in marriage that was so tortured and difficult to watch it reminded us of Steve O's recent stint on "Dancing With the Stars."
Of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan's real political leaders remained back at home doing what they usually do -- running the army, leading opposition groups, and planning terror attacks. But in honor of these festivities one of the most prominent of these true powers, the Taliban, agreed to stage a commemorative parade of perhaps 500,000 people on the road out of the Swat Valley. Like most Taliban events, this one will undoubtedly feature their special breed of rock concerts -- which, unfortunately for participants, translates into "group stonings" in Urdu. (And I don't mean like at a Phish concert.) In addition, much of Waziristan will be shut down for the occasion...and also, as it turns out, for the next 200 years. Furthermore, as a special concession to our quest for building ties to moderate Taliban, the United States has agreed to provide a special, all-American guest of honor for that ever-popular regional fave, adulter-stoning. Yes, we're sending John Edwards. His wife, Elizabeth, donated several cartons of her new book to be used in lieu of actual rocks.
Meanwhile back in Washington, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and a chunk of the cabinet are meeting with Zardari and Karzai. (Though despite today's public display of embracing one another at the White House, you get the impression that after hours Asif and Hamid will not be heading to the Willard for appletinis. Ok, out of respect to Islamic prohibitions against alcohol consumption, virgin appletinis.)
Earlier today, Secretary Clinton indicated there were encouraging signs of progress in the meetings between the two countries...although it has to be acknowledged her task was made somewhat more difficult by her simultaneous need to apologize for scores of civilian deaths that may have been caused by a U.S. strike in Afghanistan. Later, President Obama called the meetings "extraordinarily productive" which suggests that despite the deficiencies of the two visiting leaders such meetings may be helpful.
So what were the signs of progress besides the meetings themselves? Well, um...Afghanistan had seemed increasingly irrelevant to the core conflict which has been relentlessly and worryingly intensifying in Pakistan but, that could change as tens of thousands of Pakistani refugees stream into the neighboring country. Not encouraging enough for you? Ok, remember when Admiral Mike Mullen announced that the situation in Pakistan was really worrisome? Well, now he said he's not so worried. (No hint of coercion, er, constructive guidance from his civilian bosses there. And Zardari's attempts yesterday to be reassuring on this subject were particularly unconvincing.)
Nonetheless, despite all the perfectly sensible reasons to be cynical about all this, there is also something refreshing and pragmatic about Obama's intensive, constructive efforts to open and maintain communications channels as well as offer meaningful support for things like schools, roads, and hospitals, and generate good will in Af-Pakia. It would be naive to be too hopeful that such efforts will produce precisely the results we want. Money is fungible. These governments are neither efficient nor known for their probity. These leaders, in case I've neglected to mention it, aren't members of the A-team. But just as Obama, Clinton, and Holbrooke have no choice but to deal with the presidents, it would be foolish not to make the kind of regional strategy effort the administration is currently undertaking. The stakes are too high and the options -- should things go further down the tubes -- are not good. (For a summary of such options, see David Sanger's excellent column in yesterday's online edition of the New York Times.)
So, while I don't think the Cherry Blossom Festival has anything to worry about just yet, I think we should all hope these Af-Pak Festivals remain a fixture on the Washington schedule as long as they produce anything like meaningful results...and I'm glad that the response to what appear to be intractable problems is not simply to bluster or to minimize them or to turn away.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
I don't know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world -- and after the new administration's very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in that country...and after top officials working the issue since almost day one...and despite the fact that throughout this period the country was primarily described as the unstable haven of our terrorist enemies -- it now turns out, rather surprisingly, that there seems to be an organized civil war going on there in which those same enemies were making substantial progress marching on the capital. They are functioning more as a coordinated guerrilla force and the prospect of them picking off multiple provinces of the country (much as the FARC did in Colombia creating pockets of failed or radicalized provinces in the wrapper of a weak state...what you might call a hybrid state) is looming as a real one.
Even given the fact that Pakistan was the site of one of our greatest intelligence failures of modern history (failing to catch their development of nuclear weapons...a failure that may, in future, look even worse than it does today) it is still surprising to think that we have been viewing this situation so incorrectly for so long. Yet, as evidenced by Admiral Mullen's reactions following his recent trips, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and we seem to have been caught flat-footed. Sure, the Zardari government has now started to make a show of going after the Taliban. And yes, their ambassador Husain Haqqani, an old friend and a good, smart guy with a tough job, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying "everything's fine, please send helicopters" yesterday as an attempt to soothe fraying American nerves. But behind the scenes, policy types and military leaders are concerned this country, which is ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials, may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.
That would be a very, very bad thing. What with the nukes and all. Made worse by the fact that the options available to us are slim. The Pakistanis don't want us on the ground. (So instead they get Predator attacks which they don't much like either. And, utterly appropriately, Holbrooke attacks which, as Slobodan Milosevic would tell you...if he weren't deservingly dead...can be worse.) We can't work too closely with our best potential ally in the region, India, because it would only inflame the Pakistanis. And the situation in Afghanistan is also not so great.
One specter that is raised in my mind is that Pakistan becomes a bit like Cambodia. Everyone has accepted our troops should be on the ground in a neighboring country but the war has shifted across a border and we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or how we should cross that border. The Cambodia thing, by the way, did not turn out so well. (The main difference of course, is that back then the primary war was in Vietnam. Today, it is in Pakistan.)
So what are we left with? Comforted by? Well, by Plan B of course. And to understand that, you have to meet General Plan B: Pakistan's top soldier, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani, who replaced former President Musharraf as head of the army, is the first Pakistani chief of staff who also headed up their notoriously unreliable (which is to say divided in terms of loyalties) intelligence services, the ISI. He's the default option for DC policy hounds, the guy who steps in when the bell finally tolls for Zardari as it inevitably will. He is the man whose leadership stands between us and 60 or more Pakistani nukes going unsecured, between us and a radicalized Pakistan.
And the American people will gladly go along with it. It won't be much comfort to Musharraf...in fact, he may find the irony rather galling, but if we could be sure that a strong military government could keep a lid on Pakistan for the foreseeable future we would jump at it. Jump back at it. Take it again. Democracy schemocracy. Let's have stability and worry about the details later. Heck, we're taking a stand against torture that ought to buy us at least this pragmatic diversion from our alleged national ideals, right? At least that is pretty much the conventional wisdom in Washington. (Which, oddly enough, in this case actually makes pretty good sense.)
In fact, looking at the region and the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not seem farfetched at all to imagine a successful Obama presidency ending with strongmen or juntas in charge of each of these countries. Because the alternatives are messy and unstable at best, requiring more military resources than we can muster or military options we'd rather not consider at worst.
Ironically, the one country in the region we have not invaded, Iran, may be the one with history and the public discourse most likely to actually produce something like sustainable democracy. (Which as one noted expert in the region suggested to me...somewhat optimistically...could spill over into the political approaches of Hezbollah and Hamas.) It's not on the imminent horizon to be sure, but it is fair to say that Iran has always been a better candidate for stable, functioning democracy than the other three places.
So, could that be the Obama legacy? Three juntas and a democracy? In these four places? It wouldn't be according to the game plan and we'd have to hold our noses from time to time, but it's worth considering just how welcome such an outcome would be if it produced greater stability and the time we needed to reduce our dependence on the region's oil and contain the region's nuclear and terrorist threats. Come on, admit it, you'd take that deal in a heartbeat.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Laura Rozen has already run a post about one of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's leading candidates to be ambassador to the United States. Normally, one post per contemplated ambassadorial posting of anyone from anywhere would be plenty as typically, ambassadors are fringe players in Washington, hosts of wine tastings and dinners for visiting deputy ministers of mining. But the next U.S. ambassador from Israel is likely to play an extremely important role at a crucial, potential turning point in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Further, the candidate who was the subject of Laura's post, Dr. Michael Oren, is someone I know particularly well. In fact, he was my roommate in college and as a consequence I have known him for over 30 years. And because, as Laura noted, there is some debate in the press about Michael, I thought it might be helpful to offer a personal perspective.
There have been a couple of implicit critiques of the possibility of the appointment that are worthy of refutation and miss the litany of very clear reasons why Oren would be a spectacularly good choice for the job. One of the critiques, as presented in Laura's post, asserts a lack of diplomatic experience on his part. Another suggests that one article he wrote during last year's presidential campaign may have been somewhat critical of the stance of then candidate Obama which was, it was asserted, a potential liability. Yet another element of the critique suggests that he might be too close in position to the neocon views that have fallen into such disrepute in Washington.
As far as experience is concerned, one can hardly imagine a candidate better qualified for the post. Michael has become perhaps the leading expert anywhere on the history of the U.S.-Middle East relationship and a noted, widely respected, analyst of that relationship. His two most recent books, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East and Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, were both New York Times best-sellers that have been acknowledged as the definitive works of their kind. A Columbia and Princeton graduate who has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown as well as at Hebrew University and Tel-Aviv University, he is far from just an academic acclaimed for his rigorous scholarship. A former paratrooper and officer in the IDF, Oren was director of Inter-Religious Affairs in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, served as a Prime Ministerial representative to the refuseniks in the USSR, an advisor to the Israeli UN delegation and as a liaison to the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War.
While he did indeed write an academic article that speculated about the consequences of the possible election of either Barack Obama or John McCain, it was not only an admirably thoughtful, fact-based, balanced and accurate piece (and do let's try to remember he is the possible Israeli Ambassador to the United States and not the other way around) but he is distinguished among leading experts on these issues by his broad bi-partisan base of admirers in the United States including - and I can say with absolute certainty -- many at high levels within the Obama administration. As for categorizing his views as being too close to the neocons, that's just a distortion and reflects a deep misunderstanding of Michael's views which have often diverged with that group (or those closely associated with it in Israel) whether on Iraq or on the issue of how to handle the question of settlements on the West Bank and, in fact, are difficult to categorize except to say that they are exceptionally and consistently well-informed and independent.
Beyond these points, however, Oren offers a set of skills that seem particularly suited to the Netanyahu government's needs in the United States over the months and years ahead. Having spent the first 22 years of his life living in the United States, Michael is extraordinarily well-suited to communicating effectively with American audiences, something that he regularly and successfully does through the media and speaking engagements around the country. In fact, no Israeli diplomat since Netanyahu himself has had communications gifts more attuned to reaching and reasoning with American audiences than Michael would. Certainly, no other candidate among those being considered for the job would bring such talents or skills to the job and that may ultimately prove crucial as together Netanyahu and Obama seek to establish the kind of sustainable U.S.-Israeli relationship that will be essential to advancing the interests of both countries in the region. It is hard to imagine any candidate for the job would better represent the interests of Netanyahu or Israel or would offer greater potential for a successful working relationship with the Obama Administration, the Congress or Americans at large.
GPO via Getty Images
Want the best illustration of a challenging and intriguing relationship that will be centrally important to Barack Obama? Take one of the truly momentous changes that's come out of the past three weeks' travel: the emergence of the United States and China as the acknowledged G2 of the world.
In the past the G2 and the G8 were primarily comprised of like-minded nations, culturally and ideological similar. G8 counterparts became close, there was a glue of affinity that helped the group work. China and the United States are culturally and ideologically very different and there is little personal affinity between the leaders of the governments in anything like the way there has been between the United States and Europe (or even the United States and their counterparts in the former Soviet Union). We need to cooperate with China on everything. We have never had such an important single partner in virtually all policy matters...and this one is also a rival with a different worldview. Warmth is not a bad place to start such a relationship...but the challenges it will be pose this administration are clearly going to be enormous and it is going to take something like a major new diplomatic initiative to begin building the diplomatic infrastructure and policy positions such a partnership-rivalry will demand.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
At breakfast this morning a leading Democratic policy thinker referred to President Obama's recent jaunts to Europe and the Caribbean as his "global apology tour." This was a Democratic supporter of the president talking. (And listening.) He winced while he was saying it and laughed nervously. But the message is clear: it's all well and good to make nice but these two forays into international diplomacy have to be viewed purely as scene-setters. Obama set a tone. He checked the "I'm not W" box. But the deliverables were negligible at best. Die Zeit's Josef Joffe very smartly explained this point in his weekend Wall Street Journal piece "Obama's Popularity Doesn't Mean Much Abroad." In it, Joffe wrote:
George W. Bush was heartily disliked in Europe west of Warsaw, and Mr. Obama is universally loved. But how well does that popularity translate into power? How far could President Obama push his agenda with, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Nicolas Sarkozy? About as far as you can throw a piano."
Europe applauded while the flashbulbs popped but beyond promises of a replenishment for the IMF which may be hard to keep, the policy headlines from the trip were more about what did not happen than that which did occur either in terms of global stimulus, in terms of more effective global regulation or in terms of greater NATO support in AfPak.
The story was the same in Trinidad. Obama made a good impression. He offered a "new beginning." He deflected a few tense moments with what are becoming his signature quips (whether it be the already tired old saw that he shouldn't be blamed for things that happened when he was three months old...nowhere nearly as charming as Reagan's self-deprecating quips about being too old...or commenting on Daniel Ortega's attempt to reclaim his revolutionary youth by noting snarkily its 50 minute duration).
But on the deliverables side, he sought to create the impression of change in Cuba policy by undertaking an incremental adjustment in a policy that's a complete failure -- kind of the equivalent of proposing that his first step in addressing GMs problems would be a major rethink of cup-holder designs. And while it is undeniable that Raul Castro's response was not a complete diss (in fact, it was somewhat warmer than NATO's response to the requests for more troops or Europe's response to the request for a global stimulus) in the end all we got was slight forward progress on something where great progress is eminently achievable...and long overdue. Want to see a thoughtful suggestion for how to handle it: go read former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal on the subject. Want to see how opposition to change in Cuba has eroded? See the New York Times article on the new Bendixen study showing that two thirds of Cuban Americans welcome lifting all travel restrictions to that country and embrace the Obama thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
On the big issue of the moment, dealing with the global economic downturn, the Summit of the Americas delivered effectively nothing -- a negligible $100 MM microfinance program that while worthy, happens to come at a time when the effectiveness of microfinance is coming under some scrutiny. But big commitments...replenishment of the IDB's funds, for example...are still "being studied." Very little but lip service was paid to an issue that is likely to send 50 million people in the hemisphere back into absolute poverty.
And so, at the end of the day in Port of Spain, Joffe's observations hold. People may feel better about Obama than Bush but it is far from a guarantee that will translate into improved hemispheric actions in any area, even the policy priorities cited by the meeting.
The same doubts about the approach arise in the Middle East. Hint at warming up to Iran? It gets the United States a nice quote from Ahmadinejad saying "We welcome the U.S. change of policy, provided these changes are fundamental and essential." But of course, he makes that quote while making a disastrous appearance at the UN Conference on Racism in which his attacks on Israel prompted eight governments to walk out. (You have to wonder both what the UN thought it was achieving by inviting Ahmadinejad to this conference or what the eight governments that walked out thought was going to happen at the conference since it was long ago apparent to anyone with a functioning cortex that the event would be used as it was. On the other hand, I suppose, the good news is that at least we had a UN event that delivered what it promised -- they convened a conference on racism and racism is what they got.)
Wanting everyone to like us is not a policy, it's a childlike wish. Seeking improved relations and greater dialogue is undeniably in our interest, but to what end? The first date with the world is over. It has gone pretty well. Right now everything is anticipation. But anyone over 18 has lived through this phase and knows what comes next. And, look at any of the issues at these meetings where progress was not made and it becomes clear that it ain't gonna be easy. But I think the challenges go much, much deeper than that in a world in which the old policy playbooks and ideological standbys are out the window.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Maybe it's not surprising that when George Bush embraced the "I'm King of the World" model of foreign policy the results were much the same as those experienced by Leonardo di Caprio and most of his fellow travelers in the movie in which he made the line famous, Titanic. Now, Barack Obama seems to be trying a different model for a U.S. president in international affairs. He doesn't act like a king so much as he does a prime minister. He's clearly still the first among equals, but he realizes it seems that to get anything done, he has to engineer and maintain coalitions and contain the opposition. The metaphor is enhanced by the fact that he is the American president who likely would do best with prime ministerial tests like the U.K.'s wonderful "Question Time" in which you see politicians think on their feet in a way that would produce an aneurism in seconds in most American officials. To this day, I savor the thought of George W. Bush trying it just once...he would make a deer in the headlights look like Disraeli.
Speaking of metaphors, it is obligatory today to offer at least one dog metaphor. (Admittedly, I won't even be re-reading this paragraph since if I hear or see one more reference to the First Dog I will drown myself in a vat of kibble. But perhaps you will be more tolerant...and in any case, most people don't have access to fatal doses of kibble.) So here goes: When Hillary Clinton arrived in town, most people felt her biggest foreign policy rivals might be National Security Advisor Jim Jones or Defense Secretary Gates. But as it turns out, her biggest rival may end up being Bo the Portuguese Water Dog since he seems to intuitively understand better than anyone the Obama Administration's main foreign policy precept of rolling over on its back and letting the world scratch its belly.
And if you think I'm being too tough on Obama's foreign policy, don't kid yourself. All this focus on trivia like the global economic crisis and a couple of minor wars in the back lot of the Third World is grotesquely misguided. What about the really big issues? What has he done about things like this? He's posing with a puppy and a freight train named The Doom Express is chugging our way!
On the other hand, let's give credit where it is due. (Note to those impaired by too much cold medicine: I'm being serious again now.) Sometimes the best things we can do in foreign policy are what we choose not to do. Citing China for currency manipulation would have achieved absolutely nothing except making a constructive dialogue with the Chinese more difficult at precisely the moment it has become essential to the future of both nations. That kind of common interest is a more powerful tool than any formal government filing of the sort sought by the reflexive China bashers could ever be.
When will supposedly objective commentators stop apologizing for their perfectly valid criticisms of the President? It's not disloyal to offer criticism. It's a sign of love. At least that's what my family keeps telling me. And oh boy, if that's true, do they ever love me.
North Korea is planning on restarting their nuclear reactor. Our tough talk around last week's missile launch sure has shown them. As a matter of fact, now that you mention it, whatever happened to all that tough talk? One day we had a raft of press conferences from the UN about how immediate action was required and the next thing you know all the proposals and rhetoric seemed to disappear off the radar like the payload in a North Korean missile.
Much buzz about the Summit of the Americas because...well, Obama is going. If Obama stayed home, the Summit would be overshadowed by the simultaneous Kitacon anime convention in Northampton, England. (I was going for obscure there. I have no weird anime fetishes. In fact, I think anime fans should probably all be medicated and locked away before they do damage to children or small animals.) Of course, I'm not sure Obama is going to have such a great time there. Whereas many of the leaders at the G20 meeting would have taken political heat if they'd have had rough meetings with Obama in London, many of the Latin leaders will actually get brownie points for not fawning on the Yanqui-in-Chief. Further, there are a bunch of secondary issues like Cuba or The Hugo Show or America's one-step-forward-two-steps-back trade policies that are likely to get more exposure than optimal because the substantive core of the meeting is going to be so disappointing. Translation: if you are hoping for an M&M of a meeting in T&T, I'm sorry to report you will only be getting a Skittle.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
There is an element of lonely self-gratification to blogging that calls to mind Woody Allen's description of masturbation as "sex with someone I love." Of course he also said the same thing about one of his children. But I digress. My point is you don't need a partner to blog either. But here at FP there are some great ones (partners...not Korean stepchildren that you would consider marrying) and so when I want a little stimulation, like anyone else I just point and click around my home site. For example...
Laura Rozen has a piece referencing Joe Nye's assertion academics are increasingly irrelevant to policy. While this is certainly true, it misses the bigger point: policy is increasingly irrelevant to government. Government is reactive to a world is so complex and fast-moving that it may be that policy itself is an antiquated concept. That's not to say that we don't have policies...it's just to say that almost no one in government ever really thinks about them, they're too busy spinning the headlines, stroking constituencies and trying to keep the news cycle from blowing up in their faces.
FP ran a piece by Nestor Carbonell saying it is too early to give up on the embargo with Cuba. Yuh. Also way too early to say whether or not television will catch on or to stop hoping for a comeback by native Americans against the conquistadors. There is not one defensible reason for the embargo. In fact, it is one of the best illustrations of that definition that describes insanity is doing the same thing over and over again-for almost half a century -- and expecting a different result. (Although the technical foreign policy definition of insanity-unilateral sanctions-also applies.) Frankly, the only thing making Cuba policy worth discussing any more is the fact that it is so out of whack with reality. (I must say though, that I did like the FP Passport story about the Cuban regime poisoning diplo-pets...it's pathetic and nasty but on the level of a crazy old coot who lives in the dilapidated house down the street. Which is roughly right...if the old coot had a record of human rights violations and keeping nuclear warheads in his back yard. Still, he's an old guy, not really threatening anymore and it's time to accept change is in the wind.) The best we can hope for is that once America's Cuba policy becomes more rational...and the recent steps by the Obama administration on travel and remittances are, I feel, an irreversible step in that direction... with some luck Cuba will assume the importance it deserves among our priorities...somewhere between Curacao and Sao Tome and Principe. (I kid...it belongs between the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.)
Tom Ricks says Slate is wrong about Israel bombing Iran anytime soon. He may be right about that. But there are those in the Israeli military who don't think bombing is the way it will go. They have quietly been speculating about an approach from the sea. Now, I know there is a whole group of Israelis who feel they're making an important contribution just by ginning up some speculation. Still, I'm just sayin'...
I reviewed carefully all the lists of books on international relations. Most fall into the category of I'd-rather-stick-my-hand-in-a-Cuisinart-than-read-this. Why is it that most books on the intersection of money, power, ambition, and human drama are so damn boring? Hint: it's not the subject matter.
Important breakthrough: All is right in the Jewniverse. (This reference is to my very own blog.) The powers that be at my daughter's high school have relented and restored the swastikas to the spring musical. It really will be springtime for Hitler, after all. Pause to daub away tear of joy. Reason has prevailed. Bad taste has triumphed again. I couldn't be prouder.)
I'm so delighted in fact, that when I turn to Steve Walt's piece on the Somali pirates in which he cautions that the weekend's triumph may be only prelude and that in any event, the issues of piracy off the African coast pale in comparison to the bigger questions confronting the world, I find I am actually in complete agreement with Walt. See what a few swastikas will do for a guy's outlook. (Mine, mine. You guys are so sensitive.)
Since I am flipping around the FP site, let me say that Net Effect is a great addition and I encourage everyone not only to visit...but to click on his links. Many are fascinating. By the way, that's a broader rule of thumb. Click the links. Some of them will surprise you. My pieces here are regularly made better by genius linksmanship from the FP editorial team.
So click the links...and remember the national anthem of bloggers everywhere...
Hey, hey- - they say I better get a chaperone
Because I can't stop messin' with the danger zone
No, I won't worry, and I won't fret
Ain't no law against it yet
Oop -- she blog -- she blog"
She blog -- he blog -- we blog...
Last week I spoke on a panel at NYU's Center for Law and Security as part of the roll-out for a report they prepared entitled "Reforming the Culture of National Security: Vision, Clarity and Accountability." Wait, don't go. As bland and academic as the title sounds, the report itself, prepared in conjunction with the Markel Foundation and spearheaded by Jamie Rubin, formerly one of Madeleine Albright's right-hand associates at the State Department and Mike Sheehan, one of America's leading counter-terrorism experts, is one of the most common-sensical and sound appraisals of what needs to be fixed in the national security apparatus of the U.S. government that has been conducted in recent memory. It's short, too. Pithy, devoid of jargon and doesn't dwell on remaking the government's org chart. It cuts to what ought to be done to make the system we've got work as we need it to and in so doing, makes a sizable contribution.
Better still for those of us on the panel last week was that the crowd in attendance for the roll-out was smart and none of them lived inside the Beltway. One audience member, after listening to our summary of some of the current big issues we face in national security, stood up and pointed out that America planted the seeds for some of the most prominent problems we face today with past policies that seemed like a pretty good idea at the time but which then produced unintended consequences. He listed a few such as support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, support for Saddam to help contain Iraq, etc. He noted the merits these policies seemed to offer when initiated and then asked: What policies are we pursuing that might make sense today but that are likely to produce unintended consequences in the future?
It's a thought-provoking and worthwhile exercise. The history of modern American foreign policy is a parade of unintended consequences, responses and more unintended consequences. From blundering into the Bay of Pigs to backing Somoza, the Shah, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Pinochet or Saddam, the list is long. And while one can make the argument that many of these actions were justified -- and some certainly were -- there have been a number in which the consequences produced were likely worse than the benefit gained. Many of these came as a consequence of realpolitik, which all good FP readers know means policies based on practical rather than ideological (or ethical) considerations. Most often -- perhaps given this term's initial association in the United States with Henry Kissinger -- this was what might be characterized as right-handed realpolitik where our partners were often on the right end of the political spectrum and our goals were most often aligned with the American right's vision of the United States as a great power. (This was certainly not always the case, of course, since one of the most famous examples of Kissinger's balance of power oriented realpolitik was his opening to China.)
That in mind, I wonder if we are not entering a period in which the greatest risks of unintended consequences will be raised as by our adherence to what is emerging as a kind of left-handed realpolitik. In this iteration of the old foreign policy favorite, we coolly assess what we perceive is possible and in the interests of keeping the peace and minimizing perceived (near-term) risks shrug off the concerns of ideologues or "idealists" (often on the right in this instance) that more could or should be done. (This by the way is closer to the meaning of the term as it has evolved in say, the country of its origin, Germany.) As it happens in left-handed realpolitik, we often seek rapprochement with rivals or potential adversaries many of whom are perceived to be of the left. The tactics of choice of right-handed realpolitik have included back-channels, covert aid and hoping it doesn't blow up in our face in the future. The tactics of choice of left-handed realpolitik are engagement, offering more carrots to bad guys than in the past, and hoping that it doesn't blow up in our face in the future. (Point of emphasis: engagement is not a strategy...it's a tactic. It's only as good as what it gets us.) To the extent either set of approaches is actually realistic and seeks the peace through sound management of the balance of global power, what's not to like? I'm all for any brand of realpolitik that is both advances our interests and is truly realistic. But it is worth noting that either approach is undone when "partners" are misjudged and the potency of our appeal or our tools -- be they of force or diplomacy -- is over-estimated.
Instances in which the Obama administration appears to pursuing left-handed realpolitik (walk softly and who needs a stick when everyone knows you aren't going to use it?) are Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and perhaps, based on what Hillary Clinton said the other day, Burma, and maybe soon Venezuela and Cuba. And in some instances, where such approaches would eliminate unnecessary tensions or distractions (Cuba being the best example), it seems like a wise approach. Nonetheless, my answer to the question from the audience at the NYU event regarding which of our emerging new policies are likely to get us in trouble is any that seem to use this approach to resolve proliferation problems today but which end up punting the toughest issues associated with them into tomorrow.
There is, to choose an example we have discussed here before, an emerging consensus among foreign policy makers in the administration that since all the options for stopping Iran from advancing their nuclear program are so difficult and offer such a low assurance for success that it is only realistic to accept that they will soon have weapons or weapons capability. The goal is therefore is to figure out how to live with that. This seems sound on many levels. See Roger Cohen's argument to this effect in his piece "Realpolitik for Iran" in today's NY Times. But the unanswered question for all who propose this approach is what will happen as the arms race it is already triggering in the region produces nuclear programs with an overt or covert weapons dimension in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, the Stans, etc. At what point are there so many programs that an accident or an incident becomes inevitable? What responses will that require?
This is the paradox of many instances of American realpolitik in practice: they turn out only to be realistic about the near term but not about the longer term. Whether embracing a bad guy (who we might call an ally) that produces victory today and blowback tomorrow or whether engaging with a bad guy (who we might hopes will stop being an enemy) that avoids conflict today and raises the risk of it tomorrow, both approaches can suffer from a lack of foresight. Clearly the great flaw in the current proliferation scheme and options being discussed is that no such regime is meaningful without an enforcement mechanism that includes among its options the use of force (ideally multilateral...but what a challenge that will be) against a violator. And until we end up with such a mechanism no approach to containing nukes will be realistic by any definition.
An interesting sidebar: after the NYU event, a very heated discussion ensued between a respected Arab journalist and a former senior, also well-respected American journalist in which the Arab journalist was arguing that the United States must stop Iran or the consequences in the region will be a grave. The American said we probably could deal with Iran but would have to stop it before nukes spread to Saudi, etc...and the Arab argued this was racist, that we will accept a Persian bomb but not an Arab bomb. The discussion then went on to the cautionary and I believe accurate observation that while it was all well and good and even important for Obama to embrace Islam, that the biggest threats to global security were not between Islam and the United States but within Islam-between Sunni and Shiite (which the journalist felt was the real hair-trigger fault-line that would soon worry us in a nuclear Middle East) or Kurd and Turk or Hamas and Fatah or Moderate and Extremist.
In every respect, the event offered useful reminders that the really hard part of dealing with national security threats has just begun to surface for the Obama administration and that it has little to do with summits or pirates.
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I was going to do a post today reflecting on a discussion I participated in yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations on the upcoming exercise in kabuki theater known as the Summit of the Americas and the future of U.S. policy in the region. But as should surprise no one who reads Steve Clemons's Washington Note regularly, he did a better job than I ever could have. So here's a link to what Steve has to say.
Bob Gates is Tyler Hansbrough...only shorter and better at what he does than the basketball all-American. Our secretary of defense could have left his job last year and although he wouldn't have ended up in the NBA making millions as Hansbrough would've done, surely his life would have been much easier than it is today dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and managing our massive defense apparatus in a Democratic administration. Like Hansbrough, however, Gates saw a higher purpose. And while the papers today are full of paens to the North Carolina power forward for coming back for one more season all in the name of team in the wake of the Tar Heels' NCAA basketball championship last night (predicted here first...and by first, I mean before it was predicted by Barack Obama), Gates actually has the much higher, higher purpose. Furthermore, like Hansbrough, Gates proved his own value and his toughness yesterday...although the former Aggie did it by unveiling substantial military budget reprioritizations that will certainly have him facing a vastly tougher, more seasoned defense than Michigan State could manage last night. In fact, the defense Gates will have to overcome is the world's number one defense, the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Here in D.C. you can already hear the chants starting off in the distance, off in the direction of the Beltway, the habitat in which Beltway bandits live and breed, feeding off of giant defense subsidies and the rotting carcasses of public servants who have tried to stop them in the past. Hear it? Lockheed, Lockheed, F-2-2, If You Won't Fund It, Let's See What Congress Will Do!
Gates's announcement of major cuts to marquee defense projects like the F-22, the insanely expensive presidential helicopter effort, the Army's classic let's-throw-our-checkbook-at-the enemy Future Combat Systems and some of the more bloated, even-less-successful than the norm missile defense programs (and that's saying something), needs to be embraced for two reasons. One is that we can easily do without the programs and that as Gates noted:
The perennial procurement and contracting cycle, going back many decades, of adding layer and layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build, must come to an end. There is broad agreement on the need for acquisition and contracting reform in the Department of Defense. There have been enough studies, enough hand-wringing, enough rhetoric. Now is the time for action."
The other reason we need to get with the spirit of what Gates is proposing is that while the U.S. Congress and the defense contractors who make them dance complain that Gates is putting their programs at risk (House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton has already said "the buck stops with Congress"...which is actually perhaps the wrongest statement uttered by a Member of Congress since either "I don't know how that money got in my freezer" or "I didn't know he was a page."), a new reality will be creeping into view. The problem, in fact, with the Gates cuts is not that they are too sweeping, it is that they are far, far too small. As I will argue at greater length in an article appearing in the May/June issue of The National Interest, the United States can no longer afford the "permanent war economy" that was first described by "Engine" Charlie Wilson in 1944. We can no longer afford to spend as much as every other country in the world added up. Given current deficits, current and future debt levels, and the looming aspiration crushing deficits associated with retirement health care, we will soon look back on the Gates proposals to swap spending here for spending there as the idle chatter of luxurious by-gone days. The cuts will have to be in the hundred billion dollar or more range and we will have to dispose of and move beyond not just old think, but traditional ways of even organizing, deploying and determining missions and strategies for our armed forces. We will have to come to recognize...and this won't be easy...that we actually make ourselves weaker with overspending, that we undercut our strength by creating high tech military programs while we let rust rot away the guts of the U.S. economy. More on this in a couple weeks, when the magazine hits the stands. For the meantime, let's give Gates and Obama credit for starting to stand up to the unbridled lunacy of the U.S. defense spending culture.
Speaking of executive branch sacrifice, one more point: What's up with the attacks on Larry Summers for making a good living the last couple years? The guy was Treasury secretary and president of Harvard for goodness sake. Where did you expect him to work, White Castle? As those who know him and love him will tell you, he probably doesn't have the interpersonal skills for that type of work. Rather, what he does have is very special knowledge, the company he worked for feels he offered (apparently very considerable) value for money, and doing the work gave him better understanding of the markets he is currently supposed to be helping to fix. What's most important, he could still be making the big bucks right now. But he has chosen to take what amounts to a 98 percent pay cut to re-enter public service, to work insane hours and to get beaten up in the press every day. Isn't that something we should be praising? Go after his policies if you want -- I have done so myself from time to time, but this is a highly ethical, principled, dedicated public servant who is actually helping the country address an unprecedented crisis. So, those of you playing up this non-story, in the words of another great public servant, Doctor Evil, "zip it."
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It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama's European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle should have worn a sweater to see the Queen or whether Obama should have gotten a bigger kiss from Carla Bruni Sarkozy has also spun up bloggers around the world. (Who cares whether she wears a sweater? And of course, he should get as big a kiss from Carla as he possibly can.) The failed North Korean missile test was an unsettling distraction but wiser men than I have long said the safest place to be when the North Koreans are launching a missile is wherever they are targeting.
But, these bits and pieces are not what people will or should remember from the trip. Obama has had a successful journey because he has stepped more or less seamlessly into the role of world leader and done so with both substance and style that have in some important ways altered for the better America's relationship with the world. We may someday look back and lament that the G20 did not do more to address the need for more global stimulus or greater regulation of global securities markets. We almost certainly will look back and note that NATO did not yet realize that we are entering a new era in which they may be surprised to find they are getting the America they wanted...more inclined toward multilateralism by virtue of both belief and necessity -- but that this will obligate the alliance to the discomfort of many within it to share burdens more equitably or fail.
Yet, here is a President who listens, who has mastered multiple briefs quickly, and who is willing to be bold where it counts. Nowhere is that more clear than in the important speech he delivered over the weekend in Prague in which he announced a new U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, one that recognizes the strategic urgency as well as the moral resonance of our leading a global drawdown of atomic arsenals. Only through such an approach can we address what he called "a strange turn of history" in which "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He agreed with the Russians to begin negotiations to reduce the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and he announced an intent to lead efforts to create a safe path to nuclear power in the emerging world including the creation of a nuclear fuel bank, a potential new international organization overseeing the weapons reductions and a round of diplomacy to advance these goals.
The Wall Street Journal rather predictably juxtaposed Obama's speech on this most important of all national security issues with the story of North Korea's missile test. The not exactly subtle message was "look, the world is dangerous, what is this guy doing?" But the answer is that he clearly understands better than they do that the only way to stop what is currently an out of control global nuclear arms race that is currently threatening not only northeast Asia but which is threatening to spread across the world's most dangerous region, the Middle East, is by having the great nuclear powers start leading by example. Only if all are collectively committed to eliminating nuclear weapons can it be fairly argued that no one should have them. Only if real progress is made can such a case be compelling reiterated and enforced. Obama's Prague speech hinted at the courage and vision of a great leader. That he saw that such a statement should also come with tough messages about the need to maintain missile defense programs and a forward-leaning stance against proliferators also showed this was a strong rather than a weak approach to disarmament. Translating it into action will be the true test as to whether he is the transformational 21st century leader so many in Europe have started to believe...this week...he might be.
Just a week ago I had a piece in the Washington Post asking where the leaders are and urging critics of Obama to be more patient, to give him the chance to be the president we want. A week later, particularly with this Prague speech, Obama has offered the best rationale for such patience. There is a considerable often impassable distance between promising rhetoric and meaningful action, but at least the first steps are being taken. While missteps are guaranteed...I think we all should be more hopeful as the trip draws to a conclusion than we were at its outset.
Nothing like confronting up close what really bad allies look like to remind you of the virtues of your better ones. As NATO's leaders prepare to meet on Saturday to discuss Afghanistan, the news is full of stories reminding us of the yawning chasm that exists between the values of the society we are committing blood and treasure to assist and our own.
America's hand-picked man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, put those differences in stark focus with his decision to sign a new law that legalizes rape within marriage and prohibits women from venturing outside the house without the permission of their husbands. The law, deeply objected to by human rights groups and, one can only suppose, anyone with a brain or a heart, was characterized by Senator Humaira Namati, quoted in a story in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, as "worse than during the Taliban."
Perhaps this development puts the administration's search for a moderate Taliban in perspective. If we can tolerate such behavior from our "friends" perhaps we will therefore now find it easier to tolerate in our enemies. What's more, the Taliban themselves seem to be in the midst of a vigorous PR campaign seeking to position themselves as the Afghanistani equivalent of MoveOn.org or Arianna Huffington (if she weren't a woman, and thus had fewer rights and less respect than a stray dog in the street.)
Speaking of which the attempt to present a new, warmier, cuddlier Taliban was recently described in the Huffington Post as follows:
The Taliban are now prepared to commit themselves to refraining from banning girls' education, beating up taxi drivers for listening to Bollywood music, or measuring the length of mens' beards, according to representatives of the Islamist movement. Burqas worn by women in public would be "strongly recommended" but not compulsory.
Of course, the effort to paint a smiley face on every rock used for their public stonings is just in its formative stages and is cast in a somewhat different light by the fact that the "mainstream" "democratic" Afghan government put in place by the United States has taken such a brutal, medieval stance toward half its populace.
It is therefore easy to see why Barack Obama's European tour seems to be such a lovefest even if the Europeans themselves are less-than-enthusiastically responding to U.S. requests for their active support in AfPakia. Today, when French President Sarkozy offered to take one U.S. prisoner from Guantanamo and send something like 150 gendarmes and a mobile charcuterie to Afghanistan, he was embraced by Obama as though he were the 21st Century Lafayette.
Indeed, reading the heart-rending stories about the Afghans and at the same time seeing the lengths that, for example, the French and in particular, Sarkozy have gone to on behalf of restoring the trans-Atlantic relationship, I regret poking fun at the French as allies a few weeks back. It was entertaining, but it is was a bit of a cheap laugh at the expense of an ally who was, after all, right about most of criticisms of Bush Administration policies.
Which brings us to an early challenge for the Obama Administration and for all of NATO. While much is made of their initiatives to reach out the Taliban and the merits of their new AfPak strategy, we need to stop and ask ourselves if we aren't overlooking a vitally important question: why does the mistreatment of male terrorists in Guantanamo outrage us more than the abuse of average women in Afghanistan? Which, in fact, is more odious to core American values?
Cheney argued America's national security interests justified our abrogation of international treaties and the U.S. constitution. Is it any different to argue that our national security interests should obligate us to continue to support a government that so disregards the fundamental rights of women?
Or shouldn't the Obama Administration and the West set a new standard and demand that international minimum human rights standards be upheld by our allies or we will no longer support them? This is truly an opportunity to draw a line between the moral failings of the last administration and this new one and one of the best ways to judge NATO going forward will be not simply in terms of its force levels in Afghanistan but in terms of what it is actually fighting for.
Update: Per this New York Times report, Hamid Karzai has announced he would now review the law referred to above. The Times story says that this was due to precisely the kind of pressure from the Western Alliance called for in this blog post. Therefore, you might think I should take full credit for it. I cannot do that of course. It is only right to let history decide. However, before making Karzai next year's National Organization for Women Man of the Year, it is worth noting that he did not exactly back away from the thrust of the law nor did he fully acknowledge what has made it so reprehensible to so many worldwide. The actions and statements, however, of the UN, the Canadians, the Italians and others including strong language from Barack Obama do deserve credit and we can only hope they maintain both their resolve and their vigilance on such issues in Afghanistan and worldwide.
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The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy direction and will help the neediest nations but do not address the larger growth issues associated with the world's largest economies, the ones that created the crisis and will lead the way out. As for those economies, commitments to stimulus were soft and the follow-through on them is destined to be spotty. The regulatory steps outlined -- focusing on hedge funds, bank secrecy and executive salaries, for example -- don't cut to the core issues associated with risk-laden global derivatives markets or the other larger causes of the recent crisis and they fall far short of the global regulatory structures we will ultimately need to manage truly global markets. And it is unclear just how much of the $250 billion announced for trade finance is actually new money.
But just as it would be wrong to overstate the specific outcomes of the meeting, it would be wrong to dwell on the output of one such meeting or the fact that it did not produce every desirable change. The reality is that the meeting is meaningful on many levels. It was sufficiently productive and harmonious to suggest that the G20 may be the vehicle of choice for high-level international economic policy coordination at least for the foreseeable future -- certainly through and likely beyond the next meeting, already scheduled for the fall on the edges of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Not only was the outcome moderately substantive but it afforded leaders like President Obama an efficient means of interacting with all his key counterparts on a wide range of issues. This de facto ratification of the idea of adding the largest emerging economies to the steering committee for the global economy is important as is the semi-official recognition that henceforth when the United States and China meet, they comprise the G2. Related to this, the acknowledgement that emerging powers require more voting authority within international institutions is a good and meaningful step and reflective of longer-term changes that indicate a shifting global balance of power.
That said, among the other symbolic outcomes of the meeting worth noting was the reassertion of America in a leadership role that was broadly accepted and indeed encouraged by other participants. Obama may not have gotten just what he wanted in terms of specifics on global stimulus and Gordon Brown may have announced the end of the "Washington Consensus," but contrast the reaction to this U.S. president to that to the last -- and contrast his tone and that of his senior aides. It was night and day and, make no mistake, the Obama era is the one shining more brightly in the eyes of the international community.
As for the evolution of ideas, the meeting further solidified the sense that hyper-capitalism and unfettered markets are things of the past. So, too, is the idea that economic problems are national problems. Brown, who has had a rough few months and for whom the event should be seen as a considerable achievement, referred to the indivisible nature of our economic interests and fates. Does this mean we should now believe that the G20 leaders are more committed to, for example, open trade than they were the last time they professed such views? Of course, not. National politics will continue to bedevil international coordination for the foreseeable future. But it does mean that meetings such as this one will be a fixture throughout that future and that, more than anything else achieved in London, is a net positive of the most profound sort.
In conclusion, it can be said that meetings like the just-concluded G20 work more on the level of metaphor or political theater than they do as functioning working sessions. And while this one may have come up slightly short or individual leaders may have gotten slightly less than they wanted on one issue or another, we shouldn't miss the really primary outcomes in terms of messages. And those are that the world sees itself very differently than it did just a year ago, that there is even among very different countries evolving agreement about what has changed and that this will have significant repercussions for many years to come.
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Today, President Obama is following in the footsteps of great American diplomats like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Romany Malco. Our 47-year-old foreign policy virgin, like those who went before him cinematically, is experiencing the exhilaration, high highs, low lows and comedy (intentional and otherwise) of speed dating. In Obama's case, this first full day in London for the G20 Summit has produced a round of diplomatic hooking up with...
With whom Obama had a very public, rather hard-to-watch quickie in Washington not too long ago. While perhaps not quite as awkward as movie speed-dater Paul Rudd's desperate attempt to fix his battered relationship with old flame Amy (the incomparable Mindy Kaling), like Rudd, Brown had a lot riding on this meeting turning out better than the last one between the two. According to reports, it did, with the two of them providing the media highlight of the morning with a question and answer session with the press. During the session, the two said that they were highly compatible, enjoyed long-walks on the beach and wanted to turn what Obama called "a sense of urgency" into "working alongside the United Kingdom in doing whatever it takes to stimulate growth."
Dmitry "Call me Gina" Medvedev
This meeting was probably the diplomatic high point of the day. With an outcome that involved an invitation to go back to Dmitry's place this coming July, they also agreed to see whether they could reach an agreement on missile defense and trimming back their nuclear weapons to mutually acceptable levels. It is easy to imagine the exchange:
"You're a good lookin' man."
Barack: "Thank you."
Dmitry: "Very pretty. Real soft, delicate features. They're real feminine, you know, which is good for me, because that would be a simple sort of transition. You know what I'm saying? Maybe throw a little rouge on you... maybe tuck back your SAC (Strategic Air Command)?
O.K. Maybe it wasn't exactly like it was in The 40 Year Old Virgin but I'm working a metaphor here and you have to bear with me. And it does capture some of the hopeful innocence and yet manipulative desire that no doubt infused the scene as Medvedev sought a brand new type of relationship with the United States -- one in which he felt he might be able to take advantage of the man across the table's eagerness to strike a deal, an eagerness that might lead this president, given our circumstances, to consider the kind of partnership between the two countries his predecessors might have ruled out.
By this point, Obama's charm offensive was producing impressive results, with the two leaders exchanging digits to ensure an on-going Strategic Economic Dialogue and cooperation on North Korea and Iran. And because Obama neatly sidestepped a discussion about human rights (which is just never appropriate for a couple's first meeting), tabling it for a future date, he got another invitation: the chance to visit Hu's Forbidden City sometime later this year.
This was a threesome, joined by wife Michelle, who has spent the day dazzling London. Obama indicated how enthusiastic he was about the meeting earlier in the day at the press conference with Brown when he said, "There's one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the Queen." And who doesn't really? Although Obama did add an element of decorum to his public statement of love for the monarch when he added, "I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the Queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that's very important." He showed her what she meant to him by giving her an iPod that had on it video and pictures from her last visit to the U.S. and one can only imagine what else. A special playlist is always a nice gift. Anyway, it's a technological cut above the DVDs Obama left Brown with on the PM's walk of shame away from their DC meeting a couple weeks ago.
Then, tonight, a romantic dinner catered by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. All in all a perfect, love filled "Date-a-Palooza" for Obama, aside from the screaming mobs in the streets outside.
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If you believe the American
press, this is going to be the best week of Barack Obama's life. Not
because his G20 and NATO meetings are predicted to be easy but because he is
going to be in the land of his intellectual and spiritual roots, Europe. Here,
among like-minded brie-loving, chardonnay-sipping, socialist fellow-travelers,
he will be able to laugh at American gun-owners and Glenn Beck watchers with
impunity. Perhaps, if the worst stories are to be believed, he will
secretly fall into French during conversations, showing other leaders how he is
more like them than he is like Sarah Palin by sharing a Gitane out in the alley
behind his hotel (so Michelle doesn't see) or by giving them a glimpse of his
certificate or reminding the Brits that his father and other ancestors were
born (and beaten) in the Commonwealth.
Of course, not only is all this the province of snarky rumors being produced in the basement of the summer house Roger Ailes shares with his long-time secret lover Karl Rove, but also virtually all of it is untrue. (I can't speak to what types of cheese the President likes or whether he, in a tip of the hat to European depravity, prefers his cheeses warm and crawling with bacteria.) But, there are plenty of ways the Europeans will be able to tell Barack Obama is not one of them.
Here are 10:
Oh yes, and also, as we have mentioned before, he is a member of a racial minority group who has actually had the opportunity to reach the top in our society. Which would never ever happen in Europe.
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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.