Today is Hillary Rodham Clinton's last day as Secretary of State. She's been receiving mostly accolades for her service, including considerable praise from President Obama in a recent joint televised interview. But with the exception of the mean-spirited and highly partisan grilling she got from a congressional committee over Benghazi, most of the interviews I've seen have been pretty gentle affairs. I've sufficient respect for Secretary Clinton's talents and intellect that I'd like to see her take a swing at a few fastballs.
In that spirit, here are my Top Ten Tough Questions for Secretary Clinton:
#1. You have said that your "biggest regret" during your four years of service was the loss of four American lives during the Benghazi attack. It was a painful event, to be sure, and your regret is understandable, but aren't there many other events and decisions whose negative consequences were much greater? Shouldn't we be focusing more on the loss of American, NATO, and local lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our inability to bring other conflicts to an end, and not on this one unhappy occurrence?
#2. You have been widely praised for your tireless travels, logging more miles than any Secretary of State in our nation's history. It's easy to understand why getting out of Washington, DC is so tempting, but is all that travel really necessary or desirable in an era when modern communications would allow you to speak face-to-face to virtually any world leader anytime you want? Videolinks would even permit you to give speeches and answer questions anywhere in the world, but without having to go there in person. Looking back, do you think you might have had more influence had you stayed home a bit more?
#3. You have been justly praised for being a great team player in this administration, something that many people did not anticipate when you were nominated. At the same time, the Obama White House and NSC has held the reins on a lot of key foreign policy issues. What foreign policy problems do you wish you had been given greater authority to handle on your own?
#4. As Secretary, one of your major initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, eventually released in 2010. It created a bit of buzz when it was released, but it seems to have largely disappeared from the scene. What concrete and tangible impact has this report had on the conduct of American diplomacy or on specific policy initiatives in key areas?
#5. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama appointed "special envoys" to handle thorny foreign policy areas like Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and North Korea. One of these envoys was the late Richard Holbrooke, a close personal friend of yours. For various reasons, none of these special envoys seem to have accomplished very much. What lessons should we draw from this failed experiment? And did having all these independent operators diminish your authority and ability to craft an overall foreign policy strategy?
#6. U.S. military forces are now organized in various regional combatant commands, each under a designated regional "commander-in-chief" or CINC. These regional CINCs have a vast array of military, intelligence, and other assets at their disposal, and the resources they can bring to bear far exceed those of the State Department. For this reason, foreign governments often pay as much or more attention to the CINCs as they do to the U.S. ambassador, for the simple reason that the CinCs can do more for or against them. Here's my question: if you were an ambitious young person who wanted to make a mark on U.S. foreign policy, why go to a nice four-year college and then join the Foreign Service? Wouldn't it make more sense to go to West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs and try to become a senior military leader instead?
#7. One of your signature issues has been the advancement and empowerment of women, and your efforts on this issue have won you enormous praise both here in the United States and in many other countries. Given your strong convictions on this issue, are you sorry that you are being succeeded by a wealthy white male, that the Pentagon will also be led by another white male, and that there are hardly any women in top foreign policy jobs in Obama's second-term team? Did you ever raise this issue with the President, and if so, what did he say?
#8. You have made it clear that you strongly support former Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense. What did you think of the Senate Armed Services' Committee grilling of him yesterday? Was it appropriate for them to talk incessantly about Israel, and to ignore most of the key problems that he will face as SecDef? Why do you think the Senators -- including your successor, Kirsten Gillibrand -- acted in this way, and what do you think foreign governments thought as they watched the circus?
#9. What is one aspect of world politics and America's global role that you believe most Americans do not understand? If you could magically change one thing that most Americans believe about the rest of the world and its relationship with us, what would it be?
#10. What do you regard as your single greatest achievement as Secretary of State? And if you could have one "do-over" -- apart from Benghazi -- what would it be?
Secretary Clinton is a seasoned pol by this point, and I'm sure she'd find a way to dodge some of those queries. But what if we put her on truth serum first...?
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I've finished my holiday shopping (at last), which means it's time for another round of hypothetical gift-giving for some important world leaders and political figures. If it were in my power, here's what I'd be sending some notables this year.
1. For Barack Obama: A dartboard. No, not so he can pin a picture of John Boehner on it, but so he can make some hard choices about his second-term priorities. Energy independence? Gun control? Rebuilding infrastructure? Middle East peace? A real negotiation with Iran? Climate change? Tax reform? The list is endless. Obama tried to do way too much during the first year of his first term, and I'm hoping he's learned his lesson and will focus more in the second term. Maybe a dartboard can help.
2. For Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad: A one-pound bag of Arabian coffee to wake up and smell. Or better still: a one-way ticket for himself and his immediate family to anywhere they want. As an added bonus, a recording of this classic song. Just go. Now.
3. For Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and all the other people who called the election for Romney: A copy of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise. Because it's never too late to learn.
4. For defeated GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: Nothing. You've got five houses, a fleet of cars and boats, and a loving family. What could I possibly give you except my vote (and I'm afraid it's too late for that)?
5. For the people of America, and especially its children: A ban on assault weapons, and a Congressional resolution declaring that all the 2nd amendment guarantees is the right to keep a muzzle-loading musket.
6. For Benjamin Netanyahu: A signed copy of Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. And a mirror.
7. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: A one-year membership in the spa of her choice, and a book contract that takes until 2017 to complete.
8. For the Republican Party: A roundtrip ticket to see the Wizard of Oz. Because the party desperately needs a heart, a brain, courage, and a way to get back home to its true conservative roots.
9. For the beleaguered people of the eastern Congo: A miracle. Because it appears that is what it will take to end their suffering.
10. For my readers: My thanks for continuing to engage with this blog (and now @StephenWalt on twitter). I wish you all a joyful holiday season, the warmth of love from friends and family, and a New Year that turns out better than realists normally expect. I'll be back online after Xmas.
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Should Susan Rice be America's next secretary of state? That's not my decision, of course, and it's not yours either, unless you happen to be President Obama or a member of the Senate. But I think the recent debate on her possible nomination has missed the real issue.
Thus far, the debate has focused almost entirely on Rice's appearances on five Sunday talk shows back on September 16, where she offered a vigorous defense of the administration's handling of the Benghazi incident. Although some of her statements turned out to be inaccurate, it is now clear that she was dutifully repeating the talking points that she had been given. No scandal there; that's what loyal subordinates do.
The harshest thing one might say about Rice's performance in these shows is that she might have hedged or qualified her remarks more than she did. Even so, she did say -- repeatedly -- that her comments were based on the "best information" available at the time, and she made it clear that the investigation into these events was still proceeding and that a "definitive" account was not yet ready. But the overall impression she left was one of certainty rather than doubt, and this left her at least somewhat vulnerable to the (false) charge that she had misled her interviewers and the viewing public.
So the Benghazi business offers no basis to oppose Rice's appointment, and even a critic like Sen. Lindsay Graham now seems to agree. My concern is rather different: I fear that unlike Hillary Clinton, Rice is too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president's patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State. As a result, her appointment will reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.
Recall that when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she had been First Lady for eight years, a U.S. Senator, and a presidential candidate who came close to winning her party's nomination. She had independent stature of her own, which is why Obama had to accommodate a number of her personnel requests in order to get her to take the job. And some of those appointments involved people with strong personalities and policy views of their own. Moreover, although Clinton proved to be a terrific team player, her independent stature allowed her to speak freely and enhanced her policy clout. Obama could never entirely ignore Clinton's views, because she could go public with her disagreements or even threaten to resign if she were adamantly opposed to a particular initiative. That she never did so (as far as we know) shows that Obama understood this situation from the very beginning.
Rice, by contrast, has no independent power base. She did serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton administration (to no great distinction), but signed up early with Obama and was a key foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign. She obviously has Obama's confidence, but her current ascendancy depends solely on the president's backing. Maintaining his personal support will be critical to her effectiveness, which makes her much less likely to tell him things he doesn't want to hear or that cut against the thrust of existing policy. Although Rice has the reputation of being a forceful advocate with sharp elbows, her relationship to the president runs the risk of making her more of a courtier than a counselor. And if she stumbles, Obama will be blamed for having pushed her appointment in the face of skeptics.
To be sure, an administration at war with itself wouldn't be very effective, and one could argue that a unified team will do a better job than one where there's lots of backbiting. It's a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration's world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we're likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions (just as Rice did on those TV shows).
The narrowing of world-views is a familiar second-term phenomenon, as the first team leaves the stage and the survivors are those who have managed to adapt themselves to the emerging policy consensus and maintain their standing with the president himself. Instead of the "team of rivals" that people saw at the beginning of his presidency, what we have instead is a cocoon of confidantes. The only thing that might introduce some fresh foreign policy thinking into the Obama White House is a forceful set of Cabinet officials with their own power bases, but that's not what Rice is likely to provide at State. Obama already knows what she thinks, after all.
If Obama does nominate her and I were a Senator, however, I'd vote to confirm. Not with great enthusiasm or with high expectations, but there's nothing in the record to warrant rejection. And who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.
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Just how committed should the United States be in the Far East? Everybody knows that the Obama administration has announced a "pivot" to Asia this year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just reiterated the U.S. position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force."
At one level there's nothing all that new here. The United States has long sought to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia, because such a power would then be in a better position to threaten U.S. interests elsewhere. That motive explained U.S opposition to Japanese expansion in the 1930s and the formation of a Washington-centered, anti-Soviet alliance network in Asia during the Cold War. Today, it means keeping a wary eye on a rising China and strengthening security ties with a number of different Asian partners.
But this effort today faces the classic "Goldilocks problem." The U.S. commitment in Asia needs to be "just right"; not too hot and not too cold. If it is "too hot" (meaning that the U.S. is too assertive and too confrontational), then hardliners in Beijing will be empowered and security competition between Washington and Beijing will intensify even more. If U.S. leaders seem to be picking unnecessary quarrels that might jeopardize profitable economic relations -- as the Romney campaign suggests it might -- then Washington is likely to be seen not as the solution but as the problem.
But equally important, an overly energetic U.S. policy will encourage its regional allies to misbehave in a number of ways. First, if the U.S. does too much to reassure its allies that it is ready to help them, they will free-ride and let Uncle Sam bear most of the burden of containing China. Second, if America's regional allies are too confident that Washington will protect them no matter what, they will continue to indulge assorted bilateral squabbles and devote insufficient attention to ironing out lingering historical enmities. (Case in point: the continued territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, and the domestic uproar in South Korea that derailed a useful intelligence cooperation agreement with Tokyo).
But if U.S. policy is "too cold" -- that is, if the United States seems distracted by other problems, or insufficiently attuned to regional concerns, then some of its Asian partners may start to consider other options. Assuming that China continues to grow economically (and continues to build a more capable military), they may eventually conclude that trying to stand up to it won't be possible.
This dilemma may also explain why countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have been so assertive in challenging China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. They may be thinking that they have to get Uncle Sam fully committed now, while the United States is still richer and stronger than China, in the hope that the U.S. will take action to slow China's rise and use its influence to get these territorial issues resolved on terms that other littoral countries can live with. If they believe the balance of power will shift against them (and the U.S.) in the future, then they have an incentive to raise the temperature now.
The big lesson to take from this discussion is that managing security relations in the Far East is going to be very tricky for many years to come. We have all the ingredients for trouble: shifting balances of power, territorial disputes, lingering historical resentments, and a large number of interested parties (each with their own interests and concerns). Like I said, getting U.S. policy "just right" is not going to be easy.
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Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I'm neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can't really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.
First the positives. There's no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama's decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She's also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that's inevitable for anyone who's in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I've spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she's helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I'd argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton's record, see FP editor Susan Glasser's profile here).
The problem, however, is that she's hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won't have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there's been no breakthrough there either.
Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel's increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she's helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton's efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.
The lack of major accomplishments isn't really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren't a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she'd have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.
Second, Clinton isn't a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she's been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama's initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton's clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.
Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it's not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).
Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I'd give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.
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Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.
As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed.
Instead of being angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies, therefore, Obama should be reserving his ire for his foreign policy advisors, who have been screwing up U.S. Middle East policy for over two years now and who may be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. If the news reports I've seen are correct, the United States is now getting behind a political transition that will be orchestrated by the new Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak associate. It's not even clear if the United States now thinks Mubarak has to step down. Instead, Secretary of State Clinton seems to be suggesting that we need to help VP Suleiman "defuse" the street demonstrations, which would remove most of the impetus for change.
An unnamed "senior U.S. official" has also suggested that the Obama administration is dead set against a substantial political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the official reportedly suggested that what the United States wants is a purely "secular" government in Egypt (i.e., one with no Islamist influence) as if that's even possible in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
It's early days, of course, and as FP's Josh Rogin reports here, there is a potential legal nightmare trying to revise Egyptian law in ways that would permit a genuinely "free and fair" election. But I worry that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistake that the Bush administration made in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. After insisting that the elections be held, the United States simply refused to accept the results of the elections when we didn't like the winner (Hamas). Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
The other problem is that Suleiman doesn't have much (any?) credibility as a steward of democratic change. I suggested a couple of days ago that one way he could bolster his position would be to help push Mubarak out (and to make it clear that he is doing so), and to openly declare that he (Suleiman) will serve only as a caretaker and not run for office himself in the next election. I'm not at all sure that these measures would work, however, and the anti-government forces might well see him as no different than Mubarak himself. That certainly seems to be their reaction thus far. And if subsequent reforms are mostly cosmetic and individuals or groups associated with the old regime end up retaining power in a subsequent election, they are likely to have no more legitimacy than Mubarak has right now. And the U.S. image in the region, which is bad enough already, will take another big hit.
So the United States has two long-term challenges. The first is to make sure it is not once again perceived as working to quash a genuinely representative government in Egypt. The second is get ready to accept the results of that process, even if the people we might prefer don't win.
For more analysis along these lines, check out Asli Bani and Aziz Rana's article "The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies," from Foreign Policy in Focus, here.
It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
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If you think today's announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume "direct talks" is a significant breakthrough, you haven't been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian "state" consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a "two-state solution," and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn't let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We're clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas' arm to the breaking point (which is why he's agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don't fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the "peace process." George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive "talks" will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
The one item in all this that does give me pause is the accompanying statement by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU and the U.N.), which appears at first glance to have some modest teeth in it. Among other things, it calls explicitly for "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors." It also says these talks can be completed within one year. Sounds promising, but the Quartet has issued similar proclamations before (notably the 2003 "Roadmap"), and these efforts led precisely nowhere. So maybe there's a ray of hope in there somewhere, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans here in the United States will continue to make pious statements about their commitment to a two-state solution, even as it fades further and further into the realm of impossibility. Barring a miracle, we will eventually have to recognize that "two-states for two peoples" has become a pipe-dream. At that point, U.S. leaders will face a very awkward choice: they can support a democratic Israel where Jews and Arabs have equal political rights (i.e., a one-state democracy similar to the United States, where discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is taboo), or they can support an apartheid state whose basic institutions are fundamentally at odds with core American values.
Equally important, an apartheid Israel will face growing international censure, and as both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned, such an outcome would place Israel's own long-term future in doubt. If that happens, all those staunch "friends of Israel" who have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades can explain to their grandchildren how they let that happen.
As for the Obama administration itself, I have only one comment. If you think I'm being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong. If you do, I'll be the first to admit it.
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Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn't required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.
The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report's primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.
So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it's hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room.
But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."
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A quick look back at some recent posts, in light of subsequent events:
1. Regarding Hillary’s trip to Moscow to clinch the arms control deal. It’s not over till it’s over, but it looks like her team did read the tea leaves properly. If so, then props to the negotiators. If Obama gets to sign it on the one-year anniversary of his Prague speech, that will heighten its symbolic value.
2. Does the health care win enhance Obama's foreign policy clout? Andrew Sullivan has raised some good points on this issue, see here and here. I'll concede that getting health care done will free up more of Obama's time and energy to devote to foreign policy. It may also make the White House a bit more Bolshie about taking on domestic opposition to its foreign policy agenda. But even if that’s the case, I still think prospects for major foreign policy achievements are slim. Why? Because even if Obama has more free time, he’s gotta worry most about the economy over the next year or two. And as I said in my original post, none of the big foreign policy issues are easy to resolve, and the foreign opposition he must win over isn't likely to be swayed by the fact that the adminstration managed to get 220 members of the president's own party to support a bill that was heavily laden with political compromises. I'm not dissing the domestic achievement, mind you, just skeptical that it gives you that much more leverage abroad.
3. Did General Petraeus say that there was a link between U.S. support for Israel, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and our standing elsewhere in the region? Phil Klein at The American Spectator claims that Petraeus is denying he said any of the things previously attributed to him in recent weeks, and is walking back from his own testimony (i.e., prepared statement) to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But if you look carefully at what Petraeus told the Senators, it’s clear that he recognizes that there is a link (which is what his prepared statement said, in rather uncontroversial language. Consider his response to a question by Sen. John McCain:
We keep a very close eye on what goes on there [in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip], because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. ... Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. My thrust has generally been, literally, just to say -- to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said something similar today too (HT Spencer Ackerman). Of course, what they are saying is pretty mild, unsurprising stuff; it's just the sort of thing that didn't used to get uttered by senior officials.
Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress pokes holes in Klein's revisionism, see here.
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I see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow to clinch a new arms control agreement with Russia. I hope she succeeds, although the details of the treaty are probably less significant than people think. Both sides will be left with plenty of nuclear warheads, so the core strategic situation between the two countries won’t be affected very much. An agreement might help both sides save some money and will make each look like it at least trying to fulfill its long-standing obligations in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Non-nuclear signatories agreed not to get nukes, but Article VI commits signatories -- including the United States and USSR -- to make good faith efforts at nuclear disarmament).
What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.
What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere.
So I’m hoping that Secretary Clinton’s subordinates have done their homework, and that the trip to Moscow won't increase her carbon footprint to no good purpose.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Back in 2007, we wrote that AIPAC has an "almost unchallenged hold on Congress." Little has happened since then to alter that conclusion, and we will probably get another demonstration of Congressional spinelessness this week. On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on H.R. 867, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution denouncing the recent Goldstone Report on possible war crimes by Hamas and Israel during the Gaza War last year. You can read the resolution here. You should then read Judge Goldstone's response here, which points out the errors in the House resolution. And then read historian Tony Judt's eloquent statement here. If you're convinced that the resolution makes a mockery of America's professed commitment to justice and human rights, then you might express that sentiment here or here. Or just call your Congressman's office and tell him/her to grow a backbone and vote against it.
Meanwhile, over in Israel itself, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is completing the Obama administration's humiliating retreat from the principles set forth in the president's Cairo speech of less than five months ago. In a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton did not criticize continued Israeli home demolitions in East Jerusalem (a practice she had previously denounced), and praised Netanyahu for making "unprecedented concessions" on settlement expansion. Huh? This is Clintonian double-talk worthy of her husband. Netanyahu's "concession" was to insist that Israel would keep building whatever and wherever it wished in East Jerusalem, and would also continue the "natural growth" of settlements in the West Bank, but would not start any completely new settlements for awhile. Bear in mind that virtually every country in the world regards all of the settlements -- both the unauthorized outposts and the vast neighborhoods built by the Israeli government -- as illegal under international law, and the United States used to say this too. And for this "concession" the Palestinians are supposed to enter into another meaningless round of discussions, while the bulldozers and construction crews continue to eat away at the land on which they hope to establish a state of their own. To praise Netanyahu's position as an "unprecedented concession" is like discovering someone is robbing your house, and then expressing gratitude when they offer to do it a bit more slowly.
The two-state solution was on life-support when Obama took office, and at first it appeared he might make a serious effort to nurse it back to health and make it a reality. At least, that's what he said he was going to do. Instead, he and his Secretary of State are in the process of pulling out the plug. But what will they do when "two states for two peoples" isn't an option and everybody finally admits it, and the Palestinians begin to demand equal rights in "greater Israel?" Will the United States support their claims for equality, democracy, and individual rights, or will it continue to defend and subsidize what will then be an apartheid state? Well, if it's up to our courageous reps in Congress, you know what the answer will be.
Avi Ohayon/GPO via Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Moscow earlier this week, seeking Russian support for tighter sanctions on Iran. And what did she get for his efforts? A few nice photo ops, plus an unambiguous "nyet" from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.
I have a couple of questions.
Did she go there believing that she really would get a meaningful commitment for tighter sanctions from the Russians? Or did she know beforehand that she wasn't going to get anywhere, but felt she had to go through the motions anyway?
Frankly, I don't know which answer would worry me more. If it's the former, she's getting very bad advice from her Russia experts, who clearly have no idea how Russia's leaders perceive their own interests. If the latter, she has no business wasting time and effort on a lost cause and giving Lavrov the opportunity to score points by stiffing her in public. The Secretary of State of a great power shouldn't be flying off to foreign capitals with the diplomatic equivalent of a tin cup, pleading with them to comply with our wishes. You're supposed to wait until your assistants have got the deal more-or-less in place, and then you show up to make the final push and iron out the last sticky details. Either way, this just wasn't very smart diplomacy.
And let's not overlook the obvious possibility that Lavrov was right: right now isn't an opportune time to threaten Iran with more sanctions. The initial round of talks were encouraging (though there's still a long way to go), and brandishing threats is probably the best way to derail them before any additional progress is made. There are undoubtedly people in the United States (and Iran) who would like to see that happen, but I didn't think Hillary was one of them.
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I had a very pleasant R & R -- thank you -- and I'm grateful to Justin Logan for filling in with such clear and well-argued pieces on unipolarity and Iran's nuclear program. I would only add that I'm a big fan of the work that Bill Wohlforth and Steve Brooks have done in recent years, despite my various disagreements with some of what they've written, and I'm glad that Justin put their work up in bright lights.
I managed to avoid the Internet almost entirely while I was away, and even skipped the New York Times most days. So I'm playing catch-up on the week’s events, and have only a few thoughts on recent developments.
On North Korea: The freeing of the two journalists strikes me was a clear case of pragmatic realism in action, and President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton deserve points for their calm, clear-eyed approach to a vexing but ultimately not-very significant problem. They achieved the U.S. goal -- getting the two women out -- and Kim Jong Il got a photo op but nothing more. Even getting a former president to drop in isn't all that significant these days, because North Korea has welcomed former presidents before. True, North Korea got Bill to visit without having to pay his normally whopping speaker's fee, but they also didn't get a speech. Indeed, the fact that they seem to place so much value on a brief drop-in by an ex-president reveals a lot about the regime's pathetic need for attention. As for the former president, he deserves credit for staying on message and not grandstanding while he was there, though the real work was almost certainly done behind-the-scenes and he didn't have to do any actual negotiating.
In the end, the whole business was not that big a deal (except for the two journalists and their families, of course), and I think it confirms the value of not over-reacting every time Pyongyang does something annoying. Being annoying is its only diplomatic asset these days, but our best course is to treat them as a minor irritant and reserve most of our attention for more important problems. And it's probably good for Hillary if Bill has something constructive to do every now and then.
So props all around, and I would love to hear how conservative critics of the administration's handling of the problem would explain their positions to the journalists or their families.
On Afghanistan: The Times reports today that the Obama administration is still trying to come up with suitable "benchmarks" to measure progress in Afghanistan. Taking time to develop meaningful yardsticks for success or failure is a good idea in theory, but such measures are usually elusive in the context of counterinsurgency warfare. Body counts are a terrible measure, for example, because rising counts may simply reflect greater insurgent activity (and recruitment), and signs of diminished insurgent activity may simply mean that they are lying low. Testimony from civilians is also suspect, because they have obvious incentives to tell whoever is currently in charge of their village or region whatever they think the occupier wants to hear. Remember what a South Vietnamese general told a U.S. official back in the 1960s, in reference to the late Robert McNamara: "Ah, les statistiques! Your Secretary of Defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down."
More broadly, the fact that Obama's team is having a tough time devising good measures is another sign that we don't really know what we are doing there. And I mean that in two senses: 1) what are we trying to accomplish, and 2) what ARE we doing there? I'd also remind everyone that the Bush administration spent a lot of time laying out various "benchmarks" in Iraq, and then focused primarily on the ones where there was progress.
Via Matt Yglesias (linking to Mark Kleiman), we've also learned that the U.S. expenditures on Afghanistan are now more than five times greater than the country's entire annual GDP. That allocation of resources might make sense if we were trying to corner the opium market and sell it ourselves, but otherwise, it suggests that we aren't thinking very clearly about our strategic priorities. It was reasonable to spend a lot of money deterring Soviet expansion in Europe during the Cold War, and one can make a similar case for spending money to preserve a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, because Europe was a "key center of industrial power" and oil is the lifeblood on which the world economy runs. But spending five times more than it would cost to buy up everything a country produces (and committing the U.S. to do so for many years to come), is like putting an elaborate burgler alarm on a tar-paper shack, and then hiring an expensive security service to guard it for the next decade. Not smart.
Since Barack Obama became president back in January, his administration has launched a dizzying array of foreign policy initiatives. They've "pushed the reset button" with Russia, gotten serious about a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and doubled down in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has extended an open-hand to Iran, made a major speech to the Muslim world, pressed ahead on climate change, and talked about major reductions in nuclear arsenals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden added a few more items to the agenda just last week, suggesting that the United States might extend a security umbrella in the Middle East should Iran develop nuclear weapons, reaffirming U.S. security commitments in South and South-east Asia, and cozying up (a bit gingerly) to controversial Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And Clinton’s earlier speech to the Council on Foreign Relations made it clear that she thinks that nothing much is going to get done without active U.S. involvement (while noting that the United States couldn’t do it all alone).
On the one hand, these initiatives (and Obama's own charisma) have gone some distance toward repairing America's tarnished international image. A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed a significant improvement in America's image around the world, and especially among U.S. allies in Europe. Chalk one up for a democratic system: holding regular elections does allow a country to get rid of incompetent leaders and hope for something better.
But the fact that more people around the world have a "favorable" impression of the United States does not mean that their governments are going to roll over and give Washington whatever it wants. Indeed, there are already signs that Obama’s ambitious agenda is facing significant resistance. India and China are not on board with Obama's proposals for a climate change agreement, which means that the entire project is in jeopardy. The Afghan and Pakistani governments are expressing reservations about U.S. strategy in Central Asia, and the past record suggests that neither government will play straight with Washington when dealing with the jihadi issue. North Korea remains defiant and Iran shows no sign of succumbing to Obama's charm offensive. Israel is digging in its heels on settlements and America's Arab friends are reluctant to begin normalizing relations with Israel in the absence of genuine (as opposed to rhetorical) progress towards a two-state solution. Even the Europeans stiffed the administration on its proposals for coordinating responses to the economic crisis, and key NATO allies are doing less in Afghanistan even as the United States does more. Trouble spots like Somalia or Sudan remain as intractable as ever, and I haven't even mentioned drug violence in Mexico or anti-Americanism in other parts of Latin America.
Moreover, trying to advance the ball on so many different fronts simultaneously carries its own risks. In particular, it provides governments that are opposed to some or all of Washington's agenda with an obvious way to respond: they can "just say no." In Taming American Power, I labeled this strategy "balking," (a term suggested to me by Seyom Brown) and I argued that it was a common way for weak states to prevent a dominant power from imposing its will. In a world where the United States remains significantly stronger than any other power, few states want to get into a direct test of strength with Washington. But American power is not so vast that it can simply snap its fingers and expect everyone to do its bidding.
Why? Because exercising leverage is itself costly, and the more you do in one area, the more latitude that opponents somewhere else are likely to have. There are still only 24 hours in a day, and the White House can't devote equal attention and political capital to every issue. So states that don’t want to do what Obama wants can delay, dither, obfuscate, drag their feet, or just say no, knowing that the United States doesn’t have the resources, attention span, staying power, or political will to force their compliance now or monitor it afterwards.
An even better tactic (perfected by a number of close U.S. allies) is to pretend to comply with American wishes while blithely going ahead with their own agendas. So NATO allies promise to increase their defense efforts but never manage to do much; Israel promises to stop building settlements but somehow the number of illegal settlers keeps growing, the Palestinians pledge to reform but make progress at a glacial pace, Pakistan suppresses jihadis with one hand and subsidizes them with the other, Iran agrees to negotiate but continues to enrich, China says it will crack down on copyright violations but the problem remains pervasive, and so on.
In On War, Carl von Clausewitz famously described what he termed the "friction" of warfare; the accumulated set of minor obstacles and accidents that made even the simplest of objectives difficult to achieve. The same problem can arise in foreign policy: even when everything is simple, "the simplest things are very difficult." States that oppose what the United States is trying to do have lots of ways of increasing that friction without triggering an actual crisis. In other words, Obama's foreign policy may fail not because he loses some dramatic confrontation, but simply because a whole array of weaker actors manage to grind him down. In this scenario he doesn't get vanquished, just "nibbled to death by ducks."
Obama took office with energy, a new vision, an experienced team, and lengthy "to-do" list. But one can already sense the forward motion slowing, which will encourage opponents to dig their heels in deeper and throw more obstacles in his path. If the administration keeps trying to do everything at once, there is a real danger that their actual foreign policy achievements will be quite modest. The sooner they decide which goals they think they can actually bring off, and focus their energies there, the more likely they are to succeed. And a few tangible successes now might actually make the other items on their agenda easier to accomplish later on.
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Before I catch up on other developments -- like the new "plan" for Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Netanyahu government in Israel, the G20 summit, etc. -- I thought I’d pass along a few things I learned during my visit to Singapore last week. Here are a few quick impressions, based on my conversations with a number of academics and senior policymakers there, and by a roundtable discussion with Ashley Tellis, Yuen Foon Khong, Vinod Aggarwal, C. Raja Mohan, and myself (sponsored by the S Rajaratnam School and moderated by its Dean, Barry Desker).
First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got full marks for her Asia trip last month. The decision to make Asia her first foreign destination was much appreciated (especially given the short shrift the region had received under Bush), and the people I spoke with were also impressed by how she handled herself along the way. Singaporeans are looking forward to welcoming Obama there for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November. If the Obama administration is looking to refurbish ties with various Asian allies (and they should), the groundwork has been laid and the effort will be welcome.
Second, nobody in Singapore seemed enthusiastic about America doubling down in Central Asia. There was some grudging acceptance that the United States still had a role to play there, but even the strongest advocates of U.S. involvement in that conflict saw it as a grim necessity rather than an opportunity. Several officials emphasized that it was important that the United States not get bogged down there. Agreed.
Third, one senior official offered a cautionary note about the recent U.S. opening to Iran. While fully supportive of the initiative, he emphasized that Tehran was bound to drive a hard bargain and that negotiations would be prolonged and difficult. Another person with whom I spoke surprised me by suggesting that if Iran's clerical leadership is interested in dealing with Washington, they will work to ensure the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thereby keeping a "bad cop" in the Presidency to enhance their bargaining position. I would have thought the opposite -- that it would be easier to engineer a detente between Washington and Tehran if Ahmadinejad were no longer in office -- and it will be interesting to see who's right.
Fourth, virtually everyone I spoke with hoped Obama & Co. would get the U.S. economy moving ASAP, and argued that this was the only way to jump-start the rest of the world. This sentiment is easy to fathom (Singapore's economy is heavily dependent on world trade and is projected to shrink by 5-10 percent this year), but I found myself wondering if it is either realistic or healthy of other countries to expect so much from Uncle Sam. The days where the United States could singlehandedly serve as the engine of the world economy are probably behind us, and prospects for a coordinated global response seem increasingly bleak. Although everyone supposedly understands that "beggar thy neighbor" policies made the Great Depression worse, the global response to the crisis has been "every state for itself" and signs of protectionism are beginning to re-emerge. The draft G20 communique reportedly takes a firm stand against this trend, but it is going to take principled and courageous leadership to resist these pressures. All in all, a good test to see if we've learned anything from the 1930s.
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Some mildly good news: in a partially smart diplomatic move, the Obama administration has reportedly offered to trade the deployment of missile defenses in eastern Europe for active Russian support to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. According to the NY Times story, the deal requires not just Russian support (presumably for more extensive economic sanctions), but rather depends on Iran "halting any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles."
This is a clever offer at first glance, because it gives up an expensive program that we don't need (missile defenses) in an attempt to get something we do want (better relations with Russia, and a deal with Iran on its nuclear program). Missile defense has been a costly chimera for decades, for two main reasons. First, any country sophisticated enough to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile could probably develop low-cost countermeasures that would thwart our defenses. Second, any country that could develop missiles and a bomb small enough to mount on one wouldn't have much trouble smuggling a few weapons into Europe or the United States. This situation would actually be worse than a missile attack, because we might not even know where the attack had come from and thus would not be able to deter it by threatening retaliation. Spending billions on missile defenses is like locking the front door and leaving the back door wide open, with a sign inviting the burglars to come on in.
But the offer to Moscow has a down-side: it means that the fate of the missile defense program is actually in Iran's hands, not Moscow's, and the precise terms of the deal remain unclear. There's still no evidence that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (though obvious reasons to be suspicious) and little evidence that it will give up control of the full nuclear fuel cycle simply because the United States ramps up the diplomatic pressure or gets Russia and China to agree to stiffer sanctions. It's even less likely that Iran would give up its ballistic missile program. It might be possible to get a deal that addressed Iran’s regional security concerns (including our various efforts to foment regime change there) in exchange for tighter guarantees against their pursuit of an actual weapons capability, but that requires us to go in without big preconditions and without a lot of harsh rhetoric. Merely tightening the screws on Tehran hasn't worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future. And if Russia does agree to help us, Iran still balks, and we go ahead and deploy the missile defenses in Eastern Europe anyway, Moscow is bound to feel betrayed.
Now for the bad news: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently thinks diplomacy with Iran isn't going to work anyway. Perhaps she just misspoke (itself not a good sign), or perhaps this illustrates a point I've mentioned before: effective diplomacy requires lots of coordination, so that an initiative in one area isn't undermined by something you do or say somewhere else. Or maybe this incident suggests that the whole idea of talking to Iran is simply laying the diplomatic groundwork for a more direct military campaign later on. Thus far, the Obama administration hasn't strayed very far from the Bush administration's failed approach, which was in essence to tell Tehran "first, you do what we want, and then we'll talk to you about the things you care about." Obama does say we're willing to talk, but there's no sign that we are planning to make them a "yes-able" offer and his secretary of state apparently thinks direct diplomacy isn’t going to work.
This behavior is deeply puzzling, because a military strike on Iran is an unattractive option and we ought to be energetically looking for a diplomatic alternative. Beginning that process with a lot of tough talk and saying that we aren't expecting success doesn't strike me as a very promising way to start the process. Maybe it's just a coincidence that this sounds like the strategy new Iran point man Dennis Ross endorsed last summer, and not that different from the approach that the Israeli government is reportedly urging on Secretary Clinton during her visit to Jerusalem. As I've said before, if you think the debate on a military strike on Iran ended when Bush left office, think again.
And while we're on the subject of Iran, here's a thoughtful column by Roger Cohen, warning against the simplistic stereotyping that has come to dominate most American discourse about the Islamic Republic. Cohen is neither naïve about Iran nor an advocate of appeasing the likes of Ahmadinejad, yet his nuanced discussion immediately drew the usual hail of criticism from neoconservative pundits, with one of them suggesting that he be fired.
I have a different question: why are Cohen's commentaries confined to the Herald Tribune and the Times blog? Why doesn't Cohen have a regular column on the Times op-ed page, especially now that William Kristol is gone? Cohen's views are balanced, he writes well, and he is often willing to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, which is what a good columnist should do. If op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal wants to raise the level of discourse on his page he’d offer the guy a regular spot.
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
While reading the official transcript of Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's opening statement at her confirmation hearing yesterday, I had a brief moment of excitement somewhere around paragraph twenty-five. Here's what made me sit up straight (emphasis added):
Of course, we must be realistic about achieving our goals. Even under the best of circumstances, our nation cannot solve every problem or meet every global need. We don't have unlimited time, treasure, or manpower. And we certainly don't face the best of circumstances today, with our economy faltering and our budget deficits growing.
So to fulfill our responsibility to our children, to protect and defend our nation while honoring our values, we have to establish priorities. Now, I'm not trying to mince words here. As my colleagues in the Senate know, "establishing priorities" means making tough choices. Because those choices are so important to the American people, we must be disciplined in evaluating them -- weighing the costs and consequences of our action or inaction; gauging the probability of success; and insisting on measurable results."
"She gets it!" I thought. But then I read on and discovered what "making choices and setting priorities" actually means. Among other things, it means:
1. "Deepening our engagement" with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries in central Asia;
2. "Actively" pursuing a strategy in the Middle East that addresses Israel's security needs and the Palestinians' "legitimate" political aspirations, challenges Iran to end its nuclear program and sponsorship of terror, persuades Syria to abandon dangerous behavior and "strengthens relationships" with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional states;
3. Making new efforts to secure nuclear materials, get other states to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and renew negotiations for a Fissile Material Cutoff treaty;
4. Working to strengthen U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia, to include NATO, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and India;
5. Pursuing cooperative relations with Russia and China, while standing up for core U.S. values;
6. Working closely with Canada and Mexico on economic issues and drug trafficking, and returning to a policy of "vigorous engagement" with the rest of Latin America;
7. "Combating al-Qaida's efforts in the Horn of Africa; helping African nations to conserve their natural resources; stopping war in Congo; ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur; supporting African democracies like South Africa and Ghana; and working aggressively to reach the Millennium Development Goals in health, education, and economic opportunity";
8. Leading an "urgent, coordinated response to climate change," and continuing active efforts to address global AIDS, global poverty, global health, global education and, of course, promoting democracy and human rights;
And after covering every continent, she declared that this laundry list was just "a few of our top priorities" (my emphasis) and said she expected to "address many more in the question-and-answer session." And she did.
These goals may all be perfectly worthy in themselves, and it would have been undiplomatic for her to spell out the countries, regions, or issue she deemed less important. Nonetheless, Clinton's remarks were not those of someone eager to make choices or set priorities, even though she deployed clever new concepts like "smart power." Clinton did not say which of these problems merited the most resources or the most immediate attention, which problems were the most easily solved and which might be intractable, or how the United States might deploy its power strategically, so that our actions in one area made solving other problems easier, instead of operating (as we often do) at cross-purposes.
It was an impressive performance in some respects -- she's mastered her brief, showed admirable poise, and made it clear that she's on the same page with the president-elect. But taken as a whole, her testimony was entirely consistent with the well-engrained tendency for great powers to assume that what happens anywhere matters everywhere, and especially matters to them. I'm no isolationist, but it would be refreshing to hear a more rigorous assessment of our vital interests and a clearer acknowledgement of the limits of U.S. power, especially these days.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.