You gotta give U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry credit for persistence -- or maybe just perverseness -- in his efforts to restart the Middle East "peace process." Given the complete failure of the past two decades of peace-processing, you might also wonder why he's bothering. My guess is that he does realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a significant problem for the United States, as well as a source of continued human suffering. The fighting in Syria and the continued struggles in Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere may command more attention these days, but the situation in Israel/Palestine remains a potent source of anti-Americanism and a constant headache for every president. Plus, Kerry is an ambitious guy, and who wouldn't like to be the hero who finally managed to put this century-old conflict to rest?
News reports suggest that Kerry is trying to advance this goal by employing a time-honored tool of Middle East diplomacy: bribery. No, I don't mean direct under-the-table payoffs to key leaders (although the United States has done plenty of that in the past and I wouldn't rule it out here). Instead, I mean offering the various parties big economic incentives to lure them back to the table. Back in the 1970s, for example, Henry Kissinger got Israel to withdraw from the Sinai by promising it enormous military aid packages and assorted other concessions. Jimmy Carter did the same thing when he brokered that Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and U.S. largesse also greased the subsequent peace deal between Israel and Jordan in 1994. When domestic politics make it impossible to use sticks, carrots are all you have left.
This time around, Kerry has reportedly assembled a $4 billion investment package for the Palestinian Authority, designed to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and demonstrate to the Palestinians the benefits of peace. Presumably all they need to do is agree to resume negotiations and the money will flow; the investment is supposedly not linked to a final-status agreement. This approach is also a familiar American tendency at work: The United States is happy if the parties are talking, even if they are simultaneously taking steps that are "not helpful" and if they never get to the finish line.
The real question is: Should Abbas & Co. take the money and resume discussions?
Of course they should, but not because it will produce an agreement. Any talks that do resume are going to lead nowhere, and the Palestinians might as well get paid for engaging in an otherwise meaningless activity. The talks are meaningless because Israel is not going to agree to a viable Palestinian state, and certainly not one based on the 1967 borders. Remember that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's entire career has been based on opposition to a Palestinian state and that the official platform of his Likud party "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river." Netanyahu is under no domestic pressure to cut a deal either; on the contrary, he'd be in political hot water if he tried.
Ever since the Oslo Accords, the basic Israeli strategy has been to negotiate endlessly while continuing to expand settlements, with the number of settlers more than doubling since 1993. Even then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's supposedly "generous" offer at Camp David in 2000 fell well short of an acceptable deal, as his own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later acknowledged. Netanyahu now leads the most right-wing government in Israel's history, and his government would collapse if he were to agree to allow the Palestinians anything more than a handful of disconnected bantustans under complete Israeli control. That's why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to resume the negotiations; he knows that talks merely provide a cover for further colonization.
But acknowledging that reality could also be
liberating. Given that negotiations are
pointless and that more and more people know it, the Palestinians should simply take
the money that Kerry has assembled and agree to the charade, while making it
clear that they will not settle for less than the Clinton parameters. They can also hint that if a viable and sovereign
state is not in the cards, then they will begin to campaign for full civil and political rights within the "Greater Israel" that now exists.
That's not the outcome Kerry has in mind, and it's not likely to materialize anytime soon. But neither will a final-status agreement, no matter how often Kerry drops in for a visit and how many dollar bills he waves.
Watching the musical chairs taking place in the first months of Obama's second term reminds me of how fundamentally unserious America's approach to foreign affairs really is. Kerry and Hagel are now in, but apparently Biden's star is ascending too, while all sorts of other folks are rotating to new jobs, unpacking their offices, or heading back to private life to pen memoirs. You might think this was a great opportunity for fresh thinking and renewed energy, but what it really reveals is how our approach to staffing foreign affairs may be the worst of all possible worlds.
For starters, the United States has a relatively small civil service. Compared with other countries, a relatively large percentage of top government jobs are held by presidential appointees. The result: top jobs in the State Department and Pentagon are handled not by career foreign service officers or experienced bureaucrats, but by partisan appointees who rarely last more than a couple of years and then return to private life. Not only does this mean tremendous turnover whenever the White House changes hands, it means we are constantly bringing in people who lack experience or who are not up to speed on current issues.
Next, the appointments process itself has gone completely off the rails. Candidates have to go through elaborate vetting procedures that would daunt a saint, and then they also face a Senate confirmation process that is slow, arbitrary, and leaves lots of positions unfilled for months if not years. And sometimes you get an embarrassing circus like the recent Hagel confirmation hearings, which revealed the GOP members of the Armed Services Committee to be spiteful and factually challenged hacks and no doubt confirmed many foreigners' dubious views of America's overall political competence.
Third, we are so afraid that our career diplomats will "go native" or develop "localitis," that we discourage them from developing deep regional expertise and instead rotate them around the globe on a frequent basis. There is something to be said for gaining a global perspective, of course, but it also means that unlike some of our rivals, we won't have many diplomats with deep linguistic expertise or lots of in-depth experience in the societies in which they are operating. Yet we then expect them to hold their own against their local counterparts, or against diplomats from other countries whose knowledge and training in particular areas is more extensive.
To make matters worse, the United States has a four-year presidential term and a campaign cycle that lasts well over a year. This latter period is far longer than the election periods in any other advanced democracy, and the endless parade of primaries and other forms of electoral hoopla eat up lots of bandwith in our national discourse. The result? The country, the incumbent administration, and the president's various rivals are all distracted for more than 25 percent of each president's term, and less able to make hard political choices.
And then there's the question of resources. When there was a Cold War to win, American taxpayers were willing to devote one percent of GDP to non-military international affairs spending (e.g., on development, diplomacy, and things like that). Today, we spend about only 0.2 percent of GDP in this area, which tells you all you need to know about the real priority that Americans place on non-military tools of international influence.
None of this would matter if the United States had a less ambitious foreign policy. But instead, we're trying to be the "indispensable power" on the cheap. The results, I am sorry to say, speak for themselves.
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If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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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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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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My colleague Nicholas Burns has a smart column in today's Boston Globe, where he makes the obvious but important point that "the United States should do all it can to avoid war" with Iran. His central theme is that war is not in the U.S. national interest, and that Washington should seize the diplomatic initiative and not allow itself to get buffaloed into a war by Israel. In his words: "The United States needs to take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give use more independence and to protect Israel's core interests at the same time." To do this, he calls for the United States to open a direct bilateral negotiating channel with Iran and to offer "imaginative proposals that would permit Iran civil nuclear power but deny it a nuclear weapon."
This position makes so much sense that you can be sure it will be rejected by AIPAC and the other hardliners who believe that Iran cannot be permitted even the theoretical capacity to produce a weapon at some unspecified time down the road. Together with the Netyanyahu government, these groups want to keep ramping up the war talk in order to slowly paint the United States into a corner. The reason is simple: Israel does not have a strategically meaningful military option of its own, because the IAF cannot do enough damage to Iran's nuclear facilities to end its program once and for all. To prevent any sort of Iranian nuclear capacity, therefore, requires the United States to take the lead in enforcing sanctions and if necessary, to fight another war.
And as Jodi Rudoren reveals in an important New York Times piece today, Israel's leaders understand that fact perfectly well. Based on interviews with a former national security advisor Uzi Dayan, she reports that PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak "had not yet decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and could be dissuaded from a strike if President Obama approved stricter sanctions and publicly confirmed his willingness to use military force" (my emphasis). She continues: "Mr. Dayan's assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike."
In short, as I noted last week, the recurring talk of "closing windows," "red lines," "zones of immunity," and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting.
In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It's our fault we keep falling for it.
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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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The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.
I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.
More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won't mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.
The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America's dominant world role isn't impossible, but it's not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children's TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others' interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.
Ironically, Obama's first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don't always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren't completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn't going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.
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One of the nice things about being the world's only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government's recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don't have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we're right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn't be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn't be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I'll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you're willing to accept the fact that some governments won't like it. But let's at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn't be especially surprised when other governments object.
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Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn't have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it's important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things." The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for "conscious choices" about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...
If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?).
In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.
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I did a short interview with Al Jazeera's station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, focused primarily on Secretary of Defense Gates' visit to China. For those of you who didn't catch it (which I assume is just about everyone), I thought I'd pass along what I said.
They asked me three questions. Here's what they asked, and more-or-less what I replied.
1. Is there a new Cold War between the United and China?
In my opinion, no. There is growing concern about the relationship in both countries, and I think there is likely to be a rising security competition between the two, especially in Asia. But it's a far cry from the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. That was really a battle to the death, where both states actively wanted to bring the other down. Nothing like that is occurring between the United States and China these days. The Cold War was also an intense ideological competition, where each side saw the other's political system as not merely different, but as the embodiment of evil. There are some differences in values between the United States and China, but it's not at nearly the same level as the Cold War. Lastly, the United States and USSR did not interact very much: trade and investment were quite low and there wasn't a lot of personal or cultural exchange between the two states. Again, the situation with China and the United States today is very different: there is a lot of trade and investments, thousands of students going back and forth every year, and and fairly high degree of elite engagement too. So while there is an emerging rivalry that I expect to become more intense, it isn't what I'd call a "Cold War."
2. Is President Obama's Asia policy a
On balance, yes. Despite having allowed itself to get distracted by events elsewhere, I think the administration has done a fairly good job. President Obama's trip to Asia last year was quite successful. The security partnership with India is deepening, and the United States has managed relations with traditional allies such as Japan well. It has backed South Korea effectively in its delicate relationship with North Korea, and restored closer ties with Indonesia. Relations with Singapore are strong, and Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that the United States intends to remain closely engaged in Asia for many years to come. Overall, they've done much better in East Asia than they have in Central Asia (Afghanistant/Pakistan) or the Middle East.
3. What are China's aims?
China's objectives are not really that hard to understand. First, they want to continue to grow economically, because doing so is critical to the welfare of the Chinese people and to the stability and legitimacy of the government. Second, like any other country, China wants to maximize its security. It doesn't want to be vulnerable to events elsewhere, or to pressure from other major powers. This means it wants reliable access to raw materials, to energy, and to the world markets on which its prosperity increasingly depends. Over the long term, that means it would like to reduce the American role in Asia, because its leaders will feel they are safer if there isn't any major military adversary with a strong position in Asia. Americans wouldn't be happy is some world power had an array of alliances in the Western hemisphere; by the same logic, Beijing cannot be delighted by America's close ties with many Asian countries (not to mention Taiwan). This view isn't a sign of innate Chinese expansionism or aggressiveness; for a realist, it's how any great power would view this situation. Whether Beijing will achieve its various aims, of course, is another matter.
Postscript: I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so my next post will be from there.
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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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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My nominee for the "most callous statement recently uttered by a prominent U.S. diplomat" goes to George Shultz, who was interviewed by New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon a couple of weeks ago. Solomon asked Shultz a few questions about his role "stumping for the war" and serving as chairman of the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq." Shultz reveals that the committee never actually met and that he didn't even know who all the members were, which seems like a pretty cavalier approach to a major foreign policy decision. Solomon asks him if he has any regrets about the invasion (he doesn't, though he wishes it had gone quicker). And then, after some not-very insightful questions about whether the Bechtel Corporation (which Shultz used to head) made money from the war, there is the following exchange:
Solomon: 'It's been seven years since we invaded Iraq, and there is so much sorrow in the world. I don't see things getting a lot better.'
Shultz: 'You ought to come out to California. We have problems out here; but the sun is shining, and it's pleasant here on the Stanford campus.'
I grew up about 4 miles from Stanford and did my undergraduate studies there. Shultz is absolutely right: It's a very pleasant place, and I'm sure it's even nicer when you're a multi-millionaire. But to dismiss the death and destruction that the United States wreaked on Iraq -- as well as all the other suffering that occurs elsewhere in the world -- with a blithe reference to California sunshine strikes me as emblematic of the indifference that underpins a lot of American meddling around the world. So long as the sun is shining where we are, we don't care all that much about what our foreign policy decisions are doing to other people. And then we get surprised and irate when some people in some far-flung part of the world resent what we are doing, and when a few of them try to do what they can to pay us back.
The United States continues to interfere in lots of places around the world in part because most Americans -- and especially privileged individuals like Mr. Shultz -- are immune from the immediate consequences of these actions. We borrow the money to pay for foreign wars, and we rely on sacrifices by an all-volunteer force. We fail to see the connection between our heavy-handed diplomacy and penchant for using force and the persistent anti-Americanism that occurs in the places where we've interfered most often. And when you're the 800-lb gorilla in the international system, you can allow your foreign policy to be swayed by well-connected "letterhead" committees that never actually meet and whose funders and motives remain hidden. Great power allows states to behave irresponsibly, in short, because others suffer the consequences and future generations get stuck with the bill.
What's most striking about Shultz's offhand comment is that it came from someone with a long record of public service and generally sensible views on a lot of foreign policy issues. He was hardly a "chicken-hawk," having served in the Marines in World War II, and his tenure as secretary of state helped rescue the Reagan administration from some of its worse excesses and internal divisions. But for men (and women) like him, the world is a stage on which to operate, and the consequences for others are just "collateral damage."
Needless to say, statements like that are why I tend to look at the world through a realist lens. However much we may deplore it, most leaders worry primarily about their own positions and their own country's narrow self-interest, and they don't spend much time or attention thinking about whether what we are doing is good for others. There isn't a lot of altruism in the conduct of foreign policy, even though great powers always tell themselves that their motives are pure and that they are really acting for the greater good. It would be nice if things were different, but that ain't the world we live in.
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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Is this "Be Rude to U.S. Diplomats Month?" First, the Netanyahu government embarrasses Joe Biden during his visit to Israel by announcing it will build 1600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Next, the Russian government welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Moscow with the announcement that it intends to complete the long-delayed Bushehr power reactor in Iran this summer. Clinton told a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov it "would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," but Lavrov confirmed that Russia was going ahead anyway.
The Bushehr reactor has been a thorny issue between the United States and Russia since the 1990s, although it actually has little to do with Iran's nuclear enrichment program and has always been something of a red herring. But it was hardly a friendly gesture for Moscow to make this announcement during her visit, unless they were trying to score some cheap bargaining points. And it made me wonder: where are everyone's manners? Diplomacy doesn't always have to be, well-diplomatic -- but this sort of gratuitous slap is both petty and counter-productive.
The two situations aren't identical, of course, given that Israel is a close ally and the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, and Russia is a country with whom U.S. relations are more competitive. One would therefore expect this sort of thing from Moscow but not from Jerusalem. In both cases, however, the United States should make it clear that it doesn't appreciate being dissed in this fashion.
To its credit, the Obama administration has shown what Woodrow Wilson called "the self-restraint of a truly great nation, which knows its own power and scorns to misuse it." They haven't over-reacted to every perceived slight, and press conferences with foreign representatives don't have to be a complete love-fest. But every now and then, the United States has to demonstrate that this sort of thing has a price tag: the more that other states want from us, the more respect they ought to show. It's about that simple.
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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.
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Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. "What's that?" I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.
I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I'm no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked "like a big ice-cube," but the sketches in the Times don't show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm's length.
What troubles me is what this tells us about America's place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don't want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don't think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It's tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can't retaliate, of course), and Americans don't seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we've decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.
So we have to build embassies that resemble fortresses, and that convey an image of America that is at odds with our interests and our own self-image, and especially with the image that we would like to convey to foreign peoples. We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we're supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers, and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the "Fortress America" approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia.
Don't get me wrong: states in the modern world do have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it's possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence
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.
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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has reportedly penned a "searing critique" of efforts to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world via "strategic communication." According to the New York Times, Mullen argues that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."
Sounds right to me. Like most great powers, and especially dominant ones, the United States tends to believe that its motives are pure, that its noble aims are apparent to all, and that other peoples ought to be grateful for its self-less assistance. (Never mind that U.S. foreign policy is mostly driven by perceived self-interest, even if we don't like to admit it to ourselves). If people overseas are mad at us, this must be due to a some sort of misunderstanding. If we just explained it to them a little better, they would support whatever it is we are doing, even if it involves reorganizing their way of life, helping select who runs their country, supporting various allies even when they are mis-behaving, or sending Predators or cruise missiles from afar to blow up suspected terrorist sites on their soil. And if anti-Americanism isn't just a misunderstanding, it is because some misguided people "hate our values." Whatever it is, it's never our fault.
To his credit, Mullen appears to be acknowledging that U.S. actions really do have consequences--including negative consequences--and maybe we ought to think about them differently. This isn't the first time that the Pentagon has said smart things about the sources of anti-Americanism, by the way. A 1997 study by the Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States," and a 2004 DSB study on strategic communication concluded that "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom," but rather they hate our policies." It also observed that in the eyes of the Muslim world, the "American occupation of Aghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering." The Pew Global Attitudes Survey reached a similar conclusion in 2002, observing that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically."
Of course, one can still debate whether a given policy is the right one or not; sometimes policies that are in the U.S. interest will annoy or anger other people. That's just life in the international system: conflicts of interest inevitably arise and foreign policy isn't a popularity contest. Given America's privileged position, however, one of our main foreign policy goals should be to try to minimize the amount of global irritation we face, and to go to some lengths to make sure we don't generate antipathy unnecessarily.
The key point to bear in mind is that there are real limits to America's ability to improve its global image simply by improved "messaging," "spin," or even by electing a black President. And there's an important lesson there for Obama, whose rise to power was elevated in good part by his remarkable communications skills. The lesson is that an eloquent, learned, and well-delivered speech-like the one he gave in Cairo--is just a first step, and the effects wear off quickly. To bring about genuine change, lofty rhetoric needs to be accompanied by policies that will actually address the legitimate concerns and grievances of his listeners. You know the old line: talk is cheap. And here's another old saw: actions speak louder than words.
In the end, what will matter to people around the world is what the United States actually does with its vast power at its disposal. If it is seen as both competent and committed to morally defensible aims and broadly benevolent purposes, it is likely to be viewed as a positive force by most people (though the sheer magnitude of U.S. power will still make many nervous, and there will always be some who cannot be won over). If it is seen as bumbling, venal, cruel, or deeply hypocritical, however, then no amount of clever packaging is going to fool the world for long.
P.S. Mullen's article is due to be released today in Joint Forces Quarterly. It wasn't on-line when I was writing this, so my discussion is based solely on the Times story. I'll read the article as soon as it's available, and will let you know if my thinking changes after I read the whole thing.
(Editor's note: Mullen's article is now available on ForeignPolicy.com)
McClatchy News reports that the United States is planning to spend over $700 million dollars to build a major new embassy complex in Pakistan, while negotiating to purchase a five-star hotel to serve as the new consulate in Peshawar. These new facilities are intended to support the "surge" of diplomats and aid workers that the United States intends to deploy as part of President Obama's deepening involvement in Central Asia. The obvious comparison is to the huge U.S. embassy in Iraq (which cost nearly $600 million dollars and occupies on 104 acres (in downtown Baghdad), but I’m also reminded of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, which was one of the largest U.S. facilities in the 1970s and was later occupied by Iranian students in the infamous 1980 hostage incident.
I'm all for providing U.S. officials with adequate facilities, but this idea merely underscores the inherent contradictions in the current U.S. approach. One of America's main problems in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the widespread popular belief that it is now addicted to interfering in these societies, usually in a heavy-handed and counter-productive way. In their eyes, Washington is constantly telling them which leaders to choose, which leaders should step down, which extremists to go after and how they should reorder their own societies to make them more compatible with our values. And oh yes, we also drop bombs and fire missiles into their territory, which we would regard as an act of war if anyone did it to us. Even when well-intentioned, these activities inevitably lend themselves to various conspiracy theories about America's "real" motives, and reinforce negative impressions of the United States. As of last year, only 19 percent of Pakistan’s population had a favorable view of the United States, and this hardly makes it easier to get meaningful cooperation on issues that we should (and do) care about, such as the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Building a costly new embassy -- which will undoubtedly resemble a giant fortress -- is not going to help win "hearts and minds" there, or allay concerns about our ambitions in that part of the world. And if we need a facility like that in order to execute our overall strategy, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the merits of the strategy itself?
Realists understand that power is the primary currency in world affairs, and that great powers have the latitude to define interests broadly. As the United States has proved in recent years, especially strong powers are prone to fits of hubris, adopting unachievable goals and then pursuing them carelessly. When they do, realists warn, opponents usually bite back (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan).
Contrary to what some people think, realists aren’t cold, calculating machines who are indifferent to moral concerns. Rather, realists simply recognize that are often tradeoffs between our moral preferences and our other interests, and that moral precepts alone are an sufficient guide to foreign policy. Realists also worry that idealistic moral objectives too easily become crusades, thereby causing more human suffering than the ills they were meant to stop.
Finally, because the world is a competitive place, realists look for opportunities to divide adversaries and to discourage potential rivals from joining forces, based on the simple idea that it is better to face weak and/or divided opponents than a strong and unified opposition. Bismarck's diplomacy is an ideal model: after defeating France and unifying Germany in the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck adopted a conservative, status-quo strategy that kept France isolated for the next twenty years. Not only did this make Germany safer, it also made Europe more tranquil.
So what are the hopeful signs? Here are a few straws in the wind:
1. Obama has put down a marker on Iraq, indicating that he will in fact carry though on his pledge to get all U.S. forces out by the end of 2011. By stating this commitment as clearly as he could (with one senior official ruling out a Korea-like long-term commitment), and by lining up a lot of prominent support for it, he has made it more difficult to renege even if the situation in Iraq becomes more violent as U.S. forces withdraw. Such a development would be unfortunate, even tragic, but as Andrew Sullivan noted, it is not a reason to stay. Obama is enough of a realist to know that if he doesn’t get us out of there, Bush's 2003 mistake will be a deadweight for his entire presidency.
2. There are now hints of a U.S. willingness to talk to “moderate” elements of the Taliban. This is realistic in two senses: First, it recognizes that the Taliban is not a unified, centralized movement with a single headquarters and a strong governing ideology; rather, it is a loose collection of groups with certain common beliefs but lots of internal divisions. Alignment and realignment of various tribes and factions is a recurring theme in Afghan history, and this approach reflects an awareness of that core principle. Second, it recognizes that the United States has no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, provided that the government does not let Afghan territory be used to organize attacks on U.S. soil (or other core interests). Co-opting any moderate elements can be won over will make our task easier; waging war on all of them at once merely reinforces their fragile unity. Reaching out to the moderates may not work, of course, but there’s little risk in trying and potentially much to gain.
3. Similarly, the new overture to Syria follows a similar logic. As I've argued before, a well-integrated Middle East strategy will try to coordinate our approaches to Syria, Iran, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to give potential spoilers less incentive to derail progress and give current obstacles incentives to rethink their positions. Keeping Syria isolated encourages them to stay close to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, because they are the only cards Syria has to play. Reaching out to them does exactly the opposite; it gives them an incentive to distance itself from these actors in order to obtain things that are more important. The success of this initiative will ultimately depend on whether we can broker the long-delayed peace treaty with Israel (which will require Israel to return the Golan Heights), but these initial contacts are an encouraging first step.
4. Despite an embarrassing gaffe, the initial meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seems to have gone well despite one obvious self-inflicted wound. Whose idea was to give Lavrov a mock "reset button" in the first place? This was a juvenile gesture ill-befitting a great power, and then screwing up the gag with an erroneous translation made the State Department look like a bunch of amateurs. Overall, the incident reminded me of the infamous bible-shaped cake that Ollie North took to Tehran during the Iran-contra scandal. But beyond the atmospherics, the actually meeting appears to have been both serious and cordial. And the administration's willingness to put missile defenses on the table shows that Obama and Co. are aware that this is a critical issue for Russia and could be the key to gaining Russian cooperation on more important items like Iran.
5. Finally, Secretary Clinton's Middle East trip was, as Marc Lynch, summarizes here, something of a "mixed bag." But given what we come to expect from visits by the previous secretary of state, even a mixed bag is a step forward. And as Gary Sick notes here (also courtesy of Marc’s blog), there are lots of signs on all sides of an emerging interest in -- horrors! -- "diplomacy" throughout the region. That's a realistic course for everyone to take at this point. And if I may beat a dead horse one more time, the big question is whether our future diplomatic strategy is well-coordinated or not. If it is, we could realize major gains; if not, we are going to make things worse.
So as I said, there are some encouraging hints of realism in the realm of foreign policy. But don’t get too happy yet. If Paul Krugman is right in today's Times, a sense of realism may still be lacking on the economic front, and that’s probably more important these days.
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As we wait to see if Hillary Clinton has accomplished anything in her Middle East trip (I’m betting no), here are a couple of things to read:
Nathan Brown of George Washington University and the Carnegie Endowment says the two-state solution is at a dead end (a possibility I worried about here) and offers his “Plan B." He calls for a long-term ceasefire (i.e., five to ten years) to permit the rebuilding of Palestinian institutions, to press for moderation of Hamas’ demands, and to force Israel to choose between building settlements and making peace. I have my doubts about his proposal, which sounds like the Oslo process to me insofar as it leaves the final destination unclear and focuses on interim agreements. Like Oslo, this leaves too much latitude for spoilers on either side (including the new Israeli prime minister?). Nonetheless, Brown is surely right to begin thinking about where we go if the two-state solution really does become out of reach.
Writing in Tikkun, Jerome Slater provides a systematic critique of Israel’s conduct in its recent attacks on Gaza, and demolishes a lot of Israeli talking points. Doug Lieb of the American Jewish Committee has a response in the same issue, but you really owe it to yourself to read Slater’s fully documented version, available here.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.