A guest post from Foreign Policy contributor and human-rights activist Rebecca Hamilton.
Last week, the State Department partnered with two U.S.-based advocacy organizations (Save Darfur and STAND) to launch AskUS -- a web 2.0 initiative to connect the Obama administration with citizen activists.
More than 500 citizens emailed and used the Twitter hashtag #AskUS to submit questions on Sudan policy that they wanted Save Darfur to ask; students around the country voted online for the questions they wanted answered. The exercise culminated yesterday with a meeting, web-streamed live and cross-posted on the State Department's Facebook page. Leaders from Save Darfur and STAND asked a selection of the citizens' questions to U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration and Director of Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council Samantha Power.
The event was not quite as "live" as its billing implied. Advocates had to give the administration their questions in advance. One former State Department official I interviewed referred to Darfur activists as "noise we had to manage" -- and I feared that AskUS would be nothing more than a web 2.0 opportunity for the administration to "manage" a vocal and often critical advocacy movement.
As it turned out, the shoe was on the other foot. Activists were given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, and they pursued that avenue with such vigor that any fear of them being co-opted by their well-publicized access to the White House ceased to be a concern. What was a concern was the administration's inability to provide concrete answers to the advocates' questions.
During the session, Gration explained that there are some aspects of policy that cannot be shared publicly, and presumably no one would disagree that the need to keep some material confidential is inherent in any nation's diplomatic activities. But Gration's backtracking caused confusion among advocates who had eagerly tuned in: Despite the AskUS initiative being promoted as a forum for open dialogue, the administration was cagey on some fairly rudimentary points about its new Sudan policy.
Indeed, the Obama administration's Sudan strategy, rolled out on October 19, focuses on calibrating pressures and incentives on the basis of "verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." Yet during yesterday's meeting, advocates were told that the benchmarks for measuring progress were "a process we're working through."
The best summation of the State Department's first foray into citizen engagement 2.0 is, appropriately enough, encapsulated in a tweet by TechPresident blogger Micah Sifry. Responding to the frustration advocates were expressing in real-time to the vagueness of the administration's answers, he wrote, "Whatever you may think about substance of Gration/Power's answers, State Dept just raised the bar on admin transparency efforts." Indeed.
It's not by chance that AskUS was launched around an issue that has such a strong U.S.-based constituency. Let's hope the next meeting sees activists on Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, or any of the other many neglected crises, get an invite to the White House.
Rebecca Hamilton is the author of The Promise of Engagement, a forthcoming book on citizen advocacy in Sudan. She is an Open Society Institute fellow and a visiting fellow at the National Security Archives at George Washington University.
For the past two years, 192 countries have participated in talks on the pressing issue of climate change, which will culminate in the Copenhagen summit next month. So far, more than 40 heads of state have agreed to attend, to act as negotiators and more importantly to demonstrate a firm commitment to ambitious targets. The growing list includes Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
But the RSVPs seem lost in the mail for the leaders of the countries considered to be the lynchpins of the deal -- China, the United States, and India. Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and Manmohan Singh haven't committed yet -- and they should. This summer, Obama indicated he would not attend because Congress has not yet passed climate change legislation. He's since waffled a bit, saying he would if his appearance would close the deal. It's weak tea, and those calling for him to attend include Al Gore and Brazil's da Silva, who used his weekly radio address to implore Obama and Hu to make the trip.
It is less likely that Hu or Singh will attend. Their developing countries have been good negotiators, but reticent to commit to ambitious targets. (China recently called for keeping the Kyoto protocol instead.) If Obama commits, though, they would be a lot more willing -- and that should be reason for the U.S. leader to consider heading across the pond.
In other climate news, the International Energy Agency released its full World Energy Outlook yesterday. One choice doomsday passage:
For every year that passes, the window for action on emissions over a given period becomes narrower -- and the costs of transforming the energy sector increase. We calculate that each year of delay before moving onto the emissions path consistent with a 2°C temperature increase would add approximately $500 billion to the global incremental investment cost...A delay of just a few years would probably render that goal completely out of reach.
The headline on this story reads: "Obama will go to Copenhagen to clinch deal."
That's a touch misleading.
What the headline on this story should really read is: "Obama will go to Copenhagen if and only if his appearance is necessary in order to clinch a deal."
On one hand, this is good news. Even if the United States can't be a strong party in climate change negotiations, it is of vital importance that Obama act as a strong diplomat and negotiator on this issue. The whole world is at stake.
On the other hand, isn't this a bit rich? The U.S. slow-walk on this issue is part of the reason the Copenhagen negotiations have been so fraught. If a comprehensive agreement falters in December, the United States will be in no small part to blame. But its leader might parachute in at the last moment to save the day? Sigh.
LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, seems to have developed a bit of a "mission accomplished" problem when it comes to diplomatic breakthroughs. Last week Clinton hailed Benjamin Netanyahu's "unprecedented" concessions on settlement construction, when it was fairly clear that Palestinians didn't see evidence of any concessions and touted a "historic agreement" to end the ongoing political standoff in Honduras, though it should have been obvious that neither side had any incentive to follow through on the terms of the deal.
The administration has had a number of diplomatic "breakthroughs" that didn't pan out lately. Hamid Karzai's agreement to hold a runoff election in Afghanistan was followed by Abdullah Abdulla's decision to pull out. Dmitry Medvedev's seeming openness to Iran sanctions was contradicted by his own foreign minister. And the Iranian negotiators who agreed to a deal on nuclear enrichment, apparently didn't check with the bosses back in Tehran.
This isn't to say that these efforts were a waste of time or that the setbacks were the fault of the U.S., but out of desire for a tangible foreign policy victory, the administration seems to be developing a tendency to oversell diplomatic tactical victories before it's clear if the other parties will follow through on their commitments.
I agree with Dan Drezner, that no one with reasonable expectations of what U.S. foreign policy can accomplish should be shocked by the fact that the Obama team hasn't achieved major breakthroughs on any of these challenges, but it would be nice if they didn't keep telling us we were witnessing history in the making.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Tom Ricks shares an interesting theory from researcher Kyle Flynn about why the Obama administration is delaying a decision on a new Afghanistan strategy:
Nov. 3, gubernatorial elections in both Virginia and New Jersey. The latter of which is my reasoning why the decision was delayed this long. Corzine is in the fight of his life and Obama is going to piss people off either way.
I'm not sure I buy this. I doubt most voters have Afghanistan on the mind when they decide whether they should pull the lever for Jon Corzine or his Virginia counterpart Creigh Deeds. It's possible that there could be some protest votes from people infuriated with the White House's decision, but while Afghanistan is increasingly becoming "Obama's war," I don't think most people see it as the "Democrats' war." If anything, most of the opposition to an increased U.S. commitment comes from within Obama's own party.
Looking ahead to 2010, this raises the quesiton of how big a campaign issue Obama's Afghan strategy will be. Because this debate doesn't divide easily along party lines, the political questions are pretty complicated.
If Obama to go along with the McChrysrtal plan, it seems unlikely that the majority of Americans who oppose the war would vote for Republicans as a result. Some antiwar voters might choose to stay home out of apathy but it seems like the partisan fury brought on by the healthcare debate alone should be enough to drag them to the polls. If Obama chooses a more limited strategy, I can't image there are that many voters who would have gone Democrat but see Afghanistan as a dealbreaker.
I'm also not convinced that, despite the increased concern, Afghanistan will a dominant politicial issue in U.S. politics in 2010. Even with 40,000 more troops, the total number will be nowhere near the half million that were deployed at the height of the Vietnam war. Unless you know someone in combat, the war in Central Asia is still a farily abstract concept compared with, say, healthcare. And given that it's much more clear what side everyone's on, healthcare makes much better material for attack ads.
So while it's probably true, as it is frequently pointed out, that there's no political upside to the war in Afghanistan, the downside may not actually be that big. Whether or not that's a good thing is a whole other question.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
I'm not surprised by conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer's negative comments about President Obama in an interview with Der Spiegel, but what's his problem with Brazil?
Krauthammer: He is a man of perpetual promise. There used to be a cruel joke that said Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be; Obama is the Brazil of today's politicians. He has obviously achieved nothing. And in the American context, to be the hero of five Norwegian leftists, is not exactly politically positive.
Brazil has "obviously achieved nothing"? The country has pulled off a veritable economic miracle in recent years, maintaining impressive growth rates and accumulating enough cash reserves to become a net creditor, all while expanding social programs. It's weathered the global economic downturn surprisingly well and along with East Asia, seems to be leading the pack in recovery. It's a global leader in investment in alternative energy. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his foreign minsiter Ceslo Amorim have become ubiquitous and influential participants at global summits -- and as my boss recently argued, have shown the Latin American left an alternative to Hugo Chavez's confrontational populism. Brazil recently beat the U.S. for the right to host the 2016 Olympics. (Krauthammer may remember that one.)
I'd say calling someone the "Brazil of politicians" should be a compliment.
I don't quite understand the point of this:
U.S. President Barack Obama asked Spain to pass Cuba a message on the need for democratic reform when he met Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero earlier this month, according to a U.S. official....
"When (Obama) learned that Foreign Minister Moratinos was about to go to Havana, he suggested that Moratinos urge the Castro regime to take steps to reform and improve human rights," the U.S. official said on Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity....
The U.S. request to deliver a message to Cuba was first reported by Spain's El Pais newspaper, which said Obama talked of a potential turning point in the relationship with Havana, but said it was important for Cuba take some steps.
"Have (Moratinos) tell the Cuban authorities we understand that change can't happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began," Obama told Zapatero, according to diplomatic sources quoted by El Pais.
I have a feeling that after half a century, the Castro brothers probably realize that the U.S. doesn't much like the way they run their country and don't need the Spanish foreign minister to tell them. And if Obama has something new to say to the Cuban regime, why can't he say it himself, if not through his own envoy than through a letter.
It sends a pretty strange message that the administration is unwilling to have any direct contact with the Cuban regime, even just to admonish them, but seems to have no problem with other countries doing it.
The Times reports that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in London next week, she expressed concerns that a new Tory government led by David Camerson would cause a rift between Britain and Europe:
Mrs Clinton is said to be worried by Mr Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty if it is not ratified by the time of the next election or seek to repatriate powers given to Brussels in previous agreements. [...]
President Obama has repeatedly made plain that he wants a strong and united Europe as a foreign policy partner on issues ranging from Afghanistan to climate change.
He has less sentimental attachment than many of his predecessors to the traditional “special relationship”. Instead, he believes that Britain should be at the heart of Europe — a position that has been put in doubt by French and German anger over Mr Cameron’s decision to sever ties with the federalist centre right grouping in the Strasbourg Parliament.
Mr Obama is enthusiastic about the idea of a permanent EU president to replace the revolving chairmanship of the EU council, a measure opposed by the Conservatives.
It has long since been Washington’s aspiration to have a “phone to ring” in Europe and there would be strong support for a heavyweight figure such as Tony Blair taking on the role. Mr Obama’s impatience with dealing with the existing European structures is being reflected by an apparent reluctance to attend the next EU/US summit: he may send vice-president Joe Biden to Sweden in his place.
If Obama is intent to see the new EU governance structure put into place, it will be interesting to see if Vice President Biden applies some pressure to Czech President Vaclav Klaus -- the lone holdout on ratifying the Lisbon treaty -- when they meet in Prague on Friday.
Anyone notice how you can describe almost any international trip by the vice president with the following madlib: "Vice President Joe Biden traveled to [U.S. ally] to reassure leaders that they had not been abandonded despite [larger foreign-policy priority.]"?
Check out these examples from the New York Times:
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. left Washington on Tuesday for a three-day swing through Eastern Europe, hoping to reassure NATO allies that the United States has not abandoned them despite the decision to reshape a planned missile defense system.
Wrapping up a diplomatic mission to Baghdad, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Iraqi leaders told him privately that they feared President Obama had pushed Iraq “to the bottom of the shelf” to make way for other, more pressing concerns like the war in Afghanistan.
But, Mr. Biden said, he reassured them that was not the case.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will travel to Ukraine and Georgia after President Obama visits Moscow next month in a trip designed to reassure Russia’s embattled neighbors that the new administration will not abandon them as it seeks to improve ties with the Kremlin.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived here for a seven-hour visit on Friday to assure Lebanese leaders that the sovereignty of this small but strategic Middle Eastern state would not be sacrificed in any future regional peacemaking efforts.
Mr. Biden met with top Bosnian leaders on Tuesday, on the first day of a trip through the Balkans that is intended to draw attention to the unfinished business in the region and the Obama administration’s commitment to helping the countries move beyond their recent history of violence and into the European mainstream.The Balkans all but fell off the American agenda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We are back,” Mr. Biden said. “We will stand with you.”
Kulish loses some points for not using the word "reassure," but we'll cut him some slack since it was early in the adminsitration.
It does make one wonder, at what point are U.S. allies no longer going to be reassured when Biden shows up?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The Dalai Lama is in Washington this week, but he won't be meeting with Obama. This will be the first presidential snub since 1991, and as the Washington Post reports:
The U.S. decision to postpone the meeting appears to be part of a strategy to improve ties with China ... Obama administration officials have termed the new policy "strategic reassurance," which entails the U.S. government taking steps to convince China that it is not out to contain the emerging Asian power."
Recently, FP contributor Wen Liao explained the thinking:
The pragmatism that is Obama's diplomatic lodestar, it seems, comes at a price: Illusions must be abandoned. Publicly recognizing China's territorial unity is the sin qua non for effective bilateral diplomatic relations, and Obama knows it."
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
Ask anyone who watches Sudan policy in Washington about the Obama administratin's special envoy to the country, J. Scott Gration, and one phrase will keep popping up: "He's wandered way off the reservation."
A scathing profile of Gration in the Washington Post today makes all too clear why. What's his strategy? "We've got to think about giving out cookies...Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.
Gration, a former Air Force Major General, has angered just about everyone he could have -- except the Sudanese government (their embassy raved about him when I visited earlier this year). Sudan watchers worry about Gration's engaging approach to Khartoum, getting cozy with a government whose president is indicted for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Human rights activists think that Gration risks not just overseeing inertia in Darfur but sparking another round of combat. In trying to "unite" the rebels, they note, he has favored certain factions over others -- a dangerous recipe in a volatile cocktail of conflict. Aid workers on ground say he doesn't understand what is going on. And colleagues at the State Department say his office doesn't communicate with them, nor heed their policy advice.
At best, he's a headache, they say.
Now, even Congress is concerned. "[I]n recent weeks, the leadership of South Sudan and Darfur have expressed serious concerns about Special Envoy Scott Gration's warm and incentive driven approach toward the ruling National Congress Part (NCP)," members of the House's Sudan Caucus wrote in a letter to President Obama. They add at the end: "It is...important that the Special Envoy's office coodinate and work closely with the State Department..."
Why is all this coming out now? This week will see a meeting among administration officials who will at last approve a long-awaited Sudan Policy Review. Gration's critics are hoping other officials can reign him in. Gration's team told a blogger round table that I attended earlier this month that everything had already been agreed upon, and this meeting was a mere formality.
The Enough Project, Save Darfur Coalition, and Genocide Intervention Network offered a stark warning after the WaPo profile: “The quotes from Special Envoy Gration are deeply troubling. The time is well past for the President, Vice President and Secretary of State to exert much-needed leadership over U.S. diplomatic efforts with Sudan or face the prospect that Sudan will descend into much broader violence.”
Meanwhile, Gration is just back from Sudan, and off to Moscow soon.
Update: The White House says the Washington Post profile inaccurately reflects their policy toward Sudan. This post has also been updated to correctly reflect Gration's travel schedule.
Photo: PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images
The United States State Department got a crash course in the perils of social networking over the weekend.
Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero and his family posed for a picture with Barack and Michelle Obama at the U.N. What the Zapateros didn't know was that the picture would be posted online to the State Department's Flickr page. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except that the people of Spain have never seen any pictures of the prime minister's daughters before.
Spanish Goths/Punks approve of the picture because, well, let's say the girls appear to shop at Hot Topic. (Asunto Caliente?)
Spanish media was conflicted over the photo, many of them published it on the front page; however the state-owned news agency, EFE, did not run the photo. EFE said, "They should not have their personal rights prejudiced by the prime minister's decision to take them to New York."
The prime minister's office was trying to get all of the photos down, claiming he tries to keep his children out of the public eye. A noble cause, it seems there should be some middle ground between the Spanish case and this.
Photo via Gawker.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi thinks it's hilarious to call black people "tanned," and he's just going to keep on doing it:
"I bring you greetings from a person who is called...a person who is sun-tanned...Barack Obama," the smiling 72-year-old politician told a crowd of cheering supporters in Milan on Sunday.
"You wouldn't believe it, but they go sunbathing at the beach together - his wife is also sun-tanned."
Berlusconi first got in trouble for calling Obama "sun-tanned" last November.
If any of you are gamblers, an Irish bookie is now taking bets on who Berlusconi will insult next. Here are the odds:
3/1 Angela Merkel
7/2 Muammar al-Gaddafi
4/1 Gordon Brown
5/1 Nicolas Sarkozy
6/1 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
7/1 The Pope
8/1 Kim Jong-il
14/1 Dmitry Medvedev
18/1 Hu Jintao
18/1 The Queen
25/1 Kevin Rudd
33/1 Stephen Harper
20/1 Brian Cowen
It seems telling that President Obama ended his first major address on climate change not with a stirring call to action, but by urging pragmatism and compromise:
But the journey is long. The journey is hard. And we don't have much time left to make it. It is a journey that will require each of us to persevere through setback, and fight for every inch of progress, even when it comes in fits and starts. So let us begin. For if we are flexible and pragmatic; if we can resolve to work tirelessly in common effort, then we will achieve our common purpose: a world that is safer, cleaner, and healthier than the one we found; and a future that is worthy of our children. Thank you.
It sounds a bit like Obama is premptively defending a climate bill that will probably turn out to be less aggressive than the other delegates in Copenhagen might like and like Bill Clinton, is looking to assure environmentalists that any bill is better than none if it moves the ball forward.
CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus writes in the (London) Times to make the case for a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and praise U.S.-British cooperation:
[W]e need to be realistic in recognising that the campaign will require a sustained, substantial commitment. Many tough tasks loom before us — including resolution of the way ahead after the recent election, which obviously has been marred by allegations of fraud. The challenges in Afghanistan clearly are significant. But the stakes are high. And, while the situation unquestionably is, as General McChrystal has observed, serious, the mission is, as he has affirmed, still doable. In truth, it is, I think, accurate to observe that, as in Iraq in 2007, everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it is hard all the time.
Iran constitutes the main state-based threat to stability in the region. The impact of its malign activities and harsh rhetoric are felt throughout the Arabian Peninsula, making it, ironically, the best recruiter with prospective partners. We now have eight Patriot missile batteries spread across countries on the western side of the Gulf, where two years ago we had far, far fewer.
If Cecil Rhodes was correct in his wonderful observation that “being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life”, and I’m inclined to think that he was, then the second greatest prize in the lottery of life must be to be a friend of an Englishman, and based on that, the more than 230,000 men and women in uniform who work with your country’s finest day by day are very lucky indeed, as am I.
Petraeus also gave an address at London's Policy Exchange think tank, saying, "The challenges in Afghanistan are significant, but the stakes are also high, and while the situation unquestionably is serious, the mission is still do-able." (See the AfPak Channel for more.)
Sending Petraeus to rally British support makes sense, but it makes me wonder why the Obama adminsitration hasn't used Petraeus -- certainly the most well-known military officer in the country and a bona fide pop-culture icon -- to pitch the Afghanistan strategy to the U.S. public.
The media-savvy general seemed to be everywhere during the later Bush years defending the Iraq surge. But Petraeus has been out of the spotlight lately and the job of "selling" Afghanistan seems to have been left to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and the previously unknown Stan McChrystal. With the Pentagon worried about declining public support for the war, it seems odd that they haven't pulled out the big guns, so to speak.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images
By all accounts, former Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried is a very talented diplomat, but as Obama's "Gitmo czar," he's been given one thankless task. Despite some successes -- Hungary this week joined the ranks of Bermuda and Palau in agreeing to take in detainees -- he tells the BBC that progress has been infuriatingly slow:
He says his job is miserable because he is "cleaning up a problem".
He also revealed he was reprimanded by the UK over his decision to send four detainees to Bermuda.[...]
Working out what to do with the remaining detainees is "a huge problem and a complicated one," says Mr Fried.
So far, the number being held there has been reduced by just 16 - and one of those committed suicide. There are now 226 left.
At this rate, Fried's job should be done around 2018. No wonder he's pushing for the U.S. to take some of the detainees in.
Hat tip: UN Dispatch
Ermal Meta/AFP/Getty Images
Somewhat lost in the discussion of whether the United States is betraying its Central European allies by scrapping the planned missile shield, is just how difficult it was to get Poland and the Czech Republic to sign on to the project in the first place.
Around 70 percent of Czechs opposed the idea of hosting the radar system for the missile shield and the final treaty faced strong opposition in parliament. The Polish public was more supportive of the idea, but their government held out for months on agreeing to host the missile interceptors, only signing on after the Bush administration agreed to fund an extensive military modernization program.
Back in February, when today's news began to look like a foregone conclusion, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski acknowleged as much:
“What we would like to be honored is what went along with” the missile-defense system, [Radoslaw] Sikorski, 46, said in an interview yesterday during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia.”
Hopefully the Obama administration will acknowledge this political price and continue (or even expand) defense assistance to both the Czech Republic and Poland. But despite the grumbling in Warsaw and Prague today, the diplomatic damage to the U.S in these countries may not be all that significant.
I asked George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the head of its nonproliferation program, to weigh in on the news, reported last night on The Cable and in this morning's Wall Street Journal, that the Obama administration is pulling back on U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.
There have been signs for months that Obama would do exactly this, but it looks like the administration didn't expect the news to break last night, as officials have seemed unprepared to manage this story in a way that they'd like. (Certainly, the Poles and Czechs must feel they've been treated rudely here.) Already, Drudge is declaring it a "Putin victory" and rounding up global reactions, mostly critical of the move.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, are saying the change is based on a "determination that Iran's long-range missile program hasn't progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals."
In an interview conducted before this latest news broke, the State Department's Ellen O. Tauscher told my colleague Josh Rogin that "What is important is to get the priority of the threat right, current versus emerging."
Here's Perkovich, who thinks it's a long-overdue decision:
Briefly, this is not about kowtowing to Moscow and it is too bad that some will perceive it this way. The proposed system was clearly not well-located to be effective against Iranian missiles. But it was well located to become part of a more ambitious system against Russian missiles. Given that the U.S. intention is to deter or defeat Iranian missiles, canceling this move and planning to develop defenses further to the south is clearly the wise thing to do. The U.S. should not try to develop missile defenses to defeat Russian missiles, because this would only cause Russia to build more and to keep them more ready to be launched rapidly. Russia would fear that the combination of U.S. offensive weapons plus defenses could enable the U.S. to try a disarming first strike against it. Yes, this is a bizarre throwback to the Cold War days, but old habits of thought and practice die hard -- in Moscow and Washington. The administration's decision reduces this risk. It corrects an earlier mistake.
At the same time, however, perceptions matter. So it will be important for the U.S. to reassure Poland and the Czech Republic that the U.S. is wholly committed to their security. There are multiple ways to do this, including military exercises on their territory, etc. The best way would be to encourage Russia to demonstrate a more cooperative and friendly attitude towards these states, which would lessen the sense of threat and the need for the U.S. to reassure its allies against such threats. If Russia chooses not to be more reassuring, especially after this missile defense decision, then it would have no legitimate basis for protesting if the U.S. and NATO take defensive steps to reassure members of the alliance.
On Sunday, the NYT's Peter Baker noted that only 304 of 543 appointed positions have been filled by the Obama administration after nearly a year. Though some of the hold-up has been from petty pork-barrel politics in the Senate, much more has resulted from the White House's incredibly tough preemptive vetting of its own appointees.
This vetting, which has already stopped Paul Farmer from heading USAID, has been defended by the White House, which argues it is ahead of the historical precedent. Why isn't that reassuring?
Even less reassuring is David Herbert's report in the National Journal that the State Department struggling to get security clearances for its interns in time for the periods they were supposed to be working.
One would-be intern, a graduate student at Tufts, came to Washington in May for a summer gig working on development issues. But he never got his security clearance and never started his internship. He's driving home to New York today after spending a frustrating summer spent calling his congressmen for help and wondering what happened.
"With the clearance process, as an applicant, you don't know anything," he said.
Not only are some going home without ever starting, the State Department actually takes this into account when choosing its number of interns. Don't we need to attract more talent into civil service, not scare it off with bureaucracy?
Even worse, the prospective interns most likely to run into delays are those who have spent time living or studying overseas, according to Daniel Hirsch, co-founder of Concerned Foreign Service Officers:
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which handles clearances, farms out most investigations to contractors, who are more efficient at processing applications than the bureau's agents, he said. But when an applicant has lived or traveled extensively overseas (as Buniewicz and others interviewed have), Diplomatic Security (DS) takes over. "Most DS agents consider [personnel security background investigations] to be beneath them, and security clearance investigations are a very low priority item for most overseas DS agents, so they probably sit on the back burner for a while," Hirsch said.
So it is harder to get an early jump on a career at the State Department if you already have international experience. No wonder Paul Farmer gave up on the bureaucratic route.
As a side note, why do interns require such significant security checks? The old joke about interns running everything notwithstanding, are they really handling that much classified material? Any State interns out there, let us know.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
A great crumb from the Washington Independent's Dave Weigel: nearly four in five Americans agreed, in a Fox News poll, that former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea -- during which he successfully lobbied for the release of jailed journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee -- will not encourage the kidnapping of more Americans.
One comment, though. Ling and Lee -- and John Yettaw, the American released from Myanmar over the weekend -- were not kidnapped. They were arrested and put in prison. Seems an important distinction to make.
Here's the battle in a nutshell. The Obama administration -- despite questions raised by eminences grises on Afghanistan, such as Harvard's Rory Stewart -- has chosen to double-down.
Walt argues that Obama's contention --"left unchecked the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans" -- is a myth. Therefore, realists should recognize it hardly justifies remaining in Afghanistan.
Not so, argue the AfPak Channel's Peter Bergen and NYU fellow Paul Cruickshank -- the Taliban do and would provide cover for al Qaeda, justifying the U.S. presence. (Here's a one-time tag for responses from within FP.)
We'll post more replies from other bloggers as they come in -- here's Windy security reporter Spencer Ackerman, for starters. If you've blogged it, leave it in comments!
The new U.S. ambassador to Britain, Louis Susman, has indicated he will not pay the 3.5 million pounds ($5.7 million!) in congestion charges the embassy owes the City of London.
Drivers pay 8 pounds a day for the privilege of driving in a central zone at peak hours -- but the U.S. embassy has refused to pay. The argument? The congestion charge is a tax, not a service fee. And embassies don't pay taxes.
The mayor's office and Transport for London, which administers the program, argue that around three-quarters of embassies pay the charge -- a service, not a tax -- and that the United States should do better than to rely on semantics to wiggle out of it.
I tend to think of congestion charges as taxes. They're designed to encourage certain behaviors and to make money for local governments. London spends the program's surplus (around a third of revenue, or nearly 90 million pounds, in 2007) on transport investment, for instance. But this still seems a little unseemly. What do you think?
Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president and husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited North Korea. He met with dictator Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two American journalists who had been held there for months.
This past weekend, Sen. Jim Webb traveled to Myanmar on a trip through Southeast Asia. Webb -- who likely knows more about the region than anyone else on the Hill -- has long criticized U.S. sanctions on Myanmar. He met with the head of the country's military junta and leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. And he secured the release of an American who had been jailed for breaking into Suu Kyi's compound, where she is on house arrest.
The Obama administration and U.S. news outlets have described these two missions as "private diplomacy." Webb and Clinton are both foreign-policy heavyweights outside the administration. Their stature and connections provided them with the latitude to make entreaties to these rogue, adversarial governments. They offered nothing in terms of aid or support or promises of policy-change -- they did not represent the Washington, of course. But they offered good press and a thread back to the capital -- which proved enough for the strongmen, Kim and Shwe.
Clearly, though, the word "private" is not totally accurate here. Both did it with the administration's nod and help.
The Washington Post wrote of Clinton's visit: "The trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving academics, congressional figures, and senior White House and State Department officials, said sources involved in the planning. North Korea rejected the administration's first choice for the trip -- former vice president Al Gore." The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House approved Webb's mission -- and he used a military plane for the trips.
All of which leaves me a bit queasy, though ultimately hopeful, about this rash of private diplomatic missions.
Part of me thinks the White House shouldn't be in the lame business of disavowing trips it clearly had a hand in making. Further, I worry the United States gave up an opportunity to publicly demand something out of Yangon. Clinton herself has said the United States would consider trading an easing of sanctions for the release of Suu Kyi. Webb may have made some headway towards that goal. But to hear Clinton or Obama comment on it would have doubtless brought a sense of urgency to the issue and shined a brighter spotlight on what the junta needs to change.
On the other hand, both the United States and the rogue governments got what they wanted. The U.S. gave up virtually nothing, got its citizens back, and won some good press for its diplomatic successes. Myanmar and North Korea got, for a moment, to look magnanimous and reasonable -- tempered by the stories about their human-rights abuses, and the fact that Washington did not send interlocutors with actual foreign policy power (Clinton herself, or a committee chair, say) to confer with them.
I suppose these carefully charted and subtle missions proved to work fine. To consider them isolated incidences or unqualified successes (or failures) would be the worst misjudgment -- foreign policy is always about carrots and sticks, and back and forth. This White House gets that really well.
Are voters more inclined to pitch their support to a candidate who looks comfortable kissing babies? It sure seems to have worked for Obama. But what about candidates who have babies?
Rumors that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his lovely wife Carla Bruni are planning to have their first child together in 2011 are spreading around France. The more vicious slant of this gossip is that the couple is orchestrating the pregnancy to secure Sarkozy's reelection.
The chatter comes from the French magazine Voici, which claims the story "has been circulating for several weeks" and that France's first couple is going to use the "'pregnancy card' ... to ensure public sympathy ahead of the next presidential campaign in 2012."
That's quite a charge, even for France's most amorous couple. Both Sarkozy and Bruni have children from prior relationships and while neither has announced plans for a pregnancy -- let alone such a well-timed delivery -- Bruni has said in the past that she'd love to have another child, and is open to adoption. (At 40 the former model has acknowledged conceiving may not be possible.)
There is something to be said for children and their ability to boost a candidate's image, painting him as the warm "family man." Some of the most beloved and iconic images to emerge from any president's time in the White House are those that feature the Kennedy children romping around the Oval Office. Sasha and Malia have certainly taken the world by storm with their adorableness and J.Crew ensembles.
Perhaps Paris will soon hear the pitter-patter of little Sarko-Bruni pieds. But whether or not they'll be dancing to the tune of an election victory may rest on more substantial political matters. Or at least we can hope...
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
In his most recent newspaper column, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro blasts Nobel laureate Oscar Arias's mediation efforts in Honduras and sarcastically proposes giving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a prize for her contributions on behalf of yanki imperialism:
Seen from another angle and returning to things prevailing in the real world, where the dominant empire exists and close to 200 sovereign states are having to battle with all kinds of conflicts and political, economic, environmental, religious and other interests, it only remains to give a prize to the brilliant yanki idea of thinking of Oscar Arias in order to gain time, consolidate the coup and demoralize the international agencies that supported Zelaya. [...]
Now the coup leaders are already moving within Latin America’s oligarchic circles, some of which, in their high state positions, no longer blush when speaking of their sympathies toward the coup, and imperialism is fishing in the troubled waters of Latin America. Exactly what the United States wanted with the peace initiative, while it accelerated negotiations to surround the homeland of Bolívar with military bases.
One must be fair, and while we are waiting for the last word of the people of Honduras, we should demand a Nobel Prize for Mrs. Clinton.
Perhaps Fidel has been reading Ronald Krebs.
Also on the Cuba front, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo sees Raul Castro's recent statements as evidence that he's interested in Chinese style reforms:
[E]verything indicates that Fidel's brother wants to promote reforms in the Chinese style that involve an opening in the economy without changing the political structure. In other words, Castro is willing to institute a free market and private property, but not to hold democratic elections or foster freedom of expression.
A new bill approved by Mexico's congress would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under the new law, treatment programs would be suggested for the first two offences and mandated for the third. Visiting U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seems not quite sure how to feel about it:
"I guess if I was looking at it strictly from our viewpoint, the use of the government as a strong sanction is often pretty helpful in getting people into treatment," said Kerlikowske, who heads the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If the sanction becomes completely nonexistent I think that would be a concern, but I actually didn't read quite that level of de-facto (decriminalization) in the law."
"I would actually give this a bit of a wait and see attitude," said Kerlikowske. "I've always found about laws, whether they've been enacted by states or our own federal government, is that it is the application and the use of the law and how it's actually done" are key.
Kerlikowske was much more enthusiastic about Mexican President Felipe Calderon's tougher proposal, which would mandate treatment for first offenders through special drug courts. Still, the fact that a U.S. drug czar is this open to any decriminalization program from its drug-war ally, does seem significant. The United States publicly criticized a similar bill in 2006.
Kerlikowske disappointed marijuana legalization advocates last week by saying, "Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it's not in mine." But Kerlikowske has previously explained that he does not in any way support legalization, but favors a treatment model over a law-enforcement approach.
The question is whether the drug czar is going to back up his rhetoric with any real reform, especially at a time when the Obama administration has little political capital to spare. His measured response to the Mexican bill and presence at the release of a UN report, which praises Portugal's decriminalization program, may indicate that he's dipping his toe into this debate while making it very clear that legalization is out of the question.
For now, drug law reform advocates will probably have to take a "wait and see attitude" toward him as well.
UIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
Some go around in Mercedes, some in Ladas, but the system forces almost everyone to hitch rides.
In 2006 Castro retaliated by erecting hundreds of 100-foot-high flag poles in the "Anti-Imperialist Plaza" opposite the Interests Section, meant to symbolize the Cuban people's struggle -- and conveniently obstructing view of the ticker.
For a few weeks now the messages have stopped flashing high above the streets of Havana, and although U.S. diplomats initially cited "technical difficulties" as the cause, they say they have no plans to turn it back on. It is a small, but symbolic, gesture as the Obama administration continues to ease hard-line policies against Cuba, and promises a normalization of relations between the two countries in the seemingly not-so-distant future.
I recently came across this ingeniously crackpot post on Alex Jones's popular conspiracy site, Infowars:
A major Ghanaian news outlet has been caught in a revealing slip-up after it reported that President Barack Obama’s recent visit to the African country was a return to his birthplace. [...]
Contained in an otherwise relatively mundane account of Obama’s recent visit to Ghana in the Daily Graphic news outlet is a sentence sure to raise eyebrows amongst people like journalist Jerome Corsi, who has been at the forefront of the Obama birth certificate scandal since well before the election.
The full paragraph reads, “For Ghana, Obama’s visit will be a celebration of another milestone in African history as it hosts the first-ever African-American President on this presidential visit to the continent of his birth.”
Why the Ghanaian news outlet would report that Obama was born on the continent of Africa, when this would instantly invalidate his entire presidency, is unclear.
I really love the idea that The Daily Graphic somehow got the scoop of the century and decided it belonged in paragraph four of their "otherwise mundane account." This would probably qualify as the most egregious instance of "burying the lede" in the history of newspaper journalism.
In any event, I'm curious how people in Kenya (or is it Indonesia? I can't keep up.) are reacting to the birther phenomenon. Are they completely dismissive of the idea, or somewhat intrigued by the possibility of being Obama's birthplace? Any Passport readers abroad hearing anything interesting?
At the opening session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue yesterday, President Obama made a point of referring to one of China's most impressive exports:
In addition to assembling the ballerest cabinet in American history, Obama also seems to really like dropping the names of a country's prominent U.S.-based athletes as an icebraker with possibly suspicious crowds. Here he is in Ankara on April 6:
“President Hu [Jintao] and I both felt that it was important to get our relationship off to a good start,” Obama said. “Of course, as a new president and also as a basketball fan, I have learned from the words of Yao Ming, who said, ‘No matter whether you are new or an old team member, you need time to adjust to one another.’”
Maybe it's just a rhetorical pleasantry, but what if this indicates a new foreign policy doctrine for the Obama era, namely: No matter a country's regime type, economic system, or foreign policy goals, as long as they are represented (well) in U.S. professional sports leagues, there is at least the basis of a productive bilateral relationship with the United States.
This augurs well for a rapproachement with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, which has made substantial contributions to Major League Baseball -- including the manager of Obama's White Sox. Cuba could be a bit problematic, since Cuban baseball players tend to be defectors, but the country's potential baseball contribution is vast, so diplomatic progress will likely be slow but deliberate.
The U.S.-China relationship will remain at least as strong as Yao's knee, but Taiwan can at least count on Chien-Ming Wang in their bid for U.S. support.
Zaza Pachulia's new contract with the Atlanta Hawks should reassure Georgians worried about being abandoned in the Obama administration's Russian reset. Israelis worried about Obama's hard line on settlements should take heart in the recent signing of Omri Casspi by the Sacramento Kings. They may want to keep an eye on the Iranian Hamed Haddadi of the Memphis Grizzlies though, not to mention the NFL's half-Iranian T.J. Houshmanzadeh.
Kim Jong Il as well as his son and probably successor Kim Jong Un are both known to be big basketball fans. If they really want to get the U.S. to the negotiating table, perhaps what they need is not their own nuke, but their own Yao Ming.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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