In a sign that the ongoing U.S.-Israel settlement spat has yet to run its course, the Jerusalem Municipal Authority today announced the authorization of twenty new apartments on the site of an East Jerusalem hotel, only hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was slated to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington:
The local planning council initially approved the plan in July, a move which angered Britain and the United States and prompted them to call on Israel to cancel the plans. The council issued its final approval for the project last Thursday, which now enables the settlers to begin their construction at once.
Reports of a thaw seem to have been premature.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drug war has been going on now for more than three years, and led directly or indirecty to the deaths of more than 18,600 people -- well over the number of U.S. troops killed on 9/11, and in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And yet it never seems to gain traction as a major subject of discussion here in the United States.
Will the killing of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez change that? The White House has already commented on the deaths, saying that President Obama is "deeply saddened and outraged by the news." The State Department is allowing its consular staff to leave cities along the border. Another 13 people were killed Saturday in the fabled resort town of Acapulco -- four of them beheaded. Mexican journalists are being terrified into silence. It certainly feels like we are entering a new phase of conflict.
And that's just Mexico, a relatively strong state. Countries in Central America are being overwhelmed by the traficantes. Guatemala just arrested its drug czar and national police chief for stealing some 1,500 pounds of cocaine from the drug dealers, and it's not clear whether the government there is strong enough to win this fight.
So what is Obama going to do about it? His administration has asked for $450 million from Congress to bolster Mexico's security and counternarcotics forces with new equipment, including helicopters and surveillance aircraft, as an extension of George W. Bush's Merida Initiative. That's on top of the $700 million Congress allocated for 2008 and 2009. Central America has gotten another couple hundred million. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Venezuela outlined a number of other related initiatives during his recent congressional testimony.
If you ask me, it all seems like doubling down on a failed strategy -- a typical example of trying to solve a social and political problem through military and technical means.
To her credit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the United States' own culpability during her recent Latin America trip. "The demand in the large market in the United States drives the drug trade," she said. "We know that we are part of the problem and that is an admission that we have been willing make this past year."
But she offered zero new ideas for addressing the demand side of the equation, and the administration's new drug budget looks a heckuva lot like Bush's drug budget, with its focus on interdicting supplies over treating drug addicts and reducing the secondary effects of drug use ("harm reduction"). Obama's drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, recently said that legalizing marijuana in any way was "a nonstarter," even as more states move ahead with their own decriminalization initiatives.
So are the Obamans smart enough to know better, but trapped by politics and afraid to try a bold new approach? Or do they really believe in the drug war?
I've been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration's decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the Green Line that demarcates Israel's pre-1967 border. The rebuking began with Biden's statement Tuesday, escalated with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's angry 43-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, and continued with White House advisor David Axelrod today describing the housing announcement as an "affront" and an "insult."
Earlier in the week, Washingotn Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl complained that Biden had fallen into a "Middle East trap" by condemning the housing announcement. Diehl made some good points, but his argument would be more persuasive if it didn't cite Condoleezza Rice as an example of how to better handle this kind of Israeli ambush.
All I could find today was this utterly unpersuasive blog post by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, who says that Ramat Shlomo carries "strategic importance" and that the notion Israeli settlements undermine U.S. security is "rubbish." It is very difficult to think of anyone who isn't a hardcore partisan of the Israeli right who would agree with these sentiments.
Meanwhile, the harsh U.S. criticism is having its intended effect, at least for now. Israeli newspapers are jumping all over a chastened Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni is feeling emboldened, and some in the Labor Party are threatening to pull out of Netanyahu's coalition if he doesn't shape up. The Jerusalem council that approved the construction is planning to lay low next week.
I don't believe for a minute that this fight will make U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell's mission any easier; the conditions for peace simply aren't in place. But this showdown with Israel is important for a larger reason: the Obama administration desperately needs to show that it isn't going to be pushed around by anyone. Now that he has embraced a policy of confrontation, the president needs to follow through -- to back down would only signal to powers like China and Russia that Obama really is the pushover they've always assumed him to be.
UPDATE: AIPAC sides with Netanyahu, calling on the administration to "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests." This could get ugly for Obama.
This must have been humiliating. P.J. Crowley had to climb down today from his recent remarks about Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, in which the State Department spokesman said that Qaddafi's speech before the U.N. General Assembly amounted to "lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense." Crowley was responding to Qaddafi's threat to declare a "jihad" against Switzerland for arresting his son, but chose to go off script.
Turns out the Libyans were not happy about Crowley's remarks, and threatened to retaliate against U.S. oil companies seeking to do business in Libya.
From today's press briefing, here's Crowley:
I want to clarify the U.S. position regarding Libya. We are strongly committed to the bilateral U.S.-Libyan relationship, and Secretary Clinton has asked Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman to travel to Tripoli next week for a series of bilateral consultations.
Regarding the personal comments I made last week, I want to provide some context. I responded to a question regarding use of the term “jihad” in the context of relations between Libya and Switzerland. I should have focused solely on our concern about the term “jihad,” which has since been clarified by the Libyan Government. I understand that my personal comments were perceived as a personal attack on the president. As I made clear to Libyan Ambassador Ali Aujali when Assistant Secretary Feltman and I called upon him in his office on Friday, these comments do not reflect U.S. policy and were not intended to offend. I apologize if they were taken that way. I regret that my comments have become an obstacle to further progress in our bilateral relationship.
It should be noted that "progress" in ties between Libya and the United States has been pretty slow and spotty since the two countries began normalizing relations. As I reported last week, Libya experts are pretty skeptical that the country can really change -- and the reason boils down to Qaddafi, whose mercurial rule has left Libya with basically no functioning institutions. Nor is it necessarily the case that U.S. companies are desperate to do business in Libya, given the political risks. And I'd say those risks just went up.
It looked this morning like U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was going to have a nice, friendly visit to Israel, even though the government there announced on the eve of his trip that it was approving new construction in an existing settlement bloc in the West Bank.
"The bond between our two nations has been and will remain unshakable," Biden wrote this morning in President Shimon Peres's guestbook. "Only together can we achieve lasting peace in the region." He also praised Peres as "articulate."
The State Department's initial statement on the matter was exceedingly cautious, suggesting that the United States was willing to swallow Israel's argument that the new building didn't violate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 10-month moratoriumon on new settlement construction.
But then, the Israeli Interior Ministry added another wrinkle, announcing a plan to build 1,600 new homes in hotly contested East Jerusalem. The official story is that Netanyahu didn't know the announcement was coming, and that Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the hard-line Shas Party, was freelancing. Apparently the prime minister's office is looking into the matter.
Biden came out with this harsh statement today:
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict. The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world. Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues. As George Mitchell said in announcing the proximity talks, "we encourage the parties and all concerned to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."
UPDATE: Yishai is now saying he didn't know about the 1,600 new housing units either, as it was all just "a technical authorization in Jerusalem, which isn't part of the settlement freeze" and therefore didn't require his signoff. This, frankly, doesn't pass the laugh test.
Nor does this:
"If I'd have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone," Yishai said. "It is definitely unpleasant that this happened during Biden's visit. If the committee members would have known that the approval would have escalated to such a situation, they would have informed me," Yishai emphasized.
Haaretz also quotes "a high-ranking official in Jerusalem" saying that Netanyahu has "no problem" with the new construction but would have preferred not to embarrass Biden. Nice of him.
So what should the United States do? The danger is that whoever was behind this little maneuver will get what they want -- deep-sixing the recently announced proximity talks -- if the Obama administration moves to somehow punish Israel for this ploy. But the United States is not in the business of punishing Israel for major sleights like this (most likely, Biden's statement was the end of it, and maybe some Israeli officials will have more trouble getting their calls returned for a few weeks). That leaves the unpalatable option of letting the Palestinians walk away from the table before they get there, which is the equivalent of throwing the Israeli hard-liners into ye olde briar patch.
Debbi Hill - Pool/ Getty Images
It's not every day that former presidents write us letters. And here at FP, we knew we had quite a document on our hands when Jimmy Carter took the unusual step of writing in to defend his legacy in response to Walter Russell Mead's article,"The Carter Syndrome." As Jared Keller of the Atlantic noted, "This comparison may be relatively commonplace, but the reaction was not." Since the letter appeared, it's been fascinating to watch the reactions to the letter from both sides of the political spectrum.
Obama's critics were understandably delighted that it was Carter, who was upset by the comparison to Obama. Fox News' Sean Hannity was positively giddy:
Former President Jimmy Carter is fuming. Given his disastrous record in office you would think that he would be happy to be compared to the Anointed One, but apparently President Obama has made such a mess that even Carter is now distancing himself.[...]
Judging by the way things are going, I predict by 2012 President Obama will want to be compared to Carter.
Rob Port of the Say Anything blog had a similar reaction: "You know things are bad when Jimmy Carter doesn’t want his legacy tarnished by comparisons to you."
As Drew Grant of Mediaite pointed out, this isn't quite correct. Carter's letter was a defense of his own record, and contained no criticism of Obama's. Carter was objecting to the idea that his legacy should be considered a benchmark for failure.
Other writers took note of the anger of Carter's tone. "[Carter] can get good and cranky when he feels his legacy is being misrepresented," wrote Politico's Glenn Thrush. Tigerhawk said the letter showed that Carter "has the thinnest skin of any postwar president with the possible exception of Richard Nixon. " At RealClearPolitics, Jeremy Lott put the letter foward as an example of "how not to defend your legacy":
Normally, when a piece appears in a major media outlet that riles up a former U.S. president, he calls a few former aides, advisers, and sympathetic academics. They launch a coordinated attack on his behalf without ever quite admitting that they were put up to it. This creates the illusion of a groundswell of support for a venerable public figure and it allows the one time commander-in-chief to appear above the fray. Reporters will ask him about it and he can quote the experts who came to his defense.
Instead, Carter decided to take matters into own hands. The results are not good. From first sentence to last, his letter demonstrates paper thin skin, arrogance, and the flawed judgment that turned him into a one-term president.
Not all commentators found the letter unconvincing, though. For instance, the New America Foundation's Michael Cohen called Carter and Brzezinski's letters "a pretty compelling case on behalf Carter's foreign policy legacy."
The funny thing about all of this is that, as Mead himself has wrote in his response, the article wasn't even really about Carter but about "the intellectual, cultural, and political challenges [Obama] faces.”
Responding on his own blog to the article's critics, Mead writes:
"Of this group of dissenters... President Carter is the only person I’ve voted for, and I am honored to have his reply, even if we don’t reach the same conclusions."
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
On his New Yorker blog, George Packer takes aim at the "devastatingly unremarkable" bloviation of Beltway journos. He cites Washington Post columnist (and "dean" of the Washington press corps) David Broder's analysis of a recent Sarah Palin speech as "[showing] off a public figure at the top of her game -- a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself." He also offers up the New York Times' Adam Nagourney's coverage of a recent Republican leadership conference: "Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way."
These two characterizations from two top writers for the United States' two leading papers, Packer argues, are but purple guff -- in the words of Michael Kelly, examples of how the "idea of image" is "faith in Washington." The journalists follow the same, strange, well-worn routine. They take the mundane comings and goings of major political figures, interpret them according to prevailing partisan winds, and write them up in the overheated, undercooked language of a harlequin novel. The result is airy nonsense that fervently insists on its trenchancy.
Packer further demonstrates the absurdity of this journalistic convention by satirically recasting the Palin passage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats."
The point is that Washington coverage of major political figures is not just bizarre stylistically, but dead substantively. To discuss for hundreds of words how Palin is at the top of her game is to spend hundreds of words not discussing her actual relevance to the fractured conservative scene. Foreign correspondence on major political figures needs to be more explanatory than illlustrative -- and it would be better if coverage of Washington were more like the clear-eyed, clean-written analysis of Kabul.
Yet, Washington is -- we all must agree -- as complicated and tribal and strange a town as any. Contrary to Packer, I see it as increasingly covered as if it were, with the conventional-wisdom reporting shifting away from personality-focused atmospherics towards structure- and process-focused explanation.
It is a matter of necessity. It once used to be that you understood the presidency by understanding the president, at least according to the corps. Clinton was a man of appetite and a bleeding heart -- ergo the klieg-lit campaigns, the Lewinsky affair, the Brady Bill, the low-income tax cut. Then, the press corps put George W. Bush on the couch. The stubborn Texan-by-way-of-Connecticut was always trying to prove himself to his father, the correspondents said, hence the invasion of Iraq and the wartime tax cut.
But you'd look like an idiot trying to explain Obama's Washington by explaining (the rather Vulcan) Obama. To be sure, the press corps has limned his psychology -- most brilliantly in the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza's profile of Obama's sharp-elbowed navigation of the Chicago machine and most obviously in the Obama-as-poker-player stories. Both Broder and Nagourney have filed the profiley fluff Packer derides. But both Broder and Nagourney have also written granular pieces on the strange conventions and rules of the White House and Hill.
It seems the deans of Washington journalism are increasingly treating their home city the way Packer treats Kabul -- and it is a very good thing indeed.
U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated that he will not make any recess appointments next week, while senators are back in their home states for the president's day holiday. Earlier in the week, Obama had signaled he might make the direct appointments -- circumventing the molasses-slow senate confirmation process, currently holding up scores of nominees, via this constitutionally granted executive privilege -- after senators approved 27 nominees yesterday.
Now, confirmation math is notoriously tricky. The numbers constantly change as the White House nominates and Congress takes appointees up. But some numbers we know for sure. At the one-year marker, George W. Bush had 70 nominees pending. Obama had 171. During Bush's first year, only three nominees waited for confirmation for more than three months. Forty-five of Obama's have waited more than four months; nine have waited more than six.
And the Republican minority has thrown sand in the gears of vitally important national security nominees -- who are, by congressional tradition, generally not subject to the absurd congressional tradition of holds. During wartime, Republicans held up the nomination of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Sec. of the Army John McHugh, a Republican. Even after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, Sen. Jim DeMint kept a hold on Obama's nominee to the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers. Even after yesterday, Philip Goldberg, Obama's nominee to lead the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, remains at home -- despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid taking to the floor to demand his confirmation.
So, even if the Senate confirmed 27 nominees yesterday, it is hard to argue it has been keeping pace. As far as I can figure, Obama got nothing in return for not making recess appointments this go-around -- it isn't as if the Republicans will let go a hold on another appointee or send him a fruit basket. And he has only further alienated the labor left and frustrated Dems on the Hill. Nobody's happy, vital security and diplomatic nominees are still pending, and I can't see the decision as anything but bizarre.
There's no two ways about it: The last year of foreign policy had more drama than a Scorsese epic and enough thrills to put Avatar to shame. From the fearsome battle in the Afghan hills to the U.S.-China love-hate relationship, and from the serious al Qaeda threats in Yemen to the hard-to-take-seriously pirates off the Somali coast, 2009 was arguably a much more interesting year for global politics than for movies. So with Oscar nominations due tomorrow, we're taking nominations for our own FP Oscars.
Who would you pick for the best actor of the year? Is President Barack Obama holding his own in an unfriendly world, or does the ubiquitous Brazilian President Lula deserve an Oscar? Is Muammar Qaddafi's persona just too good to be true, or do you prefer the smooth, suave diplomacy (and wacky domestic antics) of France's Nicolas Sarzoky?
You tell us what scandals, dramas, tragicomedies, and personal stories are your picks for the history books in 2009. Listed below are the categories and a few sample entries. Send your own nominations to Joshua.Keating@foreignpolicy.com or paste them in the comments below. May the best news win!
Best picture: What one story encapsulates the year?
Best drama: Spies, dissidents, treachery, and truth. Were the adrenaline-pumping protests following the Iran elections the most dramatic event? Or perhaps it was the long, drawn-out U.S. decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. If you have a humanitarian bent, the crises in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan might come a heart-wrenching first.
Best comedy: If it isn't a tragedy, the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress is certainly good for a laugh. Then again, how about the Copenhagen Climate conference that ended in a collective shrug? Or the British MPs who used their expense accounts to buy fancy rugs and re-dig their backyard swimming pools?
Best romantic comedy: Gordon Brown requested meeting after meeting with the U.S. president; Obama just didn't have time. Brown gave him a romantic antique biography of Churchill, and Obama gave him a DVD box set. Let's just say the special relationship isn't all it used to be. But then again, there are other comedies in Europe these days ... Berlusconi anyone?
Best romantic drama: Unclear whether this should be a drama or a comedy, but the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladamir Putin certainly have a relationship worth noting -- as their press photographer has shown time and time again...
Best action: A U.S. ship is seized in the Gulf of Aden and devious pirates take the Maersk Alabama captive on the high seas, demanding a ransom for their deed. But lo and behold! A brave captain sacrifices his freedom to save his crew. And the U.S. whacks three pirates in the end, bringing everyone home safely! Phew!
Best special effects: Hmm, how about that missile launch in North Korea? It hit right on target: the Pacific Ocean.
Best director: Nicolas Sarkozy is a whirling dervish of diplomatic activity.
Best actor: Very few world leaders can also claim their own daily television shows -- and surprisingly humorous ones at that. "Alo Presidente" hasn't exactly skyrocketed Hugo Chavez to fame (his coup attempt back in the 1990s did that), but man has this guy mastered media in the Drudge Era.
Best actress: On a more serious note, few women leaders have been more powerful this year in asserting political freedom than Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Or does Hillary Clinton have your vote? As one FP staffer put it, "she's the queen of 'the show must go on.'"
Best supporting actress: Is Carla Bruni the perfect companion for a perfectionist French president?
Best supporting actor: Let's be honest: One man whose entire year has been a story about other people's interests is the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. For all his posturing and pontificating, he was never running the show.
Best costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes.
Worst costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes. You decide.
Lifetime achievement award: Fidel? Kim Jong Il? Mubarak? Most of the longest-lasting players on the world stage aren't particularly savory characters. Got someone better?
We'll post a full list of nominees based on your e-mails and comments on Monday, Feb. 8 and give you a chance to vote. The final winners will be announced at the end of the month.
We promise to keep the musical numbers short.
Ben Bernanke is just one easy vote away from winning a second term as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. (Meaning Janet Yellen doesn't need to pack her bags.)
Opposition to Bernanke had been brewing since last spring, steeling in the last few weeks as a string of high-profile senators -- Republicans and Democrats, among them Barbara Boxer and John McCain -- said they opposed giving the Princeton academic another term at the helm of the world's most important central bank.
To explain the nuts and bolts of the process: Several senators had threatened to filibuster Bernanke, preventing the chamber from calling an up-down vote to confirm him. Bernanke's nomination just cleared the high supermajority hurdle to end that debate, with 77 senators voting to get the motion onto the floor. Now, Bernanke needs 51 senators to say yes, which they're planning to do this afternoon.
In the final speech of debate on the nomination, Sen. Chris Dodd said, "This is not some assistant undersecretary of some other agency. This is the central bank chairman of the most important central bank in the world. [Reconfirming Bernanke] is a critically important component in continuing our path to economic recovery." Sen. Jim DeMint is now tweeting his disapproval.
Shouldn't be going on for too much longer, but interested readers can watch the Senate floor live on C-SPAN here.
Update: Bernanke was confirmed, 70-30.
What limited foreign-policy-related moments there were in Obama's speech tonight weren't too surprising. He checked a few familiar boxes, such as terrorism, North Korea, Iran, and nuclear weapons. But a couple moments caught my eye, for instance the section on energy, where he called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country" and said the United States needed to make "tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development." Not exactly the energy policy his supporters thought they voted for.
Then there was his disappointing discussion of trade, which included a bizarre promise to double U.S. exports in five years. Does this mean he expects the dollar to drop dramatically? He also announced the launching of "a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security" (more on that topic here), and vowed to "seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are." Nothing here, other than a cursory, noncommittal mention of the Doha round, indicates that Obama views trade as anything other than a zero-sum game. There's a name for this approach to trade: mercantilism.
My colleagues here have been weighing in on Google's "bombshell" revelation that China has been spying on dissidents and human rights activists, trying to crack open their Gmail accounts, presumably with the aim of monitoring and disrupting their activities. A lot of commentary is so far focused on the immediate issue at hand -- China's crushing censorship and Google's controversial policy of accomodating it in the hopes of gaining market share (see Jordan Calinoff's excellent dispatch on how this policy has largely failed). Of course, we already knew China did this sort of thing, but having the details so dramatically thrust into the public sphere is shocking. This is going to be a huge, ongoing story, not only because Google and China are two of the biggest and most widely debated news topics in the world, but also because nearly everyone's going to sympathize with the people whose privacy and peace of mind has been violated.
There's a larger story developing though, of a very tense year in relations between China and the West. Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer made that prediction earlier this year, and it's probably happening even faster than he imagined. In addition to this Google story, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already jumped on, there's also a brewing U.S.-China fight over arms sales to Taiwan, China's recent missile test in retaliation, and a guerrilla trade war that now seems more likely to develop into a full-blown trade conflict.
By overplaying its hand with the activists, and messing with a huge global company with a massive ability to get its message out, China has foolishly just thrown away whatever goodwill it has built up over the years through its "charm offensive" -- at least in the West. Now, those arguing across a range of issues that China is a bad actor have been handed an enormous rhetorical club to beat Beijing over the head with. It's going to get ugly.
Since the Pants Bomber thankfully failed to blow up Nortwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, the United States has taken a long, hard look at the security failures that allowed him onto the plane -- particularly given that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had alerted U.S. authorities to his 23-year-old son's radicalization. Increasingly within Washington, there are calls for heads to roll. So, a straw poll: Who's it going to be?
Tom Ricks blogged this morning about a new think-tank paper by Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the U.S. Army's top intelligence officer in Afghanistan. No big deal, right? These sorts of papers are published every day in Washington.
Well ... not exactly. Turns out the Pentagon was none too pleased with Flynn's methods, and perhaps his conclusions as well.
"I think it struck everybody as a little bit curious, yes," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters. "My sense is that this was an anomaly and that we probably won't see that (in the future)."
Ouch! "It was an unusual and irregular way to publish a document of this nature," Whitman added for good measure.
The paper rips U.S. intelligence officials in Afghanistan as being "ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers."
"Eight years into the war in Afghanistan," Flynn writes, "the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."
Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which published the paper, explains Flynn's motives thusly:
As I understand it, the paper was released through CNAS because Gen. Flynn wanted to reach beyond his own chain of command and his own community and talk to people such as commanders of deploying infantry units about what kind of intelligence they should be demanding."
One also suspects that Flynn must have conveyed his message to his superiors already, and grew frustrated that he wasn't gaining any traction. I will say that the timing of the report is slightly unfortunate, coming just after the CIA suffered its worst losses in the field in a quarter century. At the same time, the suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman only serves to underscore the idea that the U.S. intelligence community is out of its depth in Afghanistan.
Heavens to Betsy! The Obamas aren't going to enough embassy parties, frets Time's Mark Halperin, the self-styled voice of Washington's collective wisdom:
In 2008 the country clearly craved new leadership that would sweep into the capital and change the ways of Washington. But politically and personally, the First Couple and their top aides have shown no hankering for the Establishment seal of approval, nor have they accepted the glut of invitations to embassy parties and other tribal rituals of the political class. In the sphere of Washington glitter, the Clintons were clumsy and the Bush team indifferent, but the Obama Administration has turned a cold shoulder, disappointing Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the über-cool newbies would play.
That's via Matt Yglesias, who mockingly says it's "[s]hocking that the über-cool don’t want to go to embassy parties."
I don't think I need to point out that Halperin's gripe is ridiculous. I will posit, however, that perhaps the Obama's aren't playing a Beltway game. Michelle, for instance, made a much-ballyhooed guest cameo on the Food Network's Iron Chef America program Sunday night, touting her organic White House vegetable garden. I don't know about Georgetown salons, but a lot of the eco-friendly folks in various European embassies would probably heartily approve of that sort of thing.
The White House has posted the text of the statements U.S. President Barack Obama gave on the attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 and the brutal Ashura crackdown on protesters in Iran.
the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.
As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. That's who we are as Americans; that's what our brave men and women in uniform are standing up for as they spend the holidays in harm's way. And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the new year and beyond.
We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran. We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there. And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.
The White House included translations of the Iran portion into Arabic and Persian.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
In recent days, a number of press stories have strongly conveyed U.S. officials' demand that Pakistan go after not just the Mehsud tribal grouping, a.k.a. the Pakistani Taliban, but also Siraj Haqqani's network next door in North Waziristan. The messages have been delivered in public and in private from the highest levels -- President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen, and presumably others. (Jane Perlez of the New York Times reports on Pakistan's exasperation with all this pressure here.)
Yes, Haqqani is bad news and his people are killing U.S. troops and probably harboring al Qaeda. But I'm a little puzzled by the impatience the Obama administration is showing. For one thing, Pakistan is still mopping up in South Waziristan, and bombs are still going off in Pakistani cities. And let's also keep in mind that the Pakistani Army had to cut a deal with Haqqani just to safely get to South Waziristan. So it's a little premature for Pakistan to start multiplying its enemies.
Then there's the point that Peter Feaver raises here, which is that Pakistan is hedging its bets because it isn't sure the United States is going to stick around in South Asia and is paranoid about India's rising influence in Afghanistan. Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, writing for FP, relayed the following anecdote, sourced to "a highly placed Pakistani official":
Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power[.]
My point here is that no amount of hectoring from U.S. officials is going to change Pakistan's strategy -- there has to be a change in how Islamabad sees its interests. A couple stars have to align: India has to somehow allay Pakistani fears, the United States has to convince Pakistan that it's staying in Aghanistan for the long haul, and Pakistan needs to feel confident that it has the situation in the tribal areas well in hand. It would be foolish for Pakistan to rush into a new conflict in North Waziristan based on America's word alone.
Megan McArdle links to an article from the Guardian archive, reporting on the awarding of the Nobel prize to Theodore Roosevelt on Dec. 11, 1906. Let's just say, they handled things a little differently back then:
The Prize was received by Mr. Peirce, the American Minister, in the Storthing, at half-past one this afternoon. The members of the Nobel Prize Committee were seated in front of Ministers. At the invitations of the President of the Storthing and the President of the Prize Committee, Mr Lövland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that the Peace Prize had been awarded to President Roosevelt, who had authorised the American Minister to receive it. [...]
"In handing the prize to the American Minister, the President asked him to take Mr. Roosevelt a greeting from the Norwegian people, and expressed the wish that Mr. Roosevelt might be able to do further work for the cause of peace in the future.
"Mr. Peirce, in thanking the Storthing for the award, said that any words of his were inadequate to express his deep emotion in receiving this distinguished testimony on behalf of President Roosevelt. He then read a message from President Roosevelt expressing deep thanks for the prize, and declaring that there was no gift he could appreciate more. The President adds that he has decided to use the prize to establish at Washington a permanent Industrial Peace Committee, a righteous peace in the industrial world being as important as in the world of nations."
Roosevelt didn't even come to pick up the award and didn't even send a high profile representative! Herbert Peirce was a third assistant secretary of state turned envoy extraordinary to Norway. I realize that transatlantic travel was trickier back then, but I can't help thinking from reading this and the amount of significance we attach to this prize has increased quite a bit over the years. Roosevelt was grateful for the recognition and the money, but it doesn't seem like anyone was too worked up about it.
If we take the award for what it is, a recognition named after a dynamite tycoon given out by a group of Norwegian politicians with a questionable track record, all the sturm and drang of the last couple months starts to seem pretty ridiculous. The only reason that we're concerned about whether Obama has really earned this prize or whether it's appropriate for a war president to receive it (T.R. was no pacifist either) is because we've given this award talismanic significance that it doesn't really deserve. Just imagine that Obama has just won the "Parliament of Norway Prize for Extraordinary Statesmanship" then try to get emotional about it. Of course then Obama could have just had Barry B. White pick it up for him.
Today marks the start of a grueling set of four congressional hearings for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal:
We'll be live-blogging and live-tweeting throughout, and watch for thorough coverage on the AfPak Channel as well.
So, what to look for?
Well, above all: details about the Obama administration's planned escalation of the conflict, including where the soldiers are headed, information about strategic goals, information about the civilian surge and population-centric strategy, questions about the importance of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and questions about relations with the Karzai government and Pakistan.
Also: dissent. Eikenberry and McChrystal aren't particularly fond of one another right now. The ambassador reportedly strongly questioned the strategy the latter helped create, arguing that sending more troops without bolstering the Afghan government might foster dependency and undercut the state; McChrystal, in contrast, wanted to send 40,000, rather than 30,000, troops. One of the unstated goals of the hearings will be to show a united face. But members of congress, as well as the press, will be looking for any cracks.
Others on this site will weigh in soon with more in-depth analysis of the president's speech tonight, but a couple thoughts right off the bat.
No matter how forceful his explanation of the stakes in Afghanistan, Obama was unlikely to convince those who don't see the war as worth it. On the other hand, I think that viewers were waiting to hear the president set out an specific and achievable goal. Clearly we're not building Sweden in Central Asia, but I believe it was important for the president to give an idea of what an acceptable end-state would be, by the time troops start to pull out in 2011. Here's what he had to say:
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.
It seems likely to me that whether or not these conditions exist is still going to be open to debate in 2011. Also interesting, given his emphasis on Pakistan in the rest of the speech, is that he doesn't define the stability of Pakistan as an objective. To be fair, sending U.S. troops to die for Asif Ali Zardari is pretty much a non-starter of an argument.
Obama's explicit rejection of the Vietnam parallel also jumped out:
First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now – and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance – would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.
This seems like a bit of strawmanship. Just because the conditions in Afghanistan don't resemble Vietnam, doesn't eliminate the potential for quagmire. Iraq doesn't look much like Vietnam either. And Obama doesn't really answer the argument of those, like his vice president, who believe that a limited counterterrorism strategy would be the least worst option considering the dysfunction of the Afghan government.
If anything, the cautious tone of this speech revealed a president far from enthusiastic about his strategy. You can expect commentators to suggest that the president's heart isn't in the fight. But I expect that the mindset Obama projected -- deeply ambivalent about the options he's faced with but resigned to what he believes is a necessity -- will resonate with many viewers much more than a guns-blazing call-to-arms would have.
This weekend, Honduran citizens voted Porfirio Lobo president, months after a coup ousted Manuel Zelaya. Here, Foreign Policy contributor and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto J. Reich replies to criticism of his FP article on the coup.
How does one rebut so many errors and distortions as those in Christopher Sabatini and Daniel Altshuler's response ("Calling a Coup a Coup," from Nov. 2) to my Foreign Policy article on Honduras ("Honduras is an Opportunity," from Oct. 27). Let us deal with just some of them.
By my count, Sabatini and Altshuler (hereafter, "SA") repeat the term "coup" 11 times, an incantation designed to cast a spell over the reader. But no matter how many times the liberal duo recite the mantra to misidentify the events that removed Manuel Zelaya from office, it was not a coup. Since the entire letter is based on that false premise, its conclusions are equally false.
SA accuse me of "ideological revisionism," for saying the U.S. should recognize the transitional government that is based on Honduran law, while they insist on calling a constitutional removal of a law-breaking president by a unanimous vote of a nation's Supreme Court, a "coup." Curiously, SA dismiss the Supreme Court action by citing two obscure U.S. academics' papers which portend to rebut a U.S. Law Library of Congress report that supported the legality of Zelaya's ouster. Is that ideological on their part, or just plain confused?
The ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, had violated several articles of the Honduran Constitution (as documented in the aforementioned Supreme Court decision), and therefore according to Honduran law (not my opinion) he was no longer president of Honduras when he was deported (the deportation was not legal, but it occurred after the legal removal from office). Further evidence that Zelaya's removal was not a coup was the ratification of his removal by a nearly unanimous vote of the Honduran Congress. SA gloss over Zelaya's violations of the law and focus instead on his subsequent -- and inexcusable -- deportation.
SA claim that "Reich vigorously defended Micheletti's assumption of power as the victory of the rule of law and a stand against Latin American leftists." False. I not only did not defend (or condemn) Micheletti, I mention Micheletti only once in my article, in passing, acknowledging that he replaced Zelaya. This is only one example of the paucity of facts in SA's article. I am not sure whose article they were rebutting, but I don't think it was mine. Their allegations are directed at "conservatives," "Micheletti apologists," and others -- people I know did not write my FP article.
Attacking "conservatives" put SA in a bind. They charge that "U.S. conservatives have argued that Barack Obama's administration should recognize the Nov. 29 elections in Honduras as a way out of the political crisis." Actually, it is not only U.S. conservatives, but also the Obama administration that has come to that conclusion, as evidenced in the agreement brokered by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon in late October. It was Zelaya who renounced the agreement just days after he had signed it. Shannon then said the U.S. would recognize the winner of the Nov. 29 elections as the legitimate head of the next Honduran government.
In their letter to FP, SA praise the U.S.-brokered accord as follows: "[Most] importantly, the prospective settlement sets the stage for internationally recognized elections that will transfer power to a new president and help the country move forward." I agree. And contrary to SA's implication, I support that accord and think it is the best way out of the current crisis. I would hope that Zelaya's retreat from it has not caused SA to reverse course.
Although most of their letter can be dismissed as confused and self-contradictory, Sabatini-Altshuler's ideological motivation in attacking "U.S. conservatives'" position on the Honduras electoral crisis (as embodied by me, I assume) is serious. In concluding, SA claim that the "conservative" posture on Honduras they have attacked in their letter "would have mirrored the United States' foreign-policy blunders in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, the United States supported façade democracies -- deadly authoritarian regimes that held civilian elections to legitimize their rule -- to pursue questionable geopolitical aims. This position cheapened elections and weakened nascent democracies."
This not only reveals a clear leftist ideological direction by SA, but also a revisionism resulting in crass historical distortion. This is a contemptible and ignorant slap at Ronald Reagan, the president in "the 1980s," under whom unprecedented progress was made in hemispheric democracy. When Reagan took office in 1981, a majority of Latin Americans lived under military dictatorships. When the conservative Reagan left office eight years later, the situation had been reversed: An overwhelming majority of our neighboring countries had transitioned to democracy after long and brutal dictatorships, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Chile. Which of those governments were "façade regimes," as in SA's accusation? Which were U.S. policy blunders? In which of those countries did the U.S. weaken "nascent democracy"?
As someone who worked for Ronald Reagan for those eight years, I can attest that democratic progress was no accident. It was the result of a policy designed and implemented to bring freedom and democracy to our hemisphere. That two American liberals attempt to re-write history and thus demean the U.S. role in the advance of freedom in this region, imperfect as it was but one that came at a high cost in lives and treasure, is an obvious illustration of the moral bankruptcy of American liberalism today.
But SA are not satisfied with running down their country: Their despicable and rude anti-Reagan screed reaches another ridiculous nadir with the statement that those (1980s) U.S. policies were based on "the pursuit of questionable geopolitical aims." Really? What aims were those? The main geopolitical aim of Ronald Reagan, as I remember, was the defeat of communism. The policy succeeded. And with it came an unprecedented global spread of freedom, human rights and prosperity. By whose standards was this policy "questionable?" I do recall it was questionable to the Kremlin, many western Marxist "intellectuals," and most Third World socialist despots and guerrilla leaders. It was not questionable to the hundreds of millions of people of Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union whom it helped to liberate from oppression. We now know they supported Reagan. As did the other hundreds of millions people who benefitted from the end of the Cold War and from the ensuing prosperity resulting from the "peace dividend".
Why does U.S. Cold War policy appear to be a "blunder" to Sabatini-Altshuler? For the same reason they cannot see why the U.S. should support free elections in Honduras. Historical ignorance and political ideology blinds them.
Barack Obama's got a tough job Tuesday, when the U.S. president lays out his new Afghanistan strategy (and likely a significant troop increase) in a primetime address at West Point. He's got to convince skeptical doves that escalation is worth the cost. He's got to convince nervous hawks that he knows what he's doing. And he's got to persuade everyone that Afghanistan is not simply Vietnam with more turbans.
So what's he going to say? I don't know, but here's what I think he has to do to be successful.
1. Explain the stakes
Why are we in Afghanistan? Obama has clearly said that the answer is to fight al Qaeda. First and foremost, he needs to make a strong case that al Qaeda* will kill more Americans if the United States doesn't send more troops to the region now. More abstract reasons to be in Afghanistan like protecting Afghan women from the Taliban are fine but they can't be the crux of the argument; most Americans aren't interested in spending another $30 billion a year merely to fight the burqa. Calls to "finish the job we started after 9/11" will have greater universal appeal: Everyone wants to see Osama dead.
2. Set expectations low...
I would be surprised if, given what we've seen from Obama thus far, he makes Peter Feaver happy by declaring his aim to be "victory" in Afghanistan. He's too cautious a man for that. But he'll probably lay out some objectives like bolstering the Afghan army and training more police, while wrapping them in some kind overall goal such as "sustainable security." The important thing here is to promise nothing that he doesn't think he can deliver, or those words will come back to haunt him later. (And yes, avoiding familiar slogans like "we'll stand down as the Afghans stand up" is a good idea.)
3. ... But not too low
Pundits and members of congress like to talk about the need for an "exit strategy." But it's not a term Obama should use. People don't like the idea of their sons and daughters laying their lives on the line for what sounds like a fancy way of saying "defeat." Obama has to lay out some vision of success that is worth fighting for; otherwise, America might as well just go home. Equally important, Afghans will be watching the president carefully Tuesday night, and any hint that he's decided to pack it in is going to help drive fence-sitters into the arms of the Taliban. Afghans are survivors, and, like all people in war zones they tend to back the side that seems to be winning.
4. Take responsibility
During his first few months in office, Obama was quick to point out at every opportunity that George W. Bush screwed up the world and that therefore it's not his fault that things are so bad. Well, George W. Bush isn't the president anymore. It's time for Barack to stop blaming the other guy and explain how he's going to fix the situation. (And no, setting Gen. Stanley McChrystal up as the fall guy if things go wrong doesn't count.)
5. Deal with the Karzai question
Americans don't like feeling used, and they're not happy about having to prop up an Afghan president in Kabul who is widely seen as corrupt, vacillating, and illegitimate. There's bound to be some carefully phrased tough talk about Karzai, but personally, I'm going to be looking for signals that the new strategy is more about bypassing him than it is about trying to get him to change his stripes. Afghanistan has never had a strong central government, and I see no reason to believe the United States can magically will one into existence. Obama's got to indicate that he has a workaround for the waffler of Kabul, or else we're in big trouble.
*: It's OK if the prez fudges a little bit about what he means by "al Qaeda" vs. "al Qaeda and affiliated militants." Wonks might complain, but it's probably best not to confuse the public too much by getting into the nuances, and being too specific about who the enemy is might constrain U.S. options down the road.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The reptilian brain is human kind's link to our primitive ancestors. Millions of years of evolution helped us develop reasoning, shame, and verbal communication. But in the reptilian brain, fight-or-flight survival instincts survive.
The reptilian brain, I think, is what powers the insane ramblings of talking heads whenever a U.S. president bows to a foreign leader. Immediately, the submissive vs. dominant trigger is pulled, and all anyone sees is one dog rolling over for another.
This outrage is repeated about once every six months. President Obama bowed to The Saudi King earlier this year, and today the internet is buzzing about Obama's bowing to the Japanese emperor on Saturday. The same thing happened when former President Bush nearly locked lips with Saudi royalty. When Richard Nixon was in China he gave a toast to Chairman Mao that included an excerpt of one of Mao's poems.
ThinkProgress points out similar occurrences and links to some photos of President Eisenhower bowing to just about anyone he can find, and I doubt there would have been much speculation about Ike's submissiveness.
In some cultures people kiss on the cheeks, in some they shake hands, in some they bow. All of which have some long anthropological explanation that isn't worth going into. The point being that it isn't a sign of weakness when a world leader understands that when in a different country, it is proper to use their customs. Though next time it might be nice if Obama could at least get the gesture right.
Photos by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
This afternoon in Shanghai, U.S. President Barack Obama held a townhall-style meeting with university students. It was an event that his staff had worked hard to include on his China trip itinerary. After a brief speech extolling the importance of core values to the success of the United States as a nation and Americans as individuals, Obama took questions from the audience and online.
It has since come to light that not all of the questions came from bonafide students. One questioner was a vice director of daily affairs for the Communist Youth League; another was a young-looking teacher. Obama's answers about Internet freedom weren't heard by most remote audiences because several networks, including CNN, mysteriously cut away for commentary at that moment. The response among expats in China was, by and large, negative -- with many complaining Obama had minced his words, talking for instance of "universal rights" rather than "human rights." If one is looking to be cynical, there's plenty of fodder.
On the other hand, from the point of view of most Chinese I've spoken, these official efforts at censorship might have been silly, or nefarious, but they didn't have much impact. The notion of a president taking questions, not a frequent occurrence in China, was itself the point. The symbolism was more arresting, to them, than the content. "Why does he want to talk to Chinese students?" one 29-year-old Chinese woman asked me, without irony. She was puzzled, impressed, and a bit amused at the spectacle.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Today, Greg Craig, the White House's top legal advisor, stepped down from the post he once described as his dream job. The speculation over the much-respected lawyer's resignation has been swirling for months, reaching a fever pitch back in October, when the New York Times published a story on the controversy in the White House office of legal counsel.
Craig's resignation comes on the day the administration announced it will try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- among the tougher Guantanamo cases from a prosecutorial stance, given that he was tortured and that the government hopes to seek the death penalty -- in federal court a few blocks from Ground Zero.
The most obvious reason (Craig gave none specifically in his resignation note) is that he was the person charged with closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay, determining how to relocate and try all of the detainees. When Obama came into office, he promised it would be done by Jan. 22, 2010. It will not, likely costing Craig his job. The October Times story explained:
When an administration stumbles, whispers begin and fingers point in search of someone to blame. At a certain point, assumptions can become self-fulfilling, and an official in the cross hairs finds it harder to do the job. In Mr. Craig’s case, friends said he was unfairly being made a scapegoat for decisions supported across the administration.
It is, of course, not a good thing that the administration has stumbled in its goal of closing Guantanamo. But it is worth considering that it isn't really Craig's fault at all.
Gitmo, ultimately, isn't closed because Craig did not take any of the easy ways out. He could have moved all of the prisoners to Bagram or another overseas military facility. He could have tried all of them in military commissions, the legal process jerry-rigged by the Bush administration. Because, in part, of Craig's insistence on taking each case separately and at least trying to conform to U.S. law, Guantanamo remains open.
It is a much lesser sin than what came before it. Craig is stepping down less due to his own failures than due to the extralegal maneuvering of the Bush administration. Lawyers like John Yoo and David Addington made a mockery of due process back then, and their sins are now being revisited upon members of the Obama administration. If anyone should have to answer for Greg Craig's job, it is John Yoo.
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
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