Reading David Rothkopf's brutal takedown of the U.S. Commerce Department, where he once worked, I was immediately reminded of a question that has been nagging at me for months: Why is the National Aquarium in the basement of the Commerce Building?
There is an aquarium in the Commerce Building for the same reason there is anything else in the Commerce Building. There was room for it. (Until construction of the Pentagon, the Commerce Department was the biggest building in the DC area.) Beyond that, I do not know. What's in it? Fish. Not many. Nothing too impressive. More impressive array of fish at Barney Greengrass' delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Which is why Barney Greengrass is known as "The Sturgeon King." More info than you needed, probably.)
Turns out there has been a long-running battle to save the historic aquarium, which was established way back in the 19th century and is the oldest in the United States. This from a 1983 New York Times story:
The National Aquarium began life at Woods Hole, Mass., in 1873, and was brought to Washington in the 1878, where it was set up in viewing ponds near the Washington Monument.
The Fisheries Commission, a part of Commerce at the time, ran the aquarium, moving it in 1932 into the new Commerce building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. But after a 1945 reorganization, management was transfered to the Interior Department's new Fish and Wildlife Service.
For convenience and economy, the aquarium remained in the Commerce basement. In 1982 Interior Secretary James G. Watt, looking for things to cut in the Reagan budget, cut the fish.
But the aquarium lives on. According to marketing manager Celia Laurens, the aquarium attracted 175,000 visitors in 2008, for an average of roughly 479 people each day.
That's down from 300,000-400,000 visitors each year during the 1980s, but according to the Washington Post the 2 p.m. animal feedings are not to be missed, and the $1.6 million renovation completed last year has made for a big improvement in the presentation.
PHOTO: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's demand today for a U.S. apology for " past crimes" against Iran reminded me of this bit from Geneive Abdo's recent FP piece on "Why Not to Engage Iran (Yet)" in which she remembers the last time the U.S. came close to apologizing to the Islamic Republic:
Each time an end to Iran’s estrangement with the United States appears to be in sight, various competing political factions try to ensure that it happens on their watch. Back in March 2000, when Mohammad Khatami was president, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came close to apologizing to Iran for the United States’ involvement in Iran’s 1953 CIA-backed coup. “[I]t is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs,” Albright said.
Instead of celebrating the historic gesture, Khatami’s rivals condemned the United States for not going far enough in extending a direct apology. I was living in Iran at that time and was able to witness up close the great fear among conservatives that Khatami and his reform movement would gain all the praise and harvest all the political capital for an improvement in relations with the United States. Thanks to these conservatives and the United States’ second thoughts, this never happened and Iranians’ hopes were dashed once again.
Incidentally, Abdo has written a brand new piece for FP on why it will take more than just pledges and interviews from Barack Obama to actually make diplomatic progress in the Middle East. Check it out.
This morning's Times (London) reported that the Obama administration is planning a tougher stance against Zimbabwe's self-ordained president-for-all-time, Robert Mugabe. Then at the White House Daily Press Briefing today, we learned that Obama made a call to the president of South Africa, Kaglema Motlanthe.
Is Obama calling to talk Zimbabwe? Now would be good timing. Just today at a summit in South Africa, Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai look to have agreed to form their long-awaited unity government.
South Africa -- reciever of Zimbabwean refugees and primary economic partner -- is really the only country that can put enough pressure on Zimbabwe's Mugabe to make the deal work. So far, the signs haven't been promising. South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki has muddled through moderating talks since September, favoring his fellow former-anticolonial comrade Mugabe.
Since Mbeki resigned as president and interim leader Motlanthe took over, the odds of South Africa putting on the pressure are even lower. South African elections are pending in just weeks time, and a split within the ruling party has raised the stakes for the first time in that country's history. As Human Rights Watch analyst Tiseke Kasambala recently told me, "there are domestic goings on in South Africa now that will likely take South Africa's eye off the ball."
None of the rumored Africa people from the new administration have returned e-mail messages about Obama-Zimbabwe policy. But my hope is that Mugabe's name came up in the phone call. I would bet more money on that than I would the Zimbabwean currency.
Photo: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Russian officials may be walking back a bit on earlier hints that they were suspending the deployment of missiles to the Kaliningrad region in response to Barack Obama's more conciliatory tone. Voice of America is reporting that senior Russian military officials have called the reports "premature":
They said Russia has not taken any practical steps to deploy the short-range Iskander missiles and therefore one can not speak of a suspension.
The earlier reports stated the Russia had made its decision after a phone call between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama in which the U.S. president promised to reexamine the U.S. missile shield program on its merits.
Previous statements indicate that Obama isn't a big fan of missile defense, but it would be hard for him to scrap the program entirely without looking weak and angering the Czech Republic and Poland, who have signed treaties to host the system.
The two leaders will likely discuss the issue in person at the G20 summit in April, but an unspoken arrangement in which the U.S. is in no particulary hurry to set up the shield and Russia is no particular hurry to set up its missiles without any options being taken off the table, might be the best conceivable outcome.
Photo: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Depending on where you stand, President Barack Obama's Friday decision to lift the Mexico City Policy, better known as the global gag rule, was either wonderful or appalling. For the last seven years, the gag rule stipulated that charities promoting and supporting abortion services could not recieve funding from the U.S. Government. Now, they can. I say: it's about time.
My position is not drawn from either side of the abortion debate. It's drawn from what I saw as a reporter and as a person living in Nigeria. HIV/AIDS is the open secret there -- a growing problem with a whispered name.
To put it politely, the gag rule created a rift -- at times gaping -- between U.S. government-funded projects and those of private NGOs trying to prevent HIV infection. The U.S. government brought the buck -- President Bush's PEPFAR program boasted $39 billion for HIV/AIDS work -- but it also brought rules about how to get the work done. The foundations brought less money and a sometimes different approach. Both sides fought to win the support of the local government for their strategies. From what I saw, that debate could get ugly. Friends working in the field were frustrated and saddened by the result: inertia and politics, instead of posters and condoms.
There was one particular problem that brought it home for me. In 2006, a Nigerian lawmaker announced that 55,000 women die in the country each year from unsafe illegal abortions. The evidence was everywhere -- from women that my colleagues and I met to Nigerian films on exactly that topic.
What was the best way to get that statistic down? Some will say abstinence. But sex is not always a choice. It's in those situations where women seek -- or are forced by their partners to seek -- unsafe abortions. Some counseling and a sterile doctor's office would go a long way.
That's just one example. The real "gag" was that you didn't hear a lot of stories about birth control or HIV prevention in Nigeria. So my few are only the beginning. Maybe now we'll start to hear a few more.
Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
This is getting ridiculous. It turns out Obama's new Mideast envoy George Mitchell is yet another former basketball player. The 75-year-old veteran diplomat played for Bowdoin College (Go Polar Bears!) in the early 1950s. He now joins National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Attorney General Eric Holder, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Economic Advisor Paul Volcker, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Obama's all-star team of ex-ballers.
Can't help wondering if in-limbo negotiator Dennis Ross might have gotten the job if he had better ball-handling skills. As the picture below shows, he certainly has the height:
Update: Matt Yglesias points out that Ross played for UCLA in the late 1960s so is probably actually a better basketball player. He ought to at least get the Iran portfolio for that.
Those cheese-eating French are already giving Barack Obama a hard time. No...really.
Apparently one of George W. Bush's last acts as president was to triple tariffs on French roquefort cheese. This was meant as retaliation for the longstanding French ban on U.S. beef imports. But as Charles Bremner notes, many French were quick to see it as Bush's final shot at the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" who had so aggravated him during the run-up to the Iraq war.
French roquefort producers, including anti-globalization icon and dairy farmer Jose Bove, are protesting the move to "hold roquefort hostage" and are demanding that Obama reverse Bush's decision. The French parliament is debating a measure to slap tariffs on Coca-Cola in "symbol against symbol" retaliation. As a not-so-subtle hint, the governor of the roquefort-producing Mid-Pyrenees region even sent Obama a deluxe box of roquefort (shown above) as a welcoming gift. Repealing the beef ban is out of the question for health reasons, say officials.
The last thing Obama wants right now is to get into a trade war with France over a last-minute decision by his predecessor, particularly when he's looking for French cooperation on far more pressing issues. But even the farmers seem to realize that the "cheese wars" are not particularly high on Obama's list right now. "The boy must have a lot of priorities," acknowledged the head of one agricultural union.
Umm...yeah. I would say so. And you probably shouldn't be calling him "boy" either.
Photo: PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images
The inauguration of Barack Obama wasn't just the event of the day in the United States. It received above-the-fold coverage in countries all over the globe, as Jan. 21's front page of the United Daily News in Taipei, Taiwan, above, shows. To see more Obama-blaring newspaper front pages from Namibia to Israel to Poland and more, check out this week's photo essay, "The Inauguration Heard 'Round the World," which features images obtained from the Newseum.
The State Department's official blog, Dipnote, still looks exactly the same as its Bush-era incarnation. This includes, unfortunately, its eye-straining white text on black background design. Given how little the blog has changed -- I'm guessing it's being written on the same content management system -- it's a bit jarring to see that all the posts written before the new editors took over on Jan. 20 have been
deleted removed from the blog and put in an archive page.
I also can't help notice the conspicuous absence of Passport (or any of the new FP blogs) from Dipnote's new blogroll. The previous editors were nice enough to add us after some cajoling. I'm not sure if we were removed before or after the changeover.
As we've said before, there's no reason diploblogging can't work. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's blog is a consistently good read, for instance. But blog readers are inherently skeptical of anything that looks like official boilerplate (as the Center for American Progress recently learned) and Dipnote never really provided much that wasn't available in mainstream media coverage. Perhaps the Obama folks will be able to shake things up a bit. For now, The Cable and Madam Secretary remain the blogosphere's go-to destinations for State Department news.
Guess things are already changing. Yazeed Essa, an Ohio doctor who stands accused of murdering his wife four years ago and fleeing to Cyprus, has decided to return to the United States to stand trial. And it's all thanks to Barack Obama. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports:
Essa left the country because he feared his Arab-American heritage would preclude him from getting a fair trial, his lawyer said. Essa chose to return to fight the charges after Barack Obama was elected president because he sensed a shift in the political climate, Bradley said. If a man named Obama could be elected president, Essa reasoned, perhaps he could be judged fairly.
I certainly hope that's true. Though if I were Dr. Essa, I'd be a bit more worried that police found cyanide in the "calcium" pills that he had been insisting his wife take.
(Hat tip: TD)
Chinese TV viewers got a truncated version of Barack Obama's inaugural address yesterday thanks to some skittish censors at the country state-run TV network:
The news channel of state broadcaster China Central Television broadcast the speech live early Wednesday local time, but appeared caught off-guard by Obama's reference to how earlier generations of Americans had "faced down fascism and communism."
The audio quickly faded out from Obama's speech and cameras cut back to the studio anchor, who seemed flustered for a second before turning to ask a U.S.-based CCTV reporter what challenges the president faces in turning around the economy.
Here's video of the cutaway from the invaluable Danwei.org:
Xinhua's Chinese translation of the speech also ommitted the reference to Communism as well as the section where Obama said that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."
So much for "unclenching your fist."
Did you catch this moment from Obama's inaugural speech?
Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."
I'll bet FP contributors David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs caught it. They argue in "Think Again: Obama's War on Terror":
As president, Obama will be hard-pressed to jettison the war on terror. His administration's foreign policy will look different from that of its predecessor in many respects, but not this one. With Obama in the Oval Office, the United States seems likely to remain in the war on terror's thrall -- to the detriment of the country's priorities, its foreign policy, the tenor of its discourse, and perhaps its people's liberties.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Just as FDR mastered radio, and JFK became the first television president, it looks like BHO is going to be the first true president of the Internet age. His spiffy new Web site is already up:
According to a very scientific poll of the FP lunch table, this was the highight:
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Past FP contributor Dmitri Trenin has an interesting piece in the Moscow Times sketching out some of the early Russia challenges President Obama will face. While he urges Obama to make a more serious effort to engage Russia on issues of mutual concern, he doesn't see a close relationship between leaders of the two countries as being all that important:
President George W. Bush's jovial camaraderie with then-President Vladimir Putin simulated -- rather than stimulated -- the relationship between the United States and Russia. The promise of a strategic partnership in the wake of Sept. 11 was mindlessly neglected because at the time preparing for the invasion of Iraq became the sole focus of the Bush White House. [...]
You will not need to aim for a close working relationship with your Russian counterpart. All too often, these attempts are treated suspiciously by the public and not adequately supported by the bureaucracy. You would do wise, however, to appoint an informal "Russia tsar" to direct U.S. relations with Russia.
Aside from the unfortunate title "Russia tsar," I think this is good advice. While world leaders should probably be able to work together constructively, it doesn't actually seem all that advantageous when they become personally close.
Bush always seemed frustrated that Putin, who he got along great with personally, was such a thorn on his side politically. On the other side, the close relationship between Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have given both leaders unrealistic expectations about how the other would behave in the run-up to last summer's war.
When Jon Stewart pressed Tony Blair about his continued support for Bush on the Daily Show, the former prime minister somewhat meekly responded, "I like him." In hindsight, many Britons would probably prefer that Blair hadn't gotten along so swimmingly with his American pal.
When leaders think a personal bond can be the basis of a bilateral alliance, they tend to wind up disappointed. Harry Truman's first impression of his Soviet counterpart at Potsdam was, "I think I can do business with Stalin. He's very honest, but he's also smart as hell."
Obama doesn't need to be friends with Putin. They don't even have to like each other. What the citizens of both countries should be hoping for is that they're clear with each other about national interests, especially when these interests are competing. And as Trenin points out, dialogue at the head of state level is of limited usefulness if its not backed by cooperation in the bureaucracy.
To my eyes at least, Obama's basketball-playing regular Joe act has always seemed a bit forced and at odds with the pricklier personality in his early writing. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After eight years of gregarious Texas charm which never led to particularly effective diplomacy, a bit of cerebral Chicago cool might be a welcome change.
Photo: Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
What better way to start a new relationship than giving your partner a mixtape that expresses who you are and how you feel about them? In that spirit, the Canadian Broadcasting Company is asking Canadians to vote on a playlist of the "top 49 songs from north of the 49th parallel that would best define our country to the incoming U.S. President Barack Obama."
The final 100 candidates are here and include hits from Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Arcade Fire, and Feist. If nothing else, it's a reminder that unlike Europe, Steve Walt could never dismiss Canada's contributions to contemporary pop music.
Canada is set to be the destination of Obama's first international trip as president. A gesture that Canadians are clearly hoping is a sign that this time around, the relationship between the two countries will be more "Rockin' in the Free World" and less "You Oughta Know."
With the violence in Gaza and the imminent changeover in administrations here in Washington D.C., terrorism experts told Foreign Policy in interviews today, Osama bin Laden apparently thought the time was right to deliver a message to both his supporters and his enemies.
An audio tape attributed to the al Qaeda leader appeared on an Islamist website early Wednesday morning. Although there has not been any independent confirmation of whether the voice on the tape is actually bin Laden's, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated that he had no reason to question the tape's authenticity.
The message called for jihad against Israel for its assault on Gaza. Addressing the Palestinian people, bin Laden stated: "We are with you and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom." He also publicly doubted the ability of the United States to continue its struggle, saying that "America is begging the world for money," and "the USA will not be as powerful as it used to be."
While the world's most wanted man hardly broke new ground with these pronouncements, the very fact that he recorded a message himself -- his first since last May -- shows that he is very much alive and intent on being a public antagonist to U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama.
"No matter how isolated bin Laden is, [the tape shows] that he is following current events and maintains the ability to comment on them and get his message out there," Bruce Hoffman, a professor at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, told FP.
There is no issue in the Arab world that is the focus of more rage right now than the Israeli assault on Gaza, which has now claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians. Since al Qaeda has been unable to establish any actual presence in Palestine, bin Laden's tape is one of the terrorist organization's only available methods for being heard on the subject. "The Israel-Palestine conflict is, for many al Qaeda members, at the heart of their struggle, so they had to comment on it," noted Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert with the Brookings Institution. "The Arab world is riveted to what is going on in Gaza, and it is hard for them to remain on the sidelines."
Bin Laden is also likely interested in puncturing some of the hopes raised by Obama's upcoming inauguration, a message also delivered recently by th al Qaeda leader's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"They're essentially saying that, despite Obama's talk about change, his administration will be the same old wine in a different bottle," said Hoffman. "The message is: Don't feel hope, don't be taken in. The United States is still doing horrible things to Muslims around the world, and al Qaeda will eventually be victorious."
Bin Laden also blames Bush for "the collapse of the economy," arguing that if the United States pursues its war against al Qaeda it will "drown in economic crisis." This is actually a persistent theme of bin Laden's rhetoric. Since 2002, bin Laden has claimed that the United States was on the verge of military and economic collapse, in much the same way that the Soviet Union was during its battles against the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. "He sees the West in fundamental decline, and believes that it is losing the ability to maintain the fight," explained Byman.
Bin Laden is about to outlast the U.S. president who vowed seven years ago to bring him in "dead or alive." Clearly, he's gearing up for the next one.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
As Bishop Gene Robinson is added to the roster for Obama's inaugural events, it seems pretty obvious why he and Rick Warren, set to give the invocation, don't exactly get along. Bluntly, Warren is an influential Conservative Evangelical who actively campaigns against gay marriage, and V. Gene Robinson is the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church.
The gaping divide between the two religious men actually goes even deeper -- all the way to Nigeria, where the powerful Episcopal Archbishop Peter Akinola presides. The famously anti-gay Akinola has led a global movement of Episcopalians against Robinson's consecration. The church in fact split over the issue, twice -- a wide global spectrum of parishes turning to Akinola for leadership.
And when Time named Bishop Akinola as one of the world's most influential people in 2006, guess who they got to write him up? Rick Warren. Just today, Warren was rumored to be willing to help disgruntled Episcopalians get as far away from Robinson as possible. No surprise that when Warren was chosen for the inaugural invocation, Robinson told The New York Times, "it was like a slap in the face."
They've both also said quite nice words about one another, by the way. But still. Yikes. If Obama is trying to "bring people together," that's quite a daring pairing. What must Akinola be thinking about all this?
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
When President-elect Barack Obama and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon met today in Washington, the subject matter was as hot as the tortilla-soup they ate for lunch. Mexico is in the midst of a heated drug war that threatens to rip the country apart. The United States sends extensive aid to its southern neighbor to help out. But as the Council on Foreign Relations' Shannon O'Neil points out for FP's The Argument, the United States also supplies the demand for drugs, the money to pay from them, and the weapons that ratchets up the violence.
Then, there is immigration, where more than one politician has gotten burned. President Bush was among them, and even mentioned immigration in his nostalgic press conference today. Bush's proposal was beaten down brutally in Congress, before it died a quiet and unlamented death. NAFTA was also rumored to be on the table, too, with Calderon pressing Obama not to review the trade agreement, as the president-elect had promised on the campaign trail.
Both men left praising the others' efforts, and vowing closer cooperation. Both countries are economy focused, and now is no time for spats on trade. Mexico's economic growth is forecast to shrink from 2 percent to 1.8 percent, driven largely be the shrinking demand for Mexican products on Obama's side of the border.
Next up for Calderon: meeting with U.S. Congressional leaders and with World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Next up for Obama: proving his partnership with Mexico will last past lunch.
Photo: Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
As my colleague Laura Rozen just reported on The Cable, Jeh Johnson is Obama's pick for DoD general counsel. It's a fantastic choice. I worked for Jeh when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the New York City Bar Association, and found him to be nothing less than brilliant, incredibly fair, and an all-around nice guy.
Johnson brings a long resume to the job. He spent three years as federal prosecutor, was general counsel for the Air Force under Clinton, and was the first black partner at New York firm Paul, Weiss. He was also special counsel to John Kerry's campaign in 2004 and served as an advisor and fundraiser to Obama from beginning of Obama's run.
Johnson "is an exceptional legal mind," says one former Pentagon intelligence official in an e-mail. Congrats to Johnson. This is a great pick from the transition team in a week that could use a few more.
The Washington Post's Walter Pincus has an analysis of Robert Gates recent articles and media appearances. He writes:
A longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, Gates today sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment.
Pincus is referring to statements like this one, from Gates' piece in the new Foreign Affairs:
Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia's tiny military. But before the United States begins rearming for another Cold War, it must remember that what is driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate its "near abroad" -- not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that Russia's conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep those conventional forces in check.
Good point, but do "many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment" really disagree with it? I find it hard to believe that even those who think the military is neglecting conventional threats by focusing on counterinsurgency would argue that Russia today is a comparable threat to the Soviet Union.
If there actually is a real debate about this, I'm glad Gates is the one in charge. Here's hoping he and his colleagues continue the recent strategy of basically ignoring Russia's pointless military posturing and focusing their attention where real damage can be done.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Richard Perle and Doug Feith think Leon Panetta, a Democratic insider if there ever was one, is just the man to clean up the CIA:
Panetta is "a very smart, very capable guy with a lot of experience - I think he's the right sort of person to take a shot at improving the place," said Perle, an agency critic who, as chairman of President Bush's Defense Policy Board, was an architect of the Iraq war, and called the quality of the CIA's analysis "appalling."
"It's going to take somebody from outside to right that ship, if it can be done," Perle said. [...]
"One possible implication of appointing somebody from the outside is that the president recognizes that there are serious problems at the CIA and he wants somebody who is not a part of those problems," said Feith, who was Bush's Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
Senate Democrats aren't so thrilled, particularly Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein, who will oversee Panetta's confirmation process and believes that "the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge."
Panetta may have been an "any port in a storm" pick as time ran out for the transition, but may in the end turn out to be a great one for an agency in dire need of a fresh set of eyes. That said, this clumsy leak is certainly not the way Obama wanted his outside-the-box pick rolled out. As Ezra Klein notes:
It doesn't look good that the worst leak of the Obama administration came in its spymaster.
Interesting choice. The New York Times' caucus blog reports:
President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that Mr. Obama criticized during the campaign for using interrogation methods he decried as torture, Democratic officials said Monday.
Panetta has managerial chops and a close relationship with Obama but virtually no hands-on intelligence experience. Perhaps more importantly, he's not tainted by associations with Bush-era detention, interrogation of surveillance policies like some of the other candidates who were considered. He's also a much bigger name.
Langley may be in for a shakeup.
Update: Our new colleague David Rothkopf calls the pick a reminder to the "knowledgeable intel community (IC) insiders just how wrong they can be about key issues."
Update 2: Another of our new colleagues, Laura Rozen, has reactions from former intelligence officials over at The Cable. RAND's Greg Treverton tells her that Panetta's White House experience might actually be more valuable than time spent in the intel trenches:
"One of my experiences with people like Panetta who have been chief of staff is that they have a clear sense of what is helpful to the president that most senior officials don't," Treverton told me. "They get it. What he could do and couldn't do. And that's an interesting advantage Panetta brings. Knowledge of what the presidential stakes are like, how issues arise, and what they need to be protected from, for better or worse."
This makes sense. In his CIA history "Legacy of Ashes," Tim Weiner writes that Harry Truman originally envisioned the agency's mission as producing a "secret newspaper" for the president's eyes only. As the CIA's secretive culture developed during the Cold War and emphasis shifted away from simple intelligence gathering toward special operations, the mission got a lot more complicated.
Picking an executive branch guy like Panetta may signal that Obama wants to push the CIA back toward something closer to Truman's original vision of an agency who's primary mission is to keep the president better informed than his international rivals.
If so, it won't be easy. The diverging views in Rozen's post gives a good preview of how this fight may play out.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The classic kung fu movie "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (popularized in the U.S. by the Wu Tang Clan) consists almost entirely of an extended training sequence in which the hero must test himself in increasingly difficult "chambers" created by the Shaolin temple monks before achieving the martial arts mastery needed to vanquish his enemies.
Ever since Joe Biden's infamous warning that Barack Obama would face "an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy," observers seem to be treating international events as a series of Shaolin-like "tests" for the president-elect to pass before achieving bona-fide statesman status. The big question is which test Obama will have to face first.
Would Russia putting missiles on the EU's doorstep be Obama's first test? Or would it be Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? The Mumbai attacks were a popular choice for a while. Dark horse contenders include instability in Somalia and cranky European allies. Lately, the violence in Gaza has seemed an increasingly likely candidate.
Or perhaps... all of the above?
Looking at international affairs this way is both misleading and unfortunately, overly optimistic. Unlike the Shaolin trainee, Obama doesn't have the luxury of facing these tests one at a time, picking up valuable skills along the way. He's going to have to face all of them at once, along with urgent domestic issues and an economy in shambles.
Contrary to what Obama's secretary of state once said, there's no such thing as a "commander-in-chief threshold." Obama will not face down some international crisis and prove himself as a qualified world leader. He's going to have to learn on the job and he will make rookie mistakes as well as (let's hope) major breakthroughs.
It's doubtful that any of the above situations are going to be "solved" no matter how brilliant Obama proves to be, and there's a better-than-even chance that his biggest foreign policy test will be something that isn't even on anyone's radar right now. Americans will have a chance to judge whether he's at least handled himself competently when he faces the presidency's 36th chamber: re-election.
Photo by Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images
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