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Dennis Ross: German unification took our attention away from Iraq

Today's first panel discussion featured a unique conversation between past directors of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, including Dennis Ross, who served under the first Bush administration, Jim Steinberg and Morton Halperin, who worked under Bill Clinton, David Gordon from the Bush administration and current director Jake Sullivan. 

A theme of the discussion was that, as Halperin put it, "ineffective policy planning staffs do what people think of as policy planning." The role of the State Department's strategic arm is less to predict the future than, as Steinberg explained it, to inform the rest of the department of "the things that are deeply consequential”.

One of the more striking moments was when Ross was asked by FP Editor in Chief Susan Glasser to reflect on what the office got right and wrong during his tenure. Ross remembered one time when the office was out on a limb within Foggy Bottom: "We saw German unification coming at a time everyone else was rejecting it," he said. The downside was that the focus on Germany took the office's attention away from the growing crisis in Iraq. The situation in Germany "made me too consumed with one area of the world," Ross recalled. 

Something to keep in mind at a time when the focus of U.S. policy is dominated by the Middle East.

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Bill Burns defines U.S. role in the world

During the presidential election campaign, Mitt Romney and his supporters repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for "leading from behind." But this morning at the Newseum, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns offered an alternative description of the mission driving America's conduct of foreign policy.

We're no longer living in a unipolar world, he conceded, but America will continue to play a leading geopolitical role as a "stabilizer, balancer, and global architect." It's a vision to keep in mind as we watch the Obama administration respond to international crises and craft foreign policy over the next four years.

When asked what global threat keeps him up at night, Burns cited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among state and non-state actors. On balancing strategic moves like the Asia pivot with turmoil in the Middle East, he noted that the "Middle East has a nasty habit of reminding us of its relevance."