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A Fine Mess at Foggy Bottom

Lost in all the speculation about the next secretary of state is the degree to which Foggy Bottom will need someone who can put the pieces back together. While Hillary Clinton coasted for much of her term on the good press that comes with being a Clinton, until the last couple of months she was having a decidedly average run as secretary of state. But the Benghazi debacle–which was in large part the result of Clinton’s incompetence and lack of attention–followed by the expected defection of most of our European allies at the UN vote on the Palestinians today, reveals a State Department marked by ineptitude and surprising irrelevance.

To be sure, as the New York Times has thoroughly documented, diplomacy has always been one of President Obama’s more glaring weaknesses. But the well funded, high-profile State Department’s mission is to be the public face of American diplomacy, and should at least be able to keep the support of our allies. But the reported decision by Germany, France, Italy, and Britain to abandon the U.S., Canada, and Israel at the UN today left Israeli diplomats proclaiming: “We lost Europe”–to say nothing of Washington’s inability to prevent Mahmoud Abbas from going forward with this stunt in the first place:

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote.

In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat….

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.

“We need an environment conducive to that,” she told reporters in Washington. “And we’ve urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult.”

I’m not sure who the fact that Clinton’s State Department is falling to pieces benefits, Susan Rice or John Kerry. On the one hand, Rice’s inexperience and tendency to clash with those around her would seem to argue against her being the best choice to fix things at Foggy Bottom. On the other hand, inflicting John Kerry upon the world doesn’t seem likely to win us back any of the goodwill we’re looking for.

Additionally, either one would have the challenge of serving under Obama; it’s notable that when Burns begged Abbas not to do this, and offered a re-engaged Obama in return, Abbas found nothing remotely enticing about the offer.

One more bit of irony about all this: the one political figure in this episode who followed Obama’s recommendations was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu agreed–wisely–not to punish the Palestinian Authority for its UN gambit. And Netanyahu has been offering to negotiate with the Palestinians face to face with no preconditions for some time now, so if and when the rest of the world decides to work with Obama again, Netanyahu will be ready and waiting.



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