Commentary Magazine


Topic: diplomacy

Obama’s eBay Diplomacy in Action

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

Read More

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

This is classic diplospeak, in that it says absolutely nothing of substance but sounds nice. And that, in many ways, is the crux of the matter: the current American diplomatic team is being routed by their Russian counterparts. Why is that? Earlier this week James Bruno, a retired Foreign Service officer, argued that the politicization of American diplomacy has reached a point at which expertise becomes a luxury. Obama has essentially been auctioning off even high-level ambassadorships, which is no surprise considering the revelations that Obama has politicized the Foreign Service to an unprecedented degree.

Bruno expanded the argument:

Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. “Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed,” a former senior official who worked with Obama’s appointees at State told me. “These positions,” she added, “are handed out based on party connections and loyalty.” In the hands of these decision-makers, all major foreign policy issues are viewed through an “ideological prism as opposed to an eye toward the long-term interests of the United States,” she said. The White House’s National Security Council staff, furthermore, has ballooned from about four dozen three decades ago to more than twice that today, a shift that has had the effect of concentrating power in the White House, and infusing key decisions with political calculations.

The answer, according to this logic, is simple: Russia takes international affairs seriously, and the Obama administration doesn’t. But the U.S. and Russia are not the only actors in this drama, and this is where managing American alliances–another glaring weakness of the Obama administration–could make up some of the difference.

Those opposed to American defense alliances complain that the U.S. props up NATO, especially former Soviet or Russian satellite states. But those states’ relationships with Russia have their own advantages. One common myth of NATO enlargement to Russia’s near abroad has held that the process is adversarial enough to prevent negotiations instead of military confrontation. This is untrue, of course. As Vincent Pouliot writes in International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy, according to Polish officials, Poland’s accession to NATO was driven in large part by fear of Russian military invasion. Once in NATO for purely defensive reasons, Polish officials became “less allergic to Russia.” NATO facilitates dialogue between otherwise mutually suspicious actors.

“Among NATO’s international military personnel,” Pouliot writes, “I met a Lithuanian colonel who was a Red Army conscript in 1987; his dispositions were obviously heavily influenced by that experience.” In one meeting Pouliot was told Lithuanians can read Russians’ minds; he was then told a similar thing about officials of the Baltic states. This may not be the norm, at least with regard to officials’ past service in Russian armed forces. But it does reveal how, when negotiating with Russia, the perspective of NATO allies can be of value.

The Obama administration is perhaps less likely to agree than both his predecessors in the post-Cold War era, which is why Obama is also far less inclined to make any progress toward upgrading the alliance. But his eBay diplomacy of auctioning off ambassadorships and other foreign-policy jobs means Obama would have far more to gain by listening to our allies who take European affairs and the maintenance of the international order a bit more seriously.

Read Less

State Department Ignoring Treaty Cheating Nothing New

Bill Gertz over at the Washington Free Beacon reports that House leaders seek a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the State Department’s failure to report Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Gertz writes:

“It is clear from my subcommittee’s oversight that the administration did not fully disclose what it knew about Russian arms control violations when it was trying to get the New START treaty ratified,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces. “Its all-consuming drive to protect its Russia reset policy has gutted our missile defenses, alienated allies, and only encouraged Vladimir Putin’s lawlessness,” he said in a statement.

Read More

Bill Gertz over at the Washington Free Beacon reports that House leaders seek a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the State Department’s failure to report Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Gertz writes:

“It is clear from my subcommittee’s oversight that the administration did not fully disclose what it knew about Russian arms control violations when it was trying to get the New START treaty ratified,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces. “Its all-consuming drive to protect its Russia reset policy has gutted our missile defenses, alienated allies, and only encouraged Vladimir Putin’s lawlessness,” he said in a statement.

Alas, the willingness of the State Department (often the Central Intelligence Agency as well) to turn a blind eye to intelligence that undercuts high-profile diplomatic engagements is more the rule than the exception. Researching Dancing With the Devil, it became clear that diplomats and analysts often seek to bury information that might lead Congress to conclude that diplomacy is not successful. When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, both the CIA and the State Department changed their interpretation of the “yellow rain” incident to suggest that the battlefield presence of deadly toxins dropped from airplanes had less to do with the Soviet planes that dropped them than naturally occurring bee feces that just happened to appear in the area at the same time. To conclude that the Soviet Union had violated the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), diplomats and analysts feared, might undercut efforts to conclude the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-2). Years later, however, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian officials acknowledged that they had indeed cheated on the BWC.

Likewise, when Congress asked the State Department to certify that the Palestine Liberation Organization had foresworn terrorism, and made U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority contingent on that certification, senior Clinton administration State Department officials appear to have lied to Congress, when the now declassified intelligence is compared with their contemporary testimony. And, of course, the State Department reacted with outrage when the GAO found that North Korea had been cheating on its commitments because senior Clinton administration officials said such a finding could endanger diplomacy.

Let us hope that Mike Rogers and Ted Poe (R., Texas), chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade, continue to press the GAO to report on the State Department’s actions. For unless the pattern in which diplomats twist truth to justify diplomacy is broken, American national security will continue to suffer and adversaries will continue to understand that they need not adhere to their commitments.

Read Less

Where Were Mistakes Made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

Read More

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them. In 2004, I researched a piece—based on a lot of leakage and documentary contributions from Turkish journalists and government officials who could not speak publicly—about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds. The piece upset the Turkish government. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara assured that there was nothing to the report. How comforting, except that they did not apparently do anything other than ask government officials who had every interest in covering up the financial irregularities. The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based.

Hindsight, however, shows the initial concerns warranted and the specifics of the article accurate. Likewise, Daniel Fried, a senior American diplomat, described Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as little more than the Turkish version of a Christian Democratic Party. This, too, was nonsense but it would be useful to see how diplomats came to reach such a conclusion. Many other former ambassadors to Turkey, some of whom had long been cheerleaders for the Erdoğan experiment, have now come around to the recognition that there is rot in Ankara, and there is not a democratic bone in Erdoğan’s body. The question for the State Department is not about the fact that they were wrong—there is no shame in that—but, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the warning signs they missed? Where was trust misplaced? Where did sources mislead? Absent such introspection, it is unclear why anyone should expect more accurate reporting or analysis from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey or Bureau of European Affairs in the future.

Iran is a more politicized topic but, given what is at stake, a more serious one: It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to the State Department everything seems a subject for talks. It should not surprise that Foggy Bottom does not want to consider its mistakes, because to do so might undermine the drive to dialogue. Introspection, however, does not diminish diplomacy; it simply makes it more effective. Perhaps, however, if the State Department is unwilling to do what’s necessary, it is time for Congress to exercise its oversight.

Read Less

Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

Read More

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.

Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.

Read Less

Is Sports Diplomacy Worth It?

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Read More

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Second is the Ping-Pong diplomacy that allegedly broke the ice between the United States and Communist China. Henry Kissinger makes clear in his memoir White House Years, however, that the Ping-Pong exhibition actually came after months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. To credit the athletes for the diplomatic breakthrough puts the cart between the horse.

Rather than assume athletic competitions break down barriers, it is important to recognize that sometimes they confirm them. After the Iranian team defeated the United States in a 1998 World Cup match, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei crowed that “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.” In Sochi, Russian authorities seem determined to ensure that the Olympics reinforce hostility toward the United States rather than any feelings of brotherhood.

So is all sporting diplomacy bad? Certainly not, although its outcomes do not justify the State Department’s considerable investment in it. Simply put, when it comes to rogue regimes and America’s adversaries, it is time to face the fact that there are no magic formulas.

Read Less

Was Dennis Rodman’s North Korea Diplomacy Wrong?

Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

Read More

Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.

Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”

Make no mistake: Rodman’s North Korea forays do not advance diplomacy; they retard it. They legitimize a barbaric regime, give it free press and propaganda points, and do nothing to break down barriers or create understandings. But, while many commentators are quick to condemn Rodman, they never question why Rodman is wrong but they assume so many other episodes of sporting diplomacy to be right. The State Department celebrates, for example, football friendlies and wrestling exhibitions with Iran and Cuba, but never explains why those events are any different than what Rodman does in Pyongyang.

Many diplomats point to the famous Ping-Pong exhibition with China to justify almost all sporting diplomacy, but there was context to that episode, and it was carefully choreographed by both sides against the backdrop of simultaneous initiatives. As Kissinger notes in his 1979 book White House Years, that iconic moment did not initiate relations but followed months of secret diplomacy. To credit “ping pong diplomacy” with the China breakthrough puts the cart before the horse.

Rodman was wrong. His antics in North Korea were clownish and an embarrassment to the United States. How sad it is, then, that they are not too different in result from much of the other sporting diplomacy which the State Department actually encourages. There is a time and a place for athletic exchanges, but seldom do they accomplish what American diplomats claim. Attending a soccer match might be fun, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, any more than Rodman reduces the menace posed by the dear leader.

Read Less

What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Diplomacy?

I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

Read More

I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

The second problem, he observes, is the fact that there is “division among the American people over our nation’s purposes in the world.” Bishop is correct, even as so many ignore this basic fact. As national security becomes a political football, partisan and philosophical divisions undercut the ability to advance a coherent strategy. Another point Bishop makes but is so often overlooked is the impact of rancorous American political debate on our adversaries’ propaganda:

If I know anything from three decades of reading foreign editorials and columns, it’s that indigenous foreign criticisms of the United States are quite rare. Rather our critics rewrite, repackage, and amplify what they hear in our own domestic debates. Division and rancor in our domestic politics ricochets back to us from abroad, and we live in rancorous times.

This doesn’t mean that Congress should temper its debate, but in a globalized age it behooves our elected officials to recognize that hyperbole might end up fueling those who seek not to craft a batter strategy, but rather defeat America entirely. Simply looking back at some of the rhetoric aired regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and how congressional statements were picked up and recast on insurgent media should give pause to the bipartisan array of officials who were quick to declare new Vietnams or allege ill motives on the part of national-security leaders.

A subset of division about disputes regarding America’s role in the world is religion. Again, Bishop addresses the issue head on:

In the war on terrorism, however, we confront an ideology based on extreme religion. Americans have always been ginger about discussing religion, and too often I have seen officers turn away from opportunities to discuss faith by simply saying “in America, we have separation of church and state.”  This is a non-starter for dialog with religiously motivated people. My point is that because religion and its role in society are domestically contentious, we have been unable to agree among ourselves how to discuss religion with foreign audiences. This hurts us in the current struggle.

American officials so often misinterpret separation of church and state. While the U.S. government should certainly support no official religion, diplomats must understand that the word secular, when translated into Arabic, has a negative connotation suggesting the notion of being against religion. To avoid the subject of religion and religious ideology when operating in religiously conservative societies is to surrender credibility and forfeit the battle of ideas. Discussing religion need not be synonymous with proselytizing.

For Bishop, the third set of problems revolves around strategy. He quotes an Inspector General report on the Bureau of International Information Programs which posed basic questions:

What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD [public diplomacy] resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values? How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?

To this, Bishop adds a few questions of his own:

  • What’s the value of venue-based Public Diplomacy — American Centers or American spaces — in an age of distributed information? 
  • When the internet and DVDs make high and low American culture available throughout the world, what’s the value of traveling jazz trios? 
  • How does the nation that stands for religious liberty communicate with international actors whose fundamental premises are religious? 
  • In war zones, how can Public Diplomacy work with the influence disciplines in the armed forces — information operations and the discipline formerly known as psychological operations? 

It seems that secretaries of state in recent administrations have sought to compete with their predecessors in mileage traveled, as if logging miles somehow became a metric of wisdom or diplomatic success. Leadership is not simply about free travel and five-star hotels, nor should an appointment to lead the State Department be the ultimate perk. Rather, being secretary of state should be about management and implementing a coherent strategy. Until a president appoints a secretary of state who takes seriously his or her responsibilities to answer fundamental questions and make diplomacy part of a coherent strategy, the State Department and American diplomacy are destined to flounder as an expensive failure.

Read Less

What Diplomats Can Learn from Marines

A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

Read More

A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

He observes, “Anyone who thinks the Marines are all brawn and no brain should visit The Basic School with its emphasis on decision making; the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, which trains Marines to understand how they will encounter people from different cultures; and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College for its emphasis on planning and integration of all the elements of national power.” While the Foreign Service provides supplementary training and has embraced specialized language institutes, it has no corollary to the Marines when it comes to expanding the academic self. 

He continues, “The Marine Corps cultivates professional debate and even dissent, using the Marine Corps Gazette as a vehicle for the expression of opinion and new ideas. It so values contention over ideas, responsibly stated, that contributors to that journal are honored even when junior opinions make senior eyes roll, or when opinions are strongly contrary.” Much depends on any particular unit’s command environment, but I have heard far more rigorous debate openly among military personnel, with and in the presence of their superiors, than I have in embassies. And woe to any diplomat who uses the established dissent channel, for that would be a career killer.

Bishop makes other apt comparisons as well, and his whole short article is worth reading. That the cultural divide between military and non-military spheres has widened ever since the end of the draft is undeniable. Few diplomats and even fewer in academe have much understanding of who the military is and how they operate. That such a divide remains might be inevitable. That bureaucratic cultures in practice do not learn from each other’s best practices, however, is unfortunate.

Read Less

Obama Is Flunking the Global Test

During a press conference in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, a Gulf News reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry what assurances he could give about sanctions on Iran, because “In spite of the American assurances, there are fears at the popular and government levels in the Gulf Cooperation Council concerning improved relations with Iran.” In the course of a 1,162-word response, Kerry assured the reporter that “President Obama is a man of his word”: 

“He is stating clearly: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of his foreign policy and he will not bluff. As he said to me point blank when I became Secretary of State, I asked him about it. He said, ‘I don’t bluff.’ This is our policy.”

Has there ever been a U.S. president who had to keep assuring the world (and even his own secretary of state) that he doesn’t bluff? Has there ever been a secretary of state like the one who resolved his concerns about Obama’s bluffing by asking Obama whether he is bluffing–and then told a press conference he had had the same concerns about bluffing that they have, but resolved his doubts by having the president repeat his words? Those who think the repetition of the president’s words reflect his commitment to them probably think they can keep their insurance if they like it.

Read More

During a press conference in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, a Gulf News reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry what assurances he could give about sanctions on Iran, because “In spite of the American assurances, there are fears at the popular and government levels in the Gulf Cooperation Council concerning improved relations with Iran.” In the course of a 1,162-word response, Kerry assured the reporter that “President Obama is a man of his word”: 

“He is stating clearly: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. That is a centerpiece of his foreign policy and he will not bluff. As he said to me point blank when I became Secretary of State, I asked him about it. He said, ‘I don’t bluff.’ This is our policy.”

Has there ever been a U.S. president who had to keep assuring the world (and even his own secretary of state) that he doesn’t bluff? Has there ever been a secretary of state like the one who resolved his concerns about Obama’s bluffing by asking Obama whether he is bluffing–and then told a press conference he had had the same concerns about bluffing that they have, but resolved his doubts by having the president repeat his words? Those who think the repetition of the president’s words reflect his commitment to them probably think they can keep their insurance if they like it.

The UAE reporter’s question expressed the heart of the problem facing Obama, because the question was essentially this: what assurances can you give, other than your assurances, because we don’t believe your assurances? Kerry’s long-winded response demonstrated the answer was not easy.

Lack of confidence in Obama is now obvious in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel; the governments of France, Britain, and Germany reportedly do not trust him and consider him a problem; the UAE and other relatively moderate Arab governments are clearly concerned. Even the palace media have acknowledged the problem. In his interview Sunday with Kerry on Meet the Press, David Gregory concisely summarized the concern Kerry has faced throughout the region:

“And let me sum it up this way. It amounts to this criticism that the President appears reluctant to exercise power on the world stage. It’s not just Israel. It’s Egypt. It’s Saudi Arabia. There’s a feeling that the U.S. has abandoned critical friends in that region, in part because you’re moving toward a deal with Iran which could provide them tremendous economic relief when, at the same time, critics would say their major client, Syria, has gotten a pass to murder their own people as long as they don’t use chemical weapons, so that all of this is amounting to this reluctance to really exercise U.S. power.”

Kerry’s answer to Gregory, while shorter than his response to the UAE reporter, was singularly unconvincing.

The real answer is that Obama is comfortable with one-off, targeted SEAL operations, accompanied by a memo from him memorializing the basis on which he approved the mission, but the geopolitical exercise of power is something he abhors. He believes, as he said in his 2009 Cairo address, that human history has seen nations “subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests,” but “such attitudes are self-defeating,” and “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” In his Cairo speech, he cited Thomas Jefferson’s words: “the less we use our power the greater it will be.” His presidency has been one long demonstration that, whatever the applicability of those words to a struggling young country, they are not comforting to the allies of a supposed superpower. 

It is hard to remember a time when an array of states as broad as Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with American leadership; and as Benjamin Netanyahu noted, the list of states that privately share those views is longer. Obama is failing what Kerry might call the global test. As Jonathan argues today, it is time for the Senate to step in. 

Read Less

Of Mad Men and Diplomacy

While Pentagon employees faced furlough and military contractors received pink slips, the State Department continued operating basically as normal. After all, diplomacy is essential stuff, even when the U.S. government is $17 trillion in debt. And while certainly it makes sense to keep essential diplomats at their posts, continue American citizen services, and keep embassies open, it’s long past time the State Department stopped treating public diplomacy as a slush fund to pursue projects that are far from essential.

Take, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Just days before the government shutdown, the embassy sponsored a visit by Andre and Marie Jacquemetton, writers and producers for the TV show Mad Men. Now, I like Mad Men, and I’m sure it has its Bahraini fan base as well, but I remain at a loss as to how sponsoring their visit enhances American interests.

Read More

While Pentagon employees faced furlough and military contractors received pink slips, the State Department continued operating basically as normal. After all, diplomacy is essential stuff, even when the U.S. government is $17 trillion in debt. And while certainly it makes sense to keep essential diplomats at their posts, continue American citizen services, and keep embassies open, it’s long past time the State Department stopped treating public diplomacy as a slush fund to pursue projects that are far from essential.

Take, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain. Just days before the government shutdown, the embassy sponsored a visit by Andre and Marie Jacquemetton, writers and producers for the TV show Mad Men. Now, I like Mad Men, and I’m sure it has its Bahraini fan base as well, but I remain at a loss as to how sponsoring their visit enhances American interests.

Ditto this band performance sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Oman, and Turkey gets the Kung-Fu Masters, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The U.S. Embassy in Morocco “empowered” hundreds of Moroccan youth by sponsoring skateboarding workshops in six cities. It’s not just the Middle East where such expenditures are made. The U.S. Embassy in Belize is assisting with “Teaching Tumbling to Youth,” and the State Department sent a sculptor to Honduras to help judge a local art contest. Meanwhile, of course, budget cuts have prevented the deployment of a U.S. hospital ship which would have provided medical services to a number of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. The U.S. Embassy in Ireland flew a chef from Washington D.C. to Dublin to give cooking lessons, so U.S.-Irish relations are now secure.

A culture of profligate spending continues to permeate public service. Projects are sponsored to fill programming space and keep junior officers busy with little consideration for how that money fulfills core U.S. interests. Government workers have blurred the distinction between essential and frivolous, and the State Department remains unable to show any lasting benefit from sponsoring such programming. Alas, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the problem is no longer just the budget, but the culture in which decisions regarding spending priorities are made.

Read Less

Iran Belittles Confidence-Building

As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

Read More

As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

If Kayhan is outlining the Supreme Leader’s thinking, then he is suggesting that the basis for the negotiations in which President Obama has invested so much hope is false. He appears to be reassuring his hardline constituency which is worried about the seeming direction of Iran’s diplomacy that they need not worry: There will be no fundamental change, and that therefore the flexibility is for show only. How comforting it must be for the Iranian regime to know that they can be forthright in Persian about their strategy, and need never worry that Western officials will pay attention because the Western press has forfeited its analytical role in favor advocacy.

Read Less

Can Diplomacy Be a Prelude to Force?

The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

Read More

The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

The assumption is that though the president felt unable to order an attack on Syria prior to now, a collapse of the Russian initiative would enable him to convince a reluctant Congress and an American public that overwhelmingly opposed his plans to change their minds. However, the odds of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Though the president belatedly made a strong case for action in the opening section of his speech last night, what followed was an acknowledgement that most Americans, rightly or wrongly, wanted no part of an intervention in Syria. Nothing that happens in the coming days or weeks can change that because the problem was not that Americans had to be convinced that Assad’s regime was a criminal enterprise. Rather it is because they have been led to believe—by no less a figure than President Obama himself—that the use of force to intervene abroad to punish or topple tyrants was a neoconservative heresy that should never again be attempted.

The upsurge in isolationism is not so much, as some have asserted, a reaction to Obama’s policies, but the product of them as he abandoned the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More specifically, now that the momentum toward Western intervention in Syria has been halted by the president’s turnabout, it is almost impossible to imagine that anything Russia or Syria will do can reignite the president’s already faltering impetus toward action. The longer the delay in responding to the Syrian atrocities that the president described so graphically last night, the less compelling any call to respond or punish Assad will be. Since the president’s obvious ambivalence and distaste for being a war leader has largely vindicated the cynicism of his critics on both the left and the right, there is no going back to the moment when an attack on Syria would be possible.

Secondly, the lure of diplomacy for Obama and his team is such that there is no possible scenario that would be interpreted by them as a casus belli for an attack.

This is an administration that is in love with the United Nations and the notion of multilateralism. Though the prospect of genuine cooperation on chemical weapons from Assad is a fantasy, the White House and the State Department are so besotted with the lifeline that Russian President Putin has offered them that nothing short of a complete repudiation of the scheme by Syria and its enablers would be enough to spike it. No matter how transparent the fraud, President Obama will stick with it as long as he possibly can. This would repeat a pattern that has been clear throughout the last five years as the administration continues to fall for Iranian diplomatic overtures and to pretend that the Palestinians are actually interested in peace with Israel.

If there was a chance for the United States to act to curb Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons or to prevent more slaughter in Syria, the moment has passed and will not recur. Though their positions are wrongheaded, don’t blame this on the isolationists in Congress or even on Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran who have every right to be crowing today. The fault lies entirely with an indecisive president who seems to have an allergy to leadership. Remember that as the body count continues to rise in Syria and Iran gets closer to nuclear capability. 

Read Less

Telling the Truth on Facebook

Israel’s embassy in Ireland got itself in hot water for an inflammatory posting on its Facebook page that embarrassed the Jewish state. The post stated that were Jesus and Mary alive today and walking around Bethlehem without security, they would be lynched as Jews by the Palestinians. When a controversy over the post ensued, it was soon deleted and an apology was issued. But the Dublin embassy is not getting off so easy. The New York Times quoted Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent as reporting that this was just the latest though most egregious example of an aggressive stance taken by Israel’s envoys in Ireland. Apparently the embassy is guilty of speaking of Irish anti-Israel activists. It even had the temerity to re-post a satirical video about Irish media bias against Israel by the Latma comedy troupe.

All of this has brought down the opprobrium of Haaretz and the Times on the Dublin embassy. The Times even closed its piece on the subject by quoting a Palestinian response to the posting about Jesus and Mary that said that Christmas is freely celebrated in Bethlehem each year. But that remark, as well as much of the criticism of the supposedly undiplomatic behavior of the envoys, is off the mark. As much as it might have been wiser for anyone connected to the Israeli government to avoid any mention of the holy family or Christmas, their “offensive” post was primarily guilty of doing the one thing that diplomats are generally urged to avoid: telling the truth.

Read More

Israel’s embassy in Ireland got itself in hot water for an inflammatory posting on its Facebook page that embarrassed the Jewish state. The post stated that were Jesus and Mary alive today and walking around Bethlehem without security, they would be lynched as Jews by the Palestinians. When a controversy over the post ensued, it was soon deleted and an apology was issued. But the Dublin embassy is not getting off so easy. The New York Times quoted Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent as reporting that this was just the latest though most egregious example of an aggressive stance taken by Israel’s envoys in Ireland. Apparently the embassy is guilty of speaking of Irish anti-Israel activists. It even had the temerity to re-post a satirical video about Irish media bias against Israel by the Latma comedy troupe.

All of this has brought down the opprobrium of Haaretz and the Times on the Dublin embassy. The Times even closed its piece on the subject by quoting a Palestinian response to the posting about Jesus and Mary that said that Christmas is freely celebrated in Bethlehem each year. But that remark, as well as much of the criticism of the supposedly undiplomatic behavior of the envoys, is off the mark. As much as it might have been wiser for anyone connected to the Israeli government to avoid any mention of the holy family or Christmas, their “offensive” post was primarily guilty of doing the one thing that diplomats are generally urged to avoid: telling the truth.

As the Times notes, Ireland has become a hotbed of anti-Israel incitement in the past few decades. Though Irish independence fighters and Jews struggling to free their ancient homeland once identified with each other due to their common British foe, the Irish Catholics now seem to identify more with the Palestinians while it is the Ulster Protestants who think of Israel as a role model for survival as a minority in a hostile environment. The Irish media is well known for its anti-Israel bias and agitation against the Jewish state that seems to be louder and nastier than in even neighboring Britain.

Perhaps that’s why Israel’s Dublin embassy has come to the reasonable conclusion that it needs to stop playing defense when it comes to correcting misperceptions about the Middle East conflict. In too many instances, Israeli diplomats and spokespersons have avoided getting into scrapes but in the process failed to adequately defend their country at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism has distorted the debate about the Middle East conflict in Europe.

More to the point, the embassy’s Facebook comments about Jesus, Mary and Bethlehem actually were very much to the point in dealing with that troubling trend. For decades, the Palestinian leadership has sought to portray Arabs as the true descendants of the biblical Jews. That serves the double purpose of delegitimizing Zionism and Israel while also allowing them to play upon the sympathies of Christians. Modern Christianity has embraced the notion that Jesus was a Jew as part of an effort to move away from a tradition of theology-driven anti-Semitism. But the Palestinians want you to buy into the anti-historical concept that Jesus was Palestinian rather than a Jew.

It should also be stated that the post did no more than state the obvious when it noted that Jews without security in Palestinian Authority-ruled Bethlehem are at grave risk. Indeed, Rachel’s Tomb, which is located outside the town, is often besieged by violent Palestinians seeking to take over that Jewish shrine.

In raising the subject, the embassy did the unthinkable and told the truth about Palestinian violence and prejudice. While that might have been considered undiplomatic, that is something that more Israeli diplomats as well as members of the media ought to be doing more often.

Read Less

The Cost of Diplomatic Goodwill

The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.

I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.

Read More

The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.

I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.

If Senator John Kerry really wanted to be secretary of state (or defense), perhaps he should not have referred to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as “my dear friend” on several occasions, a hopefully unintended endorsement that made staffers cringe (as related by one). The problem is bipartisan: Iraqi Kurdish journalists—some of whom have survived assassination attempts and others who have been thrown in prison for their writing—lambaste Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain for the praise they heap upon Masud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s increasingly authoritarian leader.

Engagement is not cost-free. Because dictators often twist words, it is even more important for American diplomats first to speak with moral clarity, never issue false praise under the guise of politeness, and always tie meetings with those in power to meetings with those in democratic opposition groups. Alas, careless diplomacy too often sets the American brand back years.

Read Less

NY Times Paints Unflattering Picture of Obama’s Mideast Diplomacy

Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:

Read More

Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:

The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”

Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.

“You can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish” with such an impersonal style, the diplomat said.

There are, to be sure, dangers of overly personalizing foreign policy. Even George W. Bush must cringe as he recalls the moment when he claimed to have looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and get “a sense of his soul.” But there is no doubt that the kind of relationship-building that Bush undertook–as did his predecessors–can pay off in a crisis. That’s something that Obama is still learning, just as he is learning how to respond to the desire for democracy in the Middle East. The Times article also relates that Obama has privately admitted the truth of Mitt Romney’s critique of his mishandling of the Green Revolution in Iran:

Mr. Obama followed a low-key script, criticizing violence but saying he did not want to be seen as meddling in Iranian domestic politics.

Months later, administration officials said, Mr. Obama expressed regret about his muted stance on Iran. “There was a feeling of ‘we ain’t gonna be behind the curve on this again,’ ” one senior administration official said. He, like almost two dozen administration officials and Arab and American diplomats interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One can only speculate about what other lessons Obama has learned from his first term. He’s certainly had enough setbacks and miscalculations to learn from.

Read Less

Strength Matters, Groveling Doesn’t

When the going gets tough anywhere in the world, and the United States wants to pull out its big diplomatic guns, it’s often the secretary of state who will get going. The head of the State Department is the diplomat-in-chief for the United States. His or her presence at the negotiating table should bring great weight to bear.

There is a point of diminishing return, however, when a secretary of state—or any other high-level figure—travels so much that their intervention becomes routine and even pedantic.

Read More

When the going gets tough anywhere in the world, and the United States wants to pull out its big diplomatic guns, it’s often the secretary of state who will get going. The head of the State Department is the diplomat-in-chief for the United States. His or her presence at the negotiating table should bring great weight to bear.

There is a point of diminishing return, however, when a secretary of state—or any other high-level figure—travels so much that their intervention becomes routine and even pedantic.

In the early 1990s, Secretary of State Warren Christopher distinguished himself by the sheer number of trips he embarked on to meet Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He diminished the office of the secretary, and essentially transformed himself into a junior diplomat. Assad got a propaganda boon: After all, here was the secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth traveling to meet him!

Alas, it seems the Obama administration is now making the same mistake in Turkey. From Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News:

“Turmoil brings Turkey one-way US diplomacy”

The number of senior U.S. officials visiting Turkey has dramatically increased recently, likely due to turmoil in the Middle East, notably including the Syrian crisis, Ankara’s fight against terrorism, Iran, and the NATO anti-missile radar system housed in Turkey… “Right now, there are certain things expected of the United States. It has not yet catered to those expectations,” [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan said in a recent interview on CNN International.

Diplomats like to travel, and aides scramble to go along on their trips. We have reached the point in Turkey, however, of diminishing returns. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has perhaps the most strategic sense of anyone in the Obama administration. How unfortunate, therefore, she is transforming herself into Warren Christopher, the sequel.

Read Less

Executions Skyrocket in Iran

Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister whom the United Nations appointed as its investigator on Iran has, according to Reuters, now issued his report:

Iran executed some 670 people last year, most of them for drug crimes that do not merit capital punishment under international law and more than 20 for offenses against Islam… The investigator, former Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, also reported what he said were a wide range of violations by Iran of U.N. human rights accords, from abuse of minorities to persecution of homosexuals and labor unions.

Shaheed’s report was almost never issued. As Reuters continued:

His office and mandate were established last year by a narrow vote in the council when Western and Latin American countries, with some African support, joined to create a special investigation on Iran. Cuba, Russia, China and others opposed the resolution.

Read More

Ahmed Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister whom the United Nations appointed as its investigator on Iran has, according to Reuters, now issued his report:

Iran executed some 670 people last year, most of them for drug crimes that do not merit capital punishment under international law and more than 20 for offenses against Islam… The investigator, former Maldives Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, also reported what he said were a wide range of violations by Iran of U.N. human rights accords, from abuse of minorities to persecution of homosexuals and labor unions.

Shaheed’s report was almost never issued. As Reuters continued:

His office and mandate were established last year by a narrow vote in the council when Western and Latin American countries, with some African support, joined to create a special investigation on Iran. Cuba, Russia, China and others opposed the resolution.

I am completing a book project on the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes, as part of which I’ve had the nerdy pleasure to pour over decades of diplomatic cables, Iranian newspaper, and human rights reports. It is distressing, therefore, to see a pattern develop which proponents of greater dialogue with the Islamic Republic ignore: There is a direct correlation between the degree to which the West seeks to engage and embrace the Islamic Republic and the ferocity with which the regime cracks down on its own people. The Khatami years, for example, were a particularly bloody time. That may not be Khatami’s direct fault: The reformist president’s hands are awash in blood, but it was the reaction to his efforts to relieve some of the social pressure that sparked his opponents in the intelligence ministry and Basij to even greater abuse of human rights.

Going further back in time, the reaction to German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel’s 1992 efforts at “critical dialogue” led Iranian officials—including the so-called pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—to believe he could get away with murder. Their followed a crackdown at home and a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks abroad.

The responsibility for Iran’s dire human rights abuses lay fully on the regime that perpetrates them. Nevertheless, it would behoove the Obama administration and its counterparts in the European Union to recognize that sometimes engaging a rogue regime does more harm than good to the people who suffer under that regime’s heel. Often times, the better course of action both in terms of national security and human rights is simply to develop strategies to change that regime.

Read Less

New Iran Talks Put Obama’s Window of Diplomacy to the Test

There may have been some in Tehran, as well as in Washington, who viewed Monday’s announcement that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had accepted an offer to resume face-to-face negotiations with Iran with relief. While the Europeans have failed repeatedly in previous attempts to entice the Iranians to stand down from their bid for nuclear weapons, the new talks would at least accomplish one very important thing. As far as the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — the nations that Ashton has the brief to represent in the talks —  are concerned, the main thing is so long as these negotiations are ongoing, Israel is highly unlikely to use force to forestall an Iranian nuclear program that represents an existential threat to the existence of the Jewish state. It is this specter of an Israeli strike that has driven the EU and the United States to threaten Iran with an oil embargo.

President Obama and many of his European counterparts, not to mention his even less enthusiastic partners in Russia and China, would not have gone so far with their sometimes half-hearted push for sanctions if they were not convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not hesitate to act on behalf of his country’s security. But as long as someone is talking to the Iranians, the reasoning goes, the Israelis would not dare to attack Iran, even though they rightly believe the ayatollahs haven’t the slightest intention of giving up their nuclear ambitions no matter how much the West offers in return. Yet the problem for Iran in this strategy is that they must do everything they can to drag out the talks because their failure will make it difficult if not impossible for Obama to continue to argue that the window for diplomacy must be kept open.

Read More

There may have been some in Tehran, as well as in Washington, who viewed Monday’s announcement that European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had accepted an offer to resume face-to-face negotiations with Iran with relief. While the Europeans have failed repeatedly in previous attempts to entice the Iranians to stand down from their bid for nuclear weapons, the new talks would at least accomplish one very important thing. As far as the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — the nations that Ashton has the brief to represent in the talks —  are concerned, the main thing is so long as these negotiations are ongoing, Israel is highly unlikely to use force to forestall an Iranian nuclear program that represents an existential threat to the existence of the Jewish state. It is this specter of an Israeli strike that has driven the EU and the United States to threaten Iran with an oil embargo.

President Obama and many of his European counterparts, not to mention his even less enthusiastic partners in Russia and China, would not have gone so far with their sometimes half-hearted push for sanctions if they were not convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not hesitate to act on behalf of his country’s security. But as long as someone is talking to the Iranians, the reasoning goes, the Israelis would not dare to attack Iran, even though they rightly believe the ayatollahs haven’t the slightest intention of giving up their nuclear ambitions no matter how much the West offers in return. Yet the problem for Iran in this strategy is that they must do everything they can to drag out the talks because their failure will make it difficult if not impossible for Obama to continue to argue that the window for diplomacy must be kept open.

Israeli officials have made plain their skepticism about this latest initiative. As Shabtai Shavit, a former director of the Mossad, was quoted as saying yesterday in an interview with Israel Radio:

In the past, every time the Iranians agreed to talk, the reason for their agreeing was in order to buy time in order to advance the development of their nuclear program. They didn’t invent this ruse, they learned it from the North Koreans.

Only the most naïve diplomats can believe the Iranians have any other objective in mind in agreeing to such talks other than playing for more time for their nuclear program to get closer to weaponization.

But by agreeing to negotiations so soon after President Obama’s plea for more time to allow diplomacy to work, the Iranians have set a trap for themselves. The talks will provide a clear test for Obama’s theory about the window of diplomacy. If, after the threats of an oil embargo and tighter sanctions as well as the president’s vow that he will not be content to “contain” a nuclear Iran, these new negotiations are seen to have failed as ignominiously as past efforts, then Obama and others who have argued that Israel’s demands for action are too hasty will be put in an embarrassing position.

Once the Iranians play Ashton and her clients for fools, as they have before, the notion of a diplomatic window that must be left open will be seen for what it is: merely an excuse to avoid action to avert the peril of a nuclear Iran.

Iran may think it can string along its Western dupes for a few more months and then perhaps think of some other ruse to put off a confrontation. But unlike the North Koreans, the Iranians need to understand that Israel will jump on the next failure of diplomacy as a justification for the use of force, and President Obama will, despite his own reluctance to come to grips with the imperative for action, be left with little wriggle room if he is to make good on his own promises to put a halt to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In agreeing to these talks, the ayatollahs may have unwittingly cleared the path for an Israeli attack.

Read Less

What Window for Diplomacy?

If both the White House and the entourage of the prime minister of Israel are smart, they’ll keep a tight lid on accounts of the meeting today between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. That will leave the press to continue speculating on the statements the two men made before the doors were closed. Though, as both were eager to point out, there is much common ground between the two nations’ positions, a number of items of contention remain. Chief of them is President Obama’s assertion that “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

The alternative to diplomacy isn’t pleasant for either country to contemplate, but one is forced to ask on what basis does the administration’s belief in such a window rest? Failing a rational explanation for their point of view, Israelis and others who rightly suspect the Americans’ insistence that their belated support for tough sanctions will lead to a resolution of the Iran problem cloaks a desire to merely kick the can down the road until after the November election.

Read More

If both the White House and the entourage of the prime minister of Israel are smart, they’ll keep a tight lid on accounts of the meeting today between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. That will leave the press to continue speculating on the statements the two men made before the doors were closed. Though, as both were eager to point out, there is much common ground between the two nations’ positions, a number of items of contention remain. Chief of them is President Obama’s assertion that “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.”

The alternative to diplomacy isn’t pleasant for either country to contemplate, but one is forced to ask on what basis does the administration’s belief in such a window rest? Failing a rational explanation for their point of view, Israelis and others who rightly suspect the Americans’ insistence that their belated support for tough sanctions will lead to a resolution of the Iran problem cloaks a desire to merely kick the can down the road until after the November election.

It’s worth recalling that the belief in diplomacy with Iran is an old story. The Bush administration, smeared as a bunch of wild cowboys who disdained negotiations on every issue in favor of force, outsourced the problem to its European allies whose efforts were a complete flop. Barack Obama came into office believing the force of his personality would be enough to convince the Iranians to back down on their nuclear ambitions. But his “engagement” policy was as much of a bust as that of Bush’s European surrogates. That was followed by two years of Obama’s effort to cobble together an international coalition in favor of “crippling” sanctions that would bring Tehran to its knees. Though Obama is fond of claiming the whole world is with him, the truth is Russia and China have made it clear they will oppose any further sanctions, and Beijing has indicated it will buy Iran’s oil even if the U.S. and the Europeans make good on their threats of a petroleum embargo.

Throughout this period, the Iranians have at times engaged in talks that were supposedly aimed at crafting a compromise that would reportedly make it impossible for them to build a bomb. But every such effort turned out to be a dead end whose only purpose was to drag out the process and allow the Iranians to run out the diplomatic clock, as they got closer to a bomb.

It is true the sanctions are hurting Iran, but there is no reason to believe they are enough to make the ayatollahs fold. That is especially true because Obama’s talk of diplomacy fuels the Iranians’ belief they can continue to play the same shell game with negotiations. Obama’s rhetoric about stopping Iran before it goes nuclear may impress those Americans who are eager to believe in him. It is also encouraging that he has again specifically indicated he will not be content to merely “contain” a nuclear Iran. But any further talk of a “window” for diplomacy will have the opposite effect on Iran that Obama hopes as it will encourage them to believe they can play him for a sucker again.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.