Commentary Magazine


Topic: State Department

Nothing Done, But Still Committed!

The State Department struggled again yesterday to explain why — a month after the U.S. committed itself to having Israel included in the “Global Counterterrorism Forum” (which Secretary Clinton formed last year and which the U.S. co-chairs with Turkey) — Israel was excluded from the Monday conference of the Forum, which 29 other nations attended.

Asked about this by A.P. reporter Matt Lee the day before yesterday, the State Department spokesperson pled ignorance, but said he would look into it. Yesterday, Lee returned to the subject:

QUESTION: … going back to the question I raised yesterday about the Global Counterterrorism Forum … did you get an answer on that?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, as we said at the time, Matt, that our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, frontline states, and emerging powers to develop a more robust yet representative counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience counting and – countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF’s founding members. We’ve discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel and its activities on a number of occasions, and we’re committed to making this happen. [Emphasis added].

QUESTION: Okay. That last line is exactly what was in the taken question from, I believe, June 8. Can you say –

MR. VENTRELL: And that’s exactly where we are today.

QUESTION: Okay. What was done between then and this last meeting, which was just yesterday? … I’m just wondering what did the CT Bureau or whoever’s in charge of this do in the interim to get Israel included?

MR. VENTRELL: We continued to discuss it with the GCTF. …

QUESTION: Well, I mean, I’d just like to know what you did in the interim between June 8 and July 9 to work on this, on your commitment to getting Israel involved.

MR. VENTRELL: I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels, but let me check for you, Matt, and get back to you.

Hopefully Matt Lee will return to the subject once again in today’s press conference, and hopefully the Department spokesperson will have a more informative answer than “I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels.”

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The State Department struggled again yesterday to explain why — a month after the U.S. committed itself to having Israel included in the “Global Counterterrorism Forum” (which Secretary Clinton formed last year and which the U.S. co-chairs with Turkey) — Israel was excluded from the Monday conference of the Forum, which 29 other nations attended.

Asked about this by A.P. reporter Matt Lee the day before yesterday, the State Department spokesperson pled ignorance, but said he would look into it. Yesterday, Lee returned to the subject:

QUESTION: … going back to the question I raised yesterday about the Global Counterterrorism Forum … did you get an answer on that?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, as you know, as we said at the time, Matt, that our idea with the Global Counterterrorism Forum was to bring together a limited number of traditional donors, frontline states, and emerging powers to develop a more robust yet representative counterterrorism capacity-building platform. A number of our close partners with considerable experience counting and – countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF’s founding members. We’ve discussed the GCTF and ways to involve Israel and its activities on a number of occasions, and we’re committed to making this happen. [Emphasis added].

QUESTION: Okay. That last line is exactly what was in the taken question from, I believe, June 8. Can you say –

MR. VENTRELL: And that’s exactly where we are today.

QUESTION: Okay. What was done between then and this last meeting, which was just yesterday? … I’m just wondering what did the CT Bureau or whoever’s in charge of this do in the interim to get Israel included?

MR. VENTRELL: We continued to discuss it with the GCTF. …

QUESTION: Well, I mean, I’d just like to know what you did in the interim between June 8 and July 9 to work on this, on your commitment to getting Israel involved.

MR. VENTRELL: I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels, but let me check for you, Matt, and get back to you.

Hopefully Matt Lee will return to the subject once again in today’s press conference, and hopefully the Department spokesperson will have a more informative answer than “I imagine it was raised at a number of different levels.”

Jonathan Tobin discussed the substantive aspects of this latest sign of the administration’s approach toward Israel, and Mannie Sherberg’s analysis at Boker tov, Boulder! is also worth reading. And here’s another question: why is getting answers to questions about Israel from this administration always like pulling teeth?

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Time to Call the Haqqanis Terrorists

Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?

There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.

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Jeff Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War–one of the best Afghanistan analysts out there–has an excellent question in this Weekly Standard article: Why hasn’t the administration designated the Haqqani Network as a terrorist organization?

There is no legitimate reason to avoid this designation for a group that, according to the testimony of administration officials, has carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. Once it is designated, that will allow the U.S. and other governments to more actively go after its finances, leaders, and supporters. It appeared that designation–which is favored by both U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen–was a done deal last year, but it still hasn’t happened, apparently because the State Department wants to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis.

There is, in fact, scant chance this fanatical organization will ever voluntarily lay down its arms. But even those who think there is a chance of negotiating with the Haqqanis should favor designation, because the offer to lift that status could be a useful carrot to dangle in front of the Haqqanis. The fact that the Haqqanis have not been designated bespeaks a woeful confusion and lack of purpose within the higher echelons of the administration about the whole war effort in Afghanistan.

If we are serious about drawing down troop numbers without leaving behind utter chaos, then we need to take sterner steps now to try to decrease the power of the Haqqanis and their close allies in the Quetta Shura Taliban. Designation as a terrorist organization isn’t enough. But it’s a start.

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Obama Still Steamrollering Hillary

Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.

Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.

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Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.

Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.

Clinton’s achievements at the State Department have been few and far between. She can take some credit for the outcome in Libya, where the U.S. joined the rest of the West in ousting the Qaddafi regime. But even that was tainted by the spectacle of the U.S. “leading from behind” and the lack of a capable follow-up to the fighting in which the chaos in Libya has now spread to Mali.

But the Arab Spring protests have otherwise been an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Clinton’s much ballyhooed ability to make nice that stems from her eight years as First Lady hasn’t done much to advance American interests. Indeed, her faith in her schmoozing skills may have actually been a drawback to U.S. efforts to deal with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Being Clinton’s friend may be what some foreign leaders aspire to, but it didn’t do much for Suzanne Mubarak, a point few in the Middle East missed.

As Senator Lindsey Graham has said, Clinton may be both “classy” and “hard-working,” fine attributes for a middle-level bureaucrat. But her approach to U.S. foreign policy has been all about process and less concerned with tangible results. The international coalition she has assembled on behalf of sanctions against Iran that she often boasts about doesn’t mean much when you consider it took three years to assemble (during which Iran was able to continue working toward its nuclear goal while laughing at the administration’s attempt at “engagement”) and has done nothing to actually stop the Iranians.

Elsewhere, she has presided over foreign policy during a period where American influence over events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region declined. In particular, her sporadic attempts at reviving the Israel-Palestinian talks were disasters. Here again, the president’s “good soldier” loyally did his bidding in picking fights with Israel’s government that only served to reinforce Palestinian intransigence.

But of course, we don’t know what Clinton could really have accomplished if she had her way because as Myers is forced to point out, she has subordinated her own views to those of the president despite differences on keeping a strong American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need to resist Putin and to promote human rights. In each case, Clinton’s instincts seem to have been on the right side of the issue, but as a dutiful servant of the president, she wound up being the public face of bad policies.

Of course, the president’s views ought to prevail as a matter of principle, but Clinton’s inability to get her way on most issues and willingness to go along to get along tells us a lot about why he won in 2008 and she didn’t. Her “rock star” status has to do with her fame and long stay in the public eye as well as having the smarts to suck up to the press. But for all of her intelligence and abilities, this is not the profile of someone who was ever likely to be president. Though Barack Obama has been a terrible president in most respects, even reading the most flattering coverage of Clinton reminds us why he’s sitting in the Oval Office and she never will.

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Refugee Definition Promotes Conflict

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.

The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:

The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has been doing yeoman’s work covering Senator Mark Kirk’s efforts to force the State Department to define Palestinian refugees in the same manner that the international community defines non-Palestinian refugees.

The problem about definitions exists because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) applies one definition of refugees around the world, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) applies a different definition only to Palestinian refugees. The State Department sides with UNRWA. In a 2006 article, University of Illinois economist Fred Gottheil explained the difference between the UNHCR and UNRWA approach:

The refugee population that UNHCR serves, at any time, is the number who fled their homelands minus those refugees repatriated or resettled. Because there was virtually no repatriation or resettlement among UNRWA’s refugee population, its size includes not only those who fled their homes but also during the course of over a half-century and in considerably larger numbers their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, regardless of where and under what social, political, and economic conditions they live. Another distinction between UNRWA and UNHCR on population counts is this: Palestinians who had fled their homes from one location within Palestine to another location within Palestine – say, from a village in what became Israel to a location in the West Bank – are nonetheless defined by UNRWA as refugees, even though they had not fled their homeland. By UNHCR reckoning, they are not refugees. And counted as well among the Palestinian refugees are descendants of refugees born, raised, and living elsewhere in the Middle East and abroad, who, never having seen the Palestinian homeland, are free nonetheless to return to it and to live there permanently but choose not to do so. Their decision to reject repatriation to the Palestinian homeland had nothing to do with the principles of non-refoulement since persecution of returnees was at no time a perceived threat. They do not satisfy UNHCR’s definition of refugee.

If the State Department accepts the UNRWA definition, there are about 5 million Palestinian refugees, but if one accepts the standard UNHCR definition, there are about 30,000.

To understand how dangerous it is to accept an expansive, political definition of refugees, consider India: The 1947 partition of India created about 14.5 million refugees, as those born in what became Pakistan fled to India and vice versa. At a 2002 speech at Hebrew University, Bernard Lewis suggested that applying the same definition to refugees created by the partition of India that UNRWA and the State Department apply to refugees created by the partition of Palestine meant that there existed 140 million refugees in South Asia. Today, that might equate to 170 million refugees or so. Had the international community adopted the same strategy in South Asia that it does in the Levant, this would guarantee the impossibility of any peace and reconciliation. Secretary of State Clinton knows this. By pandering to UNRWA, therefore, she is in effect choosing war over any hope of peace.

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Obama Rolls Over Again for the Turks

It was only last month when the State Department was acknowledging that Israel is “one of NATO’s partners [and] has participated over the years in many, many, many NATO activities, consultations, exercises, et cetera.” The context was a surreal exchange between the AP’s Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland regarding how Turkey was vetoing Israel from participating in this week’s Chicago NATO summit. Lee expressed confusion at the bland acquiescence with which the Obama administration was meeting Turkey’s machinations:

QUESTION: Toria, I’m trying to help you out here, because you’re going to get absolutely slammed.
MS. NULAND: I understand. Matt, there is no –
QUESTION: You are. If you can’t come out and say that the United States wants Israel to participate, its main ally in the Middle East and you won’t come out and say that the administration wants them to participate in whatever event is going on in Chicago, that’s – that is going to be seized on.

QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Turks wouldn’t be objecting to Israel’s participation if someone hadn’t proposed that Israel participate. And if you have proposed that they participate –
MS. NULAND: Again –
QUESTION: — and you’re not willing to stick up for it, I don’t understand why.

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It was only last month when the State Department was acknowledging that Israel is “one of NATO’s partners [and] has participated over the years in many, many, many NATO activities, consultations, exercises, et cetera.” The context was a surreal exchange between the AP’s Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland regarding how Turkey was vetoing Israel from participating in this week’s Chicago NATO summit. Lee expressed confusion at the bland acquiescence with which the Obama administration was meeting Turkey’s machinations:

QUESTION: Toria, I’m trying to help you out here, because you’re going to get absolutely slammed.
MS. NULAND: I understand. Matt, there is no –
QUESTION: You are. If you can’t come out and say that the United States wants Israel to participate, its main ally in the Middle East and you won’t come out and say that the administration wants them to participate in whatever event is going on in Chicago, that’s – that is going to be seized on.

QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Turks wouldn’t be objecting to Israel’s participation if someone hadn’t proposed that Israel participate. And if you have proposed that they participate –
MS. NULAND: Again –
QUESTION: — and you’re not willing to stick up for it, I don’t understand why.

Of course, Israel ended up getting excluded from the summit. The White House and State Department have subsequently scrambled from one excuse to another, lest people settle on the obvious: that the Obama administration is allowing Turkey to drive a wedge between Israel and NATO, thereby damaging NATO’s coordination with allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, undermining America’s ability to project power into the region, eroding the U.S.-Israel alliance, and making the Israelis feel isolated and nervous right as they’re making critical decisions about going it alone on Iran.

Administration officials first condescendingly insisted that critics had a “misconception” about how NATO worked. There just wasn’t enough time and space to invite members from “all those partnerships and alliance[s].” Then it turned out that there was room for members of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The Initiative, though undoubtedly valuable, is unlikely to be as critical to NATO’s core focus on the Mediterranean than the Mediterranean Dialogue of which Israel is a part.

So last week the standard for attendance shifted. The new bar was participation in the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Quote-unquote from NATO’s Secretary-General Rasmussen: “Israel has not been invited to attend the summit because Israel is neither a participant in ISAF, nor in KFOR.”

But that still won’t work. Summit participant Jordan is a formal ISAF partner but provides exactly nothing worth listing to the mission. Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Qatar are also in Chicago, even though none are in ISAF or KFOR.

One wonders, then, what new excuse the Obama administration will trot out this week?

The answer can’t be about providing input on Kosovo or Afghanistian. That might colorably bring the Stans on board – regional presence, supply lines, etc – but not Qatar. Even worse for the administration’s prevarication, they can’t use that to justify excluding Israel. It was just last month when IAF chief Ido Nechushtan was awarded a U.S. Air Force decoration for the contributions the IAF has made to America’s war-fighting capabilities in Afghanistan. If the goal is to brainstorm how to fight in and/or withdraw from the country, Israeli input would seem relatively valuable.

The White House’s overarching narrative is that Turkey never vetoed Israel’s invitation to the Chicago summit because Israel was never invited to the Chicago summit. That’s hard to believe but – if it’s true – it’s a cause for deep concern. Invitations were sent out to over 30 non-NATO members, including those with no connections to NATO, but no one remembered to invite the American ally and NATO partner that controls the Middle East’s most powerful military? Forget the Obama White House’s supine acquiescence to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman weight throwing. According to this theory, the most successful military alliance in history is being run by idiots.

Luckily of course, that’s not true. NATO is not run by idiots, and all signs indicated that Israel was going to participate in Chicago. Then the Turks apparently rolled over the White House and excluded the Jewish State. One wonders, also, how much resistance they encountered.

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An Unsettling Power Vacuum in Iraq

No one should be surprised to read that the State Department’s ambitious program to train Iraqi police is being dramatically slashed and could be ended before long. The Iraqis turn out not to want the “training” that the State Department is offering. And why should they, given that the State program consists of paying moonlighting cops from the U.S. to give PowerPoint presentations on American facilities in Iraq?

Effective advising requires advisers who have some area expertise and are willing to go off base to work closely with the units they are mentoring in the field. But this, of course, is not allowed under the State Department’s notoriously restrictive security rules. The ability of American officials to move around Iraq at all has been drastically curtailed since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of last year. The State Department claimed they could fill the gap left by the men and women in uniform by hiring a small army of 16,000 contractors. But now it seems that State can’t even keep its embassy supplied with food. The entire U.S. presence is being slashed dramatically, and the police training program–which was supposed to be the centerpiece of a continuing commitment to Iraq–is one of many casualties of the handover to civilian authority.

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No one should be surprised to read that the State Department’s ambitious program to train Iraqi police is being dramatically slashed and could be ended before long. The Iraqis turn out not to want the “training” that the State Department is offering. And why should they, given that the State program consists of paying moonlighting cops from the U.S. to give PowerPoint presentations on American facilities in Iraq?

Effective advising requires advisers who have some area expertise and are willing to go off base to work closely with the units they are mentoring in the field. But this, of course, is not allowed under the State Department’s notoriously restrictive security rules. The ability of American officials to move around Iraq at all has been drastically curtailed since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of last year. The State Department claimed they could fill the gap left by the men and women in uniform by hiring a small army of 16,000 contractors. But now it seems that State can’t even keep its embassy supplied with food. The entire U.S. presence is being slashed dramatically, and the police training program–which was supposed to be the centerpiece of a continuing commitment to Iraq–is one of many casualties of the handover to civilian authority.

All of this was utterly predictable–and in fact was predicted by numerous commentators, including yours truly, who had no faith in State’s ability to run such an ambitious undertaking in a country that remains so dangerous. It is doubtful that even State officials believed the moonshine they were peddling. More likely this was simply a convenient cover to do what President Obama wanted, which was to leave at the earliest opportunity. So now that our military force has left, our influence has dramatically declined, and we are hard-pressed to push back against Prime Minister Maliki’s dangerous, dictatorial tendencies, to limit Iranian influence, or to keep the peace between Arabs and Kurds. We have left an unsettling power vacuum in Iraq. We should not be surprised it is being filled by our foes.

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To Save Aid, Cut Aides

Max Boot last month argued that the State Department and USAID should largely be spared budget cuts. That may be true of the State Department, although (like the Pentagon), the Department has layers of bureaucratic fat and unnecessary positions. Various undersecretaries, for example, have their own press advisers, a wholly unnecessary position that not only might come with a six-figure salary, but also can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars each in flight, hotel, and benefit cost. Simply put, if a Foreign Service officer or a political appointee is smart enough to become an undersecretary, then they should be smart enough to handle their own press. And if they are not up to the task, there are dozens of ambitious diplomats or politicos who probably are. This might, indeed, make for more skilled diplomats because it would benefit those who have a broader array of experiences than simply passing a “trivial pursuit”-like written exam and then a contrived oral exam upon leaving college and entering the State Department’s bubble. It would enable those who have backgrounds in business or law, for example, to apply a skill set to their careers which would benefit everybody.

To be fair, the same is true for the Pentagon. Last month, I attended a conference in Europe in which a senior U.S. general spoke. The general was worth his stars, but came to Europe from Washington with a delegation of aides and assistants whose sole mission was to ensure that the general hewed close to a script which they developed. “We don’t want him to make any comment which the press might pick up on,” one explained. Now, these aides duplicated the work of the defense attaché and American embassy which was also working overtime to babysit the three-star. Surely, there are better uses for taxpayer money than hiring press aides and minders whose sole job is to obfuscate and do damage control. If a general is able to navigate the politics of the Pentagon, then he can understand the minefield of the fourth estate without spending millions of dollars to ensure that he says nothing.

Max Boot last month argued that the State Department and USAID should largely be spared budget cuts. That may be true of the State Department, although (like the Pentagon), the Department has layers of bureaucratic fat and unnecessary positions. Various undersecretaries, for example, have their own press advisers, a wholly unnecessary position that not only might come with a six-figure salary, but also can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars each in flight, hotel, and benefit cost. Simply put, if a Foreign Service officer or a political appointee is smart enough to become an undersecretary, then they should be smart enough to handle their own press. And if they are not up to the task, there are dozens of ambitious diplomats or politicos who probably are. This might, indeed, make for more skilled diplomats because it would benefit those who have a broader array of experiences than simply passing a “trivial pursuit”-like written exam and then a contrived oral exam upon leaving college and entering the State Department’s bubble. It would enable those who have backgrounds in business or law, for example, to apply a skill set to their careers which would benefit everybody.

To be fair, the same is true for the Pentagon. Last month, I attended a conference in Europe in which a senior U.S. general spoke. The general was worth his stars, but came to Europe from Washington with a delegation of aides and assistants whose sole mission was to ensure that the general hewed close to a script which they developed. “We don’t want him to make any comment which the press might pick up on,” one explained. Now, these aides duplicated the work of the defense attaché and American embassy which was also working overtime to babysit the three-star. Surely, there are better uses for taxpayer money than hiring press aides and minders whose sole job is to obfuscate and do damage control. If a general is able to navigate the politics of the Pentagon, then he can understand the minefield of the fourth estate without spending millions of dollars to ensure that he says nothing.

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Where’s the “Made in America” at USAID?

The State Department laid out an ambitious budget for the forthcoming year and, on Wednesday, Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, held a hearing to discuss U.S. assistance. Among those testifying was Mara Rudman, the assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle East bureau. While Rudman might brag about the supposed achievements of USAID, few aid organizations are so inefficient and self-defeating.

Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.

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The State Department laid out an ambitious budget for the forthcoming year and, on Wednesday, Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, held a hearing to discuss U.S. assistance. Among those testifying was Mara Rudman, the assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle East bureau. While Rudman might brag about the supposed achievements of USAID, few aid organizations are so inefficient and self-defeating.

Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.

Compounding the problem is the fiscal irresponsibility of USAID. In Afghanistan, USAID would hire three times the local staff—drivers, cooks, and cleaners—instead of NGOs or contractors performing the same functions, and would spend more money on furniture, televisions, and equipment for offices. Rather than abide by the local market, USAID often would try to outbid contractors by offering landlords 300 percent more rent—a waste of taxpayer money that compounded itself as other U.S.-funded projects would have to keep up. Then, again, when the metric is money spent rather than results achieved, it’s easy to throw money around.

It’s time for USAID to do some real soul-searching about whether the organization does anything that smaller, leaner NGOs can’t do cheaper and better; whether they get bang for the taxpayer buck; and whether a failure to seek credit where credit is due undercuts their utility to U.S. foreign policy. If there’s one organization that’s in serious need of reform, USAID is it.

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Chen Contradicted State Department Claims

At this point, there are so many conflicting accounts in the Chen Guangcheng case that it’s hard to know which is accurate. But in an interview with Daily Beast’s Melinda Liu, Chen maintains that he felt pressured into leaving the U.S. embassy by American officials:

At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—“not those from the embassy but others” —to leave the diplomatic facility as quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. “I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated,” he told me, his voice trembling. “Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn’t leave the embassy. So I left.” …

“[Chen's current situation] totally contradicts the rosy picture I got in a conference call I had with U.S. officials Wednesday morning. They summarized the situation, and it sounded like a beautiful, happy scene,” said Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Association, which has acted as a facilitator in Chen’s case.

Fu had spoken by phone with Chen shortly before I had. “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S.”

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At this point, there are so many conflicting accounts in the Chen Guangcheng case that it’s hard to know which is accurate. But in an interview with Daily Beast’s Melinda Liu, Chen maintains that he felt pressured into leaving the U.S. embassy by American officials:

At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—“not those from the embassy but others” —to leave the diplomatic facility as quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. “I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated,” he told me, his voice trembling. “Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn’t leave the embassy. So I left.” …

“[Chen's current situation] totally contradicts the rosy picture I got in a conference call I had with U.S. officials Wednesday morning. They summarized the situation, and it sounded like a beautiful, happy scene,” said Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Association, which has acted as a facilitator in Chen’s case.

Fu had spoken by phone with Chen shortly before I had. “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S.”

This completely contradicts the State Department’s version of events. According to Ambassador Gary Locke, the embassy was prepared to shelter Chen for years if necessary:

MS. NULAND: Guys, I think what Ambassador Locke was saying was that the first proposal that was negotiated with the Chinese side was unacceptable to him, and on that basis, he was prepared to stay as long as he was going to have to, and the embassy understanding that it could be years.

AMBASSADOR LOCKE: And we were – we respected that and started making preparations and thinking about what his living arrangements would be on a daily basis in the embassy based on that decision. So we respected his decision.

Needless to say, the Chen Guancheng case has gone from diplomatic disaster to diplomatic tsunami. And, in a way, it’s also a much-needed wakeup call to the Obama administration, which has a bleak record when it comes to pressuring China on human rights. This case has thrust the issue into the open, forcing the administration to engage.

U.S. officials reportedly indicated today that they’re considering what steps to take now that Chen has requested to leave the country. And while the Chinese government will obviously be reluctant to reopen negotiations, the Obama administration can still apply significant public pressure, as Jonathan wrote earlier.

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Cuts to State Dept Funding Not Wise

I am deeply concerned that further cuts in the defense budget—never mind the cuts that have already occurred—will leave us a crippled superpower. But I also recognize that the military isn’t the only instrument of power projection that we have or need. The State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies also do valuable work—not always, but often enough that we should hesitate to cut their funding if we want to remain an active, engaged force for good in the world.

Yet, that is just what the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee is proposing. It wants to cut the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, from the $54.7 billion the administration has requested down to $48.4 billion. Obviously, cutting State Department funding is easier for Republicans than cutting the Department of Defense, but it is no wiser as a long-term prescription for America’s future. These types of cuts will do little to address our deep-seated fiscal woes, which require entitlement reform, but they will do much to handicap our ability to influence the world.

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I am deeply concerned that further cuts in the defense budget—never mind the cuts that have already occurred—will leave us a crippled superpower. But I also recognize that the military isn’t the only instrument of power projection that we have or need. The State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies also do valuable work—not always, but often enough that we should hesitate to cut their funding if we want to remain an active, engaged force for good in the world.

Yet, that is just what the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee is proposing. It wants to cut the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, from the $54.7 billion the administration has requested down to $48.4 billion. Obviously, cutting State Department funding is easier for Republicans than cutting the Department of Defense, but it is no wiser as a long-term prescription for America’s future. These types of cuts will do little to address our deep-seated fiscal woes, which require entitlement reform, but they will do much to handicap our ability to influence the world.

This misguided initiative put me in mind of an eloquent passage from Sen. Marco Rubio’s Brookings Institution speech yesterday:

Until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

This is indeed a worrisome trend, and one that Sen. Rubio is right to oppose. Let us hope he will have more company on the right, otherwise short-sighted penny-pinching could convert the 21st century from being the American century into the Chinese century.

 

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Should the State Department Block U.S. Hostages Suing Iran?

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

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On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

It is rich that the State Department bends over backwards to enforce the Algiers Accords. After all, the Iranian regime has repeatedly voided its own agreements. For example:

  • The regime promised to lift the bounty on Salman Rushdie in order to entice the British ambassador back to Iran; the next day, it re-imposed the bounty.
  • The Iranian government pledged non-interference in Iraq, but even Iranian reporters noted that the regime violated its agreements with both the United States and United Kingdom.
  • In recent weeks, regime hardliners have celebrated the hostage taking of the 1980s in Lebanon, and castigated those who sought to strike deals that might compromise Hezbollah’s paramount role.

Iranian regime officials have—by their own admissions—not negotiated sincerely. Obama’s role should be to seek justice for American citizens; not sacrifice their cause for yet one more doomed attempt to bring in from the cold Iranian hardliners whose core ideological precludes an agreement with the United States.

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Re: The Courts and Jerusalem

Jonathan Tobin makes a valuable point about the Zivotofsky case: the law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right, if they want, to have the State Department put “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth reflects the fact the American people, through their elected representatives, have long recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The idea that American foreign policy would be adversely affected by letting Zivotofsky put “Israel” on his own passport is not a cogent thought.

Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful opinion (which attracted eight votes) provides a way out of the corner into which the administration has painted itself. Because the case will now return to the lower courts for further proceedings, the administration has an opportunity to reflect further on its legal strategy. There is a way in which everyone could win without further litigation – assuming President Obama is willing to learn from what President Clinton did in a similar situation.

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Jonathan Tobin makes a valuable point about the Zivotofsky case: the law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right, if they want, to have the State Department put “Israel” on their passports as their place of birth reflects the fact the American people, through their elected representatives, have long recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The idea that American foreign policy would be adversely affected by letting Zivotofsky put “Israel” on his own passport is not a cogent thought.

Chief Justice Roberts’ masterful opinion (which attracted eight votes) provides a way out of the corner into which the administration has painted itself. Because the case will now return to the lower courts for further proceedings, the administration has an opportunity to reflect further on its legal strategy. There is a way in which everyone could win without further litigation – assuming President Obama is willing to learn from what President Clinton did in a similar situation.

In 1994, Congress directed the State Department to permit American citizens born in Taiwan to have “Taiwan” put on their passports as their place of birth, instead of the People’s Republic of China, despite American foreign policy recognizing the Communist regime as the only Chinese state. The State Department initially refused to comply on grounds it would adversely affect relations with China – but the Clinton administration eventually complied while issuing a statement that American foreign policy about “one China” remained unchanged.

That is exactly what Zivotofsky’s counsel, Nathan Lewin, suggested to the Supreme Court during oral argument:

This is not in our view a recognition case. This is a passport case. The question is, what goes on the passport, and may somebody self-identify? … If in fact the statute had said “we don’t say Jerusalem is part of Israel, but you can identify yourself as being in Israel,” my – we submit that result can very easily be achieved and was achieved in the case of Taiwan by a public statement by the executive.

The New York Sun notes that Zivotofsky’s case was brought on his behalf by his mother, who sought a passport for him after he was born in West Jerusalem (which has been Israel’s capital since 1950), and that Menachem has now been trying for most of his life to get a passport showing his place of birth as “Israel.” President Obama can decide to keep litigating – making this a huge constitutional issue that will go on for years, or he can adopt the Clinton precedent and end the case now, while issuing a statement that his foreign policy remains unchanged.

It is the obvious way out, but Obama may prefer to have the Justice Department keep litigating, rather than focus attention on his position on Jerusalem (which has been somewhat amorphous in the past and has involved web-scrubbing to boot) – particularly because he will likely be running against a Republican candidate promising to travel to Jerusalem as his first foreign trip, and who probably will not require a court decision for him to put “Israel” on Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport.

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Will Clinton Repudiate Consultant’s Speech at Anti-Israel Conference?

I wrote earlier this week about the reaction of a representative of Americans for Peace Now about the Arab League’s conference on Jerusalem. The Israel-bashing and denial of Jewish rights and history was so awful it even shocked the representative of a group that is desperately trying to ignore the truth about the unwillingness of the Arab and Muslim world to make peace with Israel. But while less naïve observers expect that  from the Arab League, the news that a person connected to the U.S. State Department delivered a vicious denunciation of Israel at the same conference ought to disturb all Americans.

Kenneth R. Insley Jr., was listed on the Doha conference program as a representative of the State Department though his connection with the administration is somewhat tenuous. But a reading of his remarks at the Arab League conference should call into question any future business between his firm and an administration that has been going all out lately to assert the dubious proposition that the president is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. Given that his speech was put forward as representing the views of the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton should repudiate Insley’s assertion that Israel is an apartheid state and his assertion that Jews are racist.

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I wrote earlier this week about the reaction of a representative of Americans for Peace Now about the Arab League’s conference on Jerusalem. The Israel-bashing and denial of Jewish rights and history was so awful it even shocked the representative of a group that is desperately trying to ignore the truth about the unwillingness of the Arab and Muslim world to make peace with Israel. But while less naïve observers expect that  from the Arab League, the news that a person connected to the U.S. State Department delivered a vicious denunciation of Israel at the same conference ought to disturb all Americans.

Kenneth R. Insley Jr., was listed on the Doha conference program as a representative of the State Department though his connection with the administration is somewhat tenuous. But a reading of his remarks at the Arab League conference should call into question any future business between his firm and an administration that has been going all out lately to assert the dubious proposition that the president is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. Given that his speech was put forward as representing the views of the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton should repudiate Insley’s assertion that Israel is an apartheid state and his assertion that Jews are racist.

Insley bills himself as a consultant to the U.S. government. His day job is director of public diplomacy at Capital Communications Group, an international consulting firm that has apparently gotten a government contract for coordinating visits for international delegations with various think tanks, congressional leaders, White House and other administration officials. But his main business seems to be promoting anti-Israel hatred. While ignoring Israel’s peace offers and Palestinian rejectionism and terror, Insley did not shy away from pandering to his audience’s appetite for slurs against Israel. After defending Jimmy Carter’s claim that Israel is an apartheid state, he denounced the efforts of some Jewish religious figures to urge people to marry within their faith:

Play this game with me: if you were to substitute the word “white” for “Jewish” and replace the word “Arab men” with “NIGGER,” then to most American ears, it sounds exactly like the pronouncements of racist segregationists in the 1950s and 60s in southern states like Georgia, which where Jimmy Carter is from. I think President Carter knows a thing or two about racial discrimination. And so should the Jewish people. … Perhaps it is understandable to be perceived as racist when you are considered by some to be “God’s chosen people.”

It may well be that Insley’s participation in this hate fest had nothing to do with the State Department. If so, the administration should say so and make sure Insley and his firm are no longer receiving taxpayer dollars for his highly objectionable activities.

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What Diplomats Can Learn from the Military

I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.

Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.

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I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.

Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.

It’s no secret the State Department is poor at negotiations. In recent years, the North Koreans, Russians, and Iranians have outmaneuvered their American counterparts to the detriment of U.S. national security. Top-level negotiators edit junior diplomats’ cables and memorandums of conversation to substitute what was said with what they wished they had said. Seldom do ambassadors tolerate independent process observers.

Perhaps the State Department should take a lesson from their comrades in uniform. After every negotiating session, officials should identify what they won, what they lost, what they might have done better, and be merciless in identifying pivotal mistakes. Any new diplomat entering a region should be required to read and drill in the detail of the negotiations and their after-action reports, rather than simply taking the last agreement as a starting point.

Take the efforts to negotiate with the Taliban: While these negotiations have become the central pillar for Obama’s efforts to extricate America from Afghanistan, they are hardly new, yet there has never been a State Department effort to review their previous, unsuccessful negotiations, to determine what went wrong. I wrote about the 1995-2000 Taliban talks for COMMENTARY, but I was glad to see Karl Inderfurth, a participant in those earlier negotiations, revisit his experience in Foreign Policy. He counseled better preparation for negotiations:

“Several probing questions need to be asked of Taliban representatives,” he wrote:

  • Do the Taliban accept a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, and what is their vision of it?
  • Do the Taliban have a political and economic plan for the future of Afghanistan?
  • Will they accept the international instruments to which Afghanistan has acceded, particularly with regard to human rights?
  • Will they honor and enforce the rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups?
  • Will they respect the role of shuras (tribal councils): local, provincial and national?
  • Are they willing to support and abide by internationally acceptable mechanisms of legitimization, like elections, referendums or tribal consensus?

None of these questions, he related, could be answered affirmatively in the 1990s. “Can they be [answered affirmatively] today?” he asked.

Without undertaking extensive reviews of lessons learned, regular role-playing exercises—the diplomatic equivalent of war games with seasoned experts playing adversaries—and preparing extensively ahead of meetings, American diplomats, no matter how capable they might be, will get played.

Diplomacy can’t be done off the cuff, and failed episodes should never be forgotten. Inderfurth concludes his article by quoting Winston Churchill’s famous quip that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” There’s a reason, however, why the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but at present lags behind in effective diplomacy.

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We Failed in Iraq

Back on Oct. 21, when President Obama announced he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year, he reassured the world the U.S. would still stay deeply engaged in Iraq. “This will be a strong and enduring partnership,” he promised. “With our diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

That was then, this is now. Today, the New York Times reports: “Less than two months after American troops left, the State Department is preparing to slash by as much as half the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.”

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Back on Oct. 21, when President Obama announced he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year, he reassured the world the U.S. would still stay deeply engaged in Iraq. “This will be a strong and enduring partnership,” he promised. “With our diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

That was then, this is now. Today, the New York Times reports: “Less than two months after American troops left, the State Department is preparing to slash by as much as half the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.”

So much for a “strong and enduring partnership” that has “our diplomats and civilian advisers in the lead.” Those of us who argued for a continuing military presence were deeply skeptical the State Department would actually be able to main a mission of some 2,000 diplomatic personnel supported by an army of 15,000 or so contractors. The size of the task they faced was just too huge, and the State Department lacks the resources the military can bring to the task. Sure enough, the U.S. embassy has been having trouble stocking its vast chow hall and getting its personnel outside its fortified walls.

The giant State Department presence we were promised was always a fig leaf covering our shameful abandonment of a country where so many Americans have sacrificed so much. The only surprise is the fig leaf is being yanked away quite so soon to expose the nakedness of the administration’s policy failure.

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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

A few weeks ago, I joked that the Obama White House is “the Hotel California of presidential administrations.” It looks like we can add another name to the list of advisers who can never leave. Last week, Haaretz reported that longtime Mideast hand Dennis Ross was still advising President Obama on the Middle East, though no one was quite sure to what extent.

Today, Haaretz follows up by noting the White House took the “unusual” step of installing a direct phone line from Ross’s office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to the White House. The State Department says Ross is an unpaid adviser, but Haaretz says Ross has been conducting some pretty important meetings on the president’s behalf:

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A few weeks ago, I joked that the Obama White House is “the Hotel California of presidential administrations.” It looks like we can add another name to the list of advisers who can never leave. Last week, Haaretz reported that longtime Mideast hand Dennis Ross was still advising President Obama on the Middle East, though no one was quite sure to what extent.

Today, Haaretz follows up by noting the White House took the “unusual” step of installing a direct phone line from Ross’s office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to the White House. The State Department says Ross is an unpaid adviser, but Haaretz says Ross has been conducting some pretty important meetings on the president’s behalf:

During his visit to Israel last week, Ross met secretly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with his adviser Yitzhak Molho. American officials estimated that Ross’ talks with Netanyahu are on behalf of President Obama, and part of a channel of communication that bypasses the government.

One journalist insistently asked [spokesperson Victoria] Nuland whether Ross is bypassing the State Department in his talks with Netanyahu. “With regard to this specific mission and how much of it is Dennis’s private travel and how much of it is in this role as an uncompensated adviser, you need to talk to the White House about that. I don’t have those details. But frankly, Dennis has been a good partner to administrations of all kinds, whether he was in government or out of government, and always remains in close touch.”

In other words, yes, Ross is bypassing the State Department, which probably knows as much about Ross’s ghost diplomacy as Haaretz does. This is important for two reasons: first, those expecting any diplomatic adjustment from the Obama White House can now forget it. They’re running with the same all-star team that has pummeled the peace process to within an inch of its life in only three years. But second, the president is signaling he not only can accept failure, but prefers the failure he knows to the possibility of failure he doesn’t know.

Jonathan offered a good eulogy of the Dennis Ross era in which he acknowledged the fact that Ross’s streak of bungling Mideast affairs for the White House was about to begin its third decade. The interesting part of Ross’s inability to be fired is that neither side in the negotiations trusts him. Israel, however, probably trusts him more than they trust Obama or the president’s judgment in choosing a successor to Ross. But more importantly, the American Jewish community tends to trust Ross. (Though at this point, there is probably more of a perceived trust where there used to be an actual trust, and few are willing to say this out loud and bring down the house of cards on which Ross’s reputation, such as it is, rests.)

But if the Obama administration thinks the American Jewish community trusts Ross, why would they keep Ross’s continued involvement in the administration’s Mideast shenanigans a secret? Perhaps Obama was actually trying to keep it a secret from those still working as official, paid advisers to the president whose advice is being summarily ignored in favor of Ross’s but who didn’t know it. They will no doubt be encouraged to learn that not only is their advice being ignored, but when Ross’s next failure comes–and if history is any guide, it will be sooner rather than later–it will have their names but not their fingerprints on it, the most insulting possible combination.

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U.S. Embassy Relocating Diplomats in Bahrain

Against the backdrop of sectarian unrest in Bahrain, where I am visiting and writing this from, the U.S. embassy – who is not my sponsor and with whom I have had no contact – is evacuating diplomats from residences in compounds near largely Shi’ite villages. While the Shi’ite opposition has legitimate grievances, militant clerics appear to be seeking to provoke clashes to create martyrs ahead of expected February 14 protests. The Bahraini government made mistakes last year, but appears to be making a good faith effort to rectify and reform.

While the State Department is right to worry about the security of its employees, removing diplomats at the first sign of trouble undercuts diplomats’ ability to gather information. Thousands of American diplomats in Iraq, for example, achieved little to nothing because they allowed themselves to be shuttered behind the walls and checkpoints of the green zone. Likewise, many American diplomats in Egypt spent so much time catering to the Egyptian elite, they underestimated the discord brewing below. The last place anyone should go to understand what is going on in Lebanon is the American embassy, where diplomats remain shackled with security procedures that date back to the Lebanese civil war that ended well over two decades ago.

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Against the backdrop of sectarian unrest in Bahrain, where I am visiting and writing this from, the U.S. embassy – who is not my sponsor and with whom I have had no contact – is evacuating diplomats from residences in compounds near largely Shi’ite villages. While the Shi’ite opposition has legitimate grievances, militant clerics appear to be seeking to provoke clashes to create martyrs ahead of expected February 14 protests. The Bahraini government made mistakes last year, but appears to be making a good faith effort to rectify and reform.

While the State Department is right to worry about the security of its employees, removing diplomats at the first sign of trouble undercuts diplomats’ ability to gather information. Thousands of American diplomats in Iraq, for example, achieved little to nothing because they allowed themselves to be shuttered behind the walls and checkpoints of the green zone. Likewise, many American diplomats in Egypt spent so much time catering to the Egyptian elite, they underestimated the discord brewing below. The last place anyone should go to understand what is going on in Lebanon is the American embassy, where diplomats remain shackled with security procedures that date back to the Lebanese civil war that ended well over two decades ago.

Many American diplomats are bold, and chafe at the restrictions placed upon them by regional security officers. Being a diplomat, however, should not be a risk-free endeavor.  When the going gets tough, that is the time for American diplomats to be on the street, in local markets, and generally outside embassy walls or the confines of posh neighborhoods.

The State Department is seeking ever-greater funding. If there is some bang for the buck, that may be okay. But if the State Department restricts its diplomats’ ability to report, then there is really no justification for the budget it demands.

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Russia Resets Relations… With Syria

Well, the Obama administration may still believe its reset policy has a chance with Russia. Indeed, during his swearing-in as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul reiterated that the reset is not over. (Alas, as with Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, who stood down Syria during Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, only to be ordered to fete Damascus by Secretary Clinton, it seems the Obama administration specializes in nominating great people and then giving them horrendous instructions).

While Washington grovels, Vladimir Putin, however, seems to have another reset in mind: with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A Russian cargo ship laden with arms has reportedly just docked in Syria in order to resupply Assad’s troops as they try to restore control after a popular uprising. The resupply effort comes after this weekend’s port call by a Russian aircraft carrier in Syria.

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Well, the Obama administration may still believe its reset policy has a chance with Russia. Indeed, during his swearing-in as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul reiterated that the reset is not over. (Alas, as with Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, who stood down Syria during Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, only to be ordered to fete Damascus by Secretary Clinton, it seems the Obama administration specializes in nominating great people and then giving them horrendous instructions).

While Washington grovels, Vladimir Putin, however, seems to have another reset in mind: with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A Russian cargo ship laden with arms has reportedly just docked in Syria in order to resupply Assad’s troops as they try to restore control after a popular uprising. The resupply effort comes after this weekend’s port call by a Russian aircraft carrier in Syria.

Putin’s embrace of Assad suggests the absurdity of trying to corral Russia into any international coalition against Iran and its nuclear program. Putin sees foreign relations as a zero-sum game with absolutely no room for morality. He is the Russian Stephen Walt, only with dictatorial power. Obama’s over-reliance on the United Nations Security Council under these circumstances is strategic malpractice of the worst kind. The only reset the State Department needs is to dispense with the assumption diplomacy will work with insincere partners.

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The State Department’s Wishful Thinking

What do the State Department and the Arab League have in common? Both believe in wishful thinking. But while the Arab League version is farce, the State Department version could well end in tragedy.

Last week, the Arab League asked Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop slaughtering Syrian protesters. After all, an organization that kneecapped opponents and threw them off rooftops during its 2007 takeover of Gaza is the obvious choice to convince Assad to treat his own opponents more gently. Were it not already amply clear that League efforts to stop the violence in Syria are mere lip service, this might be tragic; as it is, one can only laugh.

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What do the State Department and the Arab League have in common? Both believe in wishful thinking. But while the Arab League version is farce, the State Department version could well end in tragedy.

Last week, the Arab League asked Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop slaughtering Syrian protesters. After all, an organization that kneecapped opponents and threw them off rooftops during its 2007 takeover of Gaza is the obvious choice to convince Assad to treat his own opponents more gently. Were it not already amply clear that League efforts to stop the violence in Syria are mere lip service, this might be tragic; as it is, one can only laugh.

But the State Department’s wishful thinking is far more troubling. Last Thursday, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s recent elections, positively won’t abandon the peace treaty with Israel. How does she know? Because the group has given Washington private assurances to that effect – and private assurances in English are obviously far more reliable than Brotherhood leaders’ numerous public pledges in Arabic to scrap the treaty.

Earlier last week, for instance, the party’s deputy leader, Rashad Bayoumi, told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that for a Muslim Brotherhood government to recognize Israel “is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” A Brotherhood government would therefore “take legal action against the peace treaty” by putting it to a referendum –where polls show a majority would favor scrapping it. “We must return this agreement to the people and let them have their say about whether this agreement hurts Egyptian interests and sovereignty,” he explained.

Last month, party Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein made similar remarks to Asharq al-Awsat. Denying the Brotherhood had reached any understanding with Washington on preserving the treaty, he said the organization in fact intends to ask the new parliament – where the Brotherhood and another Islamist party, Al-Nour, will together have a roughly two-thirds majority – to reconsider it.

Experience has repeatedly proven that what Arab leaders say in Arabic to their own people is a far better guide to their intentions than what they say in English to Westerners. Yasser Arafat, for instance, repeatedly told Westerners he wanted peace with Israel even as he promised in Arabic to continue pursuing terror; only after the second intifada erupted in 2000 did Western leaders finally realize the Arabic statements were the truth. Similarly, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait just days after promising the U.S. government that despite his repeated threats to do exactly that and the 30,000 troops he had massed on the border, he had no such intention. But Washington has learned nothing from its past mistakes: It would still rather believe what the Brotherhood says privately in English.

The tragedy is that Washington does have leverage with Egypt, thanks to the $1.3 billion in annual aid it provides. But you can’t use leverage to try to head off a problem unless you acknowledge the problem exists.

The Obama administration evidently prefers to pretend the peace treaty is in no danger. And by the time it wakes up to the truth, it may well be too late.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Politico assures John Meacham (aka “the boy wonder”) that all that nasty criticism of the collapse of Newsweek on his watch doesn’t reflect on him and won’t stop his “meteoric” rise. Unfortunately, the critics seem to be pretty persuasive in its castigation of him (“a perfect example of media insularity and self-congratulation”) for turning the magazine “into a middle-brow thumb sucker, reminiscent of Norman Cousins’ Saturday Review — a magazine that went belly up several generations ago.”

Congress may not meekly accept the defense-spending cuts Robert Gates has been ordered to serve up. Really, Obama isn’t skimping anyplace else, is he?

Valerie Plame cashes in — hobnobbing in Cannes, making her motion-picture debut, and pushing with her lefty friends for a nuke-free world. I suppose Richard Armitage — recall he was the leaker — should get a residual check.

Arlen Specter now says he could have won as a Republican. Maybe he’ll try it as an independent if he loses today. In that event, it sure would be fun to see Obama campaign against him.

Seems like we goofed in giving the State Department the job of enforcing Iran sanctions: “The department’s mission is maintaining and repairing relations with foreign countries, not antagonizing them by targeting foreign companies that do business with rogue regimes. So it should not be surprising that the State Department has failed to enforce meaningful sanctions against Iran. … How many violators has the State Department pursued? None. Sadly, the department’s apparent unwillingness to punish offenders ensured that Iran never paid the price for supporting terrorism worldwide. Nor, as we now know, did Iran’s ruling mullahs pay a price for developing a nuclear program.” Let’s face it, in 90 percent of administrations, if you want something done right, don’t give it to State.

Irony alert: “After the signing of the Freedom of Press Act on Monday, President Obama declined to take any questions from the press. During a pooled press event in the Oval Office, President Obama was asked if he would take a couple questions. ‘You’re certainly free to ask the question,’ Obama told the reporters in the room. ‘I won’t be answering, I’m not doing a press conference today, but we’ll be seeing you in the course of the week.’” He’s not only inaccessible; he’s rude. You wonder when the press will finally turn on him.

In a nutshell, why voters are mad at Democratic incumbents: “The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 56% favor repeal of the law, while 39% are opposed. … While most voters nationwide favor repeal, the Political Class is opposed to repeal by an 88% to eight percent (8%) margin.” There is a way of fixing that gap, of course.

The White House gets nervous about the military-recruiter issue and mounts a defense. Alas, they didn’t explain why Harvard had no problem taking money from a regime that executes gays.

Politico assures John Meacham (aka “the boy wonder”) that all that nasty criticism of the collapse of Newsweek on his watch doesn’t reflect on him and won’t stop his “meteoric” rise. Unfortunately, the critics seem to be pretty persuasive in its castigation of him (“a perfect example of media insularity and self-congratulation”) for turning the magazine “into a middle-brow thumb sucker, reminiscent of Norman Cousins’ Saturday Review — a magazine that went belly up several generations ago.”

Congress may not meekly accept the defense-spending cuts Robert Gates has been ordered to serve up. Really, Obama isn’t skimping anyplace else, is he?

Valerie Plame cashes in — hobnobbing in Cannes, making her motion-picture debut, and pushing with her lefty friends for a nuke-free world. I suppose Richard Armitage — recall he was the leaker — should get a residual check.

Arlen Specter now says he could have won as a Republican. Maybe he’ll try it as an independent if he loses today. In that event, it sure would be fun to see Obama campaign against him.

Seems like we goofed in giving the State Department the job of enforcing Iran sanctions: “The department’s mission is maintaining and repairing relations with foreign countries, not antagonizing them by targeting foreign companies that do business with rogue regimes. So it should not be surprising that the State Department has failed to enforce meaningful sanctions against Iran. … How many violators has the State Department pursued? None. Sadly, the department’s apparent unwillingness to punish offenders ensured that Iran never paid the price for supporting terrorism worldwide. Nor, as we now know, did Iran’s ruling mullahs pay a price for developing a nuclear program.” Let’s face it, in 90 percent of administrations, if you want something done right, don’t give it to State.

Irony alert: “After the signing of the Freedom of Press Act on Monday, President Obama declined to take any questions from the press. During a pooled press event in the Oval Office, President Obama was asked if he would take a couple questions. ‘You’re certainly free to ask the question,’ Obama told the reporters in the room. ‘I won’t be answering, I’m not doing a press conference today, but we’ll be seeing you in the course of the week.’” He’s not only inaccessible; he’s rude. You wonder when the press will finally turn on him.

In a nutshell, why voters are mad at Democratic incumbents: “The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 56% favor repeal of the law, while 39% are opposed. … While most voters nationwide favor repeal, the Political Class is opposed to repeal by an 88% to eight percent (8%) margin.” There is a way of fixing that gap, of course.

The White House gets nervous about the military-recruiter issue and mounts a defense. Alas, they didn’t explain why Harvard had no problem taking money from a regime that executes gays.

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