Commentary Magazine


Topic: diplomacy

Mark Lippert and the Promise of American Diplomacy

Ambassadors don’t get much respect. Too often they are caricatured as rich campaign donors in search of another resume line or ineffectual suck-ups in striped pants–or simply as an irrelevancy in the age of the telephone and email when officials in faraway capitals can keep in touch with no need for intermediaries. There is some truth to these caricatures, but there is another truth as well: that at their best, ambassadors can serve as influential representatives who enhance relations between two countries because of their personal skill.

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Ambassadors don’t get much respect. Too often they are caricatured as rich campaign donors in search of another resume line or ineffectual suck-ups in striped pants–or simply as an irrelevancy in the age of the telephone and email when officials in faraway capitals can keep in touch with no need for intermediaries. There is some truth to these caricatures, but there is another truth as well: that at their best, ambassadors can serve as influential representatives who enhance relations between two countries because of their personal skill.

By all accounts Mark Lippert, who arrived late last year to become the U.S. ambassador to South Korea after a lengthy run as an aide to senator and President Obama and to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, is an exemplary ambassador. As one account notes, he “has endeared himself to many South Koreans by regularly walking his basset hound around his compound in downtown Seoul and giving his newborn son a Korean middle name.” More than that, he has thrown himself into Korean culture and society with an unaffected curiosity and folksiness, which have endeared him to many Koreans who are used to seeing their own government diplomats act in a far more aloof and reserved manner.

Lippert, who is also a reserve naval officer, has further enhanced his reputation with the sang-froid with which he handled a vicious attack on him by a knife-wielding assailant with fanatical anti-American views. Lippert required 80 stitches to his face but has now left the hospital, saying he felt “pretty darned good, all things considered.”

He has vowed to stay engaged in people-to-people diplomacy, and I believe him: Thanks to his personal connection to the president, it’s doubtful that cautious diplomatic security types can shut him down even if they try. But in too many other cases ambassadors and lower-ranking American diplomats isolate themselves from the local population because of security concerns.

The attack on Lippert–to say nothing of the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens, another practitioner of personal diplomacy, in Libya–shows that the danger is real. But what Lippert and other good diplomats understand is that they need to be willing to run some risk in order to accomplish their jobs. His example shows how diplomats, too, serve on the front lines and deserve respect for the risks they run and what they can accomplish to advance our country’s interests.

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The Obama-Merkel Press Conference: What Were They Thinking?

There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

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There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

The press conference was a mess. And its lack of purpose contributed mightily to that fact. The president and the chancellor are indeed two very important Western leaders–at certain times, and on certain issues, the two most important Western leaders. Ukraine is one such issue. The problem today was not that Merkel and Obama are meeting or that they’re talking to the press about it. The problem was that they called a press conference to say absolutely nothing.

The question that seemed to put this most into stark relief was when a German reporter asked Obama the following:

You said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide [to arm the Ukrainians] and what do you think this will hold by way of a promise, because the chancellor said it will make matters worse? And what can the Nobel laureate Obama do to defuse this conflict?

Obama’s response could basically be broken down into three parts. The first was to push back on the idea that the Ukrainian military is being left to fend completely for itself:

It’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear. He’s not interested in escalating violence; he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.

The second part is to concede that he’s basically given up on issuing red lines since he doesn’t mean them anyway:

So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, “Ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.” It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory? Our hope is that is done through diplomatic means.

And finally, his indication that despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t really adjusted his approach to Russia:

And I just want to emphasize here once again, for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia, that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.

What viewers saw here was a complete lack of urgency on the part of the two most important Western leaders with regard to Russia. That was the theme. And Merkel joined in later in the presser, with a plea for patience and hope that quickly devolved into a rambling, longwinded version of one of Obama’s favorite quotes about the arc of history bending toward justice.

Merkel was asked: “Can you understand the impatience of the Americans when they say we ought to now deliver weapons? And what makes you feel confident that diplomacy will carry the day?” She responded by counseling even more patience:

Whenever you have political conflicts such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict. We’ve spoken at some length about the Iranian conflict. Here, too, we are expected to try time and again. There’s always a point where you say well all of the options are on the table, we’ve gone back and forth. But then one has to think again.

It kept going downhill from there. Merkel brought in “the Middle East conflict” (presumably the Arab-Israeli conflict), which is certainly not the comparison you’re looking for if you live in eastern Ukraine. She then jumped to the division of Germany–a nearly five-decade split finally resolved near the end of the Cold War. Again, not remotely encouraging for anyone seeking to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It all brings the viewer back to the original question: What on earth was the point of this? All the press conference succeeded in doing was to tell Russia there was no red line and to tell Ukraine that the West was willing to wait half a century to see how this all shakes out. To those in Ukraine watching that press conference, it was probably terrifying. To our allies elsewhere, it was probably horrifying. But for those of us watching here in the States, it was simply mystifying.

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A Diplomatic Blunder

Remember when Democrats–like, um, Senator Barack Obama–were castigating President George W. Bush for his supposed unilateralism and alienation of allies? Obama promised to do better but in many respects he’s done worse.

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Remember when Democrats–like, um, Senator Barack Obama–were castigating President George W. Bush for his supposed unilateralism and alienation of allies? Obama promised to do better but in many respects he’s done worse.

I remember attending a breakfast in the past year with a former European leader who said that European heads of state had a much better relationship with Bush than with Obama–and not just Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy who were known for being close to Dubya. All the Europeans found it easier to get Bush on the phone than Obama and they also formed better bonds with the more affable Bush than the more aloof Obama. Indeed it’s hard to name a single foreign head of state with whom Obama is close in the way that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were close with Tony Blair or in the way that Ronald Reagan was close to Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney.

This isn’t because Obama is inherently unlikable; plenty of people have been seduced by his cerebral coolness in the past. It’s because he hasn’t worked at it. He has not cultivated foreign leaders any more than he has cultivated congressional leaders. In both cases he has built up no reservoirs of affection to cushion him when times get tough–as they are now for a United States that is at the nadir of its post-1970s influence.

The moment that may come to symbolize Obama’s aloofness occurred on Sunday when nearly four million French people–and numerous foreign heads of state–marched to make clear their opposition to terrorism and their support for freedom of speech. A partial list of foreign leaders who attended: “Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Switzerland’s President Simonetta Sommaruga.”

Guess who was missing–yup, Obama. Apparently he spent his Sunday watching football on TV rather than marching against terrorism. He didn’t even bother to send Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry. Attorney General Eric Holder was already in Paris for unrelated business but he didn’t bother to show up either.

The fact that America’s president was MIA was noted among our allies–and not favorably. As the Daily Mail wrote: “President Barack Obama and other top members of his administration have snubbed a historic rally in Paris today that brought together more than 40 world leaders from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and even Russia.”

Even the White House was forced to acknowledge this was a blunder but I suspect this apology (“It’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there”) is unlikely to undo the damage because it only reinforces an existing stereotype. With two years left in his presidency, he appears to have all but checked out, preferring to rule by executive order rather than by mobilizing support at home or abroad. Rather than cultivating America’s allies, he prefers to reach out to our enemies–notably Cuba and Iran. The Paris rally might become, as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Robert Danin suggested on Twitter, “Obama’s diplomatic Katrina moment”–a moment which crystallizes a growing perception of presidential failure. That is an ironic end to a presidency which came into being in no small measure as a protest against “unilateralism.”

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Cuba’s Backtracking Is the Rule, Not the Exception

The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

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The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

Jonathan Tobin is correct to observe that totalitarianism trumps capitalist engagement. The simple fact is that “critical engagement”—diplomacy geared to bring rogues in from the cold and simultaneously address tough issues they are reticent to address—has seldom if ever worked. Former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel first conceptualized critical engagement in the context of Iran. On May 18, 1992, he became German foreign minister, trumpeting human rights as his top priority. At the same time, the German government sought to expand trade with the Islamic Republic. While the U.S. government promoted a policy of “Dual Containment,” European governments argued that Iran was simply too important to isolate.

On December 12, 1992, the European Union endorsed Berlin’s proposed “critical dialogue,” in which greater European trade with Iran would be correlated toward Iranian improvements on human rights and Tehran’s greater conformity with international norms of behavior. The European Council declared, “The European Council reaffirms its belief that a dialogue should be maintained with the Iranian Government. This should be a critical dialogue which reflects concern about Iranian behavior and calls for improvement in a number of areas, particularly human rights, the death sentence pronounced by a Fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini against the author Salman Rushdie, which is contrary to international law, and terrorism.” The Council continued, “Improvement in these areas will be important in determining the extent to which closer relations and confidence can be developed.” Weapons of mass destruction received subsequent mention. European officials assumed that increasing trade, meanwhile, would strengthen the hands of pragmatists against more hardline elements.

European officials saw the designation of “critical” as important because it emphasized that the engagement would tackle contentious issues. Iranian officials appear never to have taken the new approach to heart. Over subsequent years, Iranian authorities arrested German citizens in Iran, more often as bargaining chips to influence negotiations than on any evidence-based charges. Initially, Kinkel and his cohorts continued to pay lip service to human rights, but as Iranian diplomats signaled Tehran’s annoyance and suggested further queries could impact commercial ties, Kinkel backed off. By 1995, German exports to Iran had increased to $1.4 billion, more than twice the level of any other country.

Meanwhile, European Commissioner Hans van der Broek met Rushdie to assure him that Iranian respect for human rights, the lifting of the fatwa, and greater respect inside Iran for international law would be preconditions for the establishment of closer EU-Iran ties. They weren’t. The EU-Iran rapprochement continued, even without progress on Rushdie’s case. The following year, the EU sought again to have the fatwa lifted but failed to win written Iranian assurances and, in 1995, Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi reiterated that Tehran would not lift the call for Rushdie’s murder.

European trade meanwhile flourished. By 1996, economic and trade relations between the European Union and the Islamic Republic reached $29 billion. With trade in the balance, European leaders dropped any pretense of demanding improvement on critical issues. When, amidst low oil prices, the German government had the opportunity to utilize its economic leverage to force concessions on issues of concern, the German government and German banks declined and instead agreed to reschedule Iran’s debt. European governments followed suit, rescheduling $12 billion in credit.

While Iranian President Mohammad Khatami entered office in 1997, executions increased alongside trade. Rushdie remained under constant threat: even after Iranian diplomats promised to waive the execution order so as to enable the British government to return their ambassador, the Iranian regime simply re-imposed the death sentence the following day. Iran’s military nuclear program continued apace. Indeed, reformists brag that they deserve credit for the nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the European and subsequent Clinton administration initiatives.

The same held true with Clinton-era American diplomacy toward the Taliban. Once diplomats began their initiative, no matter how much the Taliban reneged on agreements and promises, there was no reversing the process–that is, until nearly 3,000 American lost their lives. And the idea that money can buy responsibility has been behind the logic of aid to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip. But even with the Palestinians receiving more per capita than any other people on earth, radicalism and terrorism has only increased.

Critical engagement—and the belief it never hurts to talk to enemies—has been a diplomatic mantra for decades. But such diplomacy has never reformed an adversary’s behavior; it has simply let them off the hook. Rogues know talk of human rights is simply the West posturing to its own domestic audience. Until Washington or other Western countries show a real willingness to walk away from the table and re-impose and augment sanctions when a country backtracks from its commitments, rogues will calculate correctly they can get away with murder, and get paid for it.

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Yes, It’s Time to Lift the Cuban Embargo

Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

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Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

This is part of a broader effort by President Obama to reorder American diplomacy during the last two years of his presidency in keeping with his 2008 campaign pledge to talk to any dictator anytime without any preconditions. The centerpiece of his push is an effort to restore relations with Iran in return for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. That is a very bad idea because (a) Iran is certain to cheat on any such deal, (b) such a deal would not address Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East through the use of its terrorist proxies, and (c) such a deal would likely cause Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to launch their own nuclear weapons. More broadly, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens core American interests in a vital region of the world; it is also supporting the slaughter of more than 200,000 people in Syria. We should be trying to contain Iran rather than cuddling up to it.

Cuba is different. I recall going to Cuba a few years ago and finding a sad, decrepit relic state–a place where old American clunkers from the 1950s somehow stayed on the road, the buildings were falling down, and people lined up for hours to buy eggs. Its biggest ideological export these days seems to be doctors, not bombs. It’s hard to see this broken-down Communist has-been, ruled by a pair of geriatric brothers, as a major threat to American interests.

Once an exporter of revolution to Africa and Latin America, a trend made famous by Che Guevara, Cuba is now but a shadow of its old subversive self. It still remains a sponsor of terrorism but just barely. According to the State Department, Cuba remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list because of its links to the Colombian FARC and ETA groups but those are largely beaten and not much of a threat anymore; indeed Cuba is now facilitating peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. Certainly the groups sponsored by Cuba are not remotely as dangerous as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Asaib Ahl ah-Haq, and other Iranian proxies.

Cuba also remains a notorious human rights violator but its record is not as bad as Iran and it’s cheering to see that as part of the deal to restore relations with the U.S. it is releasing 53 political prisoners, in addition to two Americans who are being swapped for three Cuban spies held in the U.S. Certainly Cuba’s human-rights record is no worse than Vietnam, another Communist state with which the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Indeed over the years the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with many more noxious regimes including the Soviet Union–so why not Cuba?

The restoration of diplomatic relations will, in any case, deliver some benefits to the U.S. by allowing us to beef up the staff of the American interests section in Havana, thus increasing our ability to (at least in theory) subvert the regime through the promotion of human rights. Moreover the U.S. embargo on Cuba stays in effect, although President Obama is urging Congress to lift it.

After more than 50 years, it seems hard to argue that the embargo is doing much to undermine the rule of the Castro brothers. It’s time, at long last, to lift the embargo and see if it’s possible to do more to promote a post-Communist future for Cuba with openness than we have been able to accomplish with a standoffish attitude over the past half century.

This is one diplomatic initiative on Obama’s part that I can applaud. I just hope it will sate his appetite for diplomatic achievements before he makes ruinous concessions to the Iranians.

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

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During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin broke the news that:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.  Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

Kerry is absolutely right to delay the report; he would be even more correct to ask Feinstein to table the report forever, if he and she valued the protection of American national interests over petty political vendettas. After all, if Feinstein were truly acting on principle, she would have targeted President Bill Clinton for investigation with the same gusto with which she came after the Bush administration. According to Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration speech writer Marc Thiessen:

…The men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”

Back to Feinstein: Rogin provides further details on how Feinstein has sought to have the report identify in reality if not in name the countries which assisted the United States with extraordinary rendition:

Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly.

This illustrates the unfortunate and growing tendency in Congress and within the Obama administration to treat allies with disdain. If blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg is to be believed, a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit” and bragged about how Netanyahu couldn’t possibly strike at Iran, hardly a sign of gratitude to a leader who agreed to delay any military strike against Iran at the request of President Obama. Rather than thank Israel for its deference, the White House deliberately sought to humiliate its ally.

In the days, months, and, indeed, years after 9/11, allies bent over backwards to help the United States respond to a growing terror scourge unlike anything the world had ever seen. Some did so reluctantly. Some disagreed with American policy, but bit their tongue and cooperated simply because that is what allies do in times of need when they receive such a request. Feinstein, however, is willing to punish them simply because she does not like George W. Bush. Make no mistake, Feinstein and Kerry may see the world through a partisan lens, but most U.S. allies support what the United States stands for regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. To embarrass these countries for domestic partisan reasons is short-sighted.

The next time the United States has a request—and it won’t matter what party occupies the White House or controls the Congress or what exactly the United States asks—it will be all the more difficult if not impossible to achieve international cooperation. After all, allies might conclude it simply isn’t worth the political risk that they will be targeted because of Washington vendettas that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Feinstein might believe that the United States will never face a parallel to what occurred during the Bush administration, but the nature of crises is that they are simply unpredictable.

Senators should be able to see the big picture, and they should never subordinate national security and national interests to short-term and cynical political agendas. The bigger threats now are the those posed by Russia, Iran, and China, countries which do far worse than the United States on a daily basis. Exposing American operations doesn’t convince the world the Americans are clean; it simply feeds the propaganda outlets in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Don’t like CIA methods and extraordinary rendition? By all means, use all legislative and oversight power to put an end to it. But don’t drag allies into a political debate or air dirty laundry publicly. Don’t damage relations. Trust is at the heart of alliances, and once destroyed, it will never be rebuilt. Let us never punish allies and their leaders for standing by America when the request comes, no matter what politicians may, in hindsight, think of that request.

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Diplomatic Success Requires Willingness to Walk Away

In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

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In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

There are any numbers of examples: Successive administrations have desperately attempted to continue talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, even if it has meant absolving Palestinian leaders and factions of the requirement to forswear terrorism and recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The only president who sought to hold true to the Oslo Accord and who refused to tolerate terrorism was George W. Bush. For his sin of moral clarity and for his refusal to rationalize terrorism, he brought upon himself the opprobrium of the State Department, for whom the continuation of the process trumped its substance.

The same pattern occurred with regard to North Korea. Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework. That anniversary should be cause to reflect about just how irrelevant agreements can be when partners are insincere and treat diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy. Against the backdrop of ever more desperate American attempts to engage, North Korea developed nuclear weapons and new generations of ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear determined to make the same mistake with regard to Iran. Jonathan Tobin already noted how the Europeans are betting that Obama will appease Iran. It’s not a bad bet. After all, while the White House and State Department seek creative formulas to keep talks going, it’s useful to remember multiple unanimous or near-unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions insisting Iran cease enrichment.  It’s also worth recalling the original International Atomic Energy Agency findings of Iran’s non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safe Guards agreement, which put Tehran in the hot seat in the first place. Obama likes to claim he values multilateralism, but he has become an extremely unilateral American president, voiding those multilateral Security Council resolutions for the sake of his own diplomatic ambition.

Alas, Obama seems intent to compound failure. In order to ensure continued dialogue, Obama and Kerry appear prepared either to take a bad agreement or extend talks beyond their promised deadline. This plays into Iran’s hands because, after all, there is very little to talk about: Either Iran complies with its responsibilities or it does not and faces the consequences.

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you’re a diplomat, everything looks like a reason to continue talks. Seldom, it seems, is their consideration of the larger picture or of the broader strategy. This is an administration without a strategist. Nor is it an administration with perspective. When the United States sits down at the table, it should not sit as an equal, but rather as the stronger, dominant party. Cultural equivalence is the refuge of the defeatist. If it looks like opponents are insincere with regard to talks, value process over commitments to peace, or are unable to offer a good deal, then the United States should simply walk away until it reinforces its leverage and is capable of getting a deal which fulfills its needs. That is not hostility to diplomacy; it is recognition that diplomacy means more than constant talk.

When describing Iranian negotiating behavior, many people—not only Americans but also Iranians—utilize the analogy of the Iranian bazaar. Negotiations over the price of Persian carpets may be just one example of the type of haggling Iranians engage in: they could just as easily be bargaining over the price of eggs, vegetables, crates of tea, or furniture. But when Iranians are unable to get a good price or if they believe their negotiation partner is being unreasonable, they will walk away.

That’s a lesson American negotiators should learn. Obama and Kerry are like the tourists who don’t recognize they face a 600 percent mark-up and could get a better deal if they demonstrate a willingness to leave the store. Alas, as the administration winds down and both Obama and Kerry see their legacies tarnished by repeated failure, they seem unwilling to question their basic approach and strategy. They act like gamblers who lose everything but can’t resist that one more spin of the wheel, to win it all back. How sad it is that they forget the house always wins. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is running the house and there are consequences to failure.

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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