One of this blog's minor keys over the years has been the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy. I don't mean this in the "all the U.S. does is bomb! Bomb!! BOMB!!!" way. Rather, as the bulk of the U.S. international affairs budget has shifted towards the defense department, so has the operational control of American foreign policy. This extends to cabinet-level appointments, as ex-generals wind up occupying too many foreign policy principal positions.
Last week, I speculated that the Petraeus scandal might cause a reassessment of trust in the military. To my pleasant surprise, this appears to be happening, but in a targeted and focused manner. That is to say, what's being questioned is the behavior, ethics and massive perks of the military's top brass.
At the same time, perhaps it's beginning to dawn on some foreign policy commentators that America's diplomatic corps has been undervalued. The Wikleaks cables, for example, revealed U.S. diplomats to be extremely acute in their assessments of foreign counterparts. The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens has regrettably highlighted the risks that the diplomatic corps faces in some of their postings. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made economic statecraft a priority during her tenure at Foggy Bottom. As her speech in Singapore a few days ago suggested, the ball is rolling on quite a few significant agreements -- a point that has been raised here recently.
So this could be a moment when U.S. diplomats can wrest just a wee bit of influence back from the generals. Which is great -- unless one reads this Robert Worth story from yesterday's New York Times Magazine:
[Ambassador Chris Stevens'] death was treated as a scandal, and it set off a political storm that seems likely to tie the hands of American diplomats around the world for some time to come. Congressmen and Washington pundits accused the administration of concealing the dangers Americans face abroad and of failing Stevens by providing inadequate security. Threats had been ignored, the critics said, seemingly unaware that a background noise of threats is constant at embassies across the greater Middle East. The death of an ambassador would not be seen as the occasional price of a noble but risky profession; someone had to be blamed.
Lost in all this partisan wrangling was the fact that American diplomacy has already undergone vast changes in the past few decades and is now so heavily encumbered by fortresslike embassies, body armor and motorcades that it is almost unrecognizable. In 1985 there were about 150 security officers in U.S. embassies abroad, and now there are about 900. That does not include the military officers and advisers, whose presence in many embassies — especially in the Middle East — can change the atmosphere. Security has gone from a marginal concern to the very heart of American interactions with other countries.
The barriers are there for a reason: Stevens’s death attests to that, as do those of Americans in Beirut, Baghdad and other violent places. But the reaction to the attack in Benghazi crystallized a sense among many diplomats that risks are less acceptable in Washington than they once were, that the mantra of “security” will only grow louder. As a result, some of the country’s most distinguished former ambassadors are now asking anew what diplomacy can achieve at such a remove.
“No one has sat back to say, ‘What are our objectives?’ ” said Prudence Bushnell, who was ambassador to Kenya when the Qaeda bombing took place there in 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring 4,000. “The model has become, we will go to dangerous places and transform them, and we will do it from secure fortresses. And it doesn’t work.”
If U.S. diplomats have to do the bulk of their work behind fortresses, then pretty soon there will be no difference between their worldview and those of the four-star generals. The more a foreign policy official lives in a protective bubble, the less nimble they will be with rapidly shifting circumstances on the ground. And if there is any lesson from 21st century diplomacy, it's that things shift on the ground really fast.
In a world of real-time diplomacy, a fundamental truth has to be acknowledged in Washington: being a foreign service officer carries risks with it. While, all else equal, those risks should be minimized, the U.S. needs to live with some degree of risk rather than sacrifice the ability of its diplomats to interact and engage with counterparts and locals in foreign countries.
Rather than the simple mantra of "never again" when reacting to the death of Ambassador Stevens, the life and mission he desired should be valorized a bit more. Stevens knew that the best way to advance U.S. interests in Libya was to be on the ground. Doing that from embassies that resemble Orwell's Ministry of Truth is a difficult task.
There is a tradeoff between protecting U.S. officials overseas and promoting their ability to advance the national interest. I fear the pendulum has swung way too far towards the protection side, and Stevens' death will only exacerbate that shift. The cruel irony is that Stevens, of all people, would have abhorred that shift. Better that we openly acknowledge the risk that foreign service officers face in overseas postings, recognize the bravery and loyalty that their service entails, and let them do their f***king jobs.
Am I missing anything?
As the 20-hour assault by Taliban insurgents on Kabul's diplomatic and military enclave drew to a close on Wednesday, insurgents and coalition forces decided to prolong the battle the modern way: on Twitter.
If the continued insurgency in Afghanistan represents a failure of dialogue, the spat between the Taliban and the press office of the international security assistance force (Isaf) on Wednesday proved that they are ready to exchange words directly, even if their comments offered little hope of peace being forged anytime soon.
The argument began when @ISAFmedia, which generally provides dry updates in military speak of the security situation in Afghanistan, took exception to comments from a Taliban spokesman, tweeting: "Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm's way?"
The Taliban – who, when in power, eschewed most modern technology, including television and music players – decided to point the finger of blame back at the international forces for endangering Afghan civilians. Showing an affinity with textspeak, Taliban tweeter Abdulqahar Balk (@ABalkhi) wrote: "@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n 'harm's way' fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout 'harm's way'"
@ISAFmedia was moved to respond by providing statistical backing for its case. "Really, @abalkhi? Unama reported 80% of civilians causalities are caused by insurgent (your) activities http://goo.gl/FylwU"
But @ABalkhi questioned the value of the quoted statistics, pointing outin somewhat sarcastic tones that Isaf, an organisation established by the UN security council, was using figures from another UN body (the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan) to try to win the argument: "@ISAFmedia Unama is an entity of whom? mine or yours?"
Naturally, this led to many Twitter responses. Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross got off the best quip: "And then... ISAF and the Taliban unfollowed each other."
OK, seriously, what is the takeaway from this sort of exchange? Is this kind of interaction a uniquely 21st century form of statecraft, or just old wine in new, snarker bottles?
It's very tempting to roll one's eyes and say that we've seen this sort of thing before. CNAS' Andrew Exum argues that this exchange is similar to the "cross-trench trash-talking" of the Spanish Civil War. Which would be true... if the majority of the rest of the world had the option of witnessing the trash-talking in real time.
No, this is something different, something that I suspect is activating Anne-Marie Slaughter's sixth sense of detecting "modern social-liberal" trends. And as more and more international affairs heavyweights go on Twitter, it might be a harbinger of a whole new arena of the world politics sandbox.
What I'm not sure is whether this kind of Twitter exchange is terrifically meaningful. As the Guardian story observes, it came about in response to real-world events in Kabul, so in some ways the Twitter engagement between public spokespeple is simply an extension of traditional global public relations. PR has been a part of world politics since the days of E.H. Carr, so I'm not sure this is really all that new and different.
That said, I'll close with two questions for which I do not have easy answers. The first is whether this kind of engagement on Twitter is a legitimating act or not. Does ISAF, by engaging the Taliban on Twitter, elevate the latter group somehow in the global public sphere? This was an argument that the Bush administration used to make for why it would not negotiate with Iran or North Korea. The Bushies posited that the very act of sitting down to talk with these odious regimes conferred legitimacy on them that they otherwise would not have earned. That was a somewhat dubious proposition when dealing with governments of sovereign states. What about non-state actors, however? What about cranks on Twitter? I'm not sure.
The second question is.... is it even possible to win at Twitter fight club? In an exchange with Exum, former debate champion Gartenstein-Ross made an trenchant point about online debate:
[I]t’s generally hard to win a name-calling contest. If I call someone an America-hating pinko, they can fire back that I’m a right-wing tool of the military industrial complex. Those two insults seem essentially to cancel each other out: why give someone an area that can end up a draw if I believe that I can prove all of my other arguments to be correct? Second, I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him.
Twitter tends to bring out the
ass snark in me, and I suspect I'm not the only one, so I wonder if, in the end, Twitter exchanges in world politics will all wind up as stalemates (unless either Dave Weigel or Keith Law take an interest in international relations). That said, the ISAF/Taliban exchange did seem pretty civil by Twitter standards -- so maybe PR professionals will live up to Gartenstein-Ross' standards.
What do you think?
One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important. Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion."
I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point.
So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:
President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....
This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).
Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).
What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country:
White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”
But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.” (emphasis added)
That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do. Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill. On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics.
The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio. Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful. The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue. If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count.
Question to readers: is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies?
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Like others at FP who shall go unnamed, I can't resist having some fun at Vice President Joe Biden's expense when he does something silly like say something that's true but terribly stupid to say in public.
In the interest of fairness, therefore, let's take a look at how a Biden trip in which he's the diplomatic guy in room -- his sojourn to Israel. True, Biden hasn't been shy about opening his mouth -- although this qualifies more as "tough-minded diplomacy" rather than gaffe.
As for the Israelis.... well, let's take a look at Barak Ravid's Ha'aretz report, shall we?
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem yesterday was not free of embarrassing moments.
The first occurred at the President's Residence, at the start of a meeting between Biden and President Shimon Peres. The plan called for brief remarks, which usually means a few minutes. But Peres spoke for no less than 25 minutes.
Throughout the speech, the vice president sat in his chair waiting for his turn to say something. American reporters and others present at the scene said the whole thing was very embarrassing, because, as one put it, Peres "gave a whole speech, going from one subject to another."
Many of those present were shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, the sources said, while Peres' aides exchanged worried looks and passed notes to each other.
In the end, his aides whispered to Peres that time was short, and he should hand the floor over to Biden - who did confine his remarks to a few minutes. The two then held their meeting, accompanied by their aides.
UPDATE: Well, it's good to know the Israelis aren't the only ones making gaffes.
The Christian Science Monitor's Yigal Schliefer reports on a less-than-productive meeting between Israel and Turkey:
A diplomatic spat is threatening to worsen Israel’s strained relations with Turkey, traditionally one of its most important allies in the region. The rift exposes growing Israeli frustration with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in a bid to increase Turkey’s regional standing has increasingly spoken out against Israel.
This latest crisis included a showdown at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where Turkey’s ambassador was summoned to explain Mr. Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism, as well as a TV show that portrayed Israeli intelligence agents holding a woman and her baby hostage.
Breaking with diplomatic protocol, Israeli officials failed to include the customary Turkish flag on the table between them and the Turkish ambassador, whom they seated on a low couch. To rub it in, they instructed the press members in attendance to note that they were sitting in higher chairs and the usual diplomatic niceties were conspicuously absent.
“The message was, ‘We’ve had enough,’” says Ephraim Inbar, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “Erdogan has taken things too far. It might have not been the best treatment for an ambassador, but it came from the gut. The signal is that we’re not going to take it anymore.” (emphasis added)
Yes, because heaping petty humiliations on another country will always shift their attitude in a more favorable direction.
Beyond Erdogan's statements -- which, from the Israeli perspective, are probably infuriating -- the proximate motivation for the meeting appears to be the depiction of Israelis on a 24-style show broadcast in Turkey. Let me repeat that -- the Israeli Foreign Ministry is cheesed off about a Turkish television show.
So, is this just Israeli overreaction? Stupidity? According to Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid, it's a bit more complicated than that:
Senior officials in his own ministry say Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is trying to foil the scheduled visit of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Ankara following renewed tensions in relations between the two countries. Barak is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Sunday for an official visit in which he will meet with Turkey's defense and foreign ministers....
"There's a feeling Lieberman wants to heat things up before Barak's visit to Turkey," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. "Everything that took place yesterday was part of Lieberman's political agenda."
This raises a very troubling question: what does it say about the state of Israel's body politic that Avigdor Lieberman thinks he can enhance his political position by snubbing one of the few semi-friendly countries in the region?
UPDATE: This was such a picayune slight that I'm sure it will all blow over. Oh, wait....
The president sat for the interview, at the White House, moments after officially dispatching George J. Mitchell, his special envoy for Middle East peace, to the region last evening.
"All too often the United States starts by dictating -- in the past on some of these issues -- and we don't always know all the factors that are involved," Obama told al-Arabiya. "So let's listen. He's going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response."
Marc Lynch does an excellent job of analyzing this move and its implications.
This is one confirmation of David Rothkopf's observation that, "foreign policy in the Obama years will be run out of the White House."
I have no idea whether this will have any effect on the region. Andrew Sullivan supplies one hopeful data point, but if you read the comment thread on the YouTube clip of the interview... well, it's less encouraging.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.