Sameer Lalwani is a policy analyst in the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program
The upside of this latest tiff between Senators Clinton and Obama is that it is starting to force candidates, and hopefully the broader public, to start thinking about what a new foreign policy should look like, and further, if we support diplomacy, what the sound byte of “vigorous diplomacy” should contain.
Lest we forget, the Bush administration in their heyday of unilateralism characterized their Iraq efforts as diplomacy when in it was clear from a number of vantage points, that they had already made up their mind to invade.
Even former Ambassador John Bolton suggested the US was pursuing maximum diplomatic efforts with regards to Iran at exactly the same time the administration chose to reject the now-famous offer made by Iran in May 2003. The transcript of the Radio Sawa interview reads:
So we are hoping that the example of Iraq divested of its weapons of mass destruction would be persuasive to a number of other states in the Middle East, and we certainly intend to exert a maximum diplomatic effort to persuade other states like Syria, Libya and Iran among others to give up their pursuit of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and long range ballistic missile delivery systems. [emphasis added]
Bolton also expressed commitments to diplomacy in the announcement of his nomination, his testimony, and interviews throughout, but they rang hollow when faced with his actions which were roundly criticized for their very undiplomatic nature.
The fact is, for years the administration ran roughshod over the meaning of diplomacy and turned it into a political sound byte rather than a serious effort to secure our own interests. So committing to diplomacy is not enough, defining its contents and fleshing out its meaning are what counts.
To that end, Senator Obama tries to counter the Bush administration’s brand of thin-diplomacy (sometimes unilateralism cloaked in the garb of diplomacy) by evincing a willingness to meet leaders of all stripes, even the ones we don’t like, in order achieve strategic ends.
(Since several TWN comments have challenged Steve on his read of this, if we’re going to have a close textual reading of the debate transcript, its important to note the question asked about a “willingness” to meet with leaders that somehow metamorphosed into a “promise” to meet with them–the reframing in absolutist terms allows the respondent to describe what they wouldn’t do and evade articulation of a positive foreign policy vision).
Ironically, while Sen. Clinton didn’t want to be used as propaganda for dictators, she finds herself–much to her chagrin–to be the heroine of neo-con extraordinaire Charles Krauthammer’s column this morning. With the Krauthammers of the country praising Sen. Clinton for her tough-sounding rhetoric, it probably doesn’t do much for her defense against the Bush/Cheney-lite charge.
One canard Krauthammer offers in defense of Senator Clinton’s statement is that meeting and talking somehow rewards leaders and dictators we don’t like. I’d like to know what reward Russian President Vladimir Putin received when President Bush met with him a month ago in Maine. Were we congratulating him for his opposition to our intended missile defense deployment or his threats to withdraw from the CFE or INF treaties? I certainly didn’t see Krauthammer opposing that meeting. The reason is because at some point we have to face-up to the realities around us and some of those are odious leaderships we don’t particularly like.
According to Freedom House’s rankings of countries in the world (which I don’t fully subscribe to but is generally referenced and praised by the Krauthammer types) nearly all the countries mentioned in the debate’s diplomacy question fall into the same category as Russia, while Venezuela actually ranks slightly higher. All five countries mentioned rank higher than Russia on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s newly established Global Peace Index. Base on these metrics, Russia appears as bad or worse than the countries we refuse to talk to. So if we’re willing to stomach our disdain and meet with Russian leadership for strategic objectives, why not the other leaders?
Russia is no geopolitical wallflower, yet President Bush met with Putin because Russia has been disruptive to our interests and we’d rather they play a more responsible stewardship role in their part of the world. We have little use for meetings with effusive, well-intentioned leaders of countries that can’t deliver anything and pose little consequence to global stability.
A willingness to meet thuggish leaders is a matter of cold, calculating self-interest whether to express displeasure and redlines, clarify miscommunications, or attempt some deal making. This isn’t a promise to meet on a dictator’s whim. It means maintaining the option, the strategic flexibility to talk and cut deals that further our own objectives–like flipping Syria to disrupt Iranian power projection across the Middle East, or luring Cuba into our economic orbit to deflate Venezuela’s control of Latin America.
But meeting with leaders is only one element of a diplomatic strategy that needs to be rounded out with more innovative ideas. Steve Clemons has decried the proposals by both Sen. Clinton and Obama to beef up our armed forces as a play to look tough without actually increasing what he terms “security deliverables.” In fact, his charge of an “over-militarized engagement with the world” has been substantiated by a December 2006 report commissioned by then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Lugar. It details the overinvestment in and overdependence on our military to achieve security when in fact an critical but neglected civilian capacity carries out essential day-to-day operations to win the hearts and minds of the world primarily through the State Department and USAID. The report goes on to suggest a rapid expansion of these capacities to fulfill their mandates and prevent a military scope-creep that could undermine our efforts to win over local populations.
Rather than trading political punches and punch lines, both Senators could stand to read the report’s recommendations and adopt more robust visions for the role of our civilian and diplomatic capacities in US national security policy.