Stephen Krupin writes: Not long after President Obama’s second inauguration, I walked down 23rd Street in Foggy Bottom toward my new office in the State Department. I was a couple of days from starting as incoming Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief speechwriter, and was a couple of blocks from the building when I ran into two of the outgoing secretary’s writers.
In what felt like an informal, serendipitous changing-of-the-guard ceremony, my counterparts passed to their successor some well-earned wisdom: In diplomacy, every word matters. True, writers and pundits always feel this way, sometimes to a fault. But foreign policy amplifies the fussiness. One of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters recalled the time when, in an otherwise innocuous list of countries, an ally took offense when its name came after another’s. The offended country had established diplomatic relations with the United States earlier; it just happened to come later in the alphabet.
Legislatures codify their policy in laws and amendments. Courts issue opinions that set judicial precedent. Foreign policy is a more subtle art. Outside of a major treaty, diplomacy is rarely dictated by anything resembling legislation, rulings, or executive orders. Instead, diplomats’ words are their policies. And when policy isn’t clearly defined by those speaking, it is divined, for better or worse, by those listening.
Secretary Rex Tillerson’s unnerving silence as America’s chief diplomat reveals a corollary to the rule I was reminded about on 23rd Street: Every word you don’t say speaks just as loudly as those you do. Tillerson has been less vocal and less forthcoming than his predecessors in his first weeks on the job — a defining period in any tenure, but especially in the tumultuous transition to Donald Trump’s America. At home and abroad, citizens and stakeholders are straining their ears for clues about what our “America First” conversion will look like: What tangible changes should we brace for as we regress from the indispensable nation to an insulated one? How will the muscular bluster of the campaign and nationalism of this new era be realized in bilateral and multilateral relationships? Which of our core interests, like standing with our NATO allies, standing up for universal human rights, or even standing firm on a two-state solution, are now obsolete? Yet in an administration that is so loud in so many ways, our top emissary to the world has been so quiet. [Continue reading…]
Mark Perry writes: President Trump bemoans the fact that when it comes to wars, America’s best days are behind her. “We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” he said on the same day that he declared his new budget would include a 10-percent increase for military spending. But there is an example of American victory — and in the Middle East , no less — that the new commander-in-chief would do well to study because it provides a lesson wholly at odds with Trump’s muscle and menace style.
The lesson comes from an actual war hero who was — somewhat amazingly — branded a wimp when he landed in the Oval Office.
On September 2, 1944, Lt. j.g. George H.W. Bush’s TBM Avenger was shot down on a bombing run over Chichi Jima, a Japanese held island. As his aircraft spun seaward, Bush ordered his gunner and bombardier out of the plane, then climbed onto the wing and parachuted into the sea. Afloat on a life raft, Bush admits he feared the Japanese would find him and deliver him to Chichi Jima’s commander who, after the war, was executed for murdering captured American pilots and eating their livers. Bush later joked that he would have made a modest meal, as he was “a skinny wretch.”
It takes a lot of sand to fly into the teeth of enemy fire, but Bush’s reputation for courage didn’t stick. Forty years later, in October of 1987, he was labeled a “wimp” by Newsweek, which questioned whether he was “tough enough” to succeed Ronald Reagan as president. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had doubts. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 1, 1990 and Bush seemed to waver, Thatcher bucked him up: “Don’t go all wobbly on me, George,” she said. In fact, Bush wasn’t about to.
In the weeks following Saddam’s aggression, Bush recruited an international coalition of countries to oppose him, gained the approval of the U.N. to condemn his invasion, deployed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition of troops to defend Saudi Arabia, then fought a 100- hour ground war (preceded by a 900-hour air war), dubbed Operation Desert Storm, that expelled Saddam’s army from Kuwait. “We set the goal, formed the coalition, did the diplomacy, gave peace a chance, had the fight, defined the mission of the battle, fought and won,” as Bush succinctly put it. The “mother of all battles” (as Saddam bragged) was “the mother of all victories” — the last clear and decisive military triumph in American history. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: In his first weeks as America’s top diplomat, [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has gone to great lengths to avoid attracting attention, despite a growing perception in Washington that the State Department is being sidelined by a power-centric White House.
Some State Department officials have been told by the White House to expect drastic budget cuts, with much of the reduction potentially coming out of U.S. foreign aid money. Trump and his team have also told those interviewing for top State Department jobs that significant staffing cuts will come. Some appear to have started already.
While Tillerson was in Germany, several senior management and advisory positions were eliminated. The staffers were reassigned. Some other top posts are vacant, and there are no signs they’ll be quickly filled.
While Tillerson has met or spoken with dozens of foreign counterparts in his first weeks, the White House is driving the front-page diplomacy. The lack of State Department involvement has flustered many long-time diplomats.
When Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, acting Deputy Secretary Tom Shannon was assigned to represent the agency in the meeting because Tillerson was flying to Germany. At the last minute, Shannon was blocked from participating in the meeting. The meeting went on without State Department representation. [Continue reading…]
Following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s last minute decision to attend a G20 gathering of foreign ministers in Germany — his first trip overseas as America’s top diplomat — the New York Times describes his meeting with Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson: At the beginning of their meeting, a small group of reporters was ushered in to take photos of Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Johnson sitting across from each other. One reporter shouted a question to Mr. Tillerson asking what message he was sending to his colleagues about President Trump’s executive order on travel and refugees.
Mr. Tillerson remained mum.
“Good try,” Mr. Johnson said to fill the silence, as others in the room nervously chuckled.
The reporters were brought back into the room at the end of the meeting, and this time a shouted question — How would the turmoil in Washington affect the trans-Atlantic alliance? — was directed at the normally voluble Mr. Johnson. This time even he was silent.
As the reporters were leaving, however, Mr. Johnson was heard to ask: “Are we still being recorded?”
To which Mr. Tillerson, whose two-week tenure has not included a single news conference, press availability or routine briefing, replied, “They never give up.”
Later, during his meeting with Mr. Lavrov, — the first face-to-face high-level encounter between Russian and Trump administration officials — the news media pool was ushered into a small room to witness Mr. Lavrov give his usual flowery introduction. “I would like to congratulate you once again,” Mr. Lavrov said to Mr. Tillerson.
Invariably in such meetings when one side gives introductory remarks, the other side does as well. But as soon as Mr. Lavrov was finished, State Department press aides asked reporters — including a bewildered-looking Russian news crew — to leave.
While the reporters were herded out, Mr. Tillerson said: “Thank you, Mr. Lavrov, it’s a pleasure to see you.” And then he stopped. Just as the reporters reached the door, Mr. Lavrov was heard to ask Mr. Tillerson, “Why did they shush them out?”
After the meeting, Mr. Tillerson gave his statement calling on Russia to honor its commitments to Ukraine, but took no questions. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: A former prime minister of Norway has spoken of his shock after he was held and questioned at Washington Dulles airport because of a visit to Iran three years ago.
Kjell Magne Bondevik, who served as prime minister of Norway from 1997-2000 and 2001-05, flew into the US from Europe on Tuesday afternoon to attend this week’s National Prayer Breakfast.
He was held for an hour after customs agents saw in his diplomatic passport that he had been to Iran in 2014. Bondevik said his passport also clearly indicated that he was the former PM of Norway.
“Of course I fully understand the fear of letting terrorists come into this country,” he told ABC7. “It should be enough when they found that I have a diplomatic passport, [that I’m a] former prime minister.
“That should be enough for them to understand that I don’t represent any problem or threat to this country and [to] let me go immediately, but they didn’t.”
Bondevik, who is the president the Oslo Centre, a human rights organisation, said he was placed in a room with travellers from the Middle East and Africa who were also facing extra scrutiny.
He said he was ordered to wait for 40 minutes, before being questioned for another 20 minutes about his trip to Iran, which he had taken to speak at a human rights conference.
“I was surprised, and I was provoked,” he said. “What will the reputation of the US be if this happens not only to me, but also to other international leaders?” [Continue reading…]
Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, U.S. border agents at a land crossing in Quebec were asking Canadians, ‘Are you anti- or pro-Trump?‘ Those saying they planned to attend the Women’s March were denied entry. If Alexandre Bissonnette, a vocal Trump supporter, had tried to visit the U.S., presumably he would have had no trouble crossing the border. In that event, he might well have carried out an attack on a mosque in the U.S. instead of going on the rampage in Quebec City.
The Guardian reports: Thomas Countryman was on his way to Rome for an international meeting on nuclear weapons on Wednesday when he found out he had been summarily removed from his position. The senior diplomat turned around and got on the first flight back to Washington.
It was a sudden and unceremonious end to 35 years as a foreign service officer, the last four months of it as the acting undersecretary for arms control and international security. But Countryman was not alone. The Trump White House carried out an abrupt purge of the state department’s senior leadership last week, removing key officials from posts that are essential to the day-to-day running of the department and US missions abroad.
The purge has left a gaping hole at the heart of US diplomacy: the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has yet to be confirmed and the Trump team has not named candidates to fill several levels of leadership under him. Its only nominations so far have been ambassadors to China and Israel. All further nominees to senior posts will take months of security vetting and confirmation.
It is not clear whether Tillerson, a former chief executive of the ExxonMobil oil company, had been informed of the purge. When he does arrive on “Mahogany Row”, he will find a line of empty offices along the wood-panelled seventh floor of the state department, where its leadership works.
“As a career diplomat, I experienced many transitions and never saw anything like this dangerous purge of public servants now underway at State,” former ambassador Laura Kennedy tweeted. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: When Donald J. Trump called some Mexican immigrants rapists, threatened to deport millions of them and promised to build a wall to keep others out, Mexican officials counseled caution, saying it was merely bluster from an unlikely candidate who, if elected, would never follow through.
Now, after just five days in office, President Trump is looking a lot like Candidate Trump — and the Mexicans are furious.
With just a few strokes of the pen on Wednesday, the new American president signed an executive order to beef up the nation’s deportation force and start construction on a new wall between the nations. Adding to the perceived insult was the timing of the order: It came on the first day of talks between top Mexican officials and their counterparts in Washington, and just days before a meeting between the two countries’ presidents.
The action was enough to prompt President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico to consider scrapping his plans to visit the White House on Tuesday, according to Mexican officials. In a video message delivered over Twitter on Wednesday night, Mr. Peña Nieto did not address whether he would cancel the meeting, saying only that future steps would be taken in consultation with the country’s lawmakers. Instead, he reiterated his commitment to protect the interests of Mexico and the Mexican people, and chided the move in Washington to continue with the wall.
“I regret and condemn the United States’ decision to continue with the construction of a wall that, for years now, far from uniting us, divides us,” he said.
It mattered little to Mexicans whether Mr. Trump’s order would receive congressional approval or the funding required to fulfill it.
The perceived insults endured during the campaign had finally turned into action. Decades of friendly relations between the nations — on matters involving trade, security and migration — seemed to be unraveling. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border cannot be built with only the executive order he signed Wednesday and its construction will require congressional approval, border experts and former federal officials said.
While Trump can start the wall by shifting around existing federal funds, he will need Congress to appropriate the $20 billion — and perhaps significantly more — required to complete the massive structure, the experts and former officials said.
“How is he going to fund it? You need money!” Rand Beers, a former acting Department of Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration, said Wednesday. “He’s got to have the money. And you can’t reprogram all that money without congressional authorization.” [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: en President-elect Donald Trump announced last week that he wanted ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his secretary of state, many in the foreign policy establishment were worried. Aside from the fact that Tillerson has zero public service experience, his history of striking oil deals with foreign leaders, notably Vladimir Putin, raises questions about his ability to defend U.S. interests that may conflict those of ExxonMobil.
But the State Department has a bigger disruption to worry about.
The person who actually sets the department’s diplomatic agenda — in ways both overt and subtle — isn’t the secretary of state; it’s the president. The president’s words, as uttered in speeches and other official statements, literally shape American foreign policy. In turn, State Department bureaucrats rely on the commander in chief to articulate clear, thoughtful and consistent views, based on facts and a knowledge of history. Only then can the entire weight of the large State Department bureaucracy follow seamlessly behind him — and carry out his goals.
As Trump veers from one surprise tweet to the next — at times misspelled 140-character statements that seem to contradict decades of U.S. foreign policy, State Department bureaucrats are facing a unique challenge: How to follow the lead of a president who seems uninterested in consistency, protocol and nuance? [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: China has lodged “solemn representations” with the US over a call between the president-elect, Donald Trump, and Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen.
Trump looked to have sparked a potentially damaging diplomatic row with Beijing on Friday after speaking to the Taiwanese president on the telephone.
The call, first reported by the Taipei Times and confirmed by the Financial Times, is thought to be the first between the leader of the island and a US president or president-elect since ties between the two countries were severed in 1979, at Beijing’s behest.
The US closed its embassy in Taiwan – a democratically ruled island which Beijing regards as a breakaway province – in the late 1970s after the historic rapprochement between Beijing and Washington that stemmed from Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.
Since then the US has adhered to the “one China” principle, which officially considers the independently governed island to be part of the same single Chinese nation as the mainland.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said in a statement on Saturday: “It must be pointed out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China.”
Geng added: “This is a fact that is generally recognised by the international community.”
The statement did not describe the details of China’s complaint to the US, or say with whom it had been lodged.
It said China urged “the relevant US side” – implying Trump’s incoming administration – to handle Taiwan-related issues “cautiously and properly” to avoid “unnecessary interference” in the China-US relationship. [Continue reading…]
PTI reports: China on Saturday played down US President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone talk with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, dismissing it as a “small trick by Taiwan” that cannot change the One-China framework or damage Sino-US ties.
“I do not think it will change the One-China policy that the US government has insisted on applying over the years,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after unprecedented move by US President-elect, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV reported. [Continue reading…]
RFE/RL reports: Two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in Russia last year, and one of them was hospitalized, in what officials have concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern of harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russia.
The incident at a hotel bar during a UN anticorruption conference in St. Petersburg in November 2015 caused concern in the U.S. State Department, which quietly protested to Moscow, according to a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of what occurred.
But it wasn’t until a dramatic event in June, when an accredited U.S. diplomat was tackled outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, that officials in Washington reexamined the November drugging and concluded they were part of a definite pattern.
The State Department suggested the harassment has become a particular concern in the past two years. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The current level of hostility in US-Russian relations was caused in part by Washington’s contemptuous treatment of Moscow’s security concerns in the aftermath of the cold war, a former US defence secretary has said.
William Perry, who was defence secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration from 1994 to 1997, emphasised that in the past five years it has been Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere that have driven the downward spiral in east-west relations.
But Perry added that during his term in office, cooperation between the two countries’ militaries had improved rapidly just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union and that these gains were initially squandered more as a result of US than Russian actions. [Continue reading…]
Peter Beinart writes: In the final days before she and Bernie Sanders face the voters of Iowa, Hillary Clinton is leveling the same attack she leveled against Barack Obama. She’s saying that on foreign policy, she’s the only adult in the race.
In their January 17 debate, Sanders declared that, “What we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. … Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”
When the debate ended, Team Hillary pounced. Ignoring the second half of Sanders’s statement, the campaign released a video of foreign-policy advisor Jake Sullivan asking, “Normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea. Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea, and it’s not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it. … It’s pretty clear that he just hasn’t thought it through.” Hillary herself added that Sanders’s comments reflect a “fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to do the patient diplomacy that I have experience in.”
The language echoes Clinton’s attack on Obama after he pledged in a July 2007 debate to meet leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea without preconditions — a pledge she called “irresponsible and frankly naive.” That attack, like this one, was contrived: Obama wasn’t planning to rush out to meet Iran’s supreme leader any more than Sanders would rush to build an embassy in Tehran. [Continue reading…]
Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.
For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.
Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.
But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]
“Public diplomacy – effectively communicating with publics around the globe – to understand, value and even emulate America’s vision and ideas; historically one of America’s most effective weapons of outreach, persuasion and policy.” Jill A. Schuker (former Senior Director for Public Affairs at the National Security Council), July 2004
To be persuasive, you have to be believable. But who, inside or outside the Syrian opposition, thinks that the following pledge holds an iota of credibility?
To our friends in the Syrian opposition: we are with you and will persevere alongside you to find a resolution to this conflict. #Syria
— U.S. Embassy Syria (@USEmbassySyria) October 31, 2015
Syria is an issue on which the Obama administration has never been fully engaged. It has instead been an issue that refused to go away — however persistently it was ignored. Some officials inside the State Department might sincerely claim they are “with” the Syrian opposition, yet the support provided by the U.S. government as a whole, has proved to be less than worthless.
Following nine hours of talks in Vienna on Friday, Josh Rogin says:
European diplomats at the conference told me they were concerned the new U.S.-led diplomatic effort was an empty gesture, to allow the Obama administration to claim it was working in earnest to solve the Syria crisis.
If U.S. diplomacy rings hollow even among America’s closest allies, then it will predictably and reasonably be ignored by every party directly involved in the war in Syria.
Trita Parsi writes: Pope Francis’s visit to Washington DC could not have been better timed for the Obama administration. Relations with Cuba have been normalized and the Iran nuclear deal has survived the theatrics of the mandated Congressional review. Pope Francis has of course played an important role in many of these wins for President Barack Obama. He helped with the backchannel diplomacy with Havana, he has endorsed the Iran deal and the White House has reportedly also enlisted his offices to help secure the release of three American citizens imprisoned in Iran.
While the Pope’s assistance in what appears to amount to a prisoner exchange with Iran is both welcomed and necessary, there are two other interrelated issues that deserves some papal nudging.
On the broader level, the Obama administration should seek strong support from the pope on the matter of diplomacy as a principle. The Iran nuclear deal was above all a major victory for a foreign policy paradigm centered on the idea that international conflicts must first and foremost be resolved through dialogue and negotiations, rather than through militarism and coercion.
Many outside of the US may find it perplexing that this even needs to be debated, but the Congressional debate around the Iran nuclear deal revealed the profound opposition that remains within the Washington foreign policy establishment around the notion of negotiating and compromising with one’s adversaries. [Continue reading…]
Pope Francis is part of the way through his much-anticipated visit to Cuba and the US, which he is visiting for the first time. He is following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Cuba in 2012 and expressed his opposition to the US trade embargo.
Now Cuba and the US have dramatically thawed their relations, Francis’s visit to Cuba may well have included a behind-closed-doors push to edge the Castro regime toward greater political, economic and especially religious liberalisation.
The current pontiff has been credited as a central figure in the negotiations that ultimately restored US-Cuba relations. Pope John Paul II had called for the lifting of the embargo, but nothing was done at the time; other religious and humanitarian organisations pressed for the ending of the US embargo but to no avail.
It was probably Obama’s decision to accept the mediation of Pope Francis that allowed the Holy See to help broker the deal.
There were plenty of incentives for both sides to accept the Holy See’s mediation. Perhaps Obama thought he needed to piggyback on the pope’s popularity to break through; the president has mentioned Francis’s role twice, once in his December 2014 Cuba speech and again in his January 2015 State of the Union.
This is hefty stuff indeed, and a measure of the pope’s unique diplomatic position.