January 26, 2011

Clinton’s lack of diplomatic acumen diminishes US foreign policy

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011   No comments

It is true that Obama, as president, is the person responsible for foreign policy initiatives. However, it is the secretary of state who implements the vision of the administration and communicates it to foreign leaders in nuanced language that, at times, would seem as if it were a code. Hillary Clinton, the top diplomat in charge of the state department, is either lacking proficiency in that language or is ignoring it. Since taking over from Secretary Rice, Clinton traveled the world lecturing almost everyone using the language of a blunt activist, stubborn ideologue, and idealist advocate putting her past and beyond the limits of diplomatic role. Two years have passed and I am not sure that she can point out a single success story that could be used in a campaign ad or to justify her paycheck and the hefty per diem and travel expenses. In fact, just in the last six months, US foreign policy suffered serious setbacks that rendered the Obama administration’s role seem second to other countries’. The examples are numerous and it should suffice to cite just several to make the case that US foreign policy is indeed in decline.
First, it should be recalled that over summer the administration called on the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Jordanians, and the Egyptians to work for a framework that would result in resolving key issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis within one year. With the Israelis refusing to freeze settlements in the occupied territories and the Palestinians refusing to negotiate unless the Israelis do so, the Obama administration decided to abandon its efforts. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority asked individual nations to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Brazil was among the first countries to heed the call and the rest of South American countries followed. The US sudden disengagement depicts it as a nation that is no longer capable of working for peace or allow others to do so. The draft resolution just tabled in the UN Security Council on behalf of the Palestinians and co-sponsored by 122 nations may end up being supported by all Security Council current member states—except the US; and that is just one example of bypassing US previously dominant role in the Middle East.
In early January of this year, president Obama met with the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri. By the time the meeting was over, Hariri’s government collapsed. That dramatic event further exposed the weakness of US diplomacy. It is further evidence that the administration is uninformed and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. To make things worse, the outgoing Lebanese government filed a protest when US ambassador there violated protocols and met with a swing parliamentarian to convince him to vote with Hariri’s block when deciding on the formation of the new government. The interference in internal affairs may have backfired revealing the US has favorites and as supporting one Lebanese faction against the other. Hardly an achievement for which any reasonable diplomat should take credit.
Even if we were to entertain the idea that the US administration needed to take side to protect its interests in the Middle East, we cannot escape the fact that it is taking the wrong side. The Egyptian leaders and the Jordanian leaders, just like the Tunisian leader, govern without a public mandate, they are corrupt, they are authoritarian, and they lead regimes that are doomed to collapse. The Tunisian revolution that brought down Ben Ali should be a cause for re-evaluation of US relations with Arab regimes. All indications show that the US foreign policy makers are slow adapting.
For more than three weeks, the State Department (and national media) ignored the violent treatment of protesters by a Tunisian regime that is repressive, cruel, and utterly corrupt. The riots spread across the country and with dozens of people dead, fear as a tool with which Ben Ali has ruled was permanently broken. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country and the leaders of his repressive party were left struggling to keep things under control and preserve their rule. It is very likely that a pluralistic, democratic Tunisia would emerge after this uprising, but it is unlikely that the US administration (and other Western countries) will be seen as a friend of the people for its support of a brutal authoritarian who oppressed them for 23 years.
For twenty-three years, one US administration after another ignored the oppressive measures taken by the Tunisian regime. Even when the regime exceeded all bounds of civility and tortured political prisoners and crushed peaceful demonstrators, US administrations were satisfied by gentle rebukes calling on the regime to “act with restraint.” When Ben Ali fled, Obama referred to him in his state of the union address as a “dictator” when he said, “we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” The administration should have used that label before January 14, not after.
On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptian protesters filled the streets of Cairo and other major cities. They chanted, “Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you,” in reference to the destination of the fleeing Tunisian dictator. Jordanian opposition figures are urging the King and his regime to learn from the Tunisian revolution. Algerians, Moroccans, Mauritanians, and Yemenis are all inspired by the Tunisian revolt and in time they will all bring their authoritarian regimes down. In other words, the Arab masses were moved and motivated by the Tunisian people to overcome their fear and change the regimes under which they have lived since independence. In this fast changing environment, the US administration cannot afford to be slow-acting or reactionary. It must be proactive, not by interfering in internal affairs of these countries, but by choosing to eschew authoritarian regimes--not after but--before they fall. Doing so will put America on the right side, the only right side, the side of the people.
* Professor Souaiaia, teaches classes in the department of Religious Studies, International Programs, and College of Law at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the University or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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