Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Clinton & Rice, good cop/bad cop?

Sense and credibility
By appointing both Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, Obama has established a wary tension over US foreign policy goals
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o Ian Williams
o, Monday December 1 2008 20.00 GMT

John Bolton gets top marks for consistency. Even when he was the US ambassador to the UN (albeit unconfirmed) he thought that it should not be a cabinet level post, which has been the case under most, if not all, Republican administrations. However, quite apart from the general principle, Obama's appointment of Susan Rice to the post and to the cabinet along with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state makes the latter's appointment more palatable.

Lots of leftists are grinding their teeth at the number of former Clinton appointees in Obama's entourage, but since these are the only Democrats with government experience who can shuffle round without a walking frame, that is hardly surprising. However, with Hillary herself, he is playing for high stakes. Her foreign policy experience, whether at 3am or any other time, is negligible. Until she reached the US Senate, she had not held any elected or government office, unless you count being on the board of Wal-Mart. But then, Madeleine Albright's highest elected office was to the board of governors of the National Cathedral school in DC. It showed.

Hillary Clinton gives up her independent New York political base to take this office, which is somewhat mystifying, unless she expects the Rapture or whatever to claim Obama, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi simultaneously. For his part, Obama may be applying the old LBJ principle about having people inside the tent urinating out rather than vice-versa, and by having Susan Rice about, he has a perfect fallback for the position at state if Hillary proves uncontrollable, and a counter to her in the cabinet as well.

Between Obama, Clinton and Rice, they have to see to what extent it is possible to reconstruct the multilateral consensus that to some extent held sway during the Bush senior years. Some of the first items on the agenda will suggest the extent to which Hillary Clinton will bite the bullet, notably engagement with Iran on the Obama plan, or choose frosty fobbing off, as promised on her campaign trail.

Obama will have to watch for lobby-led policy inclinations, whether directly or from her spouse, whose house indeed has many lobbies listed as donors. Cuba, the Middle East, even banana trade wars, all spring to mind, not to mention earnest cross checking of foundation donors with ambassadorial nominees. But she may rise above all that. After all, she is certainly tougher and less pliable than her husband.

However, both Rice and Clinton are likely to veer to the interventionist side, the former on humanitarian and the latter on more Kissingerian grounds. In the Clinton administration, the then-pacifist Pentagon checked Albright's otherwise admirable instincts in the Balkans, as her tussles with Colin Powell over doing mountains as well as deserts witness. Bill Clinton, mesmerized by the accusations of draft-dodging, and fearing a political backlash from those who later insouciantly sent 4,000 plus troops to die in Iraq, was not prepared to risk any US troops, and foolishly let bad guys like Slobodan Milosevic know that.

This time, an unabashed Obama should be able to control the Pentagon, whose temporary bellicosity has been blunted by two wars, and make sure that the team follows the Teddy Roosevelt dictum about speaking softly but keeping a big stick in visible (but not overly ostentatious) reserve.

Which brings us back to Susan Rice. Being the sharp end of a multilateral policy is almost oxymoronic. Just because the UN votes on something does not make it ethical, as the Iraq sanctions demonstrated. She has to walk a tightrope between pandering to nations of dubious ethical and democratic credentials and getting the desired results, while cutting through the diplomatic candyfloss language used at the UN to hide lack of purpose or achievement.

For example, on her favourite subject of Darfur, she and Hillary have to sweet-talk Beijing and Moscow, while being firm to get the results she wants. She can address them proudly without triumphalism as the representative of a nation that has learned from its mistakes, and is prepared to remedy them. Basking in the prestige of a president who it seems is the world's choice, she will have tremendous pulpit to preach from, so she has a good start.

But she has to be aware that much of that moral prestige will evaporate with the very first veto that Hillary asks her to deliver on behalf of Israel, when the non-aligned will decide that it may after all be business as usual. As for the last thirty years, it will be applicability of UN middle east resolutions that the US once voted for that will be the test for US credibility. Support for a condemnation of the settlements would do wonders. After all, it is US policy and an Israeli promise to the Quartet, not to mention international law.

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