Raising Foggy Bottom

Obama’s plan to reinvigorate the State Department is a good one—and he’ll need its help with the bevy of crises we face abroad.

For the past eight years, it's been ignored, bypassed, scorned or even abused. It's been the equivalent of the unwanted stepchild of the federal government. But yesterday, in a scene of a redemption worthy of a Charles Dickens novel, the lonely creature finally stood in the limelight as its virtues were hailed.

Barack Obama's visit to the formerly beleaguered State Department on Thursday to welcome the appointments of Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell set exactly the right tone, as did his revocation of the Bush administration's ham-handed approach to the war on terror. No, diplomacy won't solve all of America's foreign-policy problems and even playing kissy-face with the mullahs in Tehran wouldn't get Washington very far. But what Obama is doing is something else-righting the balance between diplomacy and military force, much as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has insisted upon, and something that Admiral Mike Mullen also eloquently called for at a recent Nixon Center dinner honoring him. Key leaders in the military are resisting the militarization of foreign policy, and Obama, who called in his inaugural address for America to lead by example, is moving in the right direction.

The selection of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East was a safe choice. Mitchell accomplished, or helped to accomplish, the seemingly impossible in Northern Ireland, where he presided over the "Good Friday" agreements, which ended the armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants. He invoked that experience to argue that the Israelis and Palestinians, too, could reach an accommodation. One difference, however, might be that the conflict in Northern Ireland was an intramural one-a kind of civil war-while the Israelis and Palestinians are divided by ethnicity and religion. But for the United States to opt out of attempting to mediate the conflict, as it largely did over the past eight years, simply allowed animosities to fester. Perhaps the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip will set the basis for a new round of peace talks.

Richard Holbrooke-whose career is increasingly beginning to resemble that of his mentor Averell Harriman, who occupied a dizzying variety of posts in the State Department without ever getting the top job-was back again as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan (but not, significantly, to India). As always, Holbrooke, who is a gifted writer and tenacious infighter, spoke eloquently of the challenges confronting him. He focused on the lamentable state of aid to civilians in Afghanistan and patted Pakistan on the back by observing that it consists of more than the terrorists who have set up sanctuaries in its North-West territory. Particularly apt was his expressed hope that with his old bunkmate John Negroponte from Vietnam in the audience, he hoped that this conflict would turn out better.

Maybe. In the February 12 New York Review of Books, William Dalrymple observes,

In less than eight months, Asif Ali Zardari's new government has effectively lost control of much of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the Taliban's Pakistani counterparts, a loose confederation of nationalists, Islamists, and angry Pashtun tribesmen under the nominal command of Baitullah Mehsud. Few had very high expectations of Zardari, the notoriously corrupt playboy widower of Benazir Bhutto. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse that has taken place under his watch has amazed almost all observers.

The extent of the decay of American foreign policy, like the financial collapse, is becoming increasingly apparent. That, of course, hasn't stopped Bush's last defenders from trying to portray Obama as destroying his valiant efforts to halt terrorism. Bush's former-chief speech writer, Marc A. Thiessen, declared Thursday in the Washington Post, "If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible-and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation." This is preposterous. By placing limits on the measures government officials can take in handling terrorist suspects, Obama is not limiting the battle against terrorism. On the contrary, he is strengthening the fundamental democratic values of America rather than sullying its image abroad and turning it into an inadvertent recruiting agent for al-Qaeda. One of the ironies of his presidency is that Bush purported to crusade for democracy abroad even as he undermined it at home.

Still, Obama's initial steps are the easy, if overdue, ones. His team of foreign policy advisers, ranging from the very capable Dennis C. Blair, who has a keen understanding of China, to Hillary Clinton, who has liberal-hawk instincts, to James Jones, who is more of a realist, will undoubtedly have its disputes. Obama will also have to juggle between devoting his attention to foreign and domestic crises, though the economic one is both. Then there are the restive Democrats and the bruised Republicans in Congress. There are more than enough ingredients for another failed presidency. But if Obama can successfully reorient America, he will set it moving on a new and revolutionary road.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.