Talking about Talking, Again

The peace process was on the top of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s agenda yesterday. She sat down with both the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, Saeb Erekat and Yitzhak Molcho, as well as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Paris has proposed a conference to talk about talks, but Clinton said Washington doesn’t “think that it would be productive for there to be a conference about returning to negotiations.” Former Mideast envoy George Mitchell did quite a bit of talking and meeting to try to simply set up discussions about having negotiations. Clinton would prefer not to take the roundabout route: “There has to be a return to negotiations, which will take a lot of persuasion and preliminary work in order to set up a productive meeting between the parties.”

Wrapping things up in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded a positive note about NATO’s progress in the country. He said that “if we keep this momentum up we will deliver a decisive blow to the enemy and turn the corner on this conflict.” In addition to saying goodbye to the troops, the SecDef found himself arguing with some in the White House calling for a steeper drawdown of troops. Gates headed to Brussels today for some final meetings with NATO and Russia. Afghanistan, Libya and missile defense are expected to be on the top of the agenda.

Gates is conducting his farewell tour as his likely successor, CIA Director Leon Panetta, is meeting with Defense Department leaders back in Washington. He’s gearing up for confirmation hearings this week. Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan described the process: “First step is to prepare Director Panetta for his confirmation hearing and the second step is to ensure an appropriate and smooth turnover with Secretary Gates upon the nominee's confirmation.” On Thursday, Panetta will be before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Peter A. Diamond, who has been waiting for fourteen months to take his spot on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, withdrew his nomination yesterday. He said Republican opposition was the reason. The spotlight is now on the White House and its reported lack of willingness to fight for Diamond. Fighting a lot of battles lately, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the administration did what it could and regrets “that it’s come to this and he’s withdrawn his nomination.” There is actually a pretty significant list of spots still without even so much as a nominee, including chairman of the FDIC and the head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

President Obama meanwhile will be focusing much of his energy on the great abroad for the next day or so. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks, and the president has a videoconference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai lined up for Wednesday. Obama sat down with his national security team yesterday for two hours to talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan.