Clinton Diplomacy and the Future of Middle East Policy

Monday, May 09, 2011

President Barack Obama and his national security team get an update on Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room (Peter Souza /White House Flickr)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jonathan Alter, MSNBC analyst and author of The Promise: President Obama, Year Onetalked about U.S. foreign policy and his Vanity Fair profile of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Plus: Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst for Al-Jazeera English and host of Empire, a monthly show about global powers, discussed the view from the Middle East with respect to the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden.

Extreme makeover

Jonathan Alter calls it "one of the least noticed changes in American public life"—Hillary Clinton's quiet transformation from the subject of gossip and controversy into one of the most universally accepted figures in politics. As recently as 2008, during that heated contest with her current boss, she was subject to countless barbs and endless scrutiny from both sides of the aisle. But after a few years on the job, Alter says, it's quite the opposite.

It's been replaced by a general agreement that she's smart, effective, tireless, dutiful—basically a good Secretary of State. That's partly because of an old tradition of politics stopping at the water's edge, at least in some cases, when it comes to foreign policy; partly because of Obama and Pelosi becoming objects of scorn on the Right; partly because she's doing a good job.

Team of rivals

Alter said that while Clinton has managed her post quite well, her tenure within the Obama administration has been marked by a mix of success and shortcoming. She favored the no-fly zone in Libya from an early point, for example, and the White House eventually followed suit. In the case of Egypt, however, Clinton wanted the administration to stop issuing statements undermining Hosni Mubarak. Everyone knows how that ended.

But Clinton's public dissensions and prescriptions highlight a positive characteristic of Obama's administration, said Jonathan Alter: that these varying viewpoints are public at all.

What's interesting, among many other interesting things about this president, is that he actually lets people argue it out sometimes in public. Clinton and Bob Gates, for instance, had a very different view of what to do in Afghanistan and it was known publicly. Leon Panetta, CIA Director, wanted photos released of bin Laden; he was overruled, but able to express opinion—and not just behind closed doors, but on TV.

There's a subtlety to these relationships that have all had their ups and downs, but they all basically work as a team. I think there's less dissension in this administration than in any since probably George H.W. Bush's in the early 1990s.

Killing the alibi

Hillary Clinton might be doing a good job up to this point—especially considering she has to navigate the confusing and turbulent Arab Spring—but her roughest patch may still lie ahead. What to do about Pakistan (and the rest of the Middle East) in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death?

Pivoting from past assessments to future policy concerns, Marwan Bishara joined the conversation. His Al Jazeera op-ed "Killing the Alibi" argues that without the specter of bin Laden, continued U.S. involvement in the Middle East will need a fresh legitimacy. He said that Clinton and other politicians will have a shaky case to make.

Voices from Washington were quite convinced that if only we get to bin Laden, if only we get rid of his senior lieutenants, there will be less reason to stay in Afghanistan and the only reason we're still there is because of him. Presumably he's been killed and now those voices need to come to terms with their own argument.

The new pretext for U.S. national security in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that the Taliban and, more precisely, their relationship with certain elements of Pakistani secret service, and hence I'm afraid we might be up for another battle over the hearts and minds of Americans: whether the U.S. should remain engaged because there's much more to be done in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan and Afghanistan: Trading places

Bishara had no shortage of criticisms for how the U.S. handled Pakistan and Afghanistan in its hunt for Osama bin Laden. First and foremost, he said, our foreign policy had it backwards: people covering this conflict from the other side of the Atlantic recognized that there were more al Qaeda elements in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan, which makes our protracted presence in the latter and relative inattention to the former extremely troubling.

I would refer to it as a mistaken strategy that treats Pakistan as if it were in the periphery of Afghanistan, rather than the opposite. It doesn't truly take Pakistan's complexity and national security interests into calculation while formulating policy toward that part of the world. Pakistan has historically had a national security interest in Afghanistan, and of course there's historic disagreement or more with India over Kashmir and other big strategic questions.

The fact that none of that is taken into consideration and Pakistan, a nuclear power with over 160 million people, is treated as such will end up making out of Pakistan a far more dangerous country and situation than we've ever seen in Afghanistan.

False choices

In Bishara's assessment of policy decisions that have led us here, nobody comes out smelling nice. Pakistani intransigence is no excuse for the character of U.S. intervention, for example. The scramble to take sides, assign blame and dole out credit in America's "War on Terror," then, is a fool's errand.

In this instance, the use, misuse and overuse of power has been done by the U.S. and Pakistan. I have no respect and no love for the Pakistani military establishment; I have no love lost for American mistakes in the greater Middle East that lead to the death of thousands upon thousands of people. From this very comfortable position of not having to take a stand, it's very important for the American people to understand that neither they nor I need to choose between bin laden and Bush, between Obama and Pakistan leadership, between Mubarak and Netanyahu...All of these are false choices.


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Comments [13]

Amy from Manhattan

I've been hearing about Libya, Syria, & Yemen, but nothing about Bahrain lately. Has dissent been so thoroughly suppressed there w/Saudi help that nothing is reaching the news? I hope WNYC can do some follow-up on this soon.

May. 09 2011 11:44 AM
rachel from manhattan

Marwan Bishara!! Finally. Thank you thank you thank you WNYC for getting someone who isn't afraid to speak truth.

May. 09 2011 11:43 AM

It is so refreshing to hear Marwan Bishara. Please bring him on regularly with Brian. We need to hear more balanced, non-US perspectives.

Why is Jamie Floyd so uncomfortable with him? She keeps calling his views "controversial," which is nonsense. Brian would know better.

May. 09 2011 11:43 AM
john from office

Why is the guest host allowing this blowhard to just spout endlessly about how awful the us is. How about him answering the question.

He sounds like a plant.

May. 09 2011 11:40 AM
The Truth from Becky

and this call right here is why we need to bring our troops home, mind our business and let them battle it out among themselves over there!

May. 09 2011 11:37 AM

Are people really analyzing why Clinton's hand was on her mouth? She looks like she was deeply concentrating, deeply concerned. I love that photo, it says so much. She and Obama have the most intense looks on their faces out of everyone in the room.
In front of her on the table, as if she had carried it into the room, was a photograph that was important enough to have been blurred out before the image was released.

May. 09 2011 11:29 AM
D Franklin from nyc

"presumably bin Laden has been killed..."

Wow, a journalist that needs proof - amazing one still exists.

"This administration has had a fabulous week"? According to who? The media, that's it. The people aren't buying it.

May. 09 2011 11:22 AM
Stuart from The Real World

ah yes, Marwan Bishara -

"presumably bin Laden has been killed..."

Al-Jazeera... much for objectivity

May. 09 2011 11:17 AM
Carlos from Queens

What exactly are we supposed to be surprised about?
Everybody knows that the Secretary of State Position was supposed 'defuse' her, and it seems to have done just that. She's out of the limelight now.

May. 09 2011 11:14 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I can't help noticing that all the reasons Jonathan Alter gave for the way Sec'y. Clinton's public image has changed had to do w/public perceptions & media coverage, not w/changes in who she is.

May. 09 2011 11:13 AM
D Franklin from NYC

Marwan Bishara? Good call WNYC. This should be interesting, Empire is a great show.

May. 09 2011 10:30 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I think Hillary has matured greatly thanks to all the real-world experience she has gained over the last dozen years - in the Senate, as candidate for the presidency, and as Sec'y of State. Now I think she understands that it Takes a Village to Hide a Terrorist and not to raise a child. Unless that child is to become a terrorist too.

May. 09 2011 10:18 AM
sumukha from Short Hills, NJ

what are the chances that Hillary Clinton might run for 2016.

May. 09 2011 09:05 AM

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