Clinton Diplomacy and the Future of Middle East Policy

President Barack Obama and his national security team get an update on Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room

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It's been replaced by a general agreement that she's smart, effective, tireless, dutiful—basically a good Secretary of State.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.