- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Despite a growing desire on my part to avoid the cage-match side of blogging, it is hard not to respond to Christian Brose’s post “What is David Rothkopf smoking?” Brose seems to have, in President Obama’s words, become all “wee-wee’d up” over my article in Sunday’s Washington Post. I respond, of course, as a public service because so much of what he said provides a useful insight into how far we have come since the days of the Bush administration and how desperate Bush apologists are to find a way to suggest that their man and the policies they promoted were not actually the nadir of American foreign policy.
I should note however, that I also do this reluctantly because I think Brose is a pretty good writer and a fairly thoughtful guy. Still, when someone suggests that I have been a member of “the foreign policy hoi-polloi that went into intellectual hibernation in 2004 and only awoke this January” I figure, it’s probably OK to offer a few words on behalf of my views. (Although it does explain the acorn residue I found in my cheeks.)
I will ignore for a moment the fact that Brose clearly is willing to spot the world the first term of the Bush administration as indefensible and focus on his core notion that somehow the years Condi was at State were almost indistinguishable in intent, concept and execution from what we have seen to date from the Obama team. It should be noted that coincidentally Brose was a speech-writer at State during the Bush administration.
Let’s take his points one at a time:
- Brose opens with a snarky summary of my article. The thrust is: Obama foreign policy is not revolutionary and I am kissing the asses of the Obama administration. I refer folks back to the past eight months of daily blogging as evidence that I have no inclination to butter up the new team and regularly do not. He does not note that he spends the entire article kissing the wholly discredited asses of his former employers.
- He then goes on to wonder aloud how anyone who “thinks and writes about foreign policy for a living” could think Clinton or Obama are transforming U.S. foreign policy. I have to admit, whatever the flaws in their individual policies, I find it hard to see how anyone could think they are not. Does he really think these folks just picked up where George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney left off? In Iraq? In Afghanistan and Pakistan? With their approach to engagement? With their commitment to multilateralism? With their approach to Guantanamo or torture? With their outreach to the Muslim world? With their commitment to reverse nuclear weapons proliferation? I could go on … but will just take his main points in succession to continue in this vein.
- Brose lists Bush administration development “advancements” to suggest that they effectively covered the waterfront when it comes to reforming the development process. While Bush actually did some good here (and I didn’t argue he didn’t), that doesn’t mean the work is done or that what the Clinton team is doing at State is not promising. The Obama team inherited an aid apparatus that was still deeply dysfunctional, underfunded and focused on missions that were not core. The QDDR process I mention in the article represents a commitment to strategic reevaluation that recognizes the fluid nature of international affairs today and seeks to institutionalize change in much the same way that the QDR does at DoD. Further, there is a massive amount of work that needs to be done if development policy is to be rendered effective in the current environment … creating the ability, for example, to effectively do post-conflict reconstruction that so flummoxed the Bush administration for so long comes to mind, as does a civilian-side Goldwater-Nichols and other ideas that are currently being reviewed within State and the NSC process.
- His next paragraph argues that since the Bush administration participated in many multilateral forums that is the same thing as the Obama administration’s commitment to the centrality of new partnerships. Can he actually believe that the Bush administration was a champion of multilateralism? By this same theory all people who go to church are virtuous and I, who talk a very good diet game, am actually 20 pounds lighter than reported this morning by the scale. Admittedly, there was a line in my article that was cut due to space considerations that I wish had been left in which said that while many of the current policies have roots in the past, what is happening now is very different because of the way it is being approached, the centrality it is being given, the degree of involvement of top officials, etc. Nothing illustrates this as much for me as the role emerging powers are being given. First, this is not a “Bush-era” inheritance. I know. Because I actually helped develop and run the first inter-agency process focused on U.S.-Emerging Markets relations during the Clinton years. Second, he cites a four-year-old Condi speech in which she mouths words he may have written about partners in the emerging world but seriously, wasn’t he paying attention? At the time she did it, the perception that the U.S. was arrogantly acting apart from the rest of the world was near its apotheosis. The core concepts of Bush era foreign policy were of “us and them” and of our ability and willingness to effectively act alone or within sham coalitions to advance our interests. The core concept of the Obama administration is that just won’t work anymore and that effective partnerships with a core group that includes new allies are the sine qua non of international progress.
- He then goes on to say that the administration has too little to show for its efforts. He minimizes restoring American relations with the world as if that weren’t central to foreign policy. He then argues that this is not so meaningful because “cooperation has not always followed.” Seriously? Will the Obama-Clinton restoration of America’s relations with the world only be complete if everyone in the world cooperates with us always? This reveals his core misunderstanding of the nature of the kind of partnerships on which the Obama-Clinton team is seeking to build U.S. foreign policy. Also, in terms of not having much to show for their efforts, that’s just ridiculous. Only seven months into their efforts U.S. policy has changed dramatically in Iraq and in AfPak, the administration has become deeply involved in the Arab-Israeli issue (which took the Bush administration about 7 years to discover), it has helped engineer an international response to the financial crisis, it has restored America’s damaged reputation worldwide, the president’s Prague and Cairo speeches represented dramatic breaks with the Bush past and set U.S. policies with the Muslim world and re: elimination of nuclear weapons in a new direction, and so on. It’s just the beginning … but it is a beginning very unlike the past eight years.
- Further his one-sided assessments of issues worldwide is full of inaccuracies. He says others won’t help with Guantanamo but fails to note the benefits accruing to us from shutting it down. He says India and China don’t share enthusiasm for a climate deal while failing to acknowledge that we are in a global negotiation, that the United States is now deeply involved as an advocate for progress for the first time or to note the differences in position between India and China (China is much more forward leaning and inclined to a deal). He inaccurately suggests that the only thing we can agree with the Russians is to reduce the number of nukes (as if that were a small thing). He says Pakistan is dysfunctional but fails to note how much more we are currently doing to address that. He says Iran and North Korea are a still difficult while failing to acknowledge the recent progress made with the North Koreans or that engagement with Iran is a real departure (on which the jury is admittedly still out).
- He concludes with the notion that we “are still a world of nations” (simplistic and wrong … we are a world of many actors some of the most important of which on key issues are non-state actors) and that the Obama administration has been getting “mugged” by our differences since coming into office. This suggests again a misunderstanding of the nature of international relations. Good foreign policy does not produce a problem-free world. It just minimizes threats while advancing our interests. But, it also fails to note the central point that no doubt will resonate in the mind of the rest of the planet…which is that during the Bush years, it was the United States that was mugging the world and the system of international law we had fought for a century to advance.
That’s the key point about these early days of this new foreign policy team. All administrations talk about partnerships and new relationships. To my mind, this one seems to believe what it is saying and is doing something about … and at the very least is not as transparently hypocritical about such matters as was its predecessor. That in and of itself is perhaps the transformation most of the world was most hoping for.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images