- 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.
Yesterday, two unrelated stories showed yet again that in Washington, the best way to shout is to whisper.
As revealed in today’s Huffington Post, (Do websites have "daily editions"? Does time even exist on the Internet?) George Soros spoke behind closed doors yesterday to the Democracy Alliance, a group of progressive donors, and apparently had a public fit of buyer’s remorse over the important role he played helping to bankroll the candidacy of Barack Obama.
"We have just lost this election, we need to draw a line," The HuffPost story quoted Soros, citing folks in attendance. "And if this president can’t do what we need, it is time to start looking somewhere else."
While a Soros spokesperson contacted for the story said the financier was not in fact suggesting a primary challenge to Obama, that was probably little consolation to the White House. Because in the White House they know that Soros has been going around Washington recently and expressing his disappointment in Obama in his typical sharp and unvarnished style. He has even gone so far as to say to folks something to the effect of: "If I had wanted to elect a traditional, mainstream Democrat, I could easily have supported Hillary Clinton," and then going on to add that he actually had great admiration for the work that Clinton was doing in the State Department. In other words, the man who helped galvanize the fund-raising opposition to her was having doubts.
The Democracy Alliance meeting was off the record. Conducting an off the record meeting is one of the surest ways of making sure that what is said is immediately leaked to the press and spread through the grapevine that supplies sustenance to all forms of Washington flora and fauna.
There is really only one way of ensuring that something spreads more rapidly to the news media and that is saying it is to be kept secret and then providing it to someone on Capitol Hill. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton discovered this as her team provided lawmakers with a first look PowerPoint of State’s long-in-the-works Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The document was marked NODIS which of course may look like an acronym for "No Distribution" but actually means "Please forward immediately to Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post." Or at least that’s what it seems to mean because within a couple of hours of the Powerpoint hitting the Hill it showed up on the Post‘s website with a brief summary by Kessler.
The Kessler summary and subsequent reviews of the document, including that by FP‘s Josh Rogin, focused on the box-shifting nature of the document and the who-get-what division of assets and responsibilities between the State Department and USAID. There are a couple of more things about the document that are also worth noting, however.
First, it is just a summary and many of the details of the plan are still be refined prior to the official launch date of Dec. 15. Second, while the document carefully and sensibly balances mission refinements and responsibilities between the State Department and USAID, what is hidden between the lines is that one of the best bits of diplomacy engineered by the State Department during the past two years. That is the negotiated deal between the White House team interested in reshaping how the United States handles development and their State Department counterparts. While some in the White House came from the school that had hoped to see a new Department of Development and that idea died aborning, they did achieve their goals of elevating the role of development and establishing through presidential directive — a decision-process that gave the NSC a bigger, more direct role in shaping development policy. Meanwhile, State, which stood to lose in the tug of war with the White House (the kind of match up the White House almost always wins), achieved its core goals of maintaining control over the crucial elements of development policy and spending and resisting efforts to dramatically increase the autonomy of USAID. Further, in defining development as a critical part of the State Department’s mission going forward and in recommending much needed, long-overdue steps to elevate the role of post-conflict intervention and stabilization efforts within the State Department, Clinton and her team have proposed an approach that is certain to better advance U.S. interests in the context of the kind of challenges we are likely to face in the years ahead.
In short, while details remain to be worked out, this seems to have been a policy process that worked. It may not have produced the big sweeping changes that some may have hoped for and the current state of the plan leaves many details to be filled in. But, the participants in the discussion have produced a sound initial proposal and launched a useful cyclical process that is cousin to Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review which, hopefully over the years ahead, will continue the important evolution that this first phase seems to be initiating.
Which brings me to the final point: as Soros has realized and the QDDR is only the latest by-product of the State Department’s efforts to reveal, Hillary Clinton was misunderstood and underestimated by many in her own party during the last presidential campaign. Indeed, as is reflected in today’s New York Times story by Mark Landler on her growing role as an administration point person on Capitol Hill, many of those who campaigned most fiercely against her on behalf of President Obama are now coming to realize that with the departure of Secretary of Defense Gates and other administration luminaries, she is emerging as ever more essential to the president’s future success. Her approval ratings are much higher than his. Her husband is the most popular politician in the Democratic Party. She has distinguished herself by her loyalty, intelligence, and competence. She even may orchestrate a few key foreign policy victories in the next couple years that will provide vital momentum to her former opponent’s campaign for re-election.
The partnership between Obama and Clinton was no sure thing. It was a big, bold risk undertaken by the president. It has not been without its warts and tensions and it would be wrong to think that many do not remain. But that only makes its remarkable success to date that much more worthy of note.