Memo to Madam Secretary: First, Do No Harm

Hillary Clinton's first visit to a changed Arab world is full of promise and peril.


The sudden onset of the Arab spring and winter has reminded us yet again that America doesn’t run the world. And the country must be wary, in the elegant phrasing of the late Reinhold Niebuhr, of its own dreams of managing history.

Like the children’s game Where’s Waldo?, a coherent and effective American response to what’s taking place these days in the Arab world seems hard to find in a sea of faces and events over which the United States has little control.

And no one knows this better than America’s smart, superstar secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, whose Arab spring/winter tour begins Monday, March 14. Never has there been a less hospitable world and greater challenges for serious American diplomacy.

Despite her popularity and adept practice of public diplomacy, Clinton understands her own limitations and those of the United States. She knows she’s between a White House and a military that owns all the consequential hot-button issues. Indeed, more than two years in, America’s top diplomat — one of Washington’s ablest, smartest, and savviest players — has yet to put her signature on a high-profile issue of peace or war likely to get her admitted into the secretary-of-state hall of fame.

And now this: a transformative, historic wave of political change sweeping the Arab world that on paper would seem to offer huge opportunities for bold American action, but in practice has left Barack Obama’s administration more sidelined than central, playing whack-a-mole with ad hoc responses in a frantic effort just to keep up.

From Libya to Egypt, Washington has been forced to recognize — and this is mostly for the good — that change in Arab world isn’t primarily an American story. And yet, America isn’t a potted plant. It must work to find a role that tries to reconcile its interests and its values with policies that somehow just don’t seem to fit anymore.

The secretary’s trip is an important part of that effort. America needs to be seen as identifying itself with progressive, peaceful change, supporting those who demand it and to oppose those who practice violence and cruelty. But it’s also Mission Humble.

The secretary’s mission must be short on grandiose designs, unrealistic action plans, and hastily assembled tool kits, and long on listening and learning. No more Cairo speeches where the gap between rhetoric and action consumes American credibility. Instead, the secretary should hear what the Arabs have to say, assess what they need, and see what America can deliver. And she should ascribe to the diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: Above all do no harm.

Because the United States is capable of doing plenty of damage. In Cairo, the secretary is likely to find Egyptians wary of official American instruction and guidance on matters of democracy and governance. And they should be. Americans like their democrats American style — in line with their values and interests — regardless of the outcome of elections. So they gravitate quite naturally and understandably toward establishment types and liberal reformers and away from the Islamists and other undesirables like Hamas and even the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be fascinating to see how Clinton will handle the questions in public forums (her strong suit) about engaging with the Brotherhood. Meeting with younger members of the organization as part of the Tahrir generation would send a powerful signal, but strong congressional views on this subject and her own indecision may produce a wait-and-see attitude.

On the economic side, the Egyptian ask will be clearer. As political space opens up, people are demanding more. Meeting their economic needs will be even more pressing, yet U.S. capacity remains limited. Clinton will have more luck in facilitating small-scale loans and launching an Operation Tin Cup from others than persuading Congress in the age of austerity to commit funds. This will be particularly tricky as the new Egypt, now inclusive of more diverse voices, expresses much more criticism of various American policies, including U.S. support for Israel. If you thought Congress was hard on Mubarak’s Egypt, just wait.

Some have made the argument that if America really wanted to help rising democrats and check troublemaking radicals, it would play to its comparative advantage and tackle the Palestinian issue. It’s the newest form of linkage: Don’t mess around in the internal Arab house; deal with this troublesome issue and you will disempower extremists.

There may actually be some logic here, but there are also huge problems. The gaps on the core issues are large, the Palestinian and Israeli houses are divided, Arabs are preoccupied, and the odds against a breakthrough are long indeed. President Obama might still give it a try, though the last thing America needs is another false start, failure, or a speech on the issue that has no legs. Former Secretary of State George Shultz once said to me that when America has no policy or hope of one, the pressure grows to give a speech. Clinton should consider carefully the words of one of her most able predecessors.

The Libya or Arab winter portion of the secretary’s travels also begs some cautionary notes. Obama has already boxed himself in by saying Muammar al-Qaddafi must go but without really having the will or means to force him out. Let’s be clear: There’s no way to get rid of him in a reasonable period of time without some kind of military action led by the United States.

Obama now seems to prefer a longer-term approach. And part of that strategy will be dealing with the Libyan opposition. If we end up with a Libya cut in half, with Qaddafi controlling Tripoli and parts of the east with the rebels in control of other parts of the country, then long-term sanctions, assistance to the opposition, an oil embargo, and even a no- fly-zone are possible. But there are many unknowns. Qaddafi could reimpose his control. Clinton, who plans to meet with Libyan opposition figures on her trip, knows not to raise expectations and hopes. One has to assume that other, more substantive contacts with the rebels are occurring clandestinely and that the United States has already started to assist with weapons and aid.

Some congressional critics think the Obama team is far too passive; others lament the passing of an era when America stood tall, had moral clarity, and acted instead of talked. That would be the George W. Bush administration.

Nobody is happy with the present state of affairs. The message America wants to send to dictators and democrats should ideally be clear, and with regard to Libya it isn’t. Worse, finding a middle ground between doing too much and not enough to get rid of Qaddafi looks less like solid terrain and more like a slippery slope that could end with America in control of or at least responsible for yet another Arab/Muslim country.

To his credit, Obama has avoided the two greatest transgressions of a great power: omniscience and omnipotence, that America can know and do everything. That brought us Iraq at a frightful price.

Downsizing U.S. ambitions isn’t pretty, but at a time of serious domestic economic dislocation and two ongoing wars, it’s smart. And in the case of Libya, never a vital American interest, it’s imperative. America is still the world’s greatest power, but maybe a little smarter, having learned from the cautionary tales that history and its own current limitations provide.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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