Vuja De in Pakistan and Déjà vu in Israel

Sometimes you pick up the paper and feel like you are reading yesterday’s news.  And sometimes you pick it up and feel like you are reading tomorrow’s. I had that crystal ball vibe when I was slipping and sliding through the New York Times this morning on my iPad.  Three stories came in rapid succession. ...

553972_kerry6.jpg
553972_kerry6.jpg
US Senator John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (R) at the Prime Minister House during a meeting in Islamabad on May 16, 2011. Pakistan spelt out its anger over the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, during talks with Senator John Kerry who has warned of profound consequences if the allies cannot fix their fractured ties. Two weeks after the Navy SEALs raid on Pakistani soil, which both nations say was carried out unilaterally, plunging relations to a new low, Kerry's visit was aimed at stemming a diplomatic crisis. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Sometimes you pick up the paper and feel like you are reading yesterday's news.  And sometimes you pick it up and feel like you are reading tomorrow's.

I had that crystal ball vibe when I was slipping and sliding through the New York Times this morning on my iPad.  Three stories came in rapid succession.

Sometimes you pick up the paper and feel like you are reading yesterday’s news.  And sometimes you pick it up and feel like you are reading tomorrow’s.

I had that crystal ball vibe when I was slipping and sliding through the New York Times this morning on my iPad.  Three stories came in rapid succession.

In the first, there was Jane Perlez’ "Meeting with Pakistani Leaders, Kerry Seeks to Ease Anger Over Bin Laden Raid."  While Perlez has been among the very best reporters from the front-lines of America’s war with Pakistan — a war that goes beyond being undeclared to being denied outright — in this case she was playing the role of providing campaign coverage.  Because Kerry’s trip to Pakistan is seen by many in official Washington as an unmistakable whistle stop in his campaign to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she departs Foggy Bottom, presumably toward the end of next year.

Kerry was depicted in a picture shaking hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and in the story as trying to ease tensions between the U.S. and our nominal ally.  That Kerry was there and Secretary Clinton’s planned trip was cancelled added to the sense of what an old friend from New Jersey (who knew not a word of French) used to call "vuja de": that eerie feeling you get that when you see something and think, "hey, I’ve never seen that before…but I’ve got the sense I might again soon."

One got the same feeling from two other stories that appeared in the same edition of the paper.  One was Salman Masood’s "Pakistan and NATO Trade Fire Near Afghan Border."  The other was Sharon LaFraniere’s "Pakistan’s Prime Minister Visits China." 

In the first of these two was found the report of the exchange of fire between Pakistani ground troops and two NATO helicopters that entered Pakistani airspace.  Two Pakistani soldiers were reportedly wounded in this battle that may be written off today as a misunderstanding but face it, to paraphrase former Senator Everett Dirksen, a misunderstanding here, a misunderstanding there, pretty soon it all adds up to a harbinger of great looming problems to come.

The second of the two reports featured the peripatetic Gilani in Beijing saying, "We are proud to have China as our best and most trusted friend."  Ouch.  I wonder which not-so-best and not-so-trusted friend was meant to hear that and cringe.  (The older I get the harder it is for me to see top level international relations as being much different from high school social politics.  The stakes are higher.  But beyond that and the odd spy satellite or stray SEAL team, you’ve got a similar tone, pettiness and posturing, common use of Twittering or Facebooking or Wikileaking, and tactics so generally ham-fisted and unsophisticated that it’s my sense that someone with the relative strategic brilliance and wit of say, Santana from "Glee", could become the Metternich of our age if she put her mind to it.)

The Chinese, of course, played the game as they often do at a much higher level than everyone else.  They welcome Gilani, took his side to the extent that they admonished the U.S. for the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and stayed at an arm’s length from an official alliance.  They have a counter-weight to India and the U.S. in the region and a friend that could be helpful in ensuring their access to the oil of the Middle East. 

Reading the stories together, I couldn’t help but think that we could be seeing not only America’s next Secretary of State dealing with issues that may consume the Obama Administration in its second term, but also major powers positioning themselves regarding what could be the foremost global flashpoint of the next decade or two.

In fact, seeing these stories and then reading reports of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s elaboration of his guidelines for proceeding with peace talks with the Palestinians, I couldn’t help but see starkly the differences between vuja de and déjà vu.  One was old hat, more or less than same old approaches to a problem of the last half century that was on the verge of entering a new phase whether Netanyahu was or not.  The other stories gave the sense of stars realigning. 

It will be interesting to see how much President Obama’s upcoming speech on the Middle East focuses on the future and emerging issues of the region and to what extent it becomes bogged down in the issues, rhetoric and approaches of generations past.

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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