In the Arena

Diplomacy First

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I don’t think enough has been said about the importance of Barack Obama’s appearance at the State Department yesterday–the message it sent to the world and also to our foreign service. It was wonderful to see the President at Foggy Bottom on his first full day in office: such appearances are rare, especially compared to the frequency of presidential visits to the Pentagon. The symbolic message was clear: diplomacy will take precedence over the use of force in this administration (although the judicious use of force will continue, as evidenced by the Predator strike in northwest Pakistan yesterday).

It was especially good to see, and hear, the two new envoys–George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke. I suspect Mitchell will prove to be the more controversial of the two: the neoconservative wing of Israel’s American supporters are already carping that Mitchell will be too…uh, balanced, in his dealings with the Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, if there is any chance of beginning to mend the rift between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. is going to have to modify the Bush Administration’s Likudnik tilt (an especially difficult task if, as expected, Likud wins next month’s Israeli elections).

Richard Holbrooke will have a task every bit as difficult as Mitchell’s– and not just dealing with the impossible situation along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, the corruption of the Afghan government, the weakness of Pakistan’s. He will be on the front lines of a delicate bureaucratic rebalancing between the State Department and the Pentagon. Everyone–including Secretary of Defense Gates, and prominent generals like David Petraeus–believes that the State Department should be taking a more active role on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Power was grabbed by the dreadful Donald Rumsfeld, and later assumed on the ground in Iraqby the uniformed military–especially since, given the new primacy of counterinsurgency doctrine, a significant part of the military’s role is to help assure economic development and the strengthening of local governments, areas traditionally managed by diplomats. Foreign policy has been militarized, but the military has been diplomatized. It will be interesting to see how Holbrooke and Petraeus work out their Departments’ respective roles on the ground in Afghanistan.

Another word about Holbrooke: I thought his personal memories of first arriving at the State Department as a junior foreign service officer in the 1960s were quite moving, as was his acknowledgment of his old Saigon roomate, the departing Deputy Secretary John Negroponte. He was also right to note the importance of the President’s presence to the oft-neglected career foreign service. 

I have something of a conflict of interest here: my son is a foreign service officer. As a father and as a citizen, it’s good to see America’s diplomats given the opportunity to take their rightful place, front and center in our foreign policy once again.