The Diplomatic Mess That the Press Is Missing
In the frenzy to report on who will be shaping foreign policy in the Obama administration, the mainstream press and blogs have completely ignored what our diplomats actually think.
The New York Times ran a mostly misleading article last week about prospective appointments to the Obama-Clinton State Department—nothing really catastrophic, good mainly for more feverish gossip. But there are some good stories behind the Times story that reveal the state of the journalistic arts.
The first is that, as many suspect, the mainstream media seems unable to resist blog scoops, right or wrong, once they reach a certain crescendo.
Our diplomatic service no longer possesses the talent of the last fifty years. So Hillary has to look outside to the former great diplomats.
The second is that in the frenzy over appointment scoops in the new administration, both the blogs and the mainstreamers are neglecting the best stories.
- Consider this one, still unreported, about secret meetings last week of the new top-level Obama national security team (some with Obama present) to discuss counter-terrorism, Gaza, Russia, and Iran.
- Consider the absence of articles on the diplomatic mess that could attend the shortage of talent in our foreign service and the Obama-Clinton naming of very high-powered special envoys.
- Consider also that we haven’t begun to read about what these new appointees actually believe about foreign policy, American power, and priorities.
The latest gossip fuse was lit innocently enough with a January 5 blog by the Nelson Report. “The following seem nearly certain [appointments], with the usual caveats: Middle East (Israel/Palestine), Richard Haass; Iran, Dennis Ross; South Asia (Pakistan/India), Dick Holbrooke; N. Korea, Wendy Sherman likely.” Later in the piece, the “usual caveats” were eliminated, and Nelson simply states that the pick “is.”
To begin with, Haass was not offered the job as negotiator between the Israelis and Palestinians. Ross’s portfolio was not limited to Iran, but includes expansive turf such as Arab-Israeli issues. Yes, Holbrooke is doing diplomatic things regarding India and Afghanistan, but his brief most notably includes Afghanistan and Iran as it relates to Afghanistan. And while Sherman had been offered her old negotiating position with the North Koreans, she had already declined it by story time. Other than these fixes, the story had a lot of good information.
A day later, Nelson sort of retracted on Haass. “The only major ‘correction,’ required,” he wrote, “seems to be our assertion” about Haass. “In meetings today with colleagues, and in other venues, Haas (sic) has firmly claimed ‘no conversation’ by phone or other methods, with the Obama folks on this job.”
Then came a slew of other blogs, all offering variations of the Nelson themes, most notably those by Stephen Walt on January 6 and Marc Ambinder the following day. Walt called the Haass appointment “about the best us realists could expect.” Coming from the co-author with John Mearshimer of a recent book that argued that the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby dominates U.S. policy on the Mideast to the detriment of American interests, this was a kiss of death—if Haass ever was being considered.
Then, Katie Couric chimed in on the evening news on January 7 with Holbrooke, Ross, and Haass, and said that all three would “report directly to the President.” Most decidedly not true.
By the time the Couric scoop materialized, I’d already received more than a dozen calls about the blog scoops from talented and panting people whose names had not yet been mentioned even in a blog. And as they transmitted their inside information, the information itself had reached folkloric proportions. The scoops had nearly reached the level of truth.
In fact, they ascended to the epistemological summit the very next day in the New York Times, despite the reporter’s considerable care in phrasing his scoops. Mark Landler used words like “closing in on naming,” and “likely.” But such is the stature of the Times that a “likely” and a “may” translates into a certainty. This should chill the Times from running such stories to begin with, though it doesn’t.
The story conveyed a piece of previously published fact, namely that Clinton would re-appoint William Burns, a career foreign service officer, to the critical position of undersecretary of state for political affairs. It then went on to repeat the rumors about Ross, Holbrooke, and Haass. It didn’t accurately portray the likely extent of the Ross and Holbrooke portfolios.
The point of rehearsing this flow of information is just to underline the power of the blogs on the mainstreamers. When the key networkers in the foreign policy community start echoing the blog stories, outlets like the Times and CBS just can’t resist any longer following suit even when they cannot confirm the information.
These pressures are, of course, worrisome. But far more worrisome is the fact that the job scoops seem to be keeping the elite press from covering some stories with profound consequences. I’m thinking here of the mainstreamers delving into why Clinton and Obama are appointing people like Holbrooke and Ross and will appoint many others like them. In part it’s because diplomatic problems around the world are so desperate. The far larger reason, however, is that our diplomatic service no longer possesses the talent of the last fifty years. So Hillary has to look outside to the former great diplomats.
The problem will arise when these new envoys run afoul, or at least are at cross purposes, with the assistant secretaries of state for those regions and with the ambassadors, and when their writs transcend two or more assistant secretaries. When Holbrooke negotiated the famous Dayton Accords in 1995, he was also the assistant secretary of state for European affairs. While Chris Hill was doing the bargaining for North Korea over its nuclear weapons, he also was serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. So, with these two wearing two hats each, there were no conflicts of authority to adjudicate. Now, I would do just what Hillary is doing and appoint the titans, but it has to be done with everyone’s eyes open in advance.
Another uncovered story of real consequence is not just about who is getting appointed to the new power jobs in national security, but what ideological baggage they are carrying with them into office. George W. Bush’s appointees turned out to be almost all neoconservatives of one stripe or another. And the press didn’t do much to scrutinize their beliefs before then.
Are the Obama appointees, most of them from the Washington think tanks, bearing their own ideological fruit? Do they too want to promote democracy around the world and do nation-building? Many of them speak of exercising “strategic leadership.” What does that mean operationally?
I long for the day when all the foreign policy and national security jobs are filled.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, which shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.