Category Archives: foreign policy

Ghana Hosts U.S. President

Originally published at on July 15, 2009

Obama highlights democratic gains in West African nation

President Barack Obama recently visited Ghana and delivered a speech to its parliament. The U.S. President focused on the achievements of Ghanaian democracy and called on all Africans to work for democratic institutions and accountable government. As with his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, the President called upon the next generation to take responsibility and assert its authority to end decades of corruption, tyranny and war on the continent.

Not long after the President’s address in Cairo, the Iranian population burst into demonstrations for democratic rights and accountable governance. It is speculation to guess at how much, if any impact, the U.S. President had on the Iranian movement, and Obama himself has bent over backwards in efforts not to appear to interfere in Iranian political affairs. But as with the Cairo address, the administration made efforts to reach a wide audience, broadcasting the Ghana speech in coordination with African embassies.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs said that Ghana was chosen because it boasts a functioning democracy and civil society. Ghana has a major trade in African arts and tourism and is developing operations in natural resources. While the President has personal ties to Kenya, his father’s homeland, Ghana stands as a model of the government that President Obama would like to see throughout Africa. By contrast, Kenya’s most recent election was disputed and violence ensued. A power-sharing agreement in Kenya has met with limited success.

The President also visited Cape Coast Castle, where black Africans were held before being shipped into slavery in the Americas.

Watch the President’s speech to the Ghanaian Parliament below:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

President Obama Reaches Out to the Muslim world

Originally published at

President Barack Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Cairo, Egypt and broadcast worldwide was historic, visionary and ingenious.
From its rhetorical highlight “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam” to refashioning American policy on democracies abroad:  “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,”  the speech was ambitious to the point of reasserting American international leadership.

President Barack Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Cairo, Egypt and broadcast worldwide was historic, visionary and ingenious.

From its rhetorical highlight “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam” to refashioning American policy on democracies abroad:  “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,”  the speech was ambitious to the point of reasserting American international leadership.  Full Story

Tweeting the News from Iran

By Marc Seltzer; originally published June 17, 2009 at

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Reporting through Twitter while other outlets are banned

A literary theme familiar in the United States is that government may one day use technology to oppress its people. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four planted the seed of awareness in the Western mind, and as radars have come to watch our speed on the road, cameras look for criminal behavior indoors and satellites listen to our telephone calls, we have become concerned about the growing power of “Big Brother.”

Could Orwell have imagined that the tables may be turned on oppressive governments in the 21st century? Following the June election in Iran, the Islamic Republic is turning off the technology in hopes of restricting communications among its stirring populace. Journalists are restricted from covering protests. Major news organizations are unable to penetrate the events with video cameras and microphones.

However, regular Iranians are reporting from the streets by Twitter. A social networking site popular among celebrities, Twitter conveys short messages, including images and websites by Internet URL link from a cell phone, handheld digital device or computer. Followers around the world receive updates from the homes, offices and streets of Tehran.

To get a sense of what can and cannot be conveyed in the 140 characters that each “Tweet” is limited, to I have copied a recent series of communications (each of the following paragraph blurbs were originally separate “Tweets”):

  • it is now dawn in tehran – streets are quiet – we must move from here – this was good internet connection but not ours – #Iranelection
  • last night thousands stayed in streets between Parkway and Vanak sq until after 2am – #Iranelection
  • unconfirmed – several Generals have been arested – #Iranelection
  • unconfirmed – military has refused orders to shoot protesters – #Iranelection
  • Kamenei is under pressure and fighting for survival – without ANejad his authority is finished – #Iranelection
  • large demo today outside tehran tv-radio headquerters – Karroubi attended – #Iranelection
  • support for Mousavi in Tabriz is v-high – many protests – #Iranelection

While Twitter is not a major news outlet with live reporting and video, it is still contemporaneous to the events reported. There are questions of credibility as a consequence, such as who is really Tweeting, which we cannot always know. In fact, some Twitter communications have warned that the Iranian Government is setting up fake Twitter sites, spreading false information to protesters.

On the other hand, Twitter has been used to guide hundreds of thousands of protesters to rallies and redirect them quickly and efficiently when locations or times are changed. Reports on the arrest of leaders, the number of participants at government and opposition rallies, and action or lack of action by the police and military are also reported.

A few of the hot Twitter sources are: “Persiankiwi”, “Irannewsnow”, and “StopAhmadi”. The U.S. State Department reportedly asked the executives at Twitter, located in California, to forego a scheduled maintenance shut down in order to keep the Tweets coming during the Iranian crisis. Traditional print and broadcast reporters have been told that they cannot report on events in Iran without permission of the government, and that permission is not being given freely. As events unfold, you may be able to piece together facts on the ground in Iran using updates from Twitter sources.

While the outcome of the election conflict in Iran remains to be seen, at this point, the public is using technology to further democratic ends. Where there is no free press, information still flows from person to person through the Internet. Where the government tries to restrict public assembly, instant communication helps people organize and connect in protest beyond the reach of the government. And, where the government tries to control the story, the truth gets out. George Orwell, who wrote during the consolidation of Soviet authoritarianism, might be surprised. He would certainly be pleased.

Immigration Solutions

By Marc Seltzer; originally published May 12, 2009, at

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Last month, after President Obama announced the beginning of a discussion on immigration reform, I wrote a blog discussing the fundamental political conflict at the heart of the matter:  Legalization for twelve million or so immigrants, whose status is currently illegal.

The two solutions offered by opposing sides are:  (1) strict enforcement of current law, leading to deportation of the illegal work force and those family members without legal residence; or (2) legal status and a path to citizenship with a fine for breaking the law.

The first option is not realistic because of the human costs, economic disruption and political beliefs of the majority of Americans and their representatives.  Those who see this as a black and white issue, where illegal means “no rights” are missing the historic context of a nation built on immigrants and hard work, not entitlement and status.  It’s not that illegal immigration is right, it’s that this solution is not right.  The nation may or may not be capable of policing its borders, but it is not capable of ten million deportations.

The second option is essentially the same “Amnesty” program that was implemented under President Ronald Reagan, with the addition of a potentially significant fine to punish and discourage the immigration law violations.

There has not been much discussion of the fine or potential restrictions of this type of legalization.  This may be where there is some room for compromise.  There is no reason that the fine could not be substantial, that the path toward citizenship could not be long, or that some immigrants could not be put in legal worker programs, where they would not be entitled to a path to citizenship without further application along with other non-resident applicants.

A stricter, more “punishing,” legalization program would serve to discourage illegal immigration in the future, especially if legal quotas for immigration kept up with the labor needs of U.S. employers and employers who broke the law were sanctioned.

If the second option (legalization) can be achieved politically, then the 12 million people who can take advantage of the program will come out from the shadows of the law and establish legal identities in the American system.  If this option cannot be achieved politically, the status quo may continue for another period.  This option has many negative consequences.   For the illegal residents, they suffer exploitation and lack of legal participation in the society in which they live.  Society loses their number in the census, in some tax collection and public allocation of resources.  Unfair competition with the legal workforce is also a problem.

So far, anti-legalization forces have not shown an interest in creative compromise.  It’s time they did so.  The failure to enact legal reform does not create a better real-world solution.  Helping to create an immigration program for the future that is realistic and firm is the best way to get the legal framework in line with an enforceable legal reality.

Evaluation of Bush Administration Assertions of Executive Branch Authority

By Marc Seltzer

Recently released documents (opens in PDF) show the extent to which the Bush administration took unprecedented power unto itself, exercising unfettered executive branch authority to conduct war inside the United States as well as abroad. Despite profound moral and Constitutional red flags, the Bush administration also sought, post-September 11, to conduct national security without oversight.

Based on the assertion of the president’s “independent, nonstatutory power to take military actions, domestic as well as foreign, if he determines such actions to be necessary to respond to the terrorist attacks upon the United States on September 11,” the administration conducted warrantless domestic surveillance and orchestrated extra-judicial detention and torture of prisoners — all within a cloak of secrecy.

As regarded through the eyes of his critics, Bush’s secrecy was an abuse of power. It went far beyond what was needed to protect military or strategic advantage, even in time of war, and hid unconstitutional and unlawful acts from review. Glenn Greenwald, writing in Salon, recently offered the observation that for eight years, “our Government secretly vested itself with the power to . . . create a whole regimen of secret laws that vested tyrannical, monarchical power in the President.” Speaking at a convention earlier this month, New Yorker contributor Seymour Hersh charged that “eight or nine neoconservatives took over our country.”

However, the administration and its supporters can point to years of domestic security that followed the September 11 attacks. Secrecy was used in an aggressive effort to protect the nation from al Qaeda and in the belief that intrusion into executive branch authority could hinder those efforts.

One could reasonably conclude that the administration officials either believed they could not risk interference of the courts and Congress in their pursuit of national security, or they operated under the premise that in this area the president has supreme authority, with checks and balances neither necessary nor desirable. Secrecy also spared the administration from facing public outcry. However, by creating secret policies authorizing domestic surveillance and detention, the administration denied the public, and the other two branches of government, an opportunity to participate in significant Constitutional deliberations.

Had the attacks on U.S. soil continued in the weeks and months following September 11, it is likely that congress and the courts would have countenanced an extreme concentration of power in the hands of the president in order to defend the nation. The Constitution is a flexible document, open to interpretation in the light of various circumstances. However, as the potential threats were nullified and weeks and months of security turned into years without an attack, the justification for secrecy diminished.  This led to at least a risk of Constitutional crisis, as the executive branch acted on new interpretations of that foundational document without congressional or judicial oversight and without a clear need for such secrecy.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. justified an extensive retooling of national security policies. The executive branch was responsible for developing new surveillance, detention and military policies. The government has now had time to implement new programs, not to mention conduct major foreign wars. Just as it wasn’t the same world on September 12, 2001 that it had been two days before, today it’s no longer the same world that it was on September 12, 2001. President Bush’s decisions with respect to executive branch authority, and the policies of surveillance, detention, and secrecy that resulted, are now being subject to scrutiny.  While there will undoubtedly be partisan acrimony as opponents of the Bush administration allege violations of the law, there are fundamental constitutional questions about the authority of the executive branch to act on new interpretations of the constitution without oversight that must be explored.

Immigration 2009

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on March 19, 2009 at

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No Easy Answers

The announcement that President Barack Obama will begin a public discussion of immigration reform in May will reawaken debate on a highly contentious issue.  At core, the issue pits those fiercely opposed to allowing illegal residents in the United States to convert their status to legal residency against those who, albeit with conditions, seek to legalize most of the U.S.’s estimated 12 million illegal residents.

Political Risks

If the President follows his campaign position in seeking a legislative solution that includes offering legal status to those in the country illegally, he will be investing his political capital in an extremely divisive issue at great political risk.

Prior to the 2008 election in which Democrats gained in both houses of congress, anti-illegal immigrant forces had the upper hand.  While Democratic gains make the congressional votes for reform more plausible, the economic crisis and growing unemployment will intensify concern that giving illegal residents the opportunity to obtain legal status will make already-difficult competition for jobs that much worse.

The President will have his hands full with this one and risks a political fight of an uglier, nastier and more divisive nature than even the financial turmoil has wrought.

Increasing Attention and Concern

The economic crisis and growing unemployment is likely to increase opposition to immigration generally and make compromise more difficult.  However, some commentators such as Thomas Friedman, in his NY Times column, have noted that allowing more legal immigration could bring wealthy immigrants eager to buy homes, shoring up the contracting real estate market.

Illegality is troubling, but what are the alternatives?

Illegal immigration presents the difficult combination of illegal entry into the United States, perceived competition for jobs, and use of public resources that is a too-bitter pill for many Americans.  Yet with nearly 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States, it is difficult to realistically imagine a solution that does not involve granting some form of legal status.

One approach would be to grant permission to work for a period of years, without giving traditional legal permanent residency, which begins a path towards citizenship.  However, advocates of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, recognize that people who have effectively moved to the U.S., will likely be in financial and family jeopardy if they are forced to leave after having lived for five, ten or more years in the United States.  This type of compromise has not received significant support from immigration opponents, either, who chafe at the idea of rewarding those here illegally with any form of legitimate legal status.

Reagan’s Leadership, or a matter of time?

One thing is certain, poor management of the immigration issue in the past has set up a nearly impossible predicament in the present.  Congress could have largely managed the issue by raising legal immigration quotas sufficiently to keep up with the needs of employers during the 1990s and first decade of the new century.   Instead, the demand for labor far outstripped the legal supply and the debate shifted to unrealistic proposals of effective border enforcement on the one hand and mass deportation on the other.

In the end, Obama’s political skill and the Democratic congressional majorities may forge a “legalization” solution, much as Ronald Reagan did in 1986.  However, the opposition will be charged, and losing control of the issue could not only lead to defeat of immigration reform, but chip away at the President’s momentum and, so far, commanding authority.  While both sides in the debate should compromise and seek to offer creative solutions to the real problems that exist, within their principles, there will be those primarily looking to use the issue against Presidential authority and to position candidates for the 2010 congressional elections.

What to expect, at least initially

President Obama will likely push for a legalization process that aims to implement legal status after the recession eases and the unemployment rate declines.  Mr. Obama is opening the debate in May, and it would not be a surprise for legislation enacted in 2009 or 2010 to provide opportunities for legal status in 2010, 2011 or 2012, when employment is predicted to increase, if the recession ends.

Any proposal is likely to impose penalties and conditions as an attempt to deal with and discourage “unlawful” entry and residence.  More today than in the past, surveillance technology at the border and electronic identification procedures in the workplace make future enforcement of immigration laws possible, although by no means guaranteed.

UPDATE: In Immigration Solutions I push towards a compromise and ask both sides if they are willing to meet half way.  Whether it was because his hands were full with health care of because the prospect for immigration reform legislation was not good, President Obama has put off immigration legislation for at least a year.  In a later post I will review what is going on in enforcement and changes that result from the economic downturn with respect to illegal immigration.

First Steps

Originally published on November 21, 2008, at


creative commons

creative commons



The nomination of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the nation’s next Secretary of State says a lot about President-elect Barack Obama.  

The nomination shows Obama’s confidence to bring a former rival into his inner circle. Throughout her presidential nomination campaign, Senator Clinton demonstrated intelligence and charisma, not to mention the popularity and good will she earned as New York’s U.S. Senator and as First Lady from 1992 to 2000.

That said, Hillary Clinton does not have universal appeal.  

According to an August 2008 Gallup survey, 72% of Republicans viewed Hillary Clinton negatively, although she was viewed favorably by 80% of Democrats and by 54% of all respondents, including independents.  Her vocal role in the health care reform campaign in 1992 was derided as arrogant or, at least, beyond the responsibility of the First Lady.  Her very presence, imbued with contemporary feminism, has always rubbed some conservatives the wrong way.  

Despite polar reactions to her in the United States, Clinton should be well received by the international community.  More than any other figure in today’s American political landscape, she symbolizes theBill Clinton presidency’s international popularity.  He was admired for his eloquence and prized for his effort to bring about negotiated solutions to international conflicts. It is not that Senator Clinton can share responsibility for her husband’s accomplishments, but that through her appointment, Obama undoubtedly sends a clear signal of the kind of international relations he seeks.

After eight difficult years of U.S. foreign policy marked by faulty intelligence and planning, abrogation of international rules, and unilateral action, many in the international community are eager for change. Obama campaigned for a return to respect for conventions and negotiation in international leadership. His campaign was followed widely with great enthusiasm throughout the world. 


With the nomination of Hillary Clinton, Obama has smartly linked with the success of the prior Democratic administration and has immediately created some international foundation.  Hillary Clinton not only brings the goodwill engendered from the Clinton Presidency, but is also failry well-known politically.  

While she was criticized by her party for her initial vote authorizing war in Iraq, in her role as Secretary of State, a voting record demonstrating the willingness to use force if diplomacy fails, is a mark of strength.  Her personal familiarity with world leaders, through extensive official travel as First Lady and Senator, should not be discounted either. Obama has chosen both an able politician and a person symbolizing engagement in multilateralism from a position of power.  He has made the most of this high level appointment.

Upon leaving the Senate, Hillary Clinton must forgo the opportunity to shepherd health care legislation through Congress.  However, Senators Baucus and Kennedy, among others, are stepping ino the lead.  

As for Republicans harboring disapproval of Hillary Clinton, she may yet win them over in the role of Secretary of State, where strength and assertiveness are viewed as assets.  

Changing Global Priorities

Our new foreign policy must prize cooperation over competition.

Barack Obama took office fifty-one days ago, assuming the presidency during a crucial time for American foreign policy. Instability in key areas is on the rise, and the economic contractions around the world are likely to bring unrest, violence, and change to a degree previously thought impossible.

The United States may be tempted to face the nations of the world with the same preferences and policies as before. A different party is in power now, but aside from his position on the war in Iraq, President Obama has not yet voiced foreign-policy positions that differ substantially from those of the preceding administration.

He should.

George W. Bush singled out North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as evildoers early in his presidency. He approached each nation differently, taking regime change to Iraq, sanctions to Iran, and bilateral negotiations to North Korea. Each of these nations had taken positions troubling to American interests. The Bush administration’s actions, most dramatically in Iraq, can be debated and the results evaluated for their long-term effectiveness. But in recent years, the geopolitical landscape in which those three nations stood out as dangers is all but gone.

Today Pakistan looks more precarious than Iran, Iraq, or North Korea ever could have. As Pakistan transitioned toward more democracy in October 2008, it also became less stable. It has always tolerated militants operating within its borders. Recently, a large area in the country’s northern region, known as the Swat Valley, has become a haven for Taliban, giving them opportunities to fundraise, organize, and plan operations in Afghanistan and beyond. The Pakistani government has agreed to bring the entire region under Sharia, the Islamic system of religious law, in a concession to local leaders, and officials have claimed to be negotiating with moderate elements of the populace in order to undermine radical groups.

For now, the United States must decide how to handle events in Pakistan as they affect our goals in Afghanistan. But in the long run, the United States will have to face the fact that Pakistan itself could descend into civil war, state-sanctioned radicalism, or general and indefinite instability. Pakistan is a substantial nuclear power; fringe elements of its population have already, on numerous occasions, exported terrible violence to neighboring India and Afghanistan. The danger of militant possession of nuclear weapons must be mitigated and planned for.

The U.S. has also regarded China and Russia with too much distrust. The corruption and authoritarianism of these nations runs against the fundamental principles of open, democratic society; individual liberties are compromised in both countries, and there is nothing that we would recognize as a free press. Like the United States, these nations have issues of security, but theirs are more dire and occur closer to home — China has North Korea on its border; Russia faces insurgent activity in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Now is the time for mutual cooperation and assistance. The recent skirmish between Chinese and American vessels would not have happened between friendly nations. More can be done diplomatically to find points of agreement, so that these three great powers can be allowed to focus their collective resources on international problem-solving, not rivalry.

Both China and Russia have loosely followed our free-market model, although their economies are informed by far too much authoritarian power from the state. Neither country is a threat to our national security or that of our allies, in the long run. Indeed, it seems reasonable to expect that coöperation between China, Russia, and the West will continue to bring gradual reform to those nations, as it has in the past. China’s government is far more open and its leadership far more accountable today than it was twenty years ago. The forthcoming diplomatic era must be one of accord and common ground, not withdrawal and alienation.

Closing Guantanamo Bay

Originally published on February 9, 2009, at

Photo: Puerto Rico National Guard troops pack it in after a year's deployment at Guantanamo; The National Guard; licensed under creative commons

Photo: Puerto Rico National Guard troops pack it in after a year's deployment at Guantanamo; creative commons

President Barack Obama has signaled that the U.S. military will close Guantanamo Bay detention camp within one year.  The prison has become a divisive symbol of the controversial handling of enemy combatants by the Bush administration’s War on Terror. 

President Obama has shifted responsibility for the remaining 245 Gitmo prisoners from the Defense Department to the Justice Department.  Newly appointed Attorney General for the United States, Eric Holder, Jr., will take responsibility for determining whether those prisoners will be given civil or military trials, transferred to foreign countries or released.

The outlines of the President’s new policy on detention will be filled in in coming months, but certain things are clear.

The President has forbidden the use of torture against detainees in American custody.  “The United States will not torture,” the President stated.  

This policy includes prisoners under CIA control, and while extraordinary renditions will be allowed to continue during the Obama administration review of policy, the CIA will not be allowed to transfer prisoners to any country where they will be subject to torture.  

Outgoing CIA chief Michael Hayden sent a message to staff at the agency stating that the new policy would be carried out, “without exception, carve-out or loophole.”

Holder’s justice department has begun review of enemy combatant court cases beyond Guantanamo Bay, such as that of Ali Al-Marri, held at a military brig in North Carolina.  Al-Marri has appealed to the United States Supreme Court for review of the Defense Department’s decision to imprison him without trial.  Al-Marri was living in the United States as a legal resident at the time of his arrest, giving him a stronger position to seek a trial than, say, an enemy combatant captured by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

However, the Obama administration sought a postponement of hearing by the Supreme Court.  Al-Marri “is clearly a dangerous individual,” Obama has said. “We have asked for a delay in going before the Supreme Court to properly review the evidence against him.”  

The Bush administration had also decided to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, but ran into difficulty finding new places to house the remaining detainees.  Bush policy was to hold enemy combatants without trial or transfer them to foreign countries for incarceration.

However, the U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that all Guantanamo detainees are entitled to habeas corpus, or, the right to petition a federal court for review of the decision to imprison them.

Recently, a federal court in Washington D.C. ordered five Algerian detainees to be released for lack of sufficient evidence against them.  Other detainees have been caught in legal limbo because the United States would like to release them to their native China, but are constrained by the probability that they will be subject to ill treatment or execution if returned, because of their opposition to the Chinese regime.

The Obama administration will also deal with the question of detainees held in U.S. military custody abroad, such as those held at the Bagram base in Afghanistan.

These prisoners were captured in military operations and are thus more like traditional enemy combatants, but some have been held for as long as eight years and there is still no end in sight for conflict in Afghanistan.

From a policy perspective, Obama’s intent to increase U.S. troops and coalition commitments in Afghanistan soon, will likely result in more enemy combatant prisoners, going forward.

Hillary Clinton Threads a Needle

Originally published on February 24, 2009 at




Hillary Clinton met with diplomatic officials and heads of state in China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia and did not hesitate to jump into a wide range of key issues on her first official trip as Secretary of State.  Ms. Clinton prioritized her discussions around North Korean nuclear disarmament, the world financial crisis and laying groundwork for cooperation on climate change.  Clinton did not push the issue of human rights in meetings with Chinese leaders, emphasizing the growing importance given to cooperation on economic and environmental issues.     The most immediate challenge was to establish the Obama administration’s position on North Korean nuclear disarmament by encouraging U.S. allies to reinvest in firm bilateral negotiations and by signaling to the North Korean government that cooperation will bring rewards.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has pressed back hard against efforts by both the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton to obtain denuclearization. North Korea has claimed to need the weapons defensively, accusing South Korea and the United States of intending an attack. North Korea has also tested both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, boasting of its power to retaliate for any attack against it.
Secretary of State Clinton’s task was to entice North Korea to participate in negotiations towards completing disarmament.  However, she clearly needed to warn the communist nation that it would suffer further isolation and harsh treatment in the region if it failed to cooperate and that the United States stood with its allies in the six party talks. “North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with the Republic of Korea. . . . The Republic of Korea’s achievement of democracy and prosperity stands in stark contrast to the tyranny and poverty in the North,” Clinton said

Negotiations have in the past also included offering the North Koreans foreign aid in exchange for their cooperation, but have never concluded a lasting agreement.  Secretary of State Clinton said before her trip that the United States is willing to normalize relations with North Korea in return for disarmament. 

This approach is consistent with the position that President Barack Obama took during the presidential campaign, stating that he would not hesitate to talk to foreign nations in an effort to reach compromise, even those whose positions the United States rejects.  However, Secretary Clinton was threading a needle in giving substantial incentive for North Korea to comply and yet speaking out on behalf of ally South Korea in unity against the North’s nuclear saber-rattling.