Category Archives: foreign policy

New Foreign Policy Emerging

Originally published at

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

(Photo credit:  Marc Nozell; license — creative commons)

Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing reveals Obama’s new approach to the world.

The Senate confirmation hearing of Hillary Rodham Clinton provided the first insights into Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

The nominee for Secretary of State sought to make clear the principles that would guide the administration in its approach to international problems from terrorism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea.  

The most clear break with the Bush administration came in the insistence on a multilateral approach, recognizing the “overwhelming fact of our interdependence.”

“For me, consultation is not a catch-word.  It is a commitment,” Ms. Clinton stated.

Clinton also spoke for a greater emphasis on diplomacy and the use of what she labeled smart power, citing negotiation, development aid and cultural support to supplement the traditional use of military and economic power.  She cited Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will retain his position in the new administration, for the belief that “our civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and under-funded for far too long.”

Ms. Clinton took a hard line however, with Hamas, currently facing a costly war in Gaza, and Iran, whose nuclear ambitions will be a high priority in the next administration. 

Clinton stated that the administration would not negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence and acceptsIsrael’s right to exist, and told Senators that Iran would not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.  When asked by Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committeehow far the administration was prepared to go in standing up to Iran, she replied, “nothing is off the table.” 

This aggressive tone may upset some Obama supporters, depending on their isolationist or less confrontational views.  There has been a nearly universal hope that after the Bush Administration’s tough talk (axis of evil) and willingness to use military force, the incoming administration would tone down the rhetoric.  

Clinton appears to be trying to signal both an increased effort at diplomacy and a willingness to consider force when necessary.

“We will lead with diplomacy because it’s the smart approach.  But we also know that military force will sometimes be necessary, and we will rely on it to protect our people and our interests when and where needed, as a last resort.”

Presidential campaigns contain many general statements of philosophy, but not until the incoming administration finds itself face to face with the facts on the ground can a specific program be developed. Israel’s recent invasion of the Gaza strip is just the type of unanticipated event administrations are forced to deal with at their peril.  The risk for the Obama administration is that efforts at solving the Palestinian dilemma will take attention away from Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s resurgent power in Europe and effective action to manage the current world economic crisis as well.

Obama, Choose Your Battles

Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi; license

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on January 9, 2009, at

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Obama is undoubtedly feeling the pressure, felt jointly in capitals around the world, to help end the conflict in Gaza, where a fierce Israeli military operation, has resulted in significant death and destruction.

The U.S. has traditionally played a major role in facilitating negotiations throughout Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.  The deeply divisive and longstanding battle goes to the heart of the security and future of the state of Israel and rights to statehood and autonomous homeland for the Palestinian people.

However, despite the best intentions, the conflict in Gaza will not be solved easily.  At this point, President Obama’s involvement risks squandering substantial energy and political momentum desperately needed for domestic reforms.

A lesson from history

Republicans will remember:  The first significant act in office for President William Jefferson Clinton was to revisit the military ban on service by gay soldiers.

It was January 1992, and Clinton took on his own Joint Chiefs to establish a new compromise policy, commonly known as don’t ask, don’t tell.  Merits of the reform aside (which allowed many soldiers serving honorably to continue service) it angered the political right, which took sights on the Clinton Presidency and never looked back.

In retrospect, the action cost the Clinton Presidency dearly.  Despite significant improvements in welfare reform, balanced budgets and economic prosperity during his presidency, the Clinton Presidency never ceased to arouse conservative ire.  The animosity from the right dogged the President in office, played a role in Al Gore’s unsuccessful Presidential bid, and may have lingered into the campaign of Hillary Clinton, eight years later.

All this comes as a warning to President-elect Barack Obama:  Choose your first battles carefully.

Global perspectives

Obama would do well to remember that the U.S. is involved in other conflicts throughout the world, some demanding presidential attention. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for example, have a joint population of 1.3 billion people, with robust nuclear arsenals in the first two and an ongoing U.S. military operation in the third.  All have recently been unwilling hosts to tragic terrorist violence directed against civilians.

While sympathetic in their distress, the civilian population of Gaza remains less than 500,000 people. Israel, and the greater Palestinian population number less than 8 million.

Barack Obama has spoken solemnly about his commitment to the faltering U.S. economy, the foundation of this nation’s prosperity and security.  His steady hand convinced voters that he was best candidate to keep a nasty recession from turning into something historic and much worse.  Americans will be looking to President Obama for leadership.

At least at the outset, Obama must avoid any temptation to solve all the world’s problems.  Being drawn into negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza risks squandering the new administration’s goodwill and focus.

Somalia — Foreign Policy Dilemma


(Link to my story about the April 2009 hijacking and rescue here)

Piracy on the high seas fascinates for its boldness and improbability.  However, recent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean go beyond notorious criminality.  They are a warning beacon from the failed state of Somalia,where lawlessness may signal a new training, financing and launching site for terrorist activity.

Somali pirates have long preyed on hapless cargo ships and successfully negotiated multi-million dollar ransoms with owners and insurers.  In response, Britain, Russia, the United States and a host of other nations sent warships to patrol the Gulf of Aden where most hijackings occur.  Unimpeded, the pirates have reached out into the Indian Ocean, broadening the range of their attacks.

Environmental Risk

In November 2008, pirates took over a loaded supertanker carrying a cargo of over $100 million in Saudi Arabian oil. At a minimum, this escalation raises the risk of environmental catastrophe and broadcasts a new terrorist opportunity. Like Afghanistan in the 1990’s, Somalia is at once a failed state and an international time-bomb.

Long troubled by extremism and corruption, Somalia has recently seen battles between Islamic fundamentalists and U.S. and Ethiopian-supported forces. Meanwhile, Somalia has remained desperately poor and largely lawless. The Transitional Government controls the capital, but lacks authority and may not be able to maintain control as neighboring Ethiopia removes its troops by the end of 2008. Those that thrive in a lawless environment, from terrorists to criminals, are increasing their ranks and activities.

Recalling Events in Afghanistan

In March 2001, Taliban authorities, then in control of Afghanistan, carried out a highly publicized destruction of the 1500 year-old monumental statues of Bamyan, citing offense to the Taliban’s strict code of religious orthodoxy. Many in the international community were horrified at the destruction of cultural treasures and protested the disregard for international norms of respect for historical artifacts. Militant Islamic training camps were also under international surveillance, but were allowed to propagate. No serious intervention was contemplated out of respect for territorial sovereignty sacrosanct to international law.

In retrospect, had the outside world intervened in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, they might have uncovered evidence of the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and White House.  They would undoubtedly have found the extent to which training camps were preparing tens of thousands of recruits for a worldwide campaign of terrorism. Later, when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan as part of operation Enduring Freedom, they did indeed find plans and drawings of U.S. targets.

Western powers are in no mood to expend precious resources on a quagmire in Somalia after the difficulty rebuilding and securing Afghanistan and Iraq. However, all should be cognizant of the signals coming from Somali waters.

Pirates have taken millions of dollars in ransom year after year. The recent increase in their attacks now threatens to make environmental catastrophe a part of the equation. The nexus between the Somali pirates and Al Qaeda or other terror organizations is not clearly known. However, Afghanistan is instructive; those bent on destruction may see Somalia as a base and safe haven, where international laws and norms do not apply.

Obama Nominates Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State.

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 21, 2009, at

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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.