Ten months ago, the Obama administration's plan for foreign policy was clear: tackle the toughest problems right away and appoint high-level envoys to do it—George Mitchell for the Mideast, Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan, and Dennis Ross for Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would stay mostly above the fray, developing grand strategy for the use of "smart power." The thinking inside the new administration, according to a former State Department official, was that George W. Bush had botched things and the new team, guided by Obama's pro-engagement approach, could fix them. (Click here to follow Michael Hirsh)
Well, not only are things not getting fixed, they may be getting more broken. What was justly considered Bush's mess in all these places is rapidly becoming Obama's mess. In the Mideast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have outmaneuvered Obama, forcing him to retreat publicly from a call to freeze settlements. Iran has so completely spurned Obama that the president's careful and patient call for diplomacy and avoidance of sanctions is beginning to look like appeasement. And in Afghanistan, while a decision on troop deployments appears imminent, the public display of mixed signals by senior military and U.S. officials over many months has created a dangerous power vacuum, further undermining America's already low credibility.
The indefatigable Mitchell has been unable to move the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table on his own. "I don't think he has any plans right now to go back," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. (The only active track of Mideast diplomacy, oddly enough, is now between Israel and Hamas: Netanyahu may soon strike a deal for captive Gilad Shalit, trading him for 450 Palestinian prisoners with a promise to release another 550 later.) Holbrooke made himself less useful in Afghanistan by offending President Hamid Karzai, who has just been reinaugurated. Ross, having moved from the State Department to the White House to become the president's strategic adviser, is finding that Iran has actually retreated from the positive noises Tehran made at an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva, meager as those noises were. Nor is there even a twitch of movement on North Korea; envoy Stephen Bosworth plans to fly to Pyongyang soon, but not for some bold new initiative. "We are focused on resuming the Six-Party Talks," said Kelly. "The empire of envoys isn't faring very well," says Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
One result of all this paralysis is that in recent weeks Hillary Clinton has been forced to jump into the middle of events, visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan and then doing a detour to the Mideast to secure a partial settlement-freeze agreement from Netanyahu. Clinton also induced Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to negotiate a rapprochement with Karzai in Holbrooke's absence. Still, critics say Clinton has stumbled herself, especially after she dramatically praised a provisional Israeli agreement to put a cap on new West Bank settlements as "unprecedented." Her choice of words only served to highlight the Obama administration's retreat, outraging the Palestinians, who pointed out that the administration had insisted on a total freeze of all new construction earlier in the year.
The one hope for forward movement on all these issues may be to rethink them entirely—not just the strategy but the personnel, too. That's not to say Holbrooke, Mitchell, and Co. should go, but their efforts should be subordinated to higher-level engagement, especially from Clinton. The secretary of state must play a much more active role on a regular basis; only Clinton, apart from Obama himself, has the necessary political star power, acumen, and gravitas to make a difference. It's clear that she can no longer afford to allow herself to remain at a strategic distance or to be sidetracked on women's issues, only occasionally parachuting in for ill-briefed appearances as she did in the Mideast.
Second, the Obamaites should reconsider the premises of what they're doing on all fronts: it may be wise to reverse field entirely on a number of issues. For example, with additional troops likely to be deployed to Afghanistan soon, it may be wise to seek to negotiate with the Taliban, which we are not doing. At the same time it may be better policy not to negotiate with Tehran, as we are now doing. The West should consider new ways to isolate the discredited regime in Iran and find fresh methods of encouraging the still-insurgent election dissidents.
On the Mideast, perhaps we should drop all pretense of addressing final-status issues that are clearly irresolvable at present and look instead for a long-term interim arrangement, as Hussein Agha and Robert Malley propose in this week’s New York Review of Books. "The long public history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations no longer is a legacy to build on. It has become an obstacle to overcome," Agha and Malley write. By lowering the bar dramatically, negotiating merely for what the Palestinians call a hudna, or truce, while setting aside the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem as well as the issue of final boundaries, the two sides may find a new path to coexistence, they argue. There is some logic in this, especially coming at a time when Hamas is intent on rebuilding, not fighting, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said his people don't have the stomach for another intifada.
"Take a method and try it," Franklin D. Roosevelt said in the early, perilous days of his administration. "If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something." That's sound advice for the perilous present as well. Hillary Clinton once called for a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations (it didn't work). Now she and her boss, Barack Obama, need to look inward and hit the reset button on their own personnel and policy decisions.
Michael Hirsh is also the author of At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.