Thursday, July 08, 2010

Obama's "Inner Machiavelli"

David Ignatius complains that he doesn't see evidence of President Obama's Machiavelli - that is, he believes Obama needs a Kissinger or Brzezinski to craft secret plans and engage in behind-the-scenes, off-the-record negotiations with groups that range from being nominally to explicitly enemies of the state. He admits that such an approach can result in blowback....
When an emboldened Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan, Brzezinski crafted a secret intelligence alliance with China and Pakistan to check the Soviets. Here, too, we are still living with some of the negatives. But it must be said, the Soviet Union is no more.
Even if we assume that the secret operations in Afghanistan and "Charlie Wilson's war" were the sole causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, by stating that we're "living with some of the negatives" - a radicalized Pakistan, our nation's longest war ever in Afghanistan - Ignatius displays a gift for the understatement. He also mentions how Kissinger accepted Syrian intervention in Lebanon's civil war as something "that arguably still causes trouble". Yeah. Arguably. No mention, for some reason, of the secret war in Cambodia. Or the coup in Chile.

But his poor choice of examples aside, let's give Ignatius the benefit of the doubt - because he's correct that secret negotiations of one sort or another have helped and can help the U.S. in its conflicts around the world. (I suspect that he wanted to illustrate his point big, splashy, well-known examples; they were just poorly chosen.) To one degree or another, every U.S. administration has engaged in that type of behind-the-scenes operation. If a President announced his secret, "Machiavellian" operations, they would no longer be secret.

Where was Ignatius when the political right was savaging Obama for being an appeaser and being willing to "talk to our nation's enemies"? He was and remains in a powerful position to speak against that type of rhetoric, which he plainly believes can be damaging to the nation if it in fact deters secret contacts. I don't recall that Ignatius said a word.
Perhaps all of these diplomatic corkscrews are already at work. It's in the nature of successful secret diplomacy that you don't know about it until it's over -- and maybe not even then.
Right. So let's lament that Obama may not be doing something that he may in fact be doing, and which must be kept secret in order to be effective, but not the fact that political operatives have made it harder for him to reach out to hostile players and much more politically dangerous if he's "caught".

Update: Tim Fernholz has commented on the editorial at Tapped. He suggests that, "More often than not, the secretive aspects of our foreign policy are the most damaging", perhaps true but difficult to debate given that we're dealing with secrets and examining the known failures with the benefit of hindsight. That said, it is reasonable to admit that there are plenty of examples that support Fernholz's point.
If the solution to a foreign-policy problem involves Kissinger-level secrecy, it's probably the result of a previous blunder or fear of facing political consequences, not because secrecy is necessary. If conservatives in the United States, for instance, hadn't spent years baselessly demonizing the liberal foreign-policy establishment for "losing" China to the evil Communists, there would have been no need for a secret mission to open the country's relations to the U.S. Secrecy can be useful as a tactical tool, but when you make it a strategic objective, it's often a sign that you've already failed.
That's largely true. Contacts and negotiations that would be politically difficult may be kept secret for just that reason - but I think it's an overstatement to suggest that an administration's response to political realities is often a sign of failure. First, public backlash could end negotiations before they get off the ground. Second, many administrations will choose the politically safe approach, whatever the need for outreach, such that negotiations never occur. In Fernholz's specific example, yes, rhetoric about how the political left "lost" China made it politically difficult and dangerous for a Democratic President to reach out to China. But as a sign of failure, it seems to better illustrate why that type of rhetoric is dangerous - the same type of rhetoric I highlighted above, being used against Obama - as opposed to why secret negotiations weren't helpful or appropriate.

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