The State Department: Who’s Running the Show?

I hate to complain, but, seriously, who’s running American foreign policy these days?  Scooby Doo?  It’s common knowledge that Hillary is going home in January to run for president, but as lame ducks go, she’s lamer than most.  And where is the heir apparent?  Nobody’s going to convince me that Susan Rice’s duties at the UN are keeping her from voicing an opinion now and then.  I know she prefers a low profile, but how much time does it take to sit there and get insulted?  It’s becoming obvious to everybody from Beijing to Benghazi that the ship of state down at the State Department doesn’t have a captain — or a first mate, for that matter.

There was a time when American foreign policy was so successful it was universally hated, kinda like the New York Yankees.  It fought a World War, a Cold War, several itty bitty hot ones, managed to keep its friends from killing each other and kept its enemies at bay.  Even in the dark days of Henry the K and Barbara Walters, American diplomacy had a purpose and, like it or not, Pax Americana worked.  Better hurry, boys, ‘cause that boat’s about to sail.

I realize that there’s a new reality in the world.  Omnipotence is not all it’s cracked up to be, and gargantuan power is useless unless you can fake the other guy into thinking you’ll use it.  The problem is nobody’s even worried about the bluff anymore.  To continue the analogy, America is still sitting there with Aces over Kings, but every penny ante wannabe with Jack high is rushing the table to go “All In.”  The rationale is somebody’s going to get an easy pot when the boys and girls from Foggy Bottom fold.

Objectively, I don’t blame the folks from Katphoodistan for challenging American power.  After all, what have they got to lose?  The only thing Obama’s going to launch these days is his teleprompter.  My problem is America is giving away the diplomatic farm.  That’s not a good idea.  As the United States’ most cautious neighbour, I really don’t want a bunch of international adventurers thinking that Barak isn’t keeping his bayonets sharp.  Frankly, anti-Americanism is a low-impact parlour game for the people who believe that without the Great Satan, everybody on earth would suddenly get a rainbow.  Me?  I’m a little bit less Pollyanna than that.  There are bad people in this world, and when push comes to shove, I don’t want to have to prove I can defend myself.  I find it quite a bit more to my taste (as most people west of the Vistula do) to sit on the sidelines and rely on the kids from Kansas and Nebraska to stand up and take the hit.  And that’s the bigger problem.

Power, real power, is not based on what you do; it’s based on what you’re willing to do.  As more and more people think the United States is not willing to do anything to … Oh, I don’t know … make sure a bunch of fascist fundamentalists from the 8th century don’t develop nuclear weapons and turn Tel Aviv into a glow-in-the-dark Mediterranean night light — the more likely it is that somebody’s going to get hurt.  America’s indecision and inability to figure out where its national interest lies is inadvertently telling the world it’s in retreat from the international stage.  More than a few folks out there are willing to take the risk to fill the void. In fact, every time America steps away from its allies (Britain, Israel, South Korea, Japan — and the list goes on) every time American diplomats fear for their safety; every time some pumped-up potentate gets a mixed message about American intentions; those emboldened few lurch us a little closer to somebody doing something stupid.  And I’m not even necessarily talking about the bad guys!  When that happens, as history has shown us, a whole lot of people are going to have to clean up the mess.

America needs to remember that deterrent is not action.  (That’s after the fact.)  Deterrent is reputation and without a reputation, there is no deterrent.

Food for Nukes: Another Bad Idea

There comes a time in every person’s life when they just want to get back into bed, turn the heating pad up to 9 and stay there for a week or two.  It’s that terrible time when you realize everything sucks and nobody’s even trying anymore.  Last week was one of those weeks; the only thing that saved it was St. Patrick’s Day.  It’s amazing how much stupid can be crammed into seven 24 hour days.

When the headlines catch you under the chin, the only thing you can do is roll with the punch.  In a not-so-surprising move, North Korea announced that it was going to test a long-range missile.  Big deal!  The North Koreans have been rattling their sabres ever since Joe Stalin sent the Red Army south of the Yalu River in 1945.  In 1950, the Asian Cold War caught fire when North Korea invaded South Korea and President Truman sent Twenty-Star-General Douglas MacArthur to slap some sense into Kim il-Sung — this current guy’s grandpa.  After three years of back and forth fighting (encapsulated for most Americans by 251 episodes of M*A*S*H) everybody was pretty much back where they started.  The two Koreas then settled in and have spent the last six decades picking at each other like two kids in the back seat of a cross country mini-van vacation.  In other words, this current Kim isn’t exactly breaking new ground in the dictator department.

North Korean long range-missiles are a problem, but they’re not the problem.  Buried inside the news item is America’s response.  Apparently, if North Korea tries to test this long-range missile, America will stop shipping food to the northern Hermit Kingdom.  Whoa!  Let me get this straight!  America’s been shipping food to North Korea???  Which Brainiac in the State Department thought that up?  And when did this diplomatic sleight-of-hand become accepted foreign policy?  I cannot believe this.  It’s so astounding I’ve run out of rhetorical questions.

Check it out!  North Korea, a nation notorious for internationally jerking people around, is sitting on a pile of plutonium (Where did they get that from?  West Edmonton Mall?) and America is shipping them tonnes of food every month so their people don’t starve.  I am not opposed to feeding hungry people, really I’m not, but it strikes me as counterproductive to be sending food to a nation that has been spending billions on a nuclear weapons program.  Hold it right there, Kim Whatever-Your-Name-Is!  How about ponying up some bucks for a couple of orders of Kimchi and rice for the general population?  Not only that, but the nuclear weapons program North Korea’s been building — on the starving peasant plan — is pointed directly at two of America’s most important allies in the region: Japan and South Korea.  This doesn’t scan — not even in Cloud Cuckooland.   But wait!  There’s more!  There’s firm evidence that the North Koreans have been exporting their nuclear technology to such world class malcontents as Ahmadinejad in Tehran and everybody’s favorite bad guy, Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.  I’m sure somebody in the State Department must have heard of these boys.  They’re the ones who want to make Tel Aviv glow in the dark.  The logic here escapes me.  It’s like picking up the tab for lunch so the guy you’re sitting with can buy a gun to mug your best friend.

I don’t know what went off the rails in the talks between America and North Korea last month in Beijing.  American statesmanship isn’t always the brightest light on the diplomatic Christmas tree.  However, it’s a good thing nobody told the American people what their State department was up to.  There might not be that many folks in New Orleans or Detroit etc. who have ever heard of Danegeld*, but they know a protection racket when they see it.  There can’t be a lot of Americans — who are about to pay their taxes in less than a month — very pleased to hear that they’ve been buying dessert for North Korean nuclear technicians.

The problem with extortion is it gets easy.  It’s easier to throw money at the problem than do the hard work to fix it.  Unfortunately, the problem remains.  As Rudyard Kipling once wrote:
“That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,
You never get rid of the Dane.”

Sending food to North Korea is one of the Top Ten stupidest things I’ve ever heard of.  Benjamin Franklins are not going to get rid of North Korea’s nuclear capability.  However, what they are doing is propping up a repressive regime and giving Kim and his military buddies time and space to go nuclear adventuring around the world.  It makes me wonder is there’s anybody even driving the bus anymore.

*For those unfamiliar with 10th century Nordic history, Danegeld was a special tax levied on the people of England and France.  It was collected and paid directly to the Vikings so they would play nice and take their rape and pillage somewhere else.  It went on for generations.


Barack Obama: Partying like it’s 1967

I’ve never seen the movie Dumb and Dumber; I don’t have to.  All I have to do is sit back and watch President Barack Obama and the US State Department stumble around, stomping on the flowers of the Arab Spring, and I’ve pretty well got the storyline.  These guys make the Keystone Kops look like Sherlock Holmes.  Obama’s most recent foray beyond the Beltway, on May 19th, was one of the oddest speeches I’ve ever heard.  Apparently, it was a major policy statement.  Who knew?  From my point of view, Barack Obama’s Middle East policy sounds, looks and acts like a 2011 cut rate rerun of the much despised Bush Doctrine.  To be sure, Obama stuck to his guns and threw in a lot of rhetoric about change, but that was probably just force of habit.  After all, he’s been yipping about change for nearly four years now — without very much of it actually happening.

Anyway, according to Obama, the way America will effect change in the Middle East is by throwing a couple of billion dollars at the Egyptians, starting a civil war in Libya and ignoring Tunisia and Yemen altogether.  Furthermore, if Bashar al-Assad in Syria doesn’t quit shooting people in the streets America is going to get really, really angry.  And, if Ahmadinejad in Iran continues his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Barack will personally denounce him and call on the world to apply more sanctions, more often.  None of this is new or even news.

After that, the speech was padded out with some fancy footwork, dancing around the situation in Bahrain, where, it seems, there are several different ways to ruthlessly suppress political opposition — and America recognizes all of them.  There were some further admonishments of Iran – like Ali Khamenei cares what Obama thinks – and a friendly wave to the women in the crowd.  However, absolutely glaring by its absence from the Obama Doctrine was any mention of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  To be fair, Pakistan is not technically in the Middle East, and perhaps Obama will get around to them later, but Saudi Arabia is smack dab in the middle.  In fact, its importance in the area is what most presidents have called “paramount.”  Talking about the Middle East without talking about Saudi Arabia is like singing the Old Macdonald song without any of the animals: it doesn’t make any sense.  I hate to resort to rhetorical questions but: Is the Kingdom so perfect as to resist the forces of change and self-determination Obama’s talking about?  Or did they just get lost in the desert?   Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind the realpolitik that says leave the Saudis alone; I just distrust the motivation.  After all, those are Saudi troops in Bahrain.

Of course, Obama saved the best for last – Israel — and the guy was on a roll.  He started off by saying “the status quo is unsustainable” then went on to say “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines…”  I’m not even going to grace this with an argument.  Obviously, the people in the State Department have never seen a map of the Middle East.  Israel’s pre-1967 borders were indefensible; that’s why they had a war!  Granted, it only lasted six days, but it was pretty memorable.  Who, in their right mind, would think those same borders could be defended any better in 2011?  Wild guess?  Nobody!

The world has changed since 1967.  For example, back then, Elvis was a newlywed, Che Guevara was still alive and a guy by the name of John McCain had just got himself shot down over North Vietnam and was checking in for an extended stay at the Hanoi Hilton.  We were watching Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island on TV and Aretha Franklin was about to record “Respect” – the first time.  Personal computers were unheard of, phones were attached to the wall and most cars got three miles to the gallon.  Hell, we didn’t even have the metric system!  If “the status quo is unsustainable,” how does turning the clock back 44 years help the situation any?

The problem is that it’s not Obama’s fault.  He doesn’t know anything about foreign relations.  Niall Ferguson, a well known British historian, has said — on more than one occasion — that the guy’s clueless.  He’s depending on the State Department to treat him right; this is where you get the dumber part of the equation.  The US State Department has never been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and recently they’ve been spending most of their time unplugged.  This latest adventure in the world of the unknown is just a continuation of the stumble/fumble in the Middle East that started last December.  For example, now that the Egyptians are going to try Mubarak for murder, do you think Gaddafi’s is going to go quietly?  Sometimes I think Hillary’s recruiting her researchers and diplomats at WalMart.

Luckily, Hezbollah and Hamas are still going way too fast on the Crazy Train to let the Palestinians take advantage of the situation.  Nothing is going to happen
for a while, and by that time maybe the American people will quit relying on Hope and Change and take a look around them.  Me?  I’m going to give up
downloading movies and just watch CNN for laughs.