Opinion

David Rohde

John Kerry will not be denied

David Rohde
Nov 21, 2013 02:01 UTC

The secretary of state’s critics call him arrogant, undisciplined, and reckless — but his relentlessness in pursuit of negotiations might produce some of the most important diplomatic breakthroughs in years.

When John Kerry succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in February, Clinton’s emotional departure from the State Department received blanket media coverage. Kerry’s arrival received next to none.

“So here’s the big question before the country and the world and the State Department after the last eight years,” Kerry said in a speech to State Department employees on his first day on the job. “Can a man actually run the State Department? I don’t know.”

As the crowd roared with laughter, Kerry pushed the joke too far.

“As the saying goes,” he said, “I have big heels to fill.”

Nearly three weeks later, Kerry’s first foreign-policy speech as secretary, an hour-long defense of diplomacy and foreign aid, was a flop. The Washington Post gave it 500 words. The New York Times ignored it. (He was also accused of accidentally inventing a new country called “Kyrzakhstan,” an apparent conflation of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)

The nearly universal expectation was that Kerry’s tenure would be overshadowed by his predecessor’s, for a long list of reasons. For starters, he was arriving in Foggy Bottom when the country seemed to be withdrawing from the world. Exhausted by two long wars, Americans were wary of ambitious new foreign engagements—certainly of military ones, but of entangling diplomatic ones, too. Barack Obama’s administration, accelerating a process that had begun in the early 1960s under President Kennedy, was centralizing foreign-policy decision making in the White House’s National Security Council, marginalizing the State Department. Kerry hadn’t even been Obama’s first choice for the position, getting nominated only when the candidacy of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was derailed by her tenuous association with the Benghazi-consulate tragedy in 2012. (Rice ended up running the National Security Council.) The appetite for risk taking in the White House is never high, but after the Benghazi imbroglio, it was particularly low. Finally, Kerry, a defeated presidential candidate, was devoid of the sexiness that automatically attaches to a figure, like Hillary Clinton, who remains a legitimate presidential prospect. The consensus in Washington was that Kerry was a boring if not irrelevant man stepping into what was becoming a boring, irrelevant job.

The Iraq war’s most damaging legacy

David Rohde
Mar 19, 2013 14:46 UTC

American households will be blanketed this week by a torrent of coverage, commentary and regret about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war. Liberals claim that Twitter – if it had existed – could have stopped the invasion. Conservatives argue that the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism have, in fact, been underplayed.

The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it. The 100,000 Iraqis who perished, the 4,500 American soldiers killed and the $1 trillion spent should have halted what Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner has called the “creeping militarization of American foreign policy.” Instead, the civilian American institutions that failed us before Iraq have grown even weaker.

The State Department is the first example. Drezner correctly argues that as the Pentagon’s budget has ballooned in the post-9/11 decade, so has its influence over American foreign policy. Too many former generals, he contends, have occupied foreign policy important positions.

Clinton: International portfolio, domestic concerns

David Rohde
Jan 11, 2013 00:22 UTC

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday hosted a working dinner here for Afghan President Hamid Karzai – one of her last official meetings with a foreign head of state.

On paper, Karzai’s talks with Clinton are historic. A famed American political figure is helping negotiate the end of the longest war in U.S. history – a 12-year odyssey that has claimed 2,100 American lives and more than $600 billion in treasure.

But Karzai’s visit is being greeted with a yawn. There has been more media coverage of Clinton’s exhaustive travel, physical appearance and political prospects in recent days than her wartime diplomacy.

State fixes are long overdue

David Rohde
Dec 20, 2012 20:32 UTC

This week’s scathing report on the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya – followed by the resignation of one department official and removal of three others – confirms that the United States has an underfunded State Department is in decay. It also gives the clearest understanding yet of where fault lies for four unnecessary deaths in Libya and how the U.S. can do the vital work of diplomacy in dangerous areas.

The goal of the attackers was to drive American diplomats and aid workers out of Libya. We must not let this happen. Washington’s most effective weapon in the post-Arab Spring is promoting economic growth, trade and technology ‑ not mounting invasions. Diplomats and aid workers are the vital heart of that effort.

Some takeaways from the independent review board’s report:

     The State Department has struggled to obtain resources for years. This long-running Washington dynamic played a role in department officials’ decisions to decline requests for additional security personnel in Benghazi:

For many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work, with varying degrees of success. This has brought about a deep sense of the importance of husbanding resources to meet the highest priorities, laudable in the extreme in any government department. But it has also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation.

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