Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?

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How To Respond To Muslim Lectures, Edicts, and Bounties

The Muslim world has been giving the United States a lot of advice and information lately.  No doubt we’ll hear more thoughtful recommendations and guidance in the next few days, as Muslim leaders come to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.  America needs to decide how to respond.

In Egypt — where only days ago raging mobs stormed the U.S. embassy and ripped down our flag — the new President, Mohamed Morsi, says in an interview with the New York Times that the United States needs to fundamentally change its approach to the Muslim world and show greater respect for Muslim values.  In the meantime, the head of the largest fundamentalist Islamic party in Egypt, which supported Morsi, is calling for U.N. to act to “criminalize contempt of Islam as a religion and its Prophet.”  And in Pakistan — a supposed ally — the government Railways Minister has offered a $100,000 payment to whomever kills the makers of the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims and called upon al Qaeda and the Taliban to help in murdering the videomakers.  (Fortunately, the Pakistani government says it “absolutely disassociates” itself with the comments of its Railway Minister.  Thank goodness!)  And we haven’t even heard yet from the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, too.

It’s heartening to hear from the enlightened leaders of a region that is widely recognized for reasoned discourse and thoughtful consideration of opposing viewpoints.  But I’d like to see whoever speaks for America at the U.N. General Assembly share some of our views with the assembled Islamic leaders — and do so in pointed terms.  We should say that we relish our First Amendment, and we’re not going to change it no matter how often Muslims go on murderous rampages at some perceived slight.  We should say that will fight any effort to criminalize speech and will veto any ill-advised U.N. resolution that attempts to do so.  We should emphasize that we think that the world needs more freedom, not less, and that we stand with the forces of liberty.  We should tell the Muslim leaders that their real problems are not with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but with tribal-based, anti-female societies that crush individual initiative, medieval economies that leave huge swathes of the population unemployed and ready to riot at any moment, and corrupt leaders who are more interested in amassing their own fortunes than helping their people realize a better way of life.  Oh, and we should make clear that we won’t do business with government where ministers are offering bounties on the heads of filmmakers.

I’m tired of our simpering, whimpering approach to defending our fundamental freedoms.  It’s high time that we stood up for what we believe in and told the Islamic world that they can riot all they want:  we aren’t going to back away from our liberties.

Running American Ads In Pakistan

Our State Department has made the curious decision to spend $70,000 to buy commercial time on seven Pakistani TV channels and run an ad featuring President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton discussing the infamous YouTube video that has been the subject of such controversy in the Muslim world.

The ad apparently is intended to quell the ongoing rioting in the Muslim world.  It begins with footage of President Obama describing America’s tradition of religious tolerance, followed by a statement by Secretary Clinton emphasizing that the United States government had nothing to do with producing the video.  Secretary Clinton adds that the U.S. government rejects the video’s “content and message.”

Some Republicans and conservatives have called the commercial an “apology ad.”  I’m not sure I’d call it that, but I still don’t understand the decision to air the commercial.  We don’t need to explain our system to Muslim fanatics, and it is nonsense to try to respond every time the Muslim world expresses outrage — particularly when it costs us $70,000 to do so.  Pakistan, after all, is only one of 20 nations where rioting has occurred.  Do we really think looting and rioting Muslims are going to change their behavior because President Obama and Secretary Clinton express our belief in religious tolerance and deny that the U.S. produced a cheap, homemade video?

Au Revoir, Osama

UJ and I don’t agree on a lot politically, but we agree that the news that U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden is very good news, inceed.  Osama bin Laden was a bloodthirsty zealot whose creation of al Qaeda and terrorist machinations caused thousands of innocent people to lose their lives on September 11, 2001.  He deserved to die to pay for his heinous act, and the fact that he was finally caught and killed means that justice has been served.

I give credit to President Obama and the U.S. military and intelligence forces who never wavered in their hunt for bin Laden.  The American political system often seems broken, but it says something positive that we kept our focus on bin Laden through two different administrations — one Republican, one Democrat — over a ten-year period.  It is nice to know that Americans can still stick to important goals and see them through to completion.

And I don’t want to hear right now about what this means for the 2012 presidential campaign, or why bin Laden was able to hide in the capital of Pakistan, or whether the administration should have announced the news differently, or any other second-guessing or political spinning arising from the death of bin Laden.  For now, let’s just quietly appreciate the fact that a horrible mass murderer has finally gone to his just reward.

Fear Of Vietnam?

I’ve seen several articles raising the concern that President Obama’s decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan is likely to result in “another Vietnam.”  This article from George McGovern, the anti-war candidate who was the Democratic standard-bearer in 1972, is pretty representative of the arguments that you see in such articles.  The points of comparison include propping up a corrupt local government, fighting an entrenched opposition that enjoys local support, and spending money on a war that would be better spent somewhere else.

I respect George McGovern, who served his country nobly and well in World War II and enjoyed a long career in the Senate, but I think his argument is fundamentally misplaced.  The essential difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that no one attacked the United States from Vietnam, whereas al Qaeda did attack the United States, on September 11, 2001, from bases in Afghanistan.  McGovern makes the point that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan but is in Pakistan.  Even if that is so (and no one seems to know precisely where Osama bin Laden and his number 2 are at the moment) McGovern neglects to mention that the only reason that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan is that the United States military drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and thereby eliminated al Qaeda’s safe haven in that country.  I question whether the other points of comparison that are cited really are comparable — for example, I don’t know that everyday Afghan citizens view the repressive Taliban as favorably as Vietnamese viewed the populist Viet Cong — but those points of comparison really are irrelevant and ancillary.  The main distinction is that our activities in Afghanistan are defensive, not the result of abstract Cold War geopolitical considerations.

I have no desire to see American soldiers fight and die on foreign soil, but we cannot quit until we capture or kill Osama bin Laden and render al Qaeda powerless to attack us again.

A Dangerous Place

From the perspective of an armchair in the middle of the United States, it is hard to know what to think about Pakistan. There seems to be so much going on, and sometimes the stories seem contradictory. Is the Taliban advancing or retreating? Are the average citizens in Pakistan generally supportive of the Taliban, or frightened by its activities and opposed to the imposition of sharia? And, to top it all off, it seems that Pakistan is experiencing unrest due to food prices.

About the only thing that seems clear is that the United States should be very concerned about what is happening in Pakistan. When the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan, they provided a safe haven where terrorists could train, plot, and execute attacks. Their recent activities provide no basis for believing that they have changed their views or become more civilized. Terrorist groups already are apparently operating in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan where the Taliban is in ascendancy. What could those terrorists accomplish if the Taliban gained control of larger portions the country? After all, Pakistan differs from Afghanistan in at least one crucial respect — Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Would leaders who do not hesitate to ruthlessly flog women who are accused of violating a medieval code of conduct hesitate to use nuclear weapons?

Floggings and Fire Hoses

This story — www.nytimes.com/2009/04/04/world/asia/04swat.html?ref=todayspaper — raises interesting questions about the future of Pakistan, a country most experts, and President Obama and his Administration, see as a focal point of the global struggle against terrorism.

Occasionally a single incident, such as the horrible flogging video described in this article and the negative public reaction to it, can be a turning point. Many people think, for example, that the TV images of peaceful black protesters being attacked by dogs and knocked down by high-powered fire hoses were crucial to convincing Americans outside of the Jim Crow South that federal civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act was desperately needed. If the public revulsion within Pakistan to this flogging incident and other Taliban excesses grows, it could help to move Pakistan and its people away from religious extremism, intolerance, and the Taliban. On the other hand, if the government ignores the incident or proves powerless to address it, the Taliban may be seen as immune from punishment for such excesses, and it will in turn grow more powerful as the everyday citizens in the areas controlled by the Taliban decide that submission and compliance are more sensible than defiance. The whole story of this particular incident has not yet been told.