As recorded earlier, President Obama nominated former CNN CEO and Time managing editor Walter Isaacson to the Board of Broadcasting Governors. So when Joe Klein of Time softballs a Q & A minus the Q, to Obama we know exactly what’s going on. It’s not Klein up to his usual tricks - the connection goes to the top.
On the plus side, Klein epitomizes the demise of foreign policy discourse.
At the bottom of the 5th page of a 6 page transcript, Klein complements, “Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that - just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to - the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.”
“We have a good team,” replies Obama.
The conversation turn more confusing when Klein states, “But there have been some problems in execution.”
“Well, I would not deny that,” Obama initially concedes, “but let me say that given what's on our plate - and you know the list. I don't need to tick them off.”
Klein cracks a joke: “I've been to most of them in the past year.”
To which Obama responds - after “not denying” problems in execution - “I actually think that our execution has been sound as well.” Joe Klein blinks and stares off to the side. Luckily Obama holds himself slightly more accountable and actually obliges those of us wondering what he’s talking about.
“I'll give you the examples of where I think our foreign policy team has gotten the right strategy and has executed well even though the outcomes are still uncertain - because these are tough problems that aren't subject to easy solutions.”
He starts by citing Iraq as his success, without mentioning opposition to the surge or that Iraq’s government demanded America withdraw. Turning to Afghanistan, Obama says it was the “toughest decision that I’ve made,” and reassures us his surge is on pace.
As if this were the reason his voters are worried.
Obama claims, “We are probably ahead of schedule so far in terms of recruiting and training Afghans,” when they’re behind schedule according to Senator Carl Levin. He also reinforces, “we should set very modest expectations of what's sustainable to transfer to an Afghan government.”
This is his definition of correct strategy and execution - making the war longer and ignoring that Afghanistan has no government in place. Today Karzai told the BBC, "Unfortunately our election was very seriously mistreated by our Western allies."
Obama then calls Iran, “one of our trickiest foreign policy challenges, we have held the international community together, both in our engagement strategy, but also now as we move into a dual-track approach. Which is, If they don't accept the open hand, we've got to make sure they understand there are consequences for breaking international rules.”
Assuming one track is peace, the other is war. Success, then, is moving the international community onto the war track.
He mentions North Korea: “everybody was skeptical at the beginning of this year that we could get serious sanctions. Not only have we gotten serious sanctions, but they've actually been implemented.”
Do sanctions have a goal though? Are they supposed to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program or to bring it back to Six Party talks? Or just starve North Koreans by starving their leaders. Fulfilling economic promises might work better.
But Obama saves his haymakers for the end.
He informs us in Voice of America style, as if we didn’t know, “when it comes to counterterrorism, this Administration has taken out more al-Qaeda high-level operatives, has been more aggressive in pinning them down, not just in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also working with our international partners in places like Yemen and Somalia, than a lot of what's taken place previously.”
Obama is actually boasting of his drone score nearing 60. As his voters lament a foreign policy no different than Bush's, he's hearing a compliment.
But conflicts in Yemen and Somalia have widened, not contracted, after assassinating al-Qaeda operatives. He’s really admitting to a single-minded, counter-terrorism response. A lack of political, economic, and social strategy - Obama’s strategy is the opposite of “comprehensive.”
Military aid to Yemen doubled, non-military aid did not. US forces are targeting several Yemeni clerics deemed “global terrorists,” in addition to being political and tribal leaders, which could cause revolts. al-Qaeda is already moving on.
Pakistan still has hang-ups with the Kerry-Lugar bill, military reimbursements, and trade issues. A true carrot and stick policy, freezing Islamabad’s aid until it does more. Defense Secretary Robert Gates just passed through Pakistan without lightening US airport security.
US weapons are falling into al-Shabab’s hands.
All of this is apparently irrelevant because Obama finds only two faults in his foreign policy. One is Umar Abdulmutallab, failed Christmas bomber.
“The other area which I think is worth noting is that the Middle East peace process has not moved forward. And I think it's fair to say that for all our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be.”
Finally Klein decides to wake up and ask his question: “Why is that? My sense of it is that Mitchell spent a number of months negotiating a settlement deal and saw some progress from the Israelis and kind of got blinded by that, because he didn't see that it wasn't sufficient progress for the Palestinians.”
“I'll be honest with you,” Obama assures us.
“A) This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get.”
“B) Both sides - the Israelis and the Palestinians - have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that.”
He gives no C), besides Hamas. Insisting he put all his effort into early engagement, he blames, “I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process.” This from someone said to be impatient with any process.
Obama stays true to presidential form, taking no responsibility for his own actions by using bad English.
“And so what we're going to have to do - I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”
Sounds like Obama is blaming the Palestinians, and to a lesser extent Israel, for raising his expectations and for him raising our expectations. It’s Israeli and Palestinian politics, not US politics, spoiling negotiations. Right.
Suffice to say, we’ll be diving deeper into Obama’s testimonial since Time won’t. The show is over when headlines read, US envoy starts Mideast tour amid Obama pessimism.