On Tuesday the National Defense University will be graced by the formal pomp of a prime-time address. In the recently-constructed Abraham Lincoln Hall, dedicated by none other than President Barack Obama himself, his Secretaries of State and Defense will join CNN's Wolf Blitzer for a “conversation.” What topics Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta plan discuss remains ambiguous, but considering their choice of moderator and live-steaming, they can be expected to whitewash all areas of U.S. foreign policy in a propaganda blitzkrieg.
We can feel the spin just thinking about where they might land.
Pairing Clinton and Panetta on such a big stage makes sense at the surface level, but the deeper they go the more exposed U.S. foreign policy will become. Under internal and external pressure for its response to the Arab Spring - whether in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen or Bahrain - the Obama administration is deploying its big guns to stem a rising tide of criticism. The White House is also unnerved by growing (and realistic) perceptions that the Pentagon and CIA are running Obama’s foreign policy. When combined with their egos, personal association from the Clinton administration and Blizter’s shallow knowledge, their political intentions reduce the odds of a humble conversation to near zero: in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Teaming Clinton and Panetta implies a civilian-military pincer attack on the above conflicts of interest, and Afghanistan makes for a logical starting point after an opening SEAL tribute. Here we can expect “progress” to be drilled into the audiences’ skulls, followed by scripted warnings of “tough days ahead.” Some explanation of Obama’s surge will be given to correct the war’s political narrative in Washington, but only the bare minimum to avoid any real discussions on long-term strategy. Pakistan may become the scapegoat, as usual, before moving on the promote India and regional cooperation, even though New Delhi opposes negotiations with the Taliban.
It is difficult to imagine Panetta having anything to say on Israel and Palestine, except to possibly reaffirm America and Israel’s “special relationship. Clinton, however, has no choice but to counter the Palestinians’ trajectory towards the UN Security Council. Presumably defending the White House’s haphazard mediation over two and a half years, which ultimately took down the esteemed George Mitchell, Clinton won’t have much to say other than “direct negotiations are the only solution.” Instead Iran and Syria will be summoned to divert attention from Israeli settlements in Jerusalem.
Clinton might even use the venue for a major announcement on Syria, considering rumors of another “policy shift,” although Obama will obviously drop the final ax. Syria and Libya could easily form the heart of Clinton and Panetta’s “conversation.” Basking in the safety of two anti-American regimes, the Secretaries could trade off hitting Gaddafi and al-Assad while highlighting U.S. diplomacy. And the brighter Syria burns, the fainter Bahrain and Yemen will dim.
It’s certainly possible that Clinton or Panetta will mention Bahrain because of its Fifth Fleet and Riyadh’s uncompromising position. However the administration hasn’t issued any reaction to the monarchy’s collapsed “dialogue,” three weeks of ensuing protests and now threats to boycott parliamentary elections. The exact same pattern could unfold in Yemen, where Clinton would take up position behind the GCC’s initiative as Panetta rings all of AQAP’s alarms. Yemenis received another shock of U.S. propaganda on Friday after the White House declared a ricin threat out of their country, a non-imminent, limited threat aptly labeled the Goldilocks threat - not too hot, not too cold.
U.S. officials have been afraid to go near Yemen’s revolution throughout seven months of peaceful protests, but will spend the whole day talking about AQAP - as if no connection exists between Ali Saleh’s despotic regime and the group. Yemen is a main target of U.S. propaganda and we expect its revolution to be wiped out by “progress against al-Qaeda” - except AQAP.
To counter justifiable perceptions of America’s double-standard, we anticipate a radioactive dose of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. While Clinton preaches “al-Qaeda is on the wrong side of history, America is on the right side,” Panetta is sure to beautify bin Laden’s raid and the “success” of Special Forces and CIA raids. As key salespeople of the administration's escalating counter-terrorism - a cheap, ineffective substitute for counterinsurgency - Clinton and Panetta will defy their personalities and political objectives if they don’t hawk the administration’s (Pentagon/CIA) “new” foreign policy.
We expect the Secretaries to color the Arab Spring in national security, with Clinton playing good cop and Panetta functioning like a hammer. In short, lots of talk about being “on the right side of history,” and lots of sitting on the wrong side.