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Monday, October 15, 2012

Hilary Clinton: The Politics of Responsibility

The Secretary of State has taken responsibility for the failures of security that may have contributed to the deadly consequences of an attack on the US Mission in Benghazi.    There is an admirable nobility in her gesture; but it also reflects frustration that Romney/Ryan are using this tragedy of errors opportunistically, to attack the President and Vice-President and disguise the utter vacancy of their own foreign policy stance.

Error, miscommunication and miscalculation are endemic to foreign and security policy.   Each year I teach part of Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian Wars in my seminar at NYU on the history and theory of international law.   I doubt that any modern author has captured the pathos  of error and imperfect foresight  as well as did Thucydides.  But Ryan/Romney are not pitching to voters with a Thucydidean sensibility.  And so they are trying to sell what could be a single humanly costly mistake as emblematic of the Admistration's foreign policy.

Let's assume that the worst that Romney/Ryan have insinuated were true-I believe the Secretary of State that it isn't-namely, that the White House was directly responsible for refusing to improve security at the mission in Benghazi.   What would this prove about the overall choice that Americans face in this election?   As today's historians like to tell us,  Winston Churchill was directly responsible for numerous errors of judgment, costing many lives.  Yet imagine what the world might have been like had he been replaced by the kind of men who were his political competitors.

The world projected by the Romney/Ryan foreign policy fantasy is one where America can bellow and bark at clearly defined enemies, while basking in the grateful acceptance of America's leadership by her friends.   But every day and every night, Secretary Clinton and President Obama have faced the real world, today's real world.    As described so precisely and eloquently by Ruti Teitel, my fiancee, in her recent book Humanity's Law, this is a world where threats to our security come from multiple sources, including non-state actors, where there is dangerous  intererdepence and yet without political integration, where devils as well as angels use the discourse of human rights and humanitarianism.  It is a world  where the responsibilities and demands on each state, and particularly on a power like America, have multiplied while the ability to meet them depends ever more on intricate cooperation with a very wide range of actors, about whom we can never know everything and-despite all our high-tech intelligence capacities- about whom we often know very little indeed.

One of the  most telling features of the Romney/Ryan  foreign policy fantasy is their get tough on China stance.  The doublespeak is most evident in the case of the platform on trade policy.  On the one hand, Romney says he would take unilateral action against China on his first day in office, which would almost certainly violate the rules of the World Trade Organization.  On the other hand, Romney attacks the Obama Administration for not signing enough free trade agreements.  But who would want  to sign a trade agreement with an Administration that signals on  its first day of office that it  doesn't care about the rules of the commercial treaties it has already signed?  The Obama Administration has, rightly, taken China to court at the WTO: Rather than flouting the law, it has insisted that the law be enforced vigorously in America's interests.

But let's return to Hilary Clinton.  Her China diplomacy shows a savvy sense of our real world today.  China is our largest foreign creditor; a competitor in trade; an important part of the supply chain of American business; a human rights violator; a force for good or for ill in the Asia-Pacific region (for example, its shift on Myanmar was an important factor in the pressure on the regime for reform).      Secretary Clinton has balanced all of this.  Imagine the risks of replacing such finesse with bullying and hot air.

Posted by Rob Howse on October 15, 2012 at 09:42 PM | Permalink

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Hillary Clinton is to be respected for taking the blame herself. Yet to paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck stops with the President. While Secretary Clinton may have done a good job as Secretary of State, and there are those who would disagree, the fact is that the tone that led to this attack was set by the President. Mr. Obama's desire to make everyone happy has led him to wipe the memories of Middle Eastern countries of the consequences of attacking American citizens.

An Ambassador murdered in Libya, Embassies attacked in multiple countries, and our foreign service-men and -women under threat of their lives and the President's response should have clearly and decisively made known that the United States of America would not stand for these countries to fail in their duties to protect our Embassies. Yes, the President made a statement, but who are we kidding its weakness is reflected in the fact that the subject of discussion around the world has not been on the failure of host countries to protect our Embassies but on the need to have laws protecting the sanctity of Islam and prohibiting people from criticizing Islam.

Posted by: Adam | Oct 16, 2012 12:39:39 AM

Speaking of fantasies let's talk about the Rob Howse fantasy on China. The Romney/Ryan get tough on China stance follows the same pattern of every other aspiring Presidential candidate for the past 20 years. Talk tough about China during the campaign and then act the same as the prior President once elected. Nothing unique about it.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 16, 2012 8:35:08 AM

There is an important difference. The Obama Administration has been consistent on China throughout the last four years and in the campaign. As I mentioned in my post, again and again the Administration has aggressively defended US interests in law suits against China in the World Trade Organization: it has consistently preferred astute advocacy and steady resolve to blather and bombast. The US has won, at least on some of the claims asserted, in most of these suits; others have been settled in a manner that benefits the US. This is the very same vigilance that the President has spoken up for in the current campaign, no more or less. What will the Romney/Ryan blustering translate into? Perhaps, as you imply, faced with the reality of China they would back off and let the career diplomats run the show. This may be the best case scenario but hardly an attractive one: an administration that China perceives from the get-go as all bark and no bite.

Posted by: Rob | Oct 16, 2012 9:01:53 AM

What does it mean that China is our "competitor in trade"? Isn't every country, including Canada, Mexico and the EU?

Posted by: Jimbino | Oct 16, 2012 11:10:12 AM

Many though not all countries are. How is this relevant to the argument in my post?

Posted by: Rob | Oct 16, 2012 12:21:03 PM

"And so they are trying to sell what could be a single humanly costly mistake as emblematic of the Admistration's foreign policy."

No, they in fact mention lots of mistakes as "emblematic" -- and you have to consider all these mistakes in the aggregate to understand the argument.

Posted by: Joel | Oct 16, 2012 3:56:02 PM

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Posted by: Mark Seymour | Oct 17, 2012 1:47:25 AM

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Posted by: Mark Seymour | Oct 21, 2012 5:56:30 PM

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