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Subject: My latest Athens News piece - advice to Hillary

Letter to Secretary of State Clinton


Dear Madame Secretary-designate,


In February 2003 I ended my resignation letter to Colin Powell, with the following words: 

I have confidence that our democratic process is ultimately self-correcting, and hope that in a small way I can contribute from outside to shaping policies that better serve the security and prosperity of the American people and the world we share.


The election of Barack Obama has been a vindication for me and many other foreign service officers. Merely by existing as the embodiment of that universal dream we like to call "American," he has opened the door for the United States to represent itself effectively to the world again.


You have the skills to take full advantage of that opening. Powell was a superb diplomat, but diplomacy cannot restore America's global standing. Our policy choices matter more than the intelligence and gravitas with which we explain them. Fortunately, the American people have demanded a change in course. To fulfill their dream of security and prosperity, that change must respect a growing interdependence of U.S. and global interests.


he willingness and ability of foreigners to cooperate with us effectively has always been a key component in our calculation of national security costs and benefits. It is the invidious task of the State Department to argue, within a brutally competitive Washington policy process, that our allies have interests as well.  Powell found that every time he turned his back on Washington to talk to foreigners, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld would knife him.


President Obama will protect you better than President Bush protected Powell. The American people will understand and forgive your diplomatic duty of talking to strangers. Still, to be an effective Secretary of State means giving up any ambition to be president after Obama. You cannot negotiate workable compromises with foreign governments without being accused of weakness or treason by potential rivals. If your assistant secretaries perceive that your goal is to protect your political future, they will loyally feed you comfortable soundbites about the world. You will know you are doing your job well only when they offer you the tortured diplomatic caveats that faithfully reflect Americans' conflicting interests and stubborn human nature.


American democracy has been and will be again an inspiration to many. Do not forget, however, that our system has thrived because our government has been wealthy enough to buy acquiescence from the losers in each power struggle. Most of the world is not so fortunate. Global economic downturn will further weaken the standing of governments in the eyes of societies already close to famine. Wherever the rule of law collapses, environmental degradation snowballs. Then people migrate or die.


Your first mission, therefore, is to strengthen Third World governments, even undemocratic ones,  and prevent a chain reaction of state failures and civil wars. Already in Africa we see armies based on tribal or religious identity coalescing around whatever resource is capable of sustaining an army. In abjectly poor regions like Gaza or Somalia, foreign humanitarian assistance is that resource. So even humanitarian intervention is not automatically humane.


Our European Union/NATO partners are keenly aware that deploying the military to topple tyrants, impose ceasefires, distribute food, and supervise elections is not the same as building viable states. Western intervention in Bosnia saved lives but did not turn Bosnian Serbs into Bosnians. Once they leave Europe for harsher landscapes, our soldiers are hard-pressed even to protect themselves. They must persuade their foreign hosts to want them there.


Curb your enthusiasm for the "surge" in Iraq. U.S. forces "won" that battle the same way they defeated the Taliban in 2001, by forming alliances with local chieftains against a common enemy. In Afghanistan that tactic has led, predictably, to a new and harder mission, propping up the central government against the warlords. President Karzai's reliance on an occupying army delegitimizes him in the eyes of many of his subjects. Our NATO allies will soon withdraw unless you define for them a political mission they can accomplish with finite resources in a finite period of time.


Frankly, foreign armies have never been a cost-effective prop for any government. The sensible alternative is arm's-length imperial diplomacy. Subsidized with a fraction of the $3 billion we pay Israel every year to console it for peace with Egypt, Karzai can rent enough support from his warlords to keep Afghanistan afloat.


I apologize for sounding cynical. I know you dream of unleashing a U.S. national security apparatus capable of glorious quests like defanging Iran or saving the people of Darfur. But reread the new Senate report on Iraq reconstruction: "Five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the U.S. government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program."


America lacks those policies and capabilities because Washington hasn't wanted them. The State Department and USAID teem with smart, well-intentioned people, many of them Clinton Democrats. But they have evolved, in the absence of effective leadership, into servants of the army of predators and parasites preying on our national security obsessions. Information about the real world reaches policymakers through a Darwinian selection process that exaggerates security threats (e.g., a nuclear attack from Iraq/Iran) and moral obligations (rebuild the Iraq we shattered),  in order to pry loose tax dollars for political, bureaucratic, or personal benefit. The results have been abysmal, but the United States was rich and remote enough to afford such incompetence. Until now.


I have faith that you will insist on a new culture of diplomatic pragmatism and will reject the paranoid self-congratulation that dominates Washington discourse about the outside world.  There are no easy victories to look forward to, only four or eight years of toil and stewardship. Your reward will not be a Nobel Peace Prize – there are no low-hanging olive branches to pluck these days – but the satisfaction of having used America's still-enormous power to nudge our species toward a more sustainable accommodation with its planet. Good luck.

Brady Kiesling

Athens News of January 2, 2009

John Brady Kiesling is a former diplomat, author of Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower



John Brady Kiesling
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