Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Choosing Hillary's Choice

There is a good chance that Hillary Clinton's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in preparation for the Senate vote on her appointment as Secretary of State, will be one of the most closely watched and commented stories of the day (and not just in the United States). In The Wire the bowl of shit became the operative metaphor for the relationships between the Mayor of Baltimore and all the interest groups (both formal and informal) that stood between him and the electorate that put him in office, each bowl being basically a demand of an interest group that must be satisfied (i.e. consumed/consummated). During the current transition period, however, the metaphor seems more applicable to the legacy of the Bush Administration, which our outgoing President keeps trying to place in favorable light without ever realizing that the lighting never affects the contents of the bowl. One of the largest of these bowls would have to be the one cooked up by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, winner of multiple Chutzpah of the Week awards, which means that it is now destined for Clinton's table.

However, if Daniel Dombey's report for the Financial Times is a reliable one, then we can assume that Clinton will not be one to languish in the world of fetid metaphors:

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, which like the full Senate is expected to confirm her appointment, Mrs Clinton sought to strike a much less ideological and confrontational line than that carved out by the exiting Bush administration.

Mrs Clinton said that Middle East peace was a top priority of the incoming team, as was working with Beijing and Moscow on “vital security and economic issues like terrorism, proliferation, climate change and reforming financial markets.”

She said: “Foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology; on facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice,” and called in her statement for “cooperative engagement” and the use of “smart power” rather than just “hard” or “soft” power.

She added: “We must build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries. America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own and the world cannot solve them without America… America leadership has been wanting but is still wanted… With smart power, diplomacy will be at the vanguard of our foreign policy.”

This is encouraging language in the wake of a President who, even in his final days, continues to drum fear of those who would wreak damage upon the United States, choosing to view such threats as abstract minions of evil, rather than motivated agents, thus closing the door on the premise that understanding the motives might benefit our "homeland security." It is also the language of one for whom Dennis Ross' book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, is likely to serve as more than a paperweight, thus elevating Ross to a status where his own government takes him as seriously as Vladimir Putin appears to do. Indeed, according to a New York Times story by Mark Lander, Ross may be up for another tour of duty:

Mr. Ross, 60, is expected to receive a senior post at the State Department, officials said, directing policy on Iran and advising on the rest of the Middle East.

However, before we haul out that metaphor of "a new day" (also in the narrative of Baltimore politics in The Wire), I have one cautionary remark about Clinton's choice of words. In an ideal world her preference for "facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice" would be laudable; but ours is a "postmodern" world in which every agent constructs his/her own reality (usually based on those motives that the Bush Administration chose to ignore with its black-and-white classifications of everyone as good or evil). What Clinton may have overlooked is that even the most concrete of items of evidence are still subject to interpretation by those who examine them; and, being all-too-human, we cannot banish our emotions and prejudices and perform such interpretations in a purely "objective world." The key lesson of Ross' book is that statecraft is conducted by people, rather than embodied vehicles for principles; and all people act on their motives, which means that they do not always act according to any objective rationality. (In the language of postmodernism, they engage in resistance, rather than logical opposition.) Perhaps the greatest threat to Clinton's effectiveness would be the influence of AIPAC, though which she would try to apply such objective rationality to the "facts and evidence" coming out of Israel without giving due consideration to the complex web of motives in which every Israeli (not to mention every Palestinian) is entangled. What remains to be seen is whether my optimism over Clinton's desire to "build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries" will be sufficient to counter my concerns over that dark glass of objective rationality.

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