So You Want to Be a Special Envoy...

Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords ending the slaughter in Bosnia, is likely to be Obama's point man on the crisis in South Asia. Here's how he can ensure that his tough new mission ends in success.

Dear Ambassador Holbrooke:

Congratulations -- you are likely to be appointed U.S. special envoy to South Asia. Your new portfolio includes many of the world's most dangerous, intractable, and urgent threats: a messy war in Afghanistan, nuclear-armed neighbors in Pakistan and India, the home base for global terrorist networks, and well over a billion people facing nearly every combination of political and economic-development challenge you can imagine.

Your considerable talents as a seasoned diplomat and tough negotiator will be essential as you confront these challenges, but not in the manner many people expect. The problems of South Asia are not especially amenable to U.S. shuttle diplomacy. Yes, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan could all use a little encouragement in resolving their long-standing territorial disputes. But no amount of U.S. browbeating or inducement will overcome regional intransigence on issues such as Kashmir or the Durand Line. History suggests that greater U.S. involvement might instead backfire, alienating our partners in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul without jarring loose meaningful new compromises. When push comes to shove, all of these states care more about their own regional goals than we do, and they know it.

Better to tread lightly through South Asia's graveyard of conflict mediators and instead focus your energies where the United States' efforts have so far been most deficient: the formulation and management of its own unified, comprehensive strategy for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Rooting out al Qaeda from Pakistan's rugged frontier, defeating the Taliban insurgency, assuring the security of nuclear arsenals, and improving local state capacity to secure civilians from Mumbai to Lahore to Kandahar -- these are all challenges for which management, coordination, and effective programming of massive (and hopefully growing) U.S. resources are more vital than even the most skillful bilateral or multilateral diplomacy.

Nearly everyone agrees that Washington's national security institutions need an overhaul to improve coordination between various civilian, military, and intelligence agencies. But in the midst of two wars and an economic crisis, now is not the time for a new administration to undertake reforms across the board. Your negotiating skills will be necessary to force disparate parts of the U.S. government to follow a single set of marching orders.

U.S. policies in Afghanistan have for too long been bureaucratically distinct from our efforts in Pakistan, even though the Taliban and other terrorists pay little heed to international borders. Four different U.S. military commands (EUCOM, PACOM, SOCOM, and CENTCOM) now play significant roles in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Add NATO and the United Nations to Afghanistan; then stir in the toxic mix of turf battles between the State Department, USAID, the CIA, the Pentagon, and a range of other U.S. agencies; and you start to get a flavor for the coordination problems we face. That's even before you start dealing with the U.S. Congress, nongovernmental organizations, and private contractors.

Under these conditions, you will need unambiguous authority from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to forge a policy consensus among potential allies (or steamroll opposition from adversaries). You will need to win expanded resources from Congress in order to build institutional structures and hire personnel appropriate for sustaining large, complex, and long-term operations in South Asia. And to the extent that you travel in the region, your diplomatic efforts will bear far more fruit if you are accompanied by a powerful interagency team capable of delivering quickly on promises or threats.

So beware. As special envoy, you may well hold your most critical negotiations without ever traveling outside the Beltway. You must first win political and bureaucratic victories here in order to set a successful course for U.S. efforts in South Asia.

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Obama's Biggest Speech Yet

Barack Obama has already proven himself to be an orator on par with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. But it will take a deep understanding of history to meet the world's expectations next week.

At about midday next Tuesday, after taking the oath of office, U.S. President Barack Obama will set aside Abraham Lincoln's Bible, turn to the crowd before the west front of the Capitol, and deliver his inaugural address.

We can expect Obama's speech to be a cracker. He is the greatest orator of his generation, whose books reveal him also to be a gifted and subtle author. His cadences connect him to earlier figures such as Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. -- and like those two men (but unlike, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Bill Clinton), Obama is his own best speechwriter. During the campaign he made his arguments to voters via a unique combination of new technologies (such as e-mail and Facebook) and old technologies (such as intelligence and wit).

Obama's speeches were critical to his election as president. His chief foreign-policy calling card throughout the campaign was the nuanced and pragmatic speech he gave in Chicago in October 2002 against the Iraq war. He first climbed onto the national stage with his famous address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004. His speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines in November 2007 put him on track to win the Iowa caucus.

Obama has an unusual belief in the power of rational argument. What did he do at the lowest point of his campaign, in March 2008, when he was forced to deal with the treacherous issue of race? He didn't buy ad time or schedule a 60 Minutes interview: He rented a hall in Philadelphia and wrote some remarks. The result was a long, candid, and compelling argument that shut down a short-term political crisis and helped establish his presidential bona fides.

Finally, on the evening of his victory, Obama's acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago was pitch-perfect.

Next week, however, Obama will speak from a different pulpit. Much of his address, no doubt, will be about the United States and its domestic challenges. But given the present condition of the world -- bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, persistent terrorist networks, a conflagration in Gaza, a cooling economy, and a warming planet -- we can expect the new president also to address his vision for U.S. foreign policy.

Obama should consider three lessons from history concerning the relationship between presidential rhetoric and U.S. foreign policy.

The first is that good writing enables presidents to win support for their international policies. John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, which focused almost exclusively on foreign policy, set the modern standard. Kennedy had a great deal to prove in that speech, given he had won the election by less than two tenths of 1 percent of the popular vote and was regarded by many, both in the United States and abroad, as being too young and inexperienced to lead the free world in the struggle against communism. His promise to "pay any price" and "bear any burden... to assure the survival and the success of liberty" stiffened Americans' spines and sent a clear message to the Soviets.

But although foreign-policy speeches should be well written, they should not be overwritten. The strongest inaugural addresses are generally the shortest ones. Often they have a single theme. For FDR's first, it was his "lines of attack" on the Great Depression; for JFK, the Cold War; for George W. Bush's second, his freedom agenda. The greatest of them all, Lincoln's second inaugural address, was a short and profound meditation on slavery and the Civil War, constructed of plain words, elegantly arranged.

The second lesson is that foreign-policy rhetoric must be firmly tethered to foreign-policy reality. The ambition of Bush's beautifully written second inaugural address -- in particular the statement that the United States would seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world -- sat awkwardly with the reality of the administration's policies at that time. By January 2005 it had been apparent for almost a year that the early failures of the Iraq war had undermined the ideologues in the Bush administration and chastened U.S. foreign policy. Washington was already taking a more multilateral approach to the problems posed by the two remaining members of the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, and working closely with authoritarian states such as Egypt and Libya. The disjunction between the president's policies and his language did not serve America's interests.

The final lesson is that U.S. presidents need to address multiple and diverse audiences, including foreigners as well as Americans. The overwhelming majority of Obama's international audience next week will be sympathetic: In many countries, after all, he was the preferred candidate for president by ratios of 4 and 5 to 1.

The new president should directly address the people of the world, especially those watching from the margins. He should signal that he understands that America is strongest when it is open to the world, and promise that he will be deaf to the siren songs of isolationism and protectionism. He should sign up his long-distance listeners to a new compact: that Washington will work to solve global problems through multilateral means, and that in turn, other capitals will make sure that multilateralism works. If Obama can do all this, then his inaugural address will turn out to be a powerful source of American prestige and power.

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