Wanted: Economic Green Berets

This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.

While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.

But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).

The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.

But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.

For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.

In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.

In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.

In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats.  At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.

It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.

The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.

We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.

Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.

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David Rothkopf

Obama's Middle East peace talk test

Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. 

There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.

It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).

This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.

While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.

Rising to just such challenges has been a central factor in shaping the reputations of most modern American presidents. Harry Truman was tested early in his tenure at Potsdam. John F. Kennedy is thought to have stumbled in his first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev (although press coverage was good at the time), and only restored his international standing in his proxy confrontation with him over Cuba over a year later. Richard Nixon's reputation as a canny international player was itself borne in a one-on-one with Khrushchev when he was vice president and later burnished in ground-breaking summits in China and Russia. Jimmy Carter is credited even by his detractors for his essential role in the Camp David talks. Ronald Reagan's four summits with Gorbachev play an over-large role in defining his legacy. Bill Clinton's engagement in Middle East talks was one essential element in his being seen as a complete president. George W. Bush's failure to engage on the Israel-Palestine issue in particular was seen as a particularly striking blemish on his blemish-rich record.

Indeed, not only is summitry an important way by which presidents are judged but virtually every president since Truman is judged by how he handled the specific complexities associated with Israel and its neighbors. Like it or not, when America elects a chief executive, the responsibilities include actively managing American interests in that part of the world.

An engaged Obama can distinguish himself whether the talks succeed or fail if he is shown to be knowledgeable and skillful, if he is not shown up by the other parties, if he is not seen to be "phoning it in" or hanging back, unwilling to engage unless others make progress first. You have to be willing to perform without a net in talks such as these and that may prove a challenge for the cautious law school professor -- the aspect of Obama that is least compelling to many voters.

Clearly any progress at all could be seen as a coup for the President. But even without specific progress, Obama will be scrutinized during these talks for the answers to several big questions. They include:

  • Will he be seen in the Arab world and elsewhere as living up to the promise of his Cairo speech to be a different kind of U.S. president seeking a different kind of relationship with the majority population in the region?
  • Will he be seen in Israel and among Israel supporters as being the unwavering backer of the Jewish state he claims he is or will he be seen to something less than that, the ambivalent fair-weather friend some worry he is?
  • Will he be willing to engage deeply and take risks that might reflect badly on him personally, or will he remain aloof and, as George W. Bush did, leave it to his lieutenants to really do the heavy lifting?
  • Will he show creativity and genuine leadership?
  • Will he be outplayed by Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other experienced old hands who were bottle-fed on this issue and who have the nuances of every element of it imprinted on their DNA?

Undoubtedly, preliminary judgments on these questions will be offered too quickly. But within a year, the real answers will play an enormous role in determining how he is viewed elsewhere in the Middle East, on the world stage at large, and by American voters. 

You can send soldiers and even unmanned drones off to fight Mideast wars. But Mideast peace demands the president himself get into the trenches. For that reason, these talks are just as high stakes for the U.S. president as they are for his counterparts from Israel and the Palestinian territories. Each needs the others at this point -- perhaps more than they yet know.

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