On Tom Donilon: A few questions and reservations

I've been slow to react to the departure of James Jones as national security advisor, and his replacement by Tom Donilon, and it's mostly because I just can't get excited about it one way or the other. You can read a more-or-less favorable appraisal from Steve Clemons here, and a sharply critical assessment from Chas Freeman here. I find myself more-or-less aligned with FP colleague Dan Drezner, who thinks it won't make much difference.

By all accounts Donilon has an excellent relationship with Obama, and people think he'll be good at making the paper flow inside NSC itself. He's also supposed to be an advocate of "rebalancing" U.S. commitments around the world, and something of a skeptic on Afghanistan. That's encouraging, I guess, although it hardly took a genius to figure out that the United States was badly overcommitted in 2008, and anyone with a triple-digit IQ could tell that the war in Afghanistan was not going well.  

My reservations are two-fold. First, has Donilon ever expressed an interesting or novel foreign policy idea, or shown that he has a larger vision for what the United States' position and strategy ought to be? If so, I haven't heard about it. This isn't just an academic's desire for some broader theoretical framework, because foreign policy isn't just about making a "to-do list" and patiently checking off different items. Instead, success depends on seeing the larger picture and figuring out how to set priorities and align different goals, so that actions taken in one arena don't end up undermining other initiatives. That is especially true when a country is facing as many different challenges as the United States currently is, and when you have to make hard choices from among a set of bad alternatives.

Second, has Donilon ever taken a position that involved some level of moral courage? Has he ever done or said anything that might be regarded as controversial inside the Beltway? Given his long career as a lobbyist and political operative, that's hardly likely. What was his view on invading Iraq in 2003, for example? Did he publicly oppose that boneheaded decision? Don't think so. And given that the Obama administration's defining characteristic in foreign policy has been a tendency to spell out promising courses of action and then beat a hasty retreat from them at the first sign of serious resistance, there's little reason to expect someone with Donilon's bio to act any differently.

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Stephen M. Walt

A question for Tzipi Livni

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a breakfast meeting with Tzipi Livni, former Israeli foreign minister and current head of the opposition Kadima Party, along with a group of Boston-area faculty, journalists, and other interested parties. The session was off-the-record, so I can't tell you what any of the participants said. I can report that Livni was well-informed, articulate, direct, and engaging, and it was easy to see why she's done well in political life.

I had a faculty meeting to attend and was unable to stay for the full session, so I didn't get a chance to ask her a question. I had scribbled one down in my notebook, however, and here's what I would have asked:

"I would like to know where you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is headed. I don't mean where you want the conflict to go or what resolution you think is most desirable, but rather what outcome you think is most likely given where we are today and what the prevailing trends are.

At present, most people say they want a "two-state solution." Barack Obama wants that, and so did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Tony Blair, Mahmoud Abbas, Ehud Olmert, and you do too. So do I. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has endorsed that idea at least once.

Yet if current trends continue, a two-state solution will eventually be impossible and we will all have to acknowledge that reality. Indeed, a growing number of people are convinced that this is already the case, either because Israel's political system is too dysfunctional to change course, because the Palestinians are too divided to make a deal, or because there are too many settlers to remove.

Former Prime Minister Olmert has warned that if the two-state solution fails, then Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is imperiled. I think he's right, and what I can't understand is why more Israelis -- and their supporters in other countries -- aren't deeply worried about this situation, and aren't doing everything in their power to get a two-state deal done before it is too late.

So my question is: where is this conflict headed, and what should be done today to avoid the one-state future that many now see as inevitable?"

Like I said, I didn't get to ask this question so I don't know how she would have responded. But it still strikes me as the central issue, and one that overshadows the current haggling over a two-month extension of the (partial) settlement freeze, or whatever Iran may or may not be up to at the moment.