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How do you do nuanced foreign policy in the 3D, big screen TV era?

Newt Gingrich called the U.S.-Israeli decision to put off joint military exercises scheduled for the Negev Desert "the greatest act of presidential weakness he has seen in his lifetime." He was implying that it was done to appease Iran. As it happens, according to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, the exercises were put off not by the U.S. but at the request of the Israelis. Facts aside, as they often are, the only true weakness revealed by the statement is Gingrich's own. He's desperate. If current polls are to be believed, the remaining shelf-life of his campaign can be measured in hours. And that's a charitable assessment. More gimlet-eyed observers might conclude the campaign hasn't been viable since it collapsed from front runner status to also-ran in Iowa under the weight of the candidate's blustering intemperance.

Gingrich, despite his declining political relevance, does trigger a couple useful thoughts with this latest crudely inflammatory comment. The first is that he reminds us what old-fashioned war mongering is really like. War mongering, like cheese mongering and fish mongering, has a good old-fashioned sound to it. It makes one think of the tub-thumping pols of old, back in the days when war was glorious and generals watched battles from astride white steeds high atop a hillside far from the action. Of course, like all forms of mongering, it's a dirty business and even when it doesn't produce mayhem and tragedy it leaves behind a dirty, smelly residue.

Ron Paul calls Gingrich and the others seeking to tough-talk our way toward confrontation with Iran "chicken hawks." Not only does this have a satisfyingly sleazy allusion to a sexual subculture within it, it also correctly observes that it's no skin off Gingrich's expansive backside to urge America into war with Iran.  

The problem is that while Paul's war-avoiding impulse is nobler than Gingrich's posturing, his approach to Iran suffers from a similar flaw. Both are the classic product of political campaigns: they are not so much policies as they are provocations, conceived as much to produce a reaction in the lizard brains of potential followers as they are to actually suggest a way to advance U.S. national interests. All the candidates are guilty of such statements. Romney and Perry have also made over-the-top statements about what they would do if they got their hands on Iran (not to mention over-the-top statements about their devotion to Israel, their anger with the Chinese, their contempt for Eurosocialism, and so on.)

The reason they overdo it is that nuance doesn't show up well even on large-screen HD TVs. In fact, people viewing the world 55 diagonal inches at a time want bright colors, action, drama, 3D foreign policy where all the bits and pieces seem to fly right off the screen and straight into your living room. It's one of the reasons that foreign policy often plays a secondary role in campaigns.

That said, 3D full-color, high-impact nuance is not impossible. And the irony is that nothing illustrates this as well as the Obama administration's smart, multi-layered, tough and often courageous Iran policy. You can tell it's nuanced because so few people are happy with it. Today, for example, on "Morning Joe," Zbigniew Brzezinski asserted that the covert attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists presumably undertaken by the Israelis perhaps with the tacit endorsement of the U.S. "debased" foreign policy. Now, there are few people in the U.S. foreign policy community for whom I have greater regard than Brzezinski. But this remark bemused and troubled me. On the one hand I find the notion that foreign policy can be debased laughable when it so often deals in death, lying, bribery, and other such practices. More importantly, I can't help but think that Brzezinski wouldn't have minded such actions against Soviet enemies during the Cold War. He just doesn't think the threat posed by Iran is comparable (it's not) nor does he, I believe, much like the U.S. working so closely with Israel (a more complicated issue than we can deal with here effectively.) But the boldness of these attacks -- like the Stuxnet cyberattack and the drone activity in that country -- has sent a message that has clearly been received by the Iranians as well as the critics. This president and his allies are not simply going to rely on "soft power" to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, especially when it seems clear that Tehran has such disregard for diplomacy and prescribed international processes. This makes threats to do more credible and the ability to achieve goals while doing less likely.

At the same time, the administration's "soft power" tourniquet has also been applied effectively. Not only are have they maintained for many months tireless multichannel diplomatic efforts to nudge the Iranians to an agreement to stop its progress toward the development of nuclear weapons, they have engineered one of the most effective economic sanctions programs undertaken by the international community against any nation in the recent history of the world. "Soft" though this power may be, it is causing real pain and discomfort for Iran's leadership. In a region that has seen plenty of governments totter under economic stresses, the ayatollahs increasingly are seen as wanting a way out from the pressure. (The situation in Iran has reportedly gotten so bad that periodically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bolts from Tehran to go to his home town far from his enemies in the high ranks of the government...and then must be escorted back to the capital at the emphatic insistence of his bosses in the top tiers of that country's religious hierarchy.)

The point is that the president takes the threat seriously and has for now at least, found a way to very forcefully deliver a message that Iran must cease and desist without actually going to war. Should he have to take that next step, he will be able to honestly say that thing every president should be able to assert prior to putting troops in harms way, that he has tried every other available option. He has also approached this problem in conjunction with the international community thus adding both legitimacy and effectiveness to the undertaking.

The GOP candidates will wave their arms and talk tougher than teen-aged boys in a locker room. Or, in the case of Paul, he will talk tough and wave off serious threats as someone else's problems. But they will all overstate because they think they must...even as the President admirably illustrates that there is another course, one that involves such a complete and energetic use of almost every tool short of open warfare in the national security tool box that I suspect someday if things turn out right (and no foreign policy initiative can guarantee an outcome because, of course, other players and many variables are involved) it will be studied as an example of how to do foreign policy right-big, bold, 3D and nuanced.

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David Rothkopf

Goodbye Commerce Department, you won’t be missed

Fifteen years ago, Susan Levine, then Senior Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and I, recently having departed my not entirely un-senior post at the Commerce Department, circulated a memo to those who would read it that suggested the elimination of the Commerce Department and the consolidation of many of the important trade negotiating and financing agencies into a single department focused on trade issues. Today, President Barack Obama asked Congress for the authority to make this long-sought, common sense streamlining of the U.S. government a reality.

Obama has had a team, led by Jeffrey Zients, an extremely effective official who before he came to government was an innovative and successful business leader, working on this idea for a very long time now. Zients was methodical, reaching out to literally hundreds of current and former officials, business people, experts and others to understand what works, what doesn't and how things could be organized to better and more efficiently serve the American people. His proposals have been batted around at a senior level in the government, faced natural pressure from those whose turf was being threatened, faced equivalent pressure from those who just don't like change, and throughout it Zients & Co. have persevered. Several times they nearly made an announcement like that was made today. Several times the project seemed dead.

But in the end, the effort advanced to the point of the President's request today because its principle advocate and the one who understood its merits most intuitively from the get-go was not Zients but his boss' boss, President Barack Obama.

The request, which would undo the years of bureaucratic confusion that turned Commerce and much of the economic side of the U.S. government into the hodgepodge it is today, is first and foremost an effort to win from the Congress the power to do what Republicans on the Hill have long called for -- to start to reduce waste and inefficiency in the executive branch of the U.S. government. The broad re-organizational fast-track power sought by Obama is of a type no U.S. president has had since Ronald Reagan. But the request is balanced, allowing Obama to make broad proposals for change but requiring swift Congressional approval for those changes. In short, therefore, it is an area of potential bi-partisan agreement and effective collaboration, a fact that has already been noted in early press coverage of the announcement.

Commerce and the Small Business Administration would be merged into a new entity that would also incorporate the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Eximbank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade Development Agency. Parts of Commerce that never belonged there in the first place, like NOAA, would move elsewhere -- with NOAA heading over to Interior where it has always belonged.

Not only does the move make logical sense -- bringing together all those agencies of the government that support the development of U.S. trade and the job creation associated with it -- but it also would save, according to initial White House estimates, over 1000 jobs and $3 billion over the next ten years.  

I note that in one of the early stories on the announcement, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, was quoted as saying that the plan will support U.S. competitiveness. This resonates with me both because he is right and because when we wrote that memo 15 years ago, it was Podesta who, despite the hue and cry from self-interested senior officials who wanted to preserve their fiefdoms, took it seriously and considered it. He, Jim Harmon, the then head of Eximbank, and just a couple of others were open to really considering the long-term benefits such a reorganization would bring.

Periodically during the intervening decade and a half, I would talk to a reporter who was doing a story on the bowl-of-spaghetti like organizational chart of the international economic side of the U.S. government and would hear of another cluster of folks who were supporting some similarly sensible slimming down of a confusing, bloated, bureaucracy. But those groundswells would recede and the issue would go back into hibernation.

Of course, things are very different now and the time is suddenly right to make such a move. The U.S. needs to tighten its belt. This kind of modest reform is, as some Republicans have already noted, just a first step. Much more can and should be done. But this is a logical, painless first step that is highly unlikely to be objected to by any major constituency being served by the agencies in questions -- because in all likelihood, even with the cuts, the efficiency and enhanced coordination that would result from the consolidation would likely actually lead to much better service for U.S. companies, consumers and others with a stake in our ability to tap into the global economy.

As the President accurately said referring to the multiple agencies he intended to fold together, "In this case, six isn't better than one."

Another reason the timing works for this is that substantial constituencies in both parties should and will actively support the move. Finally, the President has gained special credibility in this area due to the remarkable, if under-appreciated, success of his export initiative. Once dismissed as mere window dressing, the President's push to double exports over five years has seen a string of big successes: two years of export growth averaging over 16 percent thus keeping the U.S. on track for his goal, record lending by a much more aggressive and creative team at the U.S. Eximbank led by Fred Hochberg, the approval of three long-delayed trade deals, enhanced trade enforcement, and most importantly, exports contributing in a major way to wealth and job creation nationwide.

From its absurdly muddled mission statement to the sad little aquarium in its basement (which resembles nothing so much as a slightly expanded version of the kind of fish tank you would find in a downscale Italian restaurant in Plainfield, New Jersey), the Commerce Department is the Frankenstein monster of the federal bureaucracy. It's all bits and pieces that belong in other places that have been sewed together by seemingly distracted or perhaps slightly inebriated Congressional committees. Meanwhile, U.S. trade is increasingly vital to our future and U.S. workers, consumers and exporters all deserve better support -- and we could all do with eliminating wasteful spending. As a consequence, the President's move is welcome on its merits and as an excellent initial step toward more sweeping reforms.

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