Exactly Whom Is Our Secretary of State Representing?

From the Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke, a report on Attempted Public Diplomacy by our Secretary of State the other day in Tunisia:

QUESTION: My name is Ivan. After the electoral campaign starts in the United States – it started some time ago – we noticed here in Tunisia that most of the candidates from the both sides run towards the Zionist lobbies to get their support in the States. And afterwards, once they are elected, they come to show their support for countries like Tunisia and Egypt for a common Tunisian or a common Arab citizen. How would you reassure and gain his trust again once given the fact that you are supporting his enemy as well at the same time?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, let me say you will learn as your democracy develops that a lot of things are said in political campaigns that should not bear a lot of attention. There are comments made that certainly don’t reflect the United States, don’t reflect our foreign policy, don’t reflect who we are as a people. I mean, if you go to the United States, you see mosques everywhere, you see Muslim Americans everywhere. That’s the fact. So I would not pay attention to the rhetoric.

Secondly, I would say watch what President Obama says and does. He’s our President. He represents all of the United States, and he will be reelected President, so I think that that will be a very clear signal to the entire world as to what our values are and what our President believes. So I think it’s a fair question because I know that – I sometimes am a little surprised that people around the world pay more attention to what is said in our political campaigns than most Americans, say, are paying attention. So I think you have to shut out some of the rhetoric and just focus on what we’re doing and what we stand for, and particularly what our President represents.

The first problem, the one where she acts as a partisan advocate for the President, she’s already admitted was a mistake: “My enthusiasm for the President got a little out of hand.”  I’ll say.  I realize the days of politics stopping at the shoreline are long gone, and have been at least since Ted Kennedy tried to cut a deal with the Soviets to defeat Ronald Reagan in the Presidential elections, and Jimmy Carter circulated a letter begging UN Security Council members to vote against President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to liberate Kuwait.  Nevertheless, I was operating under the quaint assumption that the Secretary of State represented the country, not her political party, when she traveled overseas.

The second problem is much more substantive.  Tunisians might well understand a personal loyalty from the Secretary of State, they’re more likely to attach significance to foreign policy pronouncements.  Her answer, roughly translated into English, is, “Don’t worry about what gets said in the campaign.  There’s a lot of pandering to small, specific lobbies.  We’re not really all that supportive of Israel.”

If she felt the need to be non-committal, there are about 100 ways she could have done that.  But what about an answer that defends not only the interests of the United States, but the good sense of the American people, and the interests of our allies, as well?  Something like:

Well, you have to understand that the American people as a whole, not just particular lobbies, feel a sympathy towards Israel, for its democracy, and its success in defending itself against enemies.  Naturally, we hope that that era is coming to an end, and Israel and her neighbors can live in peace.  but

Rather than defining your interests in opposition to Israel, perhaps you should look to them as a model in some ways.  It, too, is a small country, whose primary resource is the creativity of its own diverse population.  After all, your question implies an interest in our own democratic process for how we select leaders and how that affects policy, so it’s clear that Tunisians would like to develop a stable, lasting free system of their own.  And I think the Arab Spring could learn a lot from a close neighbor who also wants close relations.

I realize it’s much more fun to engage in “Smart Diplomacy,” but how about mastering actual, basic diplomacy first.  That starts with not accepting all the premises of a hostile question.

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