Dan Simpson: The latest on U.S. foreign policy

State Department types hold out hope on some fronts as danger mounts elsewhere

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Once a year the Department of State, which rented my services as a career Foreign Service Officer for 35 years, provides in Washington a day of briefings on foreign policy for editorial writers from across the country.

We keep hearing that the department may scrap the session, which is sponsored by the Association of Opinion Journalists, but it was held again this year, with journalists from places such as Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Milwaukee, Providence, Seattle and Pittsburgh. It doesn’t cost the department much; we pay for our own lunches. The idea that they may think it’s not worth the time of some of their people to brief us, as taxpayers as well as journalists, gives me a headache.

I always learn something at these briefings, even though I spend a good deal of my time tracking the key issues of American foreign policy. It is also useful to have a look firsthand at some of the people who are making and carrying out U.S. foreign policy, to try to assess their judgment and credibility close-up. I also occasionally see old friends and colleagues, the ones whom time and politics haven’t claimed, although nostalgia is not one of my defining characteristics.

Here are some thoughts that emerged from this year’s briefings.

1. There is some optimism among foreign policy professionals regarding the six-party-Iran negotiations — to bridle Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relaxing economic sanctions directed against Iran, to permit renewed trade and investment with Iran and the concomitant revival of that country’s economy.

2. There is also some mild hope, in spite of the spitting by various toads in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, that both sides will eventually see the reality of their situations and arrive — under persistent pestering by Secretary of State John Kerry — at some sort of a two-state agreement.

3. There is less hope for an early peaceful end to the Syria conflict and growing concern at its spillover into Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, keeping it on the front burner for policy makers.

4. Possible quarrels around the world over water were signaled as a large concern, possibly sooner rather than later. The figure of 260 shared river basins was cited.

5. Mr. Kerry will host an important climate change conference in Washington in June. The Department of Defense may have come to realize that America has to stop fooling around on climate change.

6. The Obama administration has stopped calling it a “pivot” to Asia (presumably from the Middle East.) It is now a policy “rebalance.”

7. There still seems to be some determination on the part of Washington to concern ourselves with the scraps in Asia over rocks sticking out of the East and South China Seas. I see that concern as an effort on the part of the Department of Defense, and especially the U.S. Navy, to squeeze more budget money out of the taxpayer to make up for the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I see these quarrels — and the fussing over eastern Ukraine as well — as basically none of our business, certainly not as a justification for more defense spending.

8. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s budget, a very modest $20 billion, is split between 15 percent for humanitarian aid and 85 percent for economic development around the world. USAID is struggling to contend with three major emergencies — in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria. The World Bank has identified 19 “fragile states” which could easily blow up into major emergencies. (America is not on the list.)

9. At the time of the briefing, April 7, Russia was said to have up to 50,000 troops gathered around Ukraine, a matter of concern to the crowd-installed government in Kiev, the European Union and the United States, according to the state department briefer. (The Europeans in NATO continue to cut their defense budgets, so guess who gets left on the hook if there is some sort of foolish decision to interfere on the West’s part.)

10. There was some satisfaction by the briefers on the successful holding of elections in Afghanistan two days before. There had been high Afghan participation, not much violence, and the two apparent finalists are reasonable and reasonably experienced. One official, a veteran of many conflicts, said, “Saturday was a good day for Afghanistan,” a modest but real and merited tribute to U.S. policy there.

11. The ongoing Indian elections are something to be watched closely. If the result puts Hindu extremists in power, there could evolve trouble with India’s own substantial Muslim minority and with nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan.

12. No briefings on Latin America or Africa. Are they already underwater with climate change?

I watch the State Department closely for changes of atmosphere, for which, like a coyote, or even a Pekingese, I have a sharp nose. Three of those follow.

13. The place continues to become increasingly obsessed with security. The entrance where one used to catch the buses to State Department annexes around the city is now sealed with a locked iron gate. To get into the main building one has to be searched by uniformed guards, some of whom don’t seem to have learned “please” or “thank you.” One has to be accompanied to go from the meeting room to the rest rooms. I didn’t think U.S. foreign policy was quite that bad.

14. Concern that some poor senior official might go “off message” — common within the Obama administration — seems to be growing. Each briefer was accompanied by a public affairs person. I don’t know what would have occurred if one of them had ventured a non-authorized opinion. Stun guns? Or would the spear-carrier simply have ratted on the miscreant after the meeting?

15. The department has discovered social media. It also professes to be aware of Americans’ declining trust in government. The concept of Edward J. Snowden and what he did is still hard for them to put into perspective. I personally think the Department of State and foreign service officers continue to come out of his revelations as smarter than they — we — sometimes look.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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