New emphasis on diplomacy welcome

The HeraldJanuary 25, 2009 

During her first day on the job last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over an event of some significance.

President Obama and Vice President Biden came to the State Department to affirm their confidence in Clinton. She, in turn, introduced two seasoned diplomats called back into service to resolve conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, and the ongoing strife in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively.

Not surprisingly, more media attention has been paid to Obama's announcements on torture and closing the prison at Guantanamo, but neither should eclipse what else took place at Foggy Bottom on Thursday.

Biden's presence may have been intended to dispel the idea -- fomented by a slip of Jill Biden's lips -- that Hillary Clinton was not necessarily Obama's first choice to lead State.

"Mr. President, your choice of our colleague, Sen. Clinton, is absolutely the right person, in my view, at the right moment in American history," Biden gushed.

Few in the audience doubted that had he wanted the job, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be secretary of state. The personal diplomacy was appreciated by his audience, nonetheless.

Obama himself deferred to his appointee. It was Clinton who introduced George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, A-team diplomats charged with our thorniest problems abroad.

The appointments came as no surprise. True to fashion, Mitchell's and Holbrooke's new jobs had been leaked to the press hours earlier. By the time they were formally introduced, the world knew the new sheriff in town was sending our best negotiators into the fray.

It was only after Mitchell and Holbrooke spoke, however, that our new president took the microphone. I find it hard to imagine either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton showing such deference to subordinates. Clearly, Obama wanted to signify that his administration would restore diplomacy to its proper role.

"And part of what we want to do is to make sure that everybody understands that the State Department is going to be absolutely critical to our success in the years to come," Obama told State Department employees "and you individually are going to be critical to our success in the years to come."

My wife and I were in the audience seven years earlier when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed 97 new Foreign Service officers, including our older daughter. We therefore were heartened by President Obama's next remark: "And we want to send a signal to all kinds of young people who may be thinking about the Foreign Service that they are going to be critical in terms of projecting not just America's power, but also America's values and America's ideals."

Others have noted that Obama's visit to State precedes his first trip to the Pentagon. At the same time, by retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraus over U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama previously had shown that he values continuity in the military chain of command.

With State, it's another matter. Secretary Clinton follows two public servants who were undercut by the White House. Powell's tenure had a bright beginning but floundered after he was duped by the neocons looking for the flimsiest justification to invade Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, also a respected public figure, never was given a winnable hand. Her ultimate indignity came recently when Israeli Prime Minister Olmert publicly boasted he browbeat President Bush into repudiating a ceasefire Rice had crafted for conflict in Gaza.

Just as every basketball team is undefeated until after its first game of the season, success in diplomacy is easier to predict than to achieve. As George Mitchell, architect of the agreement that ended centuries of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, put it, "In the negotiations which led to that agreement, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success."

That a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the war in Afghanistan could take 700 days or longer to negotiate is painful to contemplate.

Then again, as Mitchell put it so well: "Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings."

Plumb, retired Herald editor, can be reached at terry.plumb@gmail.com.

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