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Has US foreign policy caught up with a new global reality?

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Obama and global power

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, our interview with John Walcott, head of the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain. And we’re coming from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. Thanks, John.


JAY: So we ended the last piece of our interview, and you talked about the new reality, global economic meltdown, the rise of some other powerful countries, sort of approaching a situation where America may still have military supremacy, but it’s looking a little bit more like one country amongst many, not this uber-superpower that maybe was imagined by Bush and Cheney eight years ago. So the question is: has foreign policy thinking caught up with this new reality? And do we get any sense of that from the Obama team?

WALCOTT: Again, two questions. Has foreign policy thinking caught up with that? Maybe somewhere in the academy, in the literature. In the new administration? No, there isn’t any evidence of that. In fact, what we see is mostly people who served in the Clinton administration and are back. So, no, I don’t see much evidence of a radically different mindset. You know, one place where we may see it is on some of the issues that are never thought of as part of foreign policy. Public health, environment are two where we may see really new, different things.

JAY: So let’s take some of the different regions and kind of dig in just a bit.


JAY: The traditional thinking is: geopolitical rivalry with Russia; let’s get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Russia itself talks about the encirclement of Russia with missiles in Poland and a new radar system in the Czech Republic. Albright’s associated with that policy, the Clintons to some extent, this eastward push of NATO. Are we still there?

WALCOTT: We shall see. We don’t know yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slowdown in that missile defense system, in part because of the question about who it’s designed to defend against. And then, secondly, there’s the question of whether or not it really works. In the case of Georgia, Tom Lasseter, our man in Moscow, just did a story from Georgia which suggests that Senator McCain at the time may have misspoken when he declared that we’re all Georgians now, based on the evidence of what the Georgians did.

JAY: In terms of the Georgians actually going into South Ossetia first, before the Russians—.

WALCOTT: Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but they may have overreacted somewhat to some relatively minor attacks by the militias in South Ossetia. Nobody covered himself in glory in that venture. But this administration may be a little more tentative about embracing Georgian membership in NATO, Ukrainian membership in NATO. You just saw the Russians fire back at that one by turning off the gas, a little reminder that everything has its price.

JAY: The quote-unquote “good war,” Afghanistan, most of the people we’ve talked to, analysts, journalists, people that know the area, we keep hearing the same phrase over and over again: there’s no military solution here, unless you want to talk about hundreds of thousands of troops—and even then, who knows? But so far most of the language coming from Obama’s team still talks about troop levels, learning what we can from the Iraq War. It’s mostly about military strategy.

WALCOTT: Well, it is, and yet what they’re really doing is buying time to figure this one out. There are multiple studies underway about what to do in Afghanistan, what the options really are. I don’t think anyone in this administration’s foolish enough, looking at the history of Afghanistan, looking at what good hundreds of thousands of, say, Soviet troops did there—and, before them, British troops—are going to mess with the illusion that we can somehow win this militarily with some kind of overwhelming force. But I don’t think anyone has any particularly good options for dealing with that. I think they’re going to learn very quickly that this problem, as you suggest, is a lot tougher than it might appear at first, and second, that what we learned in Iraq is of only limited utility in Afghanistan because they are very, very different places.

JAY: And what do you make of the [Richard] Holbrooke appointment?

WALCOTT: I’m not quite sure what his job is, frankly. He originally was going to look at India-Pakistan relations, which are another sore point in that part of the world.

JAY: He’s been appointed this envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

WALCOTT: Right, and those two problems are inseparable, no question about it. That makes a certain amount of sense. But, again, what is his role vis-à-vis the military, Secretary Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Afghanistan? What’s his role vis-à-vis the ambassadors in both places, vis-à-vis the NSC [National Security Council] staff, the State Department, Secretary Clinton? Not at all clear.

JAY: I mean, these are both presidential envoys. So does this mean that Obama has this way to do foreign policy directly, without Secretary of State Clinton, and he’s creating a mechanism, at the very least, for his own lever?

WALCOTT: I think that’s exactly right, and we’ve seen this before in the Nixon White House, of all places, where the national security adviser, Dr. Kissinger, essentially ran foreign policy out of the White House and ran off the secretary of state. I don’t believe that General Jones, the new national security adviser, is cut out of the same cloth as Dr. Kissinger is, but it is interesting, it is interesting that these are presidential appointments, and people who ultimately report to the White House, not to the secretary of state. And Holbrooke made that point [inaudible]. I don’t know how many people caught it, but he referred to Secretary Clinton as “my immediate boss.”

JAY: This is like when you’re a journalist and they have a foreign bureau boss to talk to you, but John’s in the office over here, and I’m going to have to talk to him eventually.

WALCOTT: Secretary Holbrooke is a bright man, a veteran diplomat, and he chooses his words carefully.

JAY: So, just to get just a sort of concluding big-picture question, if in the beginning you said you don’t think the foreign policy thinking has caught up with the new reality, if someone were asking you—I guess I am, but let’s say they were—what do you need to get about this new reality as a way to start rethinking foreign policy?

WALCOTT: That this country is not, to use a little Latin, primus inter pares, it is not an unrivaled power, and that the practice of diplomacy involves compromise, it involves, in some cases, letting someone else’s interest take precedence over your own when that’s wise to do, and it requires a very different attitude toward the world, and that failing to go down that road results in what the historian Paul Kennedy referred to as “imperial overstretch.” And there is a long history of countries overreaching in this area and ending up, frankly, bankrupting themselves.

JAY: And there’s some danger of Afghanistan becoming that if one adopts that as your war, which was what happened during the campaign. I saw the change of language in the inauguration speech, saying “forge peace” rather than “I’m going to kill bin Laden.” Killing bin Laden has no endgame unless you actually do kill bin Laden. Forging peace, I suppose, has some kind of—.

WALCOTT: Well, one of the very early mistakes in Afghanistan, which goes back to the past administration, was conflating the wars against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They’re really very different. There are lots of people in the State Department and Defense Department who argued against it, and they were simply rolled over. And so those two wars became one. In fact they’re very different. You can fight al-Qaeda and deal with the Taliban. You could. I don’t know whether you still can.

JAY: Well, as you said early on, it’s a little early to judge all of this. So far the language is language we’ve kind of heard before, perhaps more modest. I think the tone so far, Obama’s language about the world, is more modest and may be setting the tone along the lines you’re talking about. But we’ll see what the reality and the policy is. Thanks so much for joining us.

WALCOTT: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

John Walcott

John Walcott is the Washington Bureau Chief of McClatchy Newspapers. He has served as the Foreign Editor and National Editor of U.S. News & World Report, as the National Security correspondent at The Wall Street Journal and as a correspondent at Newsweek. He is co-author of the book Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism