World worries about Syria; Washington stuck on Benghazi

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2013 - 4:20 PM

While the world is worried about the crisis there, Washington concentrates on Benghazi.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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The world is worried about Syria. But the United States (or at least Washington) is more focused on Libya. Not about that country’s lawless disintegration in the post-Gadhafi era, but about Benghazi, and the timeline of events before, during and after four Americans were slain there last Sept. 11.

What to some is modern media’s version of a smoking gun — an e-mail trail — was released by the White House on Wednesday. As with all aspects of the Benghazi Rorschach test, it’s being interpreted distinctly differently by defenders and critics of President Obama.

There likely will be more congressional hearings. But fewer Americans are paying attention, according to a new Pew poll, which reports that 44 percent of them are following the investigation “very or fairly closely,” down from 61 percent last October.

Even so, Benghazi seems to be drowning out the debate over Syria — the topic of this month’s Minnesota International Center (MIC) “Great Decisions” dialogue.

Some diplomatic progress, however, may be coming, according to Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s former foreign minister, who will headline an MIC event Tuesday (see accompanying commentary).

Secretary of State John Kerry is continuing his shuttle diplomacy with recent regional and Russian visits. But it’s his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who’s the envoy enveloping the D.C. debate.

One reason may be because she was, and may be, a presidential prospect. “Having a political figure that has possible future aspirations for higher office would certainly create an incentive for some criticism,” said James P. Seevers, interim director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

That’s one disadvantage of selecting a secretary who’s had Potomac fever. And yet, despite the heat goes with the territory, once they are in the territories needing direct diplomacy, being a prominent politician can be an advantage, according to J. Brian Atwood, former State Department diplomat and previous dean of the Humphrey School who recently returned as a professor.

“You give them that position because they can open doors all over the world,” said Atwood.

And doors can open up in Washington, too, since foreign policy involves more than just the State Department. “Treasury and Defense are really strong actors in the international arena in particular because international economics are much more important, and the Pentagon has so much money to spend,” said Atwood.

And yet despite developing their own political and policy portfolios, secretaries of state still need to stay close to the president. Referencing Dean Acheson’s line about never allowing any light to shine between himself and the president, Atwood, who witnessed White House turf battles, said, “They can’t afford to have policies different from the president. A leak is much more damaging to the secretary than the president. If they can’t be trusted, they won’t have the ear of the president.”

Right now the public seems to have the president’s ear, which may explain why Obama resisted Clinton’s call to act more directly in Syria’s crisis.

“The nation has fluctuated between moods of isolation and retrenchment, and moods of expansive internationalism, and we’re in one of those cycles,” said Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, which is part of Arizona State University. Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, added that, “The secretary of state’s role has been somewhat limited by that fundamental dynamic.”

This dynamic is driven in part by the news narrative. Mention the Arab Spring and many Americans will recall the fall election and Benghazi. But it’s certainly not the first time that politics has seemed to start, and not stop, at the water’s edge.

“I can’t think of a major foreign-policy issue that hasn’t had major partisan divides,” said Volker, who quickly listed the “missile gap,” Vietnam, the hostage crisis in Iran, Iraq and detainee treatment as examples.

In fact, the Cold War consensus seems to have been the exception. “There was less incentive for Congress or commentators to criticize an administration over foreign policy,” said Seevers. “But after the Cold War ended, it created a new world where it was much easier to do that. And that’s the world we’re living in now.”

The post-9/11 era echoed the Cold War days. But those days faded, said Seevers. “It still seems like a period of perceived threat, but it’s not as acute as it was 10 years ago. There isn’t this historical dampening effect on people criticizing in a partisan way the foreign policy of an administration. This, combined with the heightened partisanship that has been affecting Washington, feeds into it as well.”

Indeed, politics doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. And sometimes it seems that it’s anchored in an entirely different country.

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