What Hillary Clinton Didn’t Say

Nation building is at the core of the U.S. State Department mission. George Bush denied it, ran against it and, after 9/11, got drawn into it. Barack Obama is staking his reputation on it, even if he calls it something else. But will it sell with the American people?

The premise is important – the idea that, if troubled nations abide by the rule of law and have dynamic economies, they can ameliorate the conditions that terrorists can exploit to advance their causes. Everywhere you turn, even where military action is on-going, the success of United States outcomes depends on how we help others develop their governance and human infrastructure.

This was the theme again and again at the annual State Department briefing held Monday in Washington with a group of editorialists from the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

A major challenge for the State Department is to build support at home for this mission. Even though diplomacy and foreign aid have never been a huge part of the federal budget, it has always been a tough sell. One part of selling the strategy has been to take it outside the beltway, which is why for years high-level diplomats have held such annual briefings for editorial writers from across the country.

Right now, the military surge is on in Afghanistan, but the key to the future of this beleaguered nation is the ability to develop a legal (non-drug-dependent) economy. Hence, according to Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley, we have 1000 civilian experts complementing the military in Afghanistan. At the end of 2011, when the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is to be complete, the plan is to have transitioned from Defense Department dominance to institution building. But will federal budget priorities reflect that shift?

This strategy is ongoing in multiple countries. For example, the State Department has  an “energy czar” trying to help Pakistan develop its energy infrastructure. The U.S. is involved in a non-poppy-based agricultural program outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. It will invest in developing governance in the Southern part of Sudan when, as expected, the region secedes from Sudan by referendum next January. In Iraq, by 2013,  the United States’ decade-long, combined military and non-military costs will reach a staggering $2 trillion. And this is only part of the picture!

In Africa, the U.S. is providing $7 billion to promote economic development, enhance public health and education, ameliorate climate change, mitigate internal disputes and counter trans-national threats. It trains troops in peace-keeping operations,  fights AIDS and tuberculosis, and hopes that all of this strengthens the impulse to the rule of law and democracy as that continent holds 27 elections in the next two years.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s public posture, “We’re listening more,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto. “Dialogue is key to achieving our diplomatic goals.”

Over the past few months, Ambassador Scot Marciel, responsible for East Asia and Pacific affairs, has even been trying dialogue with Burma, an “international pariah” and “impervious to outside influence.” He also speaks of the U.S. role in helping deal with terrorism in Indonesia. “The hard work of diplomacy is working with countries we don’t agree with,” he said.

Farah Pandith, a special representative to Muslim communities, is engaged in dialogue with mostly young people. She works as a facilitator, connecting successful young entrepreneurs who happen to be Muslim, and linking young Muslim women dealing with the cultural challenge of being both modern and religious in 2010. “You don’t build trust overnight,” she says, “but you must invest in relationship building with the next generation.”

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, “we’re not trying to win in a military sense. This isn’t like 1945, or even (the) Dayton” Peace Accords, said Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, leading a thoughtful and informative discussion both on and off the record. “The goal is to get the government back on its feet, with the help of the world.”

Help of the world indeed. The global community absolutely needs to engage around these issues. The scope of what the United States is trying to achieve is so enormous that one desperately seeks reassurance that these diplomatic initiatives are sustainable. Development and diplomacy do inform each other, and such reengagement can be seen in our national interest.

But is the wherewithal in our national pocketbook? Can the President persuade the American people, – struggling to rebuild our own economy, our crumbling infrastructure, cut the national deficit and build a new health care system – that this international endeavor is worth the cost? It’s not off to a good start.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the point person to help Obama make the case for these initiatives in the FY2011 federal budget. Convincing editorial writers from around the country should matter.

But, in contrast to her predecessors who for years have shown up annually to field questions and advance their agendas, Madame Secretary stiffed the National Conference of Editorial Writers (including this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dallas Morning News) without explanation, failing for the second time to show up as scheduled. In doing so, she turned her back on an important opportunity to get the word out about what United States diplomacy is trying to achieve and what’s at stake.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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