Tales of America’s Broken Diplomacy

The nuclear fuel-swap deal between Turkey, Brazil, and Iran has been received with quite a bit of hostility in America. Yet few sources (save perhaps the New York Daily News) have reacted with as much hostility to the deal as the White House. Take a few choice words offered by Secretary Clinton at a recent press conference in Beijing:
Hillary Rodham Clinton. U.S. State Department: Secretary’s Remarks. 25 May 2010.

We discussed at some length the shortcomings of the recent proposal put forward by Iran in its letter to the IAEA. There are a number of deficiencies with it that do not answer the concerns of the international community. There is no recognition of the deep concern people have because of the 20 percent enrichment that Iran is pursuing. There is a recognition on the part of the international community that the agreement that was reached in Tehran a week ago between Iran and Brazil and Turkey only occurred because the Security Council was on the brink of publicly releasing the text of the resolution that we have been negotiating for many weeks. It was a transparent ploy to avoid Security Council action. 

This is about as damning as diplomatic discourse can get. The only thing worse would be directly attacking the statesmen involved. Incidentally, this is exactly what Secretary Clinton did today
It seems that the Brazilians have had enough. President Lula, the man who engineered Brazil’s entry to the great power club, is approaching the end of his presidential career. It is no great secret that he wishes to end his incredibly popular Presidency on a high note. He has looked long and hard for an opportunity to show the world the greatness Brazil has attained during his time in office, and Iran offers him just that. Given what he has put into this project, it should come as little surprise to see Mr. Lula and his administration  voraciously protesting American attempts to end his parade.
The weight of his protest, however, was surprising. The following letter was leaked to Brazilian Press this morning. It is signed by President Obama, addressed to Mr. Lula, and was delivered to the latter approximately one month ago (H/T NewsHoggers):
It seems that Mr. Obama was for this deal before he was against it.
I am left with but one question: how did this happen? Did anybody at Foggy Bottom or Pennsylvania Avenue question why the President should authorize tirades against the evils of Brazilian foreign policy when he had already given the Brazilians the only thing they needed to destroy any shreds of legitimacy our criticisms might have had? 
Our foreign policy-making apparatus is a mess – no more evidence is needed to establish this point. When perched upon a petard one must play carefully with fire. We gladly gave our competitors a match.


Copenhagen: A Disaster of American Statecraft
T. Greer. Scholar’s Stage. 10 January 2010.

Another tale from the world of broken diplomatic machinery. 

Obama’s Flip Flop Leadership Style
Dilip Hiro. TomDispatch. 27 May 2010.

Hiro catalogs  a series of diplomatic missteps where the United States overestimated its power and then found itself out maneuvered on the international stage. While the title faults Obama, the problem extends much deeper than one man.

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Could the sheer size of the current Natl Security Council, for ex., have something to do with this kind of 'right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing' sort of thing?

The current NSC has more than 200 people on staff, 4x bigger than the NSCs of Nixon, Carter and Bush I, acc. to Z.Brzezinski in For.Aff. Jan/Feb 2010.

I will admit that I am not quite sure on this one. It is hard to tell with this administration – with very few exceptions, there is not much information out in the public sphere concerning the inner dynamics of the Obama team.

With that said, I can offer a few possibilities:

1) There was a disconnect between State and the NSC. The Brazilians did not say through what channel the letter came. It is perfectly possible that it went through NSC, State was not let in on the communique (this administration has had a problem with leaks) and thus Secretary Clinton was out of the loop when State's diplomatic offensive began and was caught blind by the Brazilian reposte. This would not be the first time this has happened. Think back to when Obama announced he was going to dismantle the continental missile shield architecture. Obama gave his speech, Gates gave his speech, and then Clinton was left scrambling to clean up the mess they made. Coordination was nil; the whole thing was a PR disaster. This type of dynamic – where State was jarringly out of sync with the rest the rest of the executive – has repeated itself several times over the last year, be it between with the NSC on Honduras or the Treasury Department on China. State consistently lags behind (or works against) the other departments. Furthermore, If Secretary Clinton wields much influence on policy, very little evidence of this is creeping out to the public.

The counterpoint to this scenario is the sheer forcefulness and speed with which the State came out against the deal. This was not state running on autopilot. The higher ups, as well as a fair portion of the NSC, had to have been on board. Heck, I can't see a scenario where Obama himself was not on board from the get-go.

Which brings us to the second scenario:

2) The NSC is too big, and the number of people with access to the President's signature is too large. But the problem here is very similar to the last one – ultimately the President signed the letter. Unless folks lower down are signing it for him, he should have been fully aware of what he had agreed to in the past.

3) The administration did not think the Brazilians would leak the letter. The more I think about it, the more likely this option seems to me. It makes sense, in a way: leaking secret communiques is a serious breach of diplomatic protocol. It places a lot of strain between governments and really destroys any trust they may have had with each other. I imagine someone in the NSC or at State argued that the Brazilians would not consider the damage releasing the letter would cause to be worth it. This presumes a bit of arrogance on the part of our officials, as well as some severe miscalculation (the current Brazilian administration is about to leave, so any ties broken will stay that way for but a few months, and President Lula has clearly invested his personal reputation into this project), but it makes sense.

There is a fourth option, as well – it could be that the folks up top are simply tired, overworked, stupid, or some combination of the three, and they simply overlooked this. I like to give these men and women the benefit of the doubt, however.

None of the answers are happy ones. The whole matter troubles me quite a bit – in the long run this issue is not one that breaks administrations. But if we cannot get little things right, what will happen when we come across problems that threaten to do just that?