Dumb kids in charge at State

There are many reasons why American foreign policy has been so teeth-grindingly awful during the Bush years, but the hiring policy for ambassadors probably didn’t help.

Thomas Schweich had three senior diplomatic jobs under Bush. Each time, he had to run the gamut of the politically-appointed ‘kids’ (sons and daughters of Bush supporters, campaign workers etc) who had taken over the personnel department. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in attitude, he says.

“For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job,” he writes. “In the third instance, the State Department went out of its way to avoid the personnel office by appealing directly to a senior assistant to the president.”

Others had a similar experience:

Another top foreign service officer called me after his interview to be ambassador to a volatile African country. “The problem was,” he told me, “the kid interviewing me could not pronounce the name of the country I was being interviewed for. It made for an awkward interview until he just started saying ‘the country we are considering you for.'” 

Incoherence in Poznan

The climate talks in Poznan were never going to be a dazzling success – but, away from the nitty gritty of text, three big things need to happen for a reasonable result to be achieved.

First, the Europeans have to set out their stall (again) – but this time show that they can match aspirational targets with domestic delivery. Second, the Americans need to be begin the process of re-engaging: some sense has to emerge of what the post-Bush era should look like. And finally, we desperately need the emerging economies to begin to talk openly about where they think they fit into climate control. What does a good deal look like for them – not just between now and 2020, but over the next generation or two?

Unfortunately, the news doesn’t look good on any of these fronts. The Europeans – staggeringly, unbelievably – have allowed squabbles over their own climate package to spill over into the broader international negotiation. How’s this for showing united leadership to the rest of the world?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy failed to end deadlock with ex-communist European Union states on an EU climate package on Saturday but predicted a deal would be reached by a December 11-12 summit.

“Things are moving in a good way … I am convinced we will arrive at a positive conclusion,” Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said after meeting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and eight other east European leaders.

Poland, which relies on high-polluting coal for more than 90 percent of its electricity, has threatened to veto an EU plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 unless Warsaw wins fossil fuel concessions.

“There is still a lot of work ahead of us” before the summit, Tusk said after the talks in the Polish port of Gdansk.

Poland argues it needs until 2020 to curb carbon emissions, for example by using more efficient boilers and carbon-scrubbing equipment and possibly building its first nuclear plant.

Tusk said Sarkozy and the EU Commission agreed to extend a period limiting mandatory purchases of greenhouse gas emissions permits for east European coal plants, in an offer which would need the backing of all EU leaders.

And Tusk hinted at a willingness to compromise at the summit. “At the very end, maybe at the very last minute, we may decide this is a solution we may accept,” Tusk said.

Meanwhile, the American negotiating team appear not to have even talked to the Obama transition team (h/t Andrew Kneale). If true, this is worse than stupid:

As I’m sure the Obama Administration transition team is aware, Poznan, Poland is currently hosting a very important UN-sponsored climate change conference. At stake is nothing less than the next round of emissions reduction commitments (a Kyoto successor) — which Barack Obama has said he wants the U.S. to participate in.

If they haven’t already, the Obama folks need to make contact with the U.S. delegation in Poznan immediately. One would think that the U.S. Del. would take the initiative itself, but I’m getting word that they feel that the ball is in Obama’s court.

Apparently, current U.S. delegation members — mostly career people with honorable intentions and a willingness to continue to serve (with some notable exceptions) — are waiting for the call. This is no time to fight about protocol, or who is supposed to call who. It’s time to start turning the ship around.

Things are going to slow down for the weekend and then pick up again on Tuesday. The framework that comes out of this week can still be quite ambitious and, at the same time, workable in the U.S. and in the Senate. The Obama people have from now until Tuesday to make their goals for Poznan clear, but the sooner, the better.

Finally, as I posted a few days ago, developing countries seem resistant to even talking about the long-term – even though they have the most to lose through lots of itsy bitsy short term deals…

Happy days.

(For more, see all GD’s Poznan posts, our broader coverage on climate, follow the #poznan feed on Twitter or check out benkamorvan’s list of Poznan related blogs and other sites.)

What’s happening in Poznan

Relatively little media coverage so far on the UN climate talks currently underway in Poznan – but that’s not to say that nothing interesting is happening there.

Item 1 is that China and India have come out arguing that Obama’s proposed 2020 emissions reduction (namely, to get US emissions back to 1990 levels by that date – more details here) is insufficient.  He Jiankun, a Chinese delegate, was quoted in Reuters as saying that “It’s more ambitious than President Bush but it is not enough to achieve the urgent, long-term goal of greenhouse gas reductions”.

Given that the IPCC says that stabilising at 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent (the maximum level on which we still have a better than even chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C) probably requires developed countries to reduce their emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, you can see where the Chinese and the Indians are coming from.

But as David pointed out when he and I were debating this a couple of weeks ago, the US’s emissions have gone through the roof under Bush: even the very modest target proposed by Obama is going to be a massive stretch for them.  Expect this one to run and run.

Item 2: Brazil is reportedly sidling up to per capita convergence as the formula for sharing out a global emissions budget, at least if you believe this report in Business Green yesterday, which says:

Brazil reportedly put the finishing touches to proposals apparently based on the contraction and convergence principle that would see countries agree to per-capita emission reduction targets. Under the proposals, emission targets would be set on a per-head-of population basis, meaning that developing economies with low-carbon emissions per capita such as China would face less-demanding targets, while those countries with the highest level of emissions per person would have to deliver the deepest cuts.

Fascinating if true, but they don’t cite their source, so I’m regarding as tentative until I hear it from another source or two. 

Item 3, meanwhile, is that in a workshop on “shared visions”  for the future on Tuesday, China made some tentative steps towards setting out its stall on how it would want an emissions budget to be shared out.  This is very interesting, as China’s the most important of the handful of developing countries for whom straight per capita convergence wouldn’t be advantageous – as its per capita emissions have (just in the last few months) gone over the global average per capita level, meaning that even immediate convergence at equal per capita shares to the atmosphere would leave them with no surplus permits to sell. What then is China proposing?  The Worldwatch Institute wrote it up like this:

China, citing the equity language of Article 3, mentioned the need for eventual “global per-capita emissions convergence” – the idea that, at some point in the future, all countries in the world should have similar per-capita emissions as a matter of climate equity. But this concept did not pick up momentum, at least not in the workshop.

That had me sitting bolt upright in my chair and reaching for the phone to ask people in Poznan if it was really true.  The answer back: not quite.  In fact, what China seems to have been proposing is a system of per capita convergence in cumulative emissions – i.e. taking into account historical responsibility for past emissions, as well as current emissions – which would clearly be much more advantageous to it, given how much later China industrialised than (say) Britain (for whom historical responsibility based allocations of emissions permits would be rather, ahem, challenging).

But the real significance here is less the specific formula that China proposed (more details needed – if you were in the workshop, please drop me an email), and more the fact that China may now be starting to engage in a conversation about the formula that might be used to share out a global emissions budget.  Up to now, discussion of stabilisation targets for greenhouse gas levels in the air has been off the table – in large part due to Chinese unwillingness to talk about how the emission budget implied would then be shared out.  If that’s changing, then the future just got a little more hopeful.

I love mah legacy

George Bush – he liberated the downtrodden, helped the sick and gave succour to the old. Yes, those are the fond thoughts the 43rd President hopes we’ll have for him:

I would like to be a person remembered as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process. I came to Washington with a set of values, and I’m leaving with the same set of values. And I darn sure wasn’t going to sacrifice those values; that I was a President that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them. I surrounded myself with good people. I carefully considered the advice of smart, capable people and made tough decisions.

I’d like to be a President (known) as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace; that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor; that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get prescription drugs and Medicare as a part of the basic package; that came to Washington, D.C., with a set of political statements and worked as hard as I possibly could to do what I told the American people I would do.

(Photo under a cc license from icbulk.)

Update: The National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson is lapping this up. Yes sir, Bush has done mighty fine:

We will come, through the Obama prism, to see that Bush’s sins were largely the absence of rhetorical skills, unfortunate shoot ’em braggadocio in 2003-4, the federal response to Katrina, and a certain administration haughtiness about the problems in Iraq between 2002-6, but not most of his policies that included prescription drugs, No Child Left Behind, AIDs relief in Africa, the removal of two odious regimes, and consensual governments in their places, a framework at home to stop 9/11-type terrorism, and good working partnerships with key allies abroad such as Britain, Germany, France, Italy, India, et al, and a pragmatism in handling rivals like Russia and China. 

In short, given all that, Obama’s victory (predicated on painting Bush as a Hoover/Nixon redux), more so even than perhaps a John McCain’s, may do more for Bush’s reputation that anyone ever imagined. And the Mumbai mess (over there, not here) will only empasize all this, as an array of old 9/11-era experts who used to warn us about radical Islam, then, in the subsequent respite at home, screamed that Bush fabricated a war against terror against bogeymen, and now in their third manifestation are paraded once more out to warn us about?—why, yes, radical Islam!

What to do about Guantanamo

This short piece from the Economist – styled as an email to Barack Obama – is worth a read:

Your promise to close Guantánamo is popular. Including a clear announcement on this in your inaugural will make for great headlines. But if you have to give a firm date for closure, kick the can at least a year down the road. Remember: W. wanted to close the place too, but disposing of the 260-odd (in every sense) inmates still incarcerated there won’t be easy.

A few dozen are small fish—not to mention innocents—who we could easily send home. But there are some whose governments don’t want them, and others (eg, those Chinese Uighurs) whom their governments might torture or execute. International law says you can’t repatriate them. We’ll ask friendly countries to take a few, but you will end up having to let most go free in the United States. Some might well return to the battlefield after all we’ve done to them. But as General Barry McCaffrey has said (we’ll keep the quote handy), it’s going to be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat than sit on them for 15 years.

Then there are those 80 or so really hard men. President Bush wanted to try them, and could never get the law right. So now you have to deal with them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad has “confessed” he was the brains behind 9/11. God knows what the Pakistanis or the Agency did to him in prison. But we can’t just let him go, and we can’t just let him rot, so you have to give him and his accomplices their day in court. The first big question for you is: what kind of court? You don’t like Bush’s military commissions. But if you set up special security courts with special, meaning laxer, standards of procedure and evidence, they will be called kangaroo courts too. And if you opt for regular criminal trials or courts-martial you run the risk that they will throw out evidence extracted by waterboard. Dare you let a 9/11 mastermind walk free?

Worse yet, there’s a group the Agency is sure are dedicated terrorists but on whom we have nothing that can stand up in any sort of court. The human-rights purists say you must bite the bullet and set these unconvictables free in America. But if you follow their advice it won’t just be Republicans who will say you are putting the republic in danger. You’d theoretically have a let-out if you could let these guys go and keep them under surveillance. But the Feds claim they can’t guarantee fail-safe, indefinite 24-hour monitoring of a group this size. Can we afford to take that risk?

Safer would be to move them to the mainland, where they would be held under some kind of preventive detention devised by your legal team. We can call this “temporary”, but our base will bleat that you have closed Guantánamo only by creating a new prison where America continues to detain people convicted of no crime. And they’ll have a point. Over to you.

Give Defense to Clinton, not State

The rumour that Barack Obama may appoint Hilary Clinton as his top diplomat has filled the Sunday papers. Personally, I think she would be a better Defense Secretary or a nominee to the Supreme Court, although she is bound to do well as Secretary of State too.

If she were given the State Department, she is more likely to follow Colin Powell’s management style -– which a place like Foggy Bottom sorely needs –- than emulate Condi Rice’s neglect of the department. At the same time, she is likely to play a key role in foreign policy, unlike General Powell, as President Obama is compelled to focus on the economy.

It is just that I think Senator Clinton would do better at the Pentagon. She supported the Iraq War, which will make her better at coaxing the military into a draw-down of forces and a shift of focus onto Afghanistan. Though the officers and soldiers will accept the democratic transition from Bush to Obama, a military that has gone to war twice, suffered both casualties and reputationally, and seen itself as the sharp end of U.S foreign policy for eight years will need to be helped to make the switch by someone they trust. With her hawkish views, time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and work on Unified Action, a large U.S military exercise, the New York senator is well placed to take this role on.

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