Thursday, August 10, 2006

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If there was a stock market for cabinet officers....

Then Condi Rice's stock would be going down, while Henry Paulson's stock would be slowly rising. Whether that's fair is another question.

The New York Times runs stories about both of them, and the tone of the stories is pretty different.

Helene Cooper's piece on Rice suggests that she's a prisoner of bureaucratic politics:

As Ms. Rice has struggled with the Middle East crisis over the last four weeks, she has found herself trying to be not only a peacemaker abroad but also a mediator among contending parties at home.

Washington’s resistance to an immediate cease-fire and its staunch support of Israel have made it more difficult for Ms. Rice to work with other nations, including some American allies, as they search for a formula that will end the violence and produce a durable cease-fire.

On her recent trips to the Middle East, Ms. Rice was accompanied by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict: Elliott Abrams, senior director at the National Security Council, and C. David Welch, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt who is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

Mr. Welch represents the traditional State Department view that the United States should serve as a neutral broker in the Middle East. Mr. Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to Mr. Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice’s travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney’s office.

One administration official described how during the trip — including a July 29 discussion in Ms. Rice’s Rabin suite at the David Citadel Hotel, with its panoramic view of Jerusalem’s Old City — Mr. Welch and Mr. Abrams served as counterfoils, with Mr. Welch arguing the Arab view and Mr. Abrams articulating the Israeli stance....

The tensions in the region and within the administration have left Ms. Rice visibly weary and she has at times spoken in unusually personal, emotional terms....

Ms. Rice has been sharply criticized by some conservatives for pushing Israel too far to end its military operations in Lebanon. “Dump Condi: Foreign policy conservatives charge State Dept. has hijacked Bush agenda,” read the headline July 25 in an online version of Insight Magazine, published by The Washington Times.

“She’s being hammered by those who believe that this crisis will only be resolved by a strategic victory by Israel, backed by the United States,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was a senior adviser for Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department under the last three presidents. “That belief says that unless Hezbollah is handed a strategic retreat, the war on terror will suffer a huge defeat.”

But, Mr. Miller said, “she’s also being hammered by the Europeans and Arabs for what they believe to be her inactivity.”

In contrast, Steven Weisman's piece on Paulson suggests a man surmounting the push and pull of different bureaucracies:
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. has spent his first weeks in office seeking to assert control within the administration over international economic issues, focusing in particular on developing a new plan to confront China’s growing economic clout, administration officials say.

With the encouragement of the White House, Mr. Paulson has been considering steps, including the establishment of an interagency working group on international economic issues led by the Treasury Department, to fulfill President Bush’s pledge to make him the administration’s chief economic policy maker.

Mr. Paulson has conferred daily with the chief White House economic policy maker, Al Hubbard, and has been meeting with various Cabinet members to put his plans in motion, the officials said.

Hoping to put his stamp on one of the most pressing issues he faces, Mr. Paulson plans a new drive to press Beijing to open its financial systems, stimulate consumer demand and let the value of its currency rise to reduce exports.

Are these perceptions fair? Maybe. But buried within both stories are facts suggesting that these perceptions have more to do with the intrinsic difficulties of the policy problems at hand rather than the relative competencies of Rice and Paulson.

For example, there's this in the Rice story:

Several State Department officials have privately objected to the administration’s emphasis on Israel and have said that Washington is not talking to Syria to try to resolve the crisis. Damascus has long been a supporter of Hezbollah, and previous conflicts between the group and Israel have been resolved through shuttle diplomacy with Syria.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Rice instructed Stephen A. Seche, the chargé d’affaires at the United States Embassy in Damascus, to approach Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem in Damascus. The two met, but Mr. Moallem “gave no indication that they would be moderately constructive,” a senior administration official said, and there have been no overtures since.

And there's this in the Paulson story:
Kenneth S. Rogoff, professor of public policy and economics at Harvard, said he detected a subtle shift in Chinese thinking recently. Other economists, noting the shift, say that Mr. Paulson should now take advantage of it and may do so soon.

“For a long time the Chinese have been telling us that if they appreciate their currency, it would entail a big economic risk — and how do we know it will help?” Mr. Rogoff said. “Now the economy is so overheated, the Chinese are saying that they know currency appreciation might not work, but they might as well give it a try.”

What does this information tell us? That Rice's options might be limited by external as well as internal factors, while Paulson is not. Which makes Paulson's job a heck of a lot easier.

posted by Dan on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM


I dont blame Rice. Israel is chasing its tail so much, im not sure what more diplomacy can do. The litmus test is what happens with Iran in the next month.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

Every Secretary of State has options "limited by external as well as internal factors." Some are nonetheless able to perform effectively. Some are not. The history of the last 50 years or so provides several examples of each. As of now, in which group does Sec. Rice belong?

I don't think there are many people who dislike Sec. Rice. Indeed, most people personally acquainted with her three immediate predecessors seemed to think they were nice people too. They were all, however, weak Secretaries of State -- not all in exactly the same ways or for exactly the same reasons to be sure, but weak Secretaries of State nonetheless. So is Rice. I take no pleasure in saying so, but don't think we ought to be making excuses for her or pretending that she is something she clearly is not.

posted by: Zathras on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

It's hard to believe that Sec'y Rice is constrained by bureaucratic infighting. She's constrained by the President. Presumably she has the President's full attention, and is doing exactly what he wants her to do. She won her reputation over the last couple of years for efficacy on lower-profile issues where she had room to manuever. In other words, she stayed away from Iraq.

Meanwhile, Paulson is working on things the President doesn't care about, so Bush is not going to rein him in. And presumably he demanded and obtained the freedom to act on this sort of stuff before he took the job.

posted by: Tyrone Slothrop on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

As long as Paulson doesn't become a deficit hawk, he presumably does not get that much interference from the administration. Plus, Treasury has become a much lower visibility post than during the days of Rubin, so its possible to get much less media attention.

posted by: erg on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

Every time the Bush administration tries to negotiate with China we get our brains kicked in, which I am certain pleases the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce.

So why would Paulson be any different?

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

I disagree with Zathras. Rice is only ineffective if you think that flying around doing shuttle diplomacy--activity for the sake of activity--is the sine qua non of effective crisis management. If you think instead that the State Department's favored playbook is exactly what has gotten us into our current situation in the Middle East, then Rice is doing a pretty good job of limiting the damage that bureaucracy can create. Let's hope what pressure Rice is applying to the Israeli government is aimed at getting them to take more decisive steps more quickly.

posted by: srp on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

...Which makes Paulson's job a heck of a lot easier.


Being able to do the easy things well should not be taken to mean that a person will be able to do the hard things well.

posted by: rosignol on 08.10.06 at 08:29 AM [permalink]

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