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Note to Leslie Gelb: Could You Be Any More Unhelpful to Secretary Clinton?

September 18, 2010

I was going to put up a post about this yesterday. I actually wrote a post then deleted it- I do that a lot actually. Most of the time it’s a good thing, particularly when I am annoyed about something and start typing away- it’s kind of the blogging equivalent of “think before you speak.” But now that I re-read Leslie Gelb’s post over at the Daily Beast, I’ve decided to write this.

For those who aren’t familiar with Gelb, among other things he is the president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. For some reason that isn’t quite clear to me, he moonlights over at the Daily Beast. He has been frequently quoted as saying some complimentary things about Secretary Clinton and he has also been frequently quoted (along with the likes of Aaron David Miller) as bemoaning the fact that while Secretary Clinton is a good SOS, she’s not “of the caliber” of Kissinger or Baker– as if every damn SOS has to be a carbon copy of those two. Gelb also apparently has a long history with the Clintons, so I am not trying to imply some grudge or animus is at play. Gelb also appears to have been a foreign policy adviser to Clinton at some point during her campaign.

Anyway, Gelb wrote a commentary which was rather dismissive of Secretary Clinton’s efforts last weekto help negotiate Mideast peace:

Maybe Hillary Clinton, Washington’s current flavor of the month, knows something the rest of us don’t know. Perhaps the much-heralded secretary of State and the administration’s other Middle East expert, President Obama, have received promises or bankable hints from Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they are prepared to make major compromises. You wouldn’t think the two American leaders would risk the prestige and power of the United States of America on yet another effort to reconcile these two blood enemies without good grounds for doing so, would you?


The real danger between these two star-crossed inhabitants of the same Holy Land is not failure to negotiate; it’s the failure of the negotiations. Flashpoints in the Holy Land tend to burst after they sit down at the negotiating table, give their speeches, fail to agree, and watch the process collapse. That is when the explosions begin. That is when Palestinian terrorism reignites in Israel. People tend to resort to violence when their hopes and expectations are dashed formally and frontally, not when they are merely hoping.

During the last couple of years, while negotiations have been decidedly on the backburner, Israel has been almost entirely free from terrorist attacks emanating from the Palestinian West Bank. Palestinian and Israeli security forces now work together to keep the peace in many West Bank cities, and Palestinian leaders even acknowledge this publicly. There’s also intelligence cooperation between the two sides. All of that could go up in smoke if these talks fail. Indeed, terrorists are likely to shed Israeli and perhaps even Palestinian blood in order to make the talks fail. So, staging a big, formal negotiating session at the seductive and languid Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh is a very risky enterprise…unless Hillary knows something we don’t.

Here’s what the formidable secretary told reporters on Wednesday: “They [the Palestinians and Israelis] are getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face-to-face negotiations.” For good measure, she added, “I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Why such confidence? Many officials tell me that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came close to giving Mr. Obama any specific indications of compromise in their White House meetings two weeks ago. In other words, neither offered any concrete basis for accommodation. They spoke only of being serious and bargaining in good faith, the usual stuff. Nor did either leader push Mr. Obama into these talks; Mr. Obama pushed them. Netanyahu wasn’t eager for talks at all, and Abbas favored them only with good and prior indications of success.

Now, one of the biggest hurdles to success—in fact, a big fat wall of failure—will confront them within two weeks.


The Israeli hawk understands full well, though he doesn’t like it, that he must burnish and safekeep ties with America. For the time being, that requires good ties with Mr. Obama, whom Netanyahu and his fellow hawks don’t like very much. To them, Mr. Obama sounded too pro-Arab in his first years in office, and they don’t have much trust in him.[emphasis mine]

Ok, first of all, “flavor of the month?” That is just totally unnecessary. Leslie Gelb has every right to disagree with the policies being promoted but does he have to be so condescending and dismissive? Maybe he’s trying to appeal to the Daily Beast crowd rather than the CFR crowd. But such rhetoric does nothing to help advance his viewpoint. Oh, and would he refer to his pals Kissinger and Baker as the “flavor of the month?”

Also, while I respect Gelb’s vast foreign policy experience and his previous service to this country in several different administrations, I can’t help but notice that all he is doing in this commentary is beating a dead horse. Does he really think that Secretary Clinton and President Obama don’t understand the risks involved if these talks fail? Does he really think they don’t understand what is at stake? Yes, actually they do, which is exactly why Secretary Clinton has gone out on such a very thin limb- as she has said repeatedly, she understands that time is running out and that the status quo simply cannot continue. She also understands that peace will not be achieved unless everyone, the US included, takes risks for peace. And finally, the United States is not just some sideline superpower trying to force its will randomly on two groups of people- we have legitimate financial and security interests at stake- financial because we give billions of dollars to both the Israelis and Palestinians and security because the seemingly never-ending Arab Israeli conflict is the source of so much resentment and instability in the region- a region we are heavily invested in in terms of both blood and treasure.

I know a lot of neocons don’t like to admit that the ongoing Occupation continues to undermine US security interests and US foreign policy goals, politically strengthens Iran and groups like Hezbollah and is [one of] the sources of growing anti-American sentiment, but the fact is, all of the above is true. As a result, we can’t just sit back and wait another decade for Israel and the Palestinians to do what should have been done a long time ago. Soon there won’t be enough land left for a Palestinian state and if current population trends continue there will be an Arab majority in Greater Israel.

My beef with Leslie Gelb, in addition to his condescending tone, is that he offers nothing but negativity and the oft-repeated conventional wisdom. Does he have any constructive advice? I totally understand why people are frustrated and cynical- usually these negotiations end with disappointment and violence, as Gelb rightly points out. But that is not a reason to simply throw up our hands and wait until both the Israelis and the Palestinians magically decide to put aside all their differences and make love not war. Because it’s not going to happen. No, the US can’t force peace on the region, nor can we force a solution, but we can let both sides know that the US is not going to prop up both sides forever (economically or otherwise) and that both Israel and the Palestinians bear some responsibility for the foreseesable consequences of perpetuating an unsustainable status quo. The sad fact is, many in the U.S. seem to have become complacent- we have become very used to the occupation, particularly given violence in Israel is down. This complacency is unacceptable. I think that some in the U.S. don’t want to confront the difficult concessions that BOTH sides will have to make and so it’s much easier to kick the can further down the road and to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, finger-point and claim that failure is all but assured. This sort of conventional wisdom is part of the reason that we still find ourselves having to deal with this problem.

Gelb warns us that the failure of these talks could be disastrous. More disastrous than doing nothing? What he fails to note is that the Beltway chattering classes, the Think Tank opinionaters, the members of Congress and the powerful lobbying groups in the US all have a role to play in helping the US, Israel and the Palestinians work towards resolving the crisis. It’s simply not helpful for people like Gelb and Aaron David Miller to just sit on the sidelines and engage in naysaying and pearl-clutching.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. PYW permalink
    September 18, 2010 7:39 pm

    I agree completely, stacy. That “flavor of the month” remark is incredibly insulting, and the rest of his commentary isn’t much better.

    • PCFS permalink
      September 19, 2010 10:24 am

      What an insult to HRC. She working so hard. No she no Kessinger or Baker, She’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most admired Secretary of State this country has had in a very long time. Her counterparts have high regard for her. Kessinger may I add, has high marks for her.

  2. Thain permalink
    September 18, 2010 9:45 pm

    Totally agree. With all his experience all he can do is breathlessly warn us that failure is not an option? It’s strange – sometimes I wonder if people like this don’t want these talks to be a success? Do you think maybe some foreign policy big wigs don’t want Hillary and Obama to succeed where others have failed.

  3. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    September 19, 2010 1:37 am

    “Flavor of the month”? Gelb sounds almost jealous. Hillary has been the most popular person in the Obama administration — maybe the most popular Democrat, period — for nearly two years. I think it’s Obama who has turned out to be the flavor of the month.

    • September 19, 2010 7:28 am

      @carolyn- I think you hit the nail on the head. Whenever I read Aaron David Miller’s quotes about Clinton I can’t help but think the same thing. Lets be honest, Gelb could have written and posted his commentary without the snide, condescending “flavor of the month” comment- it ads nothing of value to his argument, so the question is, why did he say that?

      I’m not one to cry “sexism” (or any other “ism” or “phobia”) at the drop of a hat but I think when Gelb and some of the other good ‘ole boys lament Hillary isn’t like Kissinger or Baker, there is an element of sexism. Some are derisive regarding her focus on soft power and development and at times they are condescending about things like her Town Halls, her focus on women and even her trip to Goma, DRC. Interesting, because what they find worthy of criticism, I think is her most important contribution to US diplomacy.

      Everyone knows Hillary can wield “hard” power when she wants to. Does anyone really doubt her toughness? But she’s the nations top DIPLOMAT. The Department of Defense is the hard power agency, with rather questionable results I might add.

      Interesting side note- Gelb has really been pushing this idea of Hillary as Secretary of Defense. He has made a point of noting that the military doesn’t “trust” Obama (which I think Gelb is absolutely reckless in saying publicly) but that the military loves Hillary. All that may be true, but what is Gelb’s agenda? I don’t find any of this helpful to Obama OR Hillary.

      Again, Gelb apparently goes way back with the Clintons and advised her during the presidential campaign but that just makes all this more confusing.

      • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
        September 19, 2010 7:53 pm

        I read a review of Rebecca Traister’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women” (about 2008, of course). In discussing Hillary’s soaring popularity since her defeat, Traister quotes Gloria Steinem: “It’s always been OK for women to sing the blues. Just not so good for us to win.” During Bill’s admistration, Hillary’s popularity ratings were never as high as when she was being publicly humiliated during the Lewinsky fiasco (which I like to call the Ken Starr witchhunt). My point: Gelb lauds her when she’s down, kicks her when she’s dominating.” Same old same old.

  4. September 19, 2010 8:08 pm

    @Carolyn- I think that is right on. And just the thought of the impeachment and its aftermath makes my blood pressure go up.

    Hillary deserves a lot of credit for the great job she is doing as SOS but I still get a little suspicious when some of the naysayers (like Mathews) start giving her a ton of credit now that she’s no longer vying for the Presidency. He used every negative stereotype and condescending trope he could come up with to paint her as some shrill (I hate that word), disingenuous, undeserving, overly-driven you know what. Now I am supposed to believe he had a jail house conversion? Again, I’d like to think all the people that are now giving her much-deserved props have seen the error of their ways but I can’t help but still wonder. How would Mathews react if she ran for POTUS again? Would he revert back to the same sexist rants?

    I’m no Palin fan but I am sick of hearing him describing her looks. Does he do that with guys? Sometimes I watch his show as a form of ritual self-punishment.

    • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
      September 20, 2010 12:09 am

      Traister really goes after Palin for having hitched her wagon to “faux feminism,” in the process imperiling the progress Hillary made in putting 18 million cracks in the ultimate glass ceiling. But when Palin announced her candidacy for Veep — and before any of us really knew who she was and what she stood for — I was appalled by the transparent sexism with which the media greeted her announcement. For the first week after McCain announced she’d be his running mate, all we heard were questions like: Is Trig really HER baby? How could she have exposed her unborn child to the risks of amniocentesis? Can she REALLY juggle the demands of caring for a child with special needs and the Vice-Presidency? Or as Andrew Sullivan summed it up so succinctly, “Is Sarah Palin a fit mother?” And all the gossipy coverage about her daughter’s pregnancy! I swear, it wasn’t until after the Republican convention — when people realized, hey, she actually APPEALS to the Republican base?! — that we began to get more substantive criticism about her experience and positions on the issues. As a liberal Democrat — actually, I reregistered as an independent after Hillary’s defeat — I was embarassed by the sneering, self-righteousness and condescension of the media and so-called progressive blogosphere on the subject of Palin. I don’t think it was Palin herself who set back the feminist cause but the sanctimonious RESPONSE to her candidacy from the left — women and men alike. All that Hillary hatred was redirected and displaced full force on to Palin.

      • September 20, 2010 9:52 am

        The media, bloggers etc. were out of control, no doubt about it. There is a clear double standard regarding mothers who seek public office- they get called bad mothers for working in a fast paced or time consuming job (what job isn’t time consuming?) but the male politicians never get asked about being fathers and spending time away from their family to pursue their careers.

        All that said, Palin over-played the victim card- ironically she initially called out Hillary for “whining” about negative media coverage only then to later admit she understood- classic Palin- nothing matter until it happens to HER.

        The GOP also seemed to apply a double standard to Palin though and that’s something conservatives never acknowledged- do you really think if Palin had been a man conservatives would have made excuses for the Presidential nominee hiding the VP candidate from the press because they don’t know much about policy? When Palin wasn’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine in an interview Guiliani defended her saying “well my neighbor doesn’t know either.” WTF? Your neighbor isn’t running for VP. Would he have made those kind of excuses for a male candidate? Conservative Rich Lowry of The National Review would practically swoon whenever he talked about her- in a way he never would have written about a male candidate. Have you ever wondered what the reaction would have been had Palin not been considered by so many to be attractive? What if she were, say, 200 pounds? I have given our culture’s obsession with women’s weight, beauty, etc. I think there’s a lot of gender nonsense going on and a lot of it has worked against Palin but some has also worked for her.

  5. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    September 20, 2010 12:51 pm

    That question about the Bush doctrine was a perfect example of the kind of “gotcha” journalism that characterized the media coverage of Palin’s candidacy. Mind you, I’m not defending her qualifications and exprience and she did a very good job of shooting her own foot on numerous occasions, but heck, I’m pretty smart and informed and I didn’t know what was meant by the “Bush doctrine” (the meaning of which had changed over time, incidentally). Had Couric or Gibson, whoever it was, asked, “What is your opinion about the Bush administration’s
    policy that the US has a right to secure itself agaibst countries that give aid to terrorists?” or “Should the US have the right to depose regimes that represent a risk to US security?” or “What do you think of the policy of spreading democracy aroubd the world, especially in the Middle East, as a way of combatting terrorism?” well then, OK — those would be fair questions. But to spring “Bush doctrine” on her with no elaboration, that’s gotcha journalism and is very reminscent of Tim Russert’s challenging Hillary, in one of the primary debates, to name the brand new President of Russia. Of course, to his disappointment and surprise, Hillary knew the answer, even if she stammered a bit in pronouncing it. I’ve always wondered how Obama would have fared if Russert had directed the question at him first. I do know that when Russert confronted Obama about the four-page memo his staffers circulated to journalists characterizing as racist Hillary’s remarks about LBJ making Martin Luther King’s dream a reality, and when Obama punted by saying he knew nothing about that, Russert let him off the hook. But I digress….Aaarrrrg! Just thinking about all that, two years plus later, makes my blood boil.

    • September 20, 2010 1:19 pm

      Yes, gotcha journalism can be annoying and Russert was a master of it. I sort of disagree about the Bush Doctrine though- even if there was an element of “gotcha” to it, if she had had a rudimentary knowledge of the President’s foreign policy for the past 6+ years she could have gotten through that question without looking like a fool. And yes, it might mean different things, but she could follow up in a way that would get across the point that she has a basic understanding of how things like pre-emptive war or democracy promotion (via the military) have shaped our foreign policy, particularly given she would have been a war-time VP . All I wanted was for her to show some basic knowledge of foreign and domestic policy and Carolyn, I never saw that. Did they play “gotcha” with her? Yes, they do with everyone. Can it be annoying? Yes, it can. But I think one has a better likelihood of doing well even in those tough situations if one has even the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, national and international issues. I am amazed at how people lowered the bar for her- she was going to possibly be VP- which means she could have ended up being POTUS. To me, that means you take your “gotcha” questions and try to reach into your knowledge base (if one has one) to come up with the best answer possible or to at least turn around and be able to request a clarification. I never really saw any of that with Palin.

      But yes, I agree, reviewing all of this is painful. It reminds me of how when I would criticize Palin’s lack of knowledge about *issues* I would get attacked and people got defensive and blamed every single thing on liberals and the media, both of whom share some blame, but hardly all of it (in my opinion). Yes, she was a victim of sexism *at times* but it didn’t make it excusable that she didn’t seem to realize that she didn’t have even a basic understanding of issues (as opposed to just snarky soundbites). If she had been a bastion of liberalism I would feel the same way. If that makes me a latte-sipping, Northeastern liberal elitist, so be it. 🙂

      One of the reasons I’ve always liked Hillary is because she knows her stuff, she’s a work horse (not a show horse) and it’s clear that she is passionate about domestic and foreign policy (beyond just spouting off talking points). She also works her ass off to understand every aspect of every policy she talks about/works with. I like that in a candidate, male or female. The media was unfair to her but she didn’t use it as an excuse for not knowing the issues backwards and forwards.

      • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
        September 20, 2010 2:26 pm

        Like that: “[Hillary’s] a work horse, not a show horse.”
        Campaign slogan for 2016?
        I already heard another I may have already shared: “She saved the world. Now let her save our country.”

      • Thain permalink
        September 20, 2010 5:33 pm

        I’m with you. No one put a gun to her head and forced her to accept being put on the national ticket. She should know SOMETHING about the Bush Doctrine. Once she decided to run for the second highest national office she raised the bar for herself and totally fell short. She had no clue what the f*ck Gibson was talking about- none. It would be one thing if that was the only thing she didn’t know but would one of her defenders from the big mean media tell me exactly what topic she had a working knowledge of other than “mama grizzlies,” shooting wolves from helicopters and how to imply your opponent is an unamerican, leftist terrorist? She was just good to toss out zingers and wink every now and then. Wonder how that would have gone over if she were a guy? Maybe GWB should have winked more often when he did know the answer. What scares the hell out of me is she doesn’t seem to care that she’s totally unqualified. If someone asked me to be a VP candidate I’d say “what are you, nuts?” If I said yes then I’d make damn sure I knew my shit.

        I hope she runs for POTUS. I can’t wait to see the first ever Presidential campaign where the candidate hides from all media except Faux News and runs her entire campaign in 120 characters or less on Twitter.

  6. Tovah permalink
    September 20, 2010 5:21 pm

    Palin is sort of an embarrassment in my opinion. Everyone lowered the bar for her once it became clear she couldn’t speak in anything but mean girls soundbites. She’s good when someone’s written a stump speech for her but I want a POTUS and VP that actually knows what the Fed does. Palin’s supporters have taken the sexism charge and run with it. Sexism had nothing to do with her pitiful performance in every single interview she ever gave. Her kids should not be brought into the discussion at all but of course when it suited her she used Trig to show her pro-life credentials. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

    • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
      September 20, 2010 8:26 pm

      I may sound like I’m a Palin defender — I’m really not! I actually find her scary now — not because she’s ignorant but because she wields an astonishing amount of power in spite of her ignorance. Rather than simply mocking her, I think we should try to understand the source of and reasons for her power. Democrats don’t want to find themselves standing flat-footed, jaw dropped, mouth agape, scratching their heads like they did after Scott Brown came out of nowhere to become US Senator in Massachusetts of all places, pretty face, centerfold pix, malappropisms and all.

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