An In-Depth Interview With Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

I interviewed Rosentha on his assessment of Obama's foreign policy, the Middle East and North Africa protests, the WikiLeaks revelations, and more.
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Recently, I conducted an in-depth interview with Joel Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, on his assessment of President Obama's foreign policy, the Middle East and North Africa protests, the WikiLeaks revelations, U.S. leadership in the age of globalization, the future of U.S. diplomatic engagement, and much more.

Below is an excerpt of 1,500 words, while the full 3,100-word transcript can be found at World Affairs Commentary.

Rahim Kanani: As you observe U.S. foreign policy in the context of the recent and continued uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, his ethical argument how would you assess the Obama Administration's current posture towards the crises?

Joel Rosenthal: For an administration that came to power promising a new posture of "engagement," the recent crises offer an opportunity that President Obama could have barely imagined when he went to Cairo in 2009. Obama began his speech at Cairo University with candor: "We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world -- tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate."

Seeking to end "this cycle of suspicion and discord," the president's goal was to find a "new beginning." The opportunity has arrived much sooner than he thought. What he makes of it is an open question.

Engagement is a useful means. But it is not an end. So the administration has to figure out what it can do to help the anti-government protests result in genuine pro-democracy outcomes. This is a monumentally difficult task requiring strong principles, tough bargaining, good timing, and good luck. But here are two rules of thumb to keep in mind. The administration seems to understand both.

The first rule is to state clearly and unequivocally where the United States stands. The U.S. commitment to human rights must be unwavering. Compromises made in the past with authoritarian rulers must be explained in the context in which they were made. These were compromises made with the hope and expectation that the trend line was moving toward democracy. Democracy is now and always has been the goal.

Second, the U.S. must remember that the outcomes of the revolts are not up to us. The outcomes rest in the hands of the people in each country. There are important actions that the United States can and should take to shape the environment and to help friends and allies. But ultimately, there are some things that are not about us and are not up to us.

Rahim Kanani: With the White House now deciding how to balance democracy promotion around the world and the values and principles that underpin this effort, with the desire for stability and order in the region, what would your advice be to President Obama moving forward?

Joel Rosenthal: President Obama has done a commendable job so far in balancing the moral imperative to stand with the anti-government protestors while understanding the need for some measure of stability and order. He seems to understand that democratic change cannot be sustained if order is not maintained. Freedom and order are not opposing ideas; each depends on the other.

I would advise the president to allow the protests to remain as home-grown and independent as possible. There is no need for the U.S. to own these movements. Their legitimacy is enhanced by their self-help character.

With this in mind, the positive actions the U.S. can take are mostly in the form of carrots. Why not re-direct some of the billions of dollars in foreign aid to economic and educational efforts? Job creation in particular would go a long way toward improving the prospects of the young and disillusioned.

The U.S. could also do more to forge common policy with our allies in Europe and in the developed world to encourage economic development in the Arab world and thereby set the stage for more stable, open regimes.

Rahim Kanani: What is your ethical argument for the U.S. to either stay in Afghanistan, or leave Afghanistan?

Joel Rosenthal: The ethical argument for intervention in Afghanistan is to deny safe haven to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S. with its actions on 9/11 as well as its attacks against the USS Cole in Yemen and U.S. embassies in Africa. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 had a clear purpose: to defeat the Taliban government of Afghanistan that was harboring terrorists.

The original target was al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors, not Afghanistan itself. The ethical argument for continuing operations there is confined to a single proposition: as of today, there is no indication of an al Qaeda truce or surrender. So as long as it keeps up its intention to attack the U.S., al Qaeda remains a legitimate target.

Ethical arguments for staying in Afghanistan have expanded to include providing support for the democratically elected government and the promotion of a relatively free society in the wake of the dismemberment of the previous regime. However, these arguments are fraying under the pressure of two realities: first, the imperfections and corruption of the Karzai regime; and second, the difficulties, if not impossibilities, of the military operations we have assigned ourselves. Civilian casualties are unavoidable, with each inadvertent death breeding increasing discontent among the people. In addition, the demands of counter-insurgency operations with relatively small numbers of troops in a nation as geographically vast as Afghanistan test the limits of feasibility.

Given the above, it seems to me that the ethical arguments for withdrawing from Afghanistan are gaining momentum and winning the day. The ethical imperative of "breaking and therefore owning" Afghanistan has run its course now that we are facing the 10-year anniversary of the original invasion. The Afghan government has had sufficient time to assume responsibility for order. And the U.S. is doing much now and will continue to do even more in terms of providing political, economic, and structural assistance.

The U.S. maintains its ability to strike al Qaeda targets at any time without being a large on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan. So a military withdrawal and an emphasis on what the military calls "non-kinetic" solutions seems the most pragmatic and ethical course.

Rahim Kanani: Is the trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks a story of ethical success for increasing transparency in international diplomacy or an ethical failure in that diplomacy is best conducted behind the curtain?

Joel Rosenthal: The results are mixed. Openness is a good thing. And governments should never be fearful of their business becoming public. The most obvious test of ethics is the sunshine rule: How does a decision look when revealed to the public? The cliché used in reference to personal behavior is equally valid when it comes to government: How would your decision look if it were printed on the front page of The New York Times? If you are uneasy with the thought of the front page story, perhaps you should be uneasy with the decision.

Governments exist to serve their people. Their legitimacy rests on consent and good faith effort. In this manner, transparency is important and it is a necessary element of good government.

However, immediate and total transparency is not necessarily a virtue. There are some government actions that can and should be done in private. Most of us recognize the value and validity of secrecy in government functions such as jury proceedings, military planning, national security briefings, and some policy deliberations where candid advice is necessary.

The WikiLeaks case reveals the overvaluation of transparency in my opinion. The ethical standard most operative should be "accountability." Who decided on certain policies? Why? With what outcomes?

From a U.S. perspective, the real story in the WikiLeaks revelations was the non-story in policy terms. There has been less deception than one might have thought. Most policies are what we thought they were. No great conspiracies were revealed. The chatter behind the scenes was mostly just that, chatter.

To the extent that WikiLeaks will promote accountability, this is a good trend. But as a factor in day-to-day government and diplomacy, I am doubtful of great impact. I wonder if this will be the case when WikiLeaks spreads to the corporate sector. The corporate experience may turn out to be quite different. We'll see.

Rahim Kanani: What has surprised you the most about U.S. foreign policy since President Obama took office?

Joel Rosenthal: I have been surprised at the misjudgments made about the use of presidential power in several cases. For example, the president set as a goal the closing of the Guantanamo detainee operation in one year. He missed the mark badly. It was a laudable goal and it set a certain direction for U.S. policy. But nevertheless, he failed to achieve it.

There was a similar failure in the Israel/Palestine peace process. The focus on Israeli settlements as an opening strategy was unsuccessful. Somehow there was a misjudgment on what the administration could induce the Israelis to accept.

Both of these cases show a lack of judgment regarding feasibility -- the connecting of ends and means. In both cases, the president has a strong view of the goal. But he misjudged the terrain in getting there.

This uneasiness with the use of presidential power has not been confined to foreign affairs. I think it is fair to say that he has experienced similar difficulties on domestic issues such as health care legislation and budget battles. But the use of power is an art, not a science. With so many issues to be acted on and so many variables to be considered, there are bound to be miscalculations...more.

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