Hillary Clinton: U.S. Diplomacy Is Stretched Thin

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 17, 2011 12:17 am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the bruising budget battles in Washington are "casting a pall" over U.S. diplomacy abroad and may hurt America's ability to influence events at a crucial moment in the Middle East.

Clinton joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the National Defense University in Washington on Tuesday to appeal to Congress to come up with a budget deal that doesn't undercut U.S. national security interests.

Speaking to a packed auditorium, Clinton said that one of her favorite predecessors as secretary of state was George Marshall. After World War II, he led the aid program to rebuild the countries America had defeated and promote stable democracies. Clinton said she would like to do the same today.

"We have an opportunity right now in the Middle East and North Africa that I'm not sure we are going to be able to meet, because we don't have the resources to invest in the new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia, to help the transition in Libya, to see what happens in Syria and so much else," she said.

A lack of resources is just one of her problems. Clinton said the budget battles in Washington, or, as she put it, "the sausage making," has hurt America's global image.

In her remarks, Clinton also talked about the need to look holistically at national security spending. She and Panetta seemed in sync on many of these issues. That pleased one audience member, former Republican Sen. John Warner.

"We are fortunate to have these two individuals," he said. "Historically, the secretaries of state and defense have boxed each other on many issues and have been contentious."

For his part, Panetta also warned that major budget cuts could inflict great damage on the military. The Pentagon is already facing one round of cuts that would amount to several hundred billion dollars over the next decade.

"If they go beyond that ... that would have devastating effects on our national defense," Panetta said. The defense secretary added that such reductions would "terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world."

Anne Marie Slaughter, Clinton's former policy planning director, said the U.S. was "not helping ourselves in the world at the moment."

"What's been on display is the dysfunction of our political system and that really hurts us at a time when the Arab world is calling for democracy," she said. "We should be advancing our values more strongly than before and instead you have the Chinese chiding us on our inability to get problems solved."

Slaughter, now back at Princeton University, calls this a bumpy time for Clinton to be representing the United States. Some of the administration's signature aid programs are under threat and so is the effort to beef up America's diplomatic presence as troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Peace programs," she said, "are so much cheaper than military programs, but politically it is very hard to sell."

Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman who attended Tuesday's discussion, said she was concerned about the ability of Congress to resolve the budget battles without further hurting America's image abroad.

"I think we have to be very careful," said Harman, who is now the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "We can't do everything. This is a zero sum game. We have a limited number of human resources, financial resources and brain cells and we are going to have to choose very wisely where we intervene and what we do."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Here in Washington today, the secretaries of Defense and State emphasized how economic woes are complicating America's role around the world.

Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton spoke about Iraq and Afghanistan and Clinton addressed the difficulties of diplomacy at a time when the State Department is supposed to be stepping up its efforts in those countries.

NPR's Michele Kelemen was at the panel discussion.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a packed auditorium at the National Defense University that one of her favorite predecessors was George Marshall who, after World War II, led an aid program to rebuild America's former enemies and promote stable democracies. She'd like to do the same today.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON: We have an opportunity right now in the Middle East and North Africa that I'm not sure we're going to be able to meet because we don't have the resources to invest in the new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia to help the transitions in Libya, to see what happens in Syria and so much else.

KELEMEN: A lack of resources is just one of our problems. Clinton says the budget battles in Washington or, as she put it, the sausage making, hurt America's image overall.

Clinton's former policy planning director, Anne Marie Slaughter, puts it this way.

ANNE MARIE SLAUGHTER: We are not helping ourselves in the world at the moment. What's been on display is the dysfunction of our political system and that really hurts us at a time when the Arab world is calling for democracy. We should be advancing our values more strongly than ever before and, instead, you have the Chinese chiding us on our inability to get problems solved.

KELEMEN: Slaughter, now back at Princeton University, calls this a bumpy time for Clinton to be representing the United States. Some of the administration's signature aid programs are under threat and so is the effort to beef up America's diplomatic presence as troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.

SLAUGHTER: I think that's one of the constant paradoxes, which is that those - I would call them - winning the peace programs are so much cheaper than the military programs, but politically, it is very hard to sell.

KELEMEN: Today, Secretary Clinton talked about the need to look at national security spending holistically and she and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seemed in synch on many of these issues, which pleased one audience member, former Republican Senator John Warner.

JOHN WARNER: We're fortunate to have these two individuals. Historically, the secretaries of State and Defense have boxed each other on many issues and contentious.

KELEMEN: But now, Warner says, they're acting like a team and that team has some tough choices ahead, says former California Congresswoman Jane Harmon, who was also at the National Defense University discussion today.

JANE HARMON: I think we have to be very careful. We can't do everything. This is a zero sum game. We have a limited number of human resources, financial resources and brain cells and we're going to have to choose very wisely where we intervene and what we do.

KELEMEN: Harmon, now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is worried about whether Congress can step up in a bipartisan way to resolve the budget battles without further hurting America's image abroad.

HARMON: We need to project a smart power, not hard power, not soft power, smart power, which is a mix of our military might, but our diplomatic and development skills. And if we are viewed with some skepticism in terms of what we can deliver, it makes it much harder to be smart.

KELEMEN: If we don't do this right, she adds, we will pay a price for America's role in the world. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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