Day 4, Wednesday November 5, 2008: A Change Has Come
Following the historic victory of Barack Obama, the thread that runs through all our meetings today is what President-elect Obama’s foreign policy and security policy will be. Our first meetings take us to the State Department; we then meet an Assistant to President Bush who is also Advisor to the National Security Council; have lunch with former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering; and finally, we meet with Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama.
At the State Department we first learn about the challenges of combining policy with public diplomacy, how do you communicate policy to the public, how can you react timely to news from Europe (which is more than 6 hours ahead of the US), how do you know what kind of information to put out there (what is it that people need to hear); how do you reach so many people in so many countries? One of the solutions was to go to Brussels where so much press is already gathered and talk to them there, but that too has its limitations. A new media center with state of the art facilities was a solution as was using new media such as the State Department web site. A web log is kept there; Facebook is used for State Department alumni; some Embassies (e.g. Turkey) use text messaging to reach journalists; web chats are used as well as Youtube. More challenges are discussed in our second presentation at the State Department, the ones in the Middle East, the i-countries: Iraq, Iran and Israel. Our speaker cannot predict what Obama will do (differently) once he takes office and explains that transition teams are already being prepared. In fact, our meeting room is surrounded by offices for these transition teams. Our Third speaker focuses on Afghanistan (more challenges!) and the common interest we (the Netherlands and the USA) have there. The level of violence seems to be on the rise but we are assured that the Taliban can only create the perception of insecurity. They don’t have the power to do any real damage. New measures have already been taken to increase security and training of police and army continues. Our speaker expects that once Obama takes office, he will look to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. There are currently 60,000 troops there half of which are American. We could see an increase in troops by as much 10,000, but most will have to come out of Iraq. This is merely speculation of course. These troops would mainly be used for holding space won from the Taliban which is currently one of the biggest problems. Our speaker does see some good signs as well: 60 new clinics have been built (about 85% of the population now have access to health care); schools are being opened; and, electricity is becoming more widely available through several projects (a water dam, new generators and electricity lines from neighboring states). Our final speaker, Dan Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, talks to us about his expectations for the Obama administration. His foreign policy team has yet to be named but he expects it will be people “we know”, their views on Europe will be no mystery. He expects they will do “less of Bush I and more of Bush II” which is to reach out to Europe and embrace the EU as a strategic partner. As stated before he will do more in Afghanistan and he will ‘reach out’ to Iran. He hopes that Iran will use the new administration as an excuse to be more constructive. Fried warns Obama about Russia, however, as the problems with Russia are serious at the moment, and they may be charming at first but “don’t be fooled”.
We ask him if he has ever witnessed such excitement and craziness in the streets after a Presidential election. He has to admit that he hasn’t but bear in mind, 95% of Washington DC voters voted for Obama! Yesterday it seemed as if all of those voters were out on the streets. A fantastic sight to behold…
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