By Juliette Kayyem, Posted on Sunday, 12.11.11
Syrian President Bashar Assad must have a lot of uncomplimentary feelings about the United States these days, and now he can add discourteous to the list. Robert Ford, America’s ambassador to Syria, is back in Damascus after dramatically leaving the country in October because of concerns about his safety.
In announcing his return, the State Department made it clear he is to engage “with the full spectrum of Syrian society.” His presence in Syria is “among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people.” Assad is irrelevant, not worth a mention; the Syrians are Ford’s clients.
A few months ago, I named Ford our first true post-WikiLeaks ambassador. An Arab-speaking career diplomat, Ford impressively embraced the Syrian people as they defied Assad’s brutality. And they loved him for that. While Ford’s presence in Syria is unique, his mission to engage the people and bypass traditional state-to-state interactions is no mere aberration. WikiLeaks’ disclosure of secret diplomatic cables may have hurt U.S. relations with other nations, but it also confirmed a transformation in diplomatic efforts. It’s Occupy World, only tonier.
These efforts to engage the public and private sectors are occurring partly because our military options are spent. The tools we have to express dismay and disgust against governments are now dependent on the statements and actions of a diplomatic corps that had been effectively sidelined by a decade of war. Ford’s unique role isn’t simply that he is returning to a brutal nation; it is that the United States is forgoing the more dramatic, but all- too-conclusive, gesture of ending our mission there. In the absence of bombs, we will give you Ford.
Meanwhile, our second post-WikiLeaks ambassador, Gary Locke, has become a rock star in China. Locke, the former commerce secretary and the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing, is making a splash in a nation that is used to the excesses of its government officials. He flies commercial class and carries his own backpack. He made headlines when he and his family stood in line for an hour for a tour of the Great Wall.
Apparently, this approach is making the Chinese government look bad. China has launched a discrediting campaign against Locke, suggesting that his humility is an act. It has also imposed restrictions on media coverage of him.
But Locke’s presence serves as an important counterweight to this political silly season in the United States. The strange and hostile campaign rhetoric of Republicans who want to get “tough” on communist China may be good for primary talk, but it’s not good policy. It’s a nice 1970s way of looking at the world, but China long ago abandoned communism’s economic policies. And the nation isn’t going anywhere; the future of both the United States and China, as the two largest economies in the world, are inextricably tied.
Only candidate Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, seems to get this, but he, too, may be tinged with diplomatic subtleties. And while the Obama administration’s recent moves to counter Chinese military capabilities in the Pacific may fall into the getting “tough” category, Locke has better things to do. He needs to buy his own coffee at a Beijing Starbucks as shocked Chinese snap pictures of him.
It is true that WikiLeaks is a bad word in government circles. But the diplomatic corps came off pretty well in the substance of the disclosures. The cables also suggested that these diplomats were more than passive observers. Sure they had that role as objective liaisons and party hosts, but they clearly were engaged with the people of their host nations. The only problem was all this information was secret.
This new openness may be the nature of our times, a wired global community, or perhaps WikiLeaks was a strange liberation. Hundreds of ambassadors and liaisons are engaging in people power. It’s risky and dangerous, but citizens around the world are intrigued. Even if these diplomats are a little rude to their hosts.