One word and a phrase abounded at a recent day of briefings at the State Department. The briefings, an annual event sponsored by the National Conference of Editorial Writers, allow a small group of journalists from across the nation to hear from top diplomats and discuss a broad range of foreign policy issues.
The frequently used word was "acting" as in one temporarily holding a rank or position. There was an acting assistant secretary for international security and non-proliferation, an acting assistant secretary of state for public affairs, an acting assistant secretary for African affairs and an acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.
In the run-up to the inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama received praise for his alacrity in filling key posts and his ability to take the reins of power quickly. When he announced his national security team on Dec. 1, Obama said:
"I will be in close contact with these advisers, who will be working with their counterparts in the Bush Administration to make sure that we are ready to hit the ground running on Jan. 20. Given the range of threats that we face and the vulnerability that can be a part of every presidential transition I hope that we can proceed swiftly for those national security officials who demand confirmation."
As at the Treasury Department, Obama has made some high-level appointments at State, including Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke. But it's at the level of assistants that policy is often crafted and enacted, and that level at the State Department remains remarkably barren.
Four months into the Obama administration, 33 out of 45 leadership posts that require a presidential appointment remain unfilled, with 13 late nominations awaiting confirmation and 20 positions for which no nominee has yet been put forward.
Among the critical geographic and functional areas in addition to non-proliferation lacking a presidential appointment are assistant secretaries for: international narcotics and law enforcement affairs; diplomatic security; western hemisphere affairs; and democracy, human rights and labor.
Leaving so many positions unfilled in a dangerous world may not sound smart. The operative phrase in the Obama-Clinton State Department, however, is "smart power." What is smart power? Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, deputy coordinator in the office of the coordinator for counterterrorism, put it this way:
"Smart power is the holistic approach that we have been using for several years now in our counterterrorism efforts."
The emphasis in italics is mine, showing that Obama smart power is not much different in substance from the presumably dumb power of the final Bush years. We're still firing missiles in Afghanistan and Pakistan, "air raiding villages and killing civilians" as candidate Obama once put it. We just have more articulate spokesmen defending the policy.
Another commonality between late-Bush and early-Obama foreign policy is that you hear almost nothing now about human rights and freedom. George W. Bush made a compelling case after 9-11 that international security was integrally linked with the growth of democratic institutions and individual liberty.
In pursuing a foreign policy that wasn't based solely on cold, hard national interests but also on universal values, Bush was following a rich bipartisan tradition that in recent memory encompassed Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Scoop Jackson and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
The realists reasserted control in the second Bush term. Unpopular at home and abroad, Bush was a poor spokesman for the freedom agenda. U.S. foreign policy is still, unfortunately, unburdened by the oppression of women, the educational impoverishment of girls, the execution of gays or the imprisonment of political dissidents.
Obama immensely popular and eloquent could be their champion.
Should be their champion.