The Issues: Foreign Affairs

Jeffrey Goldberg and James Fallows discuss Hillary Clinton, the Middle East, China, and the possible pitfalls of Obama's rational approach in this online chat transcript.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: What do you want to talk about first? Hillary?

JAMES FALLOWS: Sure, so how about if we begin this way: Through the miracle of the 13-hour time difference, I was dozing off at just about the time Hillary Clinton began her "it's a great honor to be here" preamble before John Kerry's committee. Then I dozed off immediately. What'd I miss?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: From what I could see, nothing much. She's a very careful person, and very prepared. I actually have high hopes for her; I've never met anyone in politics who studies as hard as she does, and who works as much. As for her judgment. Pretty good, overall, in my humble opinion.

JAMES FALLOWS: That sounds very responsible! I mean, of you! Plus, of her. I will admit that I was initially leery of her selection for this role. (I know that you were on the record with the opposite view.) I had been starting to type out the reasons for that concern, then realized I was getting back into the Hillary/Barack swamp of yesteryear.

So I'll lop off that part of my discourse and extend the question to you. The first big emergency on her (and Obama's) to-do list is obviously going to concern Gaza and, by extension, Iran. This is a subject that you actually know quite a bit about. In the realm of the real world, what can she (and Team Obama) really DO to make a difference?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: On Gaza, she actually offered up the only moderately surprising note of the day: She spoke of Israel's need to defend itself, but she also talked about the humanitarian crisis quite a bit. Tea-leaf readers might actually see in this a kind of hint that the Obama Administration might not be quite as patient as the Bush Administration when it comes to extended military campaigns launched by Israel. This is not to say she's not a friend to Israel. But I think you're going to see, over time, something that Obama suggested to me once in an interview, that part of the job of an American president is to "hold up a mirror" for Israel to help it see the consequences of its actions. Very briefly, I fully expect the administration to jump into Middle East peacemaking, such as it is.

JAMES FALLOWS: You've made me wish I stayed up a little longer! The last thing I remember hearing was some by-play between Kerry and HRC about their respective roles as presidents-manqué, but I was so near to slumber that I don't recall the details. But to the merits, this sounds positive in three ways: in suggesting that Hillary's knowledge of and bona fides on this issue (i.e., being trusted in Israel) might be harnessed toward Obama's larger "holding up the mirror" aim; in the "hold up a mirror" approach itself, which is a positive way to discuss the huge strategic hole Israel appears to be digging for itself at the moment, as we have both discussed online in The Atlantic; and to get the administration working on this issue from the start—rather than waiting, as presidents usually do, until they're halfway or more into their term to get cracking. So, that's to the good. If you have any more on this, fire away. Otherwise, I'll ask about another area.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I can't tell you how sick I am of talking about this. I keep coming back to it, of course, because it's an obsession, but I don't like talking about it sometimes because I don't see much of a way out—I think that, unless something radically changes, the Middle East is moving toward tragedy. It's also very personal. My only worry about Obama's hyper-engagement with the issue is that presidents sometime have a tendency to force a process when the region isn't ready for a process. To be fair to Bush (words you read all the time on the Atlantic website), when he came into power, he was faced with a violent uprising, the election of Ariel Sharon, who was uninterested in negotiation, plus definitive proof that Arafat was trying to sneak Iranian weapons into Gaza. So there wasn't a whole hell of a lot he could do, initially. Anyway, let's talk about something happy, like the fact that, if I read you correctly, China now pretty much owns the U.S. Could I ask you a question? What does Obama think of China? I haven't paid enough attention to the things he's said on the subject.

JAMES FALLOWS: On the first part of what you say, I agree—both about the weariness with the entire subject (it was more than 30 years ago that I was with Jimmy Carter at Camp David, when he shuttled back and forth between Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin) and the risks of forced early engagement. Everything on this topic involves impossible choices—somehow "dilemma" is not quite a strong enough word—so, as you suggest, let's move on.

What, indeed, Obama thinks about China has been on my mind a lot—and not just because I'm naturally interested in the place where I'm living. Here's the puzzle from my point of view: Everything about Obama's general approach to the world, and to America's-place-in-the-world, suggests that he "should" have as sophisticated and "balanced" a view of China as he does of, say, his boyhood home of Indonesia. By balanced I don't mean namby-pamby but rather one that recognizes the twists and complexities of the place. For Indonesia: that it's overwhelmingly Muslim, but is nothing at all like most Arab Muslim, states, etc. (I could go on.) And for China, a "balanced" view would be one that recognizes what a huge and important state this is; how powerful it is and might yet become; but also how fragile it is; how controlled in some areas and chaotic in others; and all of that. Yet virtually nothing he has SAID about China has anything like that texture. In the campaign, it was all poisoned dog food and lead-coated toy sets. (His web site had a more "balanced" policy, but we never heard it out of his mouth.) So I assume that he'll be as deft about China as he's been when talking about other places. But that's mainly faith for the moment.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I'm glad to learn that the reason I've missed hearing him talk about China is that he hasn't really talked about China. I have no opinions here, just questions (which is refreshing, no?), though I have to state my opposition to the manufacture and distribution of poisoned dog food. It just seems to me—and this comes from reading you—that we haven't at all dealt with the central role China plays in our economic life, and an honest and open discussion of our precarious relationship with, among other things, debt, would lead many people here to think twice about becoming further beholden to China—not because it's China, but because it's not us, or at the very least, our indebtedness is not spread around. But again, I don't even understand the implications of what I've just written. So I'll ask: If we stimulate our way out of this recession, will China end up having even more power over our economy?

JAMES FALLOWS: Ah, this is a great question—or, to be more precise, it's a question that has been on my mind and that I'm trying to wrestle with in a forthcoming article.

In one way, the big, linked collapse of the world economies has been chastening to people in China. It was less than six months ago that the Beijing Olympics made it seem that they could do anything they wanted. When the U.S. credit/financial freeze-up began to get really serious soon after that, leading to a huge falloff in consumer demand in October, the initial Chinese press impulse was to blame America for screwing up its own economy and everybody else's too. You see a LITTLE bit of that in the interview I did with Gao Xiqing in the magazine.  But by now, it's clear that this is a big worldwide disaster that is revealing big imbalances and excesses in all economies around the world—and I think it's been sobering to many "experts" in China how serious the effects are here, and how long it is going to take to redress them. More on this another time—but again to return to your question, a VERY, VERY important part of international relations in these next few months will be how exactly China , the U.S., and Europe handle these reflation/stimulus plans .

The simplest way to put the problem is related to exactly the question you ask: If the MAIN effect of a U.S. stimulus program is to get people buying a lot of Chinese-made goods again—either because China is not doing things to stimulate demand in its own economy or for other reasons that would take too long to summarize now—then the American economy won't recover as fast as everyone hopes (not as many domestic jobs), and the sense of being "owned" by China will increase, and the distortions of China's own domestic economy will get worse (too many exports, too low a domestic living standard), and other bad things! So, I'll try to explain in my next article how to avoid that happening! Sorry this is so long, over to you again

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: See, this is my worry about our obsession with the Middle East peace process. What would you say if I told you that it's not the most important thing in the world? What would you say if I told you it wasn't even the most important thing in the Middle East? (The Shia-Sunni split is, I think.) Anyway, we've been typing and typing and we've barely touched on most of the world's problem spots. We haven't even talked about engagement with Iran, or the possible coming collapse of Pakistan. I vote for these two, and not Gaza, as the biggest crisis issues in the first months of the Obama administration. And in case you're wondering, I'm for a time-limited approach to Iran, but I'm doubtful it will work. The Iranian leadership wants nukes more than it wants friends in Washington. But enough about me. Give me your guess for the biggest foreign policy crisis of the first months.

JAMES FALLOWS: Ah, you stole the question I was about to ask you! A big nightmare of the presidency, and of the press, and of life in general, is that emergencies crowd out the things that matter more long term. (Yes, I know, I could write a Stephen Covey-style self-help book on this theme.) So Gaza is an emergency—though I agree with you that it matters less than some other issues in the long run. I think that steady relations with China—and working steadily with China on climate/environment issues in particular—may look, in historical retrospect like the very most important foreign policy challenges for this administration. But it's not likely to come to a head in an immediate emergency. The two candidates I can imagine as genuine crises—that is, situations that demand and command a U.S. president's attention, and that are important enough that he can't just fob them off—are the two you named, Pakistan and Iran. In each case the "importance" quotient is of course hugely magnified by their nuclear possession or potential. And by the fact that, like most decisions a president "gets" to make, the obvious answers are all bad. So let me ask you: Is there ANYTHING Barack Obama could say in his inauguration speech or his upcoming press conferences that would reassure you that the U.S. is prepared in the right way for Iran/Pakistan problems? Or Iraq?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Look, it will be a relief to know that the calm and thoughtful and self-assured Obama will be dealing with these issues, and that he'll be surrounded by people who were chosen, at least in part, because they actually bring expertise to the table. I do worry, of course, that, like many Americans, he'll mirror-image, which is to say, he'll project his rationality onto people who might not be rational. Of course it seems insane that Iran would threaten Israel or the Sunni gulf states with nuclear weapons, but it would be mirror-imaging simply to say, "I wouldn't make the wrong choices if I were the Iranian leadership, so therefore they won't make the wrong choices." My only worry is that Obama doesn't think irrationally, in other words. I want him to act rationally, but I want him to understand that not everything in the world is rational, and, more importantly, that not every problem comes with a solution. In reference to Pakistan, for instance, I understand what he wants, but I'm not sure he can change 1,000 years of Pashtun history, or dampen the rivalry between Hindus and Muslims that pushes Pakistan closer to extremism. I have confidence, however, that he'll be rigorous in trying ways to limit the fallout on America from dangerous events abroad.

JAMES FALLOWS: That is so sane-seeming an answer that I am tempted to wrap it up here! Is there anything else we should exchange thoughts on before we sign off—you at near-midnight, me in mid-day?

But ... I have one further thought, tied very much to your emphasis on Obama's mental and temperamental rationality—and the ways that those are virtues UNLESS they lead to assumptions that the rest of the world works just the same way. As a general message, I think that's one that Americans who have not spent long periods outside the country don't fully appreciate. And based on what I know of the Middle East, it's especially important there. But weirdly, I have less of that concern when it comes to dealings with my current home of China than most other places. Yes, its world view is very different from America's. But on a surprising range of issues, we can assume normal, let's-get-down-to-business self-interested rationality. For what it's worth.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, you know, I like to wrap these things up with a robust and muscular "God bless America." But I won't, because, hey, I'm not the president. One thought I had about the president is this—how can one person possibly know all there is to know? I mean, we've hit on Gaza, China, the economy, Pakistan, and Iran, in one short conversation, and these topics represent about four percent of all the topics a president needs to know about. You worked in the White House—is this just a ridiculous, undoable job? A president has to be fluent, reasonable, informed, and confident whenever he opens his mouth. But what if he's not up to speed on the tin-mining crisis in Bolivia?

JAMES FALLOWS: Another great point. THE skill of managing this job ... well, I probably shouldn't finish that sentence, because the only president I've seen first hand is Jimmy Carter, and, as Carolyn Kennedy would say, "you know..." But seriously, it struck me that there were two crucial realities to face about the job, and each incumbent's reaction to them says a lot about how the administration will fare. One is that EVERY decision that comes to a president, every single one, will be a difficult, no-good-answers, 50.1/49.9 decision, for this simple reason: If it were an easier choice, someone else would have made it already! We mock the idea of the president as "decider" because of the way our current incumbent described that role. But it's true. It is one damned impossible choice after another all the day long. The other reality is that a president cannot possibly know enough about every thing that is going to come up. So managing this constant uncertainty is again the difference between good ones and bad ones. One reason GWB was so miserable a president, in my view, is that he valued fast, streamlined, non-reexamined decisions so highly that he was HAPPY to have limited information. Jimmy Carter was the other extreme. I did once walk into his private office to see him reviewing thrust-to-weight specs for the B-1 bomber. One's hope for Obama—and at this stage we've all got to have hope—is that a combination of intelligence, temperament, and experience will have taught him something about how to learn the relevant facts about areas where he can't possibly become an expert, and how to insure that he keeps getting the awkward dissenting views brought before him. We'll see. And as you have emboldened me to say, God Bless America, from Beijing!