Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’


January 18, 2015


When I saw the headline “John Kerry Decides The Best Way To Apologize To France Is To Have James Taylor Perform,” I figured it had to be from The Onion. Turns out it was real news: after critics condemned President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for not attending the solidarity rally held in Paris last weekend in response to the assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and subsequent terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris, Kerry went to the French capital and brought James Taylor. Taylor performed “You’ve Got a Friend” at Paris city hall as a type of apology for the sending of U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley instead of a more prominent representative to the demonstration. Now, I love James Taylor as much as the next Seventies singer/songwriter fan, but I couldn’t envision him as a powerful diplomatic tool. Before I learned that the criticism had come from Americans, not the French, I wondered if anyone in Kerry’s office had thought a better idea was to send Fleetwood Mac to sing “Go Your Own Way.” If Hartley wasn’t good enough, then maybe it was time to say that after 200+ years of a tempestuous on-again off-again relationship, “loving you isn’t the right thing to do.” But France’s ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, has tried to assure Americans that the French hold no hard feelings over which American representative did or did not attend the rally. Araud has suggested that the U.S. media has created a controversy where there isn’t one and stated that French citizens are surprised that this is even a topic of conversation. (Maybe President Obama should send Fleetwood Mac to tell the media, and blowhards like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to go their own ways.)

The whole thing got me thinking about strange diplomatic gifts, and after doing a bit of research, I discovered that heads of state and diplomatic representatives have been exchanging unusual presents for centuries. In 1502, a Venetian diplomat gave an Egyptian prince a block of parmesan cheese, a luxury item at the time. As a greeting from the “New World,” Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes sent sorcerers to Pope Clement VII. Louis XVI gave Benjamin Franklin a diamond-encrusted snuffbox. The Marquise de Lafayette gave President John Quincy Adams an alligator. In 1826, Muhammad Ali of Egypt gifted a giraffe to King Charles X of France. From one paranoid autocrat to another, Josef Stalin sent Kim Il Sung an armored limousine. Kim Jong Il’s favorite diplomatic gift allegedly was a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. The Chinese have been giving pandas as diplomatic gifts since the Tang Dynasty, and Richard Nixon received two, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in 1972. President Obama once gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with showtunes. In 2013, Malian officials gave a camel to French President Francoise Hollande as thanks for French military assistance against Islamic rebels. Hollande regifted the camel to a Timbuktu family, which later enjoyed it in a stew.

Compared to some of these, perhaps James Taylor singing wasn’t really a strange gift. After all, didn’t rock-n-roll end the Cold War?

Further reading:



September 29, 2014

With pledges of assistance from allies around the world, and the approval of Congress, President Obama has launched a military response to the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The intervention will include targeted airstrikes and increased humanitarian aid. The president has emphasized that the U.S. will not deploy ground troops to fight IS, although some military leaders, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that defeating IS will eventually require ground forces, be they American or otherwise. U.S. public opinion regarding the president’s plan is mixed. According to poll results published in the New York Times, Americans generally support the use of airstrikes but are wary about another U.S. war in the Middle East. They have good reason to be—in addition to military leaders such as Dempsey, foreign policy analysts and even the president have alluded to this latest war in Iraq being a long one.

What to do after the war does not appear to be part of the conversation. U.S. military strategists and policymakers believe it will be difficult to defeat IS, and they are concerned about the risk of IS remnants morphing into another terrorist group in the aftermath. It seems obvious that the end of IS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism, so what will the U.S. and its global partners, so keen to launch airstrikes, do to neutralize the threat of recurring terrorism after this war ends? What are the political solutions that will prevent the next terrorist group from surfacing?

Since 1945, counterinsurgency has been central to the American way of war as the method for bringing about long-term political change, but it has rarely been successful. In the past decade, the U.S. failed to win enough hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring stability to those places, which is not so much about methods as it is about the foreigners who bring them. As Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has noted, “Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states—not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.”[1] In the case of building a secure Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals can play a central role. Foreign policy conversations in the U.S. must begin focusing on how local intellectuals can establish a viable state and prevent another extremist group from rising out of the ashes of IS if the U.S. and its allies can destroy it. Looking beyond airstrikes, U.S. policymakers should reach out to groups such as the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq, which for the past few months has been circulating a statement online calling for a UN-supervised conference of reconciliation and a restoration of democratic political institutions by an Iraqi coalition that transcends sectarian lines. The statement blames the U.S. military for creating the current mess in Iraq and calls for international political support rather than force. Neither this group, nor the activism of other Iraqi intellectuals, including a group of university professors who founded a campaign called “Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed,” has received much coverage in the U.S. media, but these may be the groups that can bring lasting political change to Iraq.[2] They appear to be homegrown, not lackeys of the U.S., and they are media- and Internet-savvy. The Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq has used blogs to gain attention to its statement, which as of June had 1,300 signatures. Members of Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed have broadcast videos of their demonstrations on YouTube. These are individuals who want political change and an end to civil war, so U.S. diplomats should figure out who they are, what their plans are, and how much support they have from the broader Iraqi population.

Now that the U.S. has widened its war against IS into Syria, Americans must confront the issue of what’s next there, too. In a speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. will arm and train moderate forces opposing the Assad government, and he called for a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war. The president said the U.S. is “prepared to engage in that effort,” but how? For now, Assad is allowing American fighter jets into Syrian air space to strike IS, and he has voiced support for U.S.-led air strikes, so is he now an ally? Just one year ago, President Obama was poised to go to war against Syria for Assad’s use of poisonous gas against his citizens. How will President Obama explain the arming of troops fighting Assad while enjoying Assad’s approval of U.S. warplanes over Syria? Who will lead the political settlement President Obama envisions?

As in Iraq, Syrian intellectuals may be the answer. In June, a group of Syrian intellectuals established the Syrian Association for Citizenship and New Culture, which issued a statement calling for an end to extremism and the establishment of democracy and good governance practices.[3] Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, recently interviewed Syrian activists and intellectuals regarding U.S. military intervention against IS, and he encountered a variety of attitudes from opposition to ambivalence to support. The U.S. media should cover these individuals, and American diplomats should be in conversation with them.[4] President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. Congress have decided that it is in America’s interest to fight a war against IS, but without a vision for long-term political stability and an alliance with Iraqis who can implement it, airstrikes and humanitarian aid will, at best, offer a pause in a never ending war against groups like IS in the Middle East.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013,

[2] Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi intellectuals start campaigns to end bloodshed,” Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, Sept. 3, 2014,

[3] “Syrian Intellectuals Establish New Culture Association,” The Syrian Observer, June 2, 2014,

[4] “The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals,” by Danny Postel, Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Sept. 20, 2014,

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