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Brain Dead in Washington: Out of Ideas in a Changing World

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently took a four-day tour of the Middle East, at each stop telling various allies and enemies, in classic American fashion, what they must do.  And yet as she spoke, events in Lebanon, IraqAlgeria, and even Egypt seemed to spin ever more out of American control.  Meanwhile, the regime in Tunisia, one of the autocratic and repressive states Washington has been supporting for years even as it prattles on about "democracy" and "human rights," began to crumble.   

In Doha, Qatar, in front of an elite audience peppered with officials from the region, Clinton suddenly issued a warning to Arab leaders that people had "grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and that "in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." With Tunisia boiling over and food riots in Algeria and Jordan, she insisted that it was time for America's allies to mend their ways and open themselves to "reform." A New York Times report, typical of coverage here, described her talk as a "scalding critique" which also "suggested a frustration that the Obama administration's message to the Arab world had not gotten through."

And there, of course, was the rub.  After all, since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in January 2009, U.S. foreign policy has essentially been in late-second-term-Bush mode and largely on autopilot, led by a holdover Secretary of Defense and a Secretary of State who might well have been chosen by John McCain, had he won the presidency.  Look at Clinton's address again and, beyond a reasonably accurate description of some regional problems (and that frustration), only the vaguest of bromides are on offer.

The problem: Washington's foreign-policy planners seem to be out of ideas, literally brain-dead, just as the world is visibly in flux.  In their reactions, even in their rhetoric, there is remarkably little new under the sun, though from Tunisia to India, China to Brazil, our world is changing before our eyes.  

One of the new things on this planet has certainly been WikiLeaks, whose document dumps were initially greeted by the Obama administration with stunned puzzlement and then with an instructively blind and repressive fury.  (Forget the fact that the State Department should be thanking its lucky stars for WikiLeaks' latest document dump.  Overshadowed by the Pentagon as it is, all the ensuing attention gave it a prominence that is increasingly ill-deserved.)  As Juan Cole, who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website, makes clear in a recent TomDispatch post, it's not just America's Arab allies who are "sinking into the sand."  These days, for the Obama administration, it's a quagmire world. 

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