Interview with Steve Clemons

Business Times - 10 Jan 2009

Obamaland's policy wonk

Influential intellectual entrepreneur Steve Clemons hopes the new president will 'erase the last eight years' of the Bush administration. By Leon Hadar

SITTING in the office of Steven (Steve) Clemons at the New America Foundation, and waiting to interview one of the most hyperactive politicos in Washington, DC, I am stealing a brief glance at my countdown-to-inauguration-day-2009 digital watch I had received from a personal friend. It reads: 31 Days 08 Hrs 39 Min: 46 Sec.

That is how they measure political time in Washington these days. We are in the middle of the interregnum, the period of time between the election of a new President of the United States and his inauguration. George W Bush the outgoing president remains in power, but as a lame duck - or, to be more precise, as a dead duck - while the inside-the-beltway crowd (as they call Washington insiders) together with the rest of the country - and the entire universe of 'Obamaniacs' - are waiting for Barack H Obama to arrive in Washington with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law and take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The headquarters of the New America Foundation on Connecticut Avenue are located only a few blocks from the White House. This intellectual powerhouse is part of a large and growing industry of policy shops in Washington, one of the city's 340 think tanks, which include the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, that have been on the front lines of the political and ideological combat here.

The New America Foundation - and the other think tanks in the area that employ thousands of people and generate millions for the local economy - also serve as way stations for public intellectuals like Mr Clemons, who spend their time offering advice to policymakers, preparing position papers, and holding forums to promote their policy agendas. Many of them are waiting their turn to join a new administration.

And these days, when the phone rings in your office at the New America Foundation, you are probably hoping that someone on the Obama transition team is on the line and asking you to email your recent position paper on, say, reforming the healthcare system or restructuring the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), or better still, inviting you to drop by for a job interview.

'Anonymous', who describes himself (or herself) as 'someone who really does deserve a very top spot in Obamaland but is sitting pensively waiting for a call while trying to pretend he/she is not' posted a piece of advice to those think tankers - wishing and hoping and praying for a job in the new administration - on Mr Clemons' popular Washington Note blog (

'I read the lists of names on the transition teams, making mental notes of people I know well, people I pretend to know well, and the dreaded category of people I wish I had made the effort to know well before they were on the transition team,' Anonymous writes.

'I check to make sure I have all of their email addresses and send them a note congratulating them and offering to do anything I can to help,' adds Anonymous, who ends the post with '. . . oh wait, that's my phone. Gotta run'.

Mr Clemons denies (of course!) that he is Anonymous. But don't worry; he does receive a lot of phone calls, text messages and emails, including from members of the Obama transition team. And in most cases, it's the caller that wants something from Mr Clemons, and what he or she gets from him comes usually in the form of information, knowledge, ideas, or juicy political gossip, including the latest Washington 'buzz' or 'scoop'.

This may be Washington, DC, and not Seattle, Washington. But even this conservative - some would call it 'stuffy' - city (where men dress like insurance adjusters, according to GQ) has been dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet Age in which one's influence depends very much on the ability to produce information, manipulate symbols, construct narratives and leverage ideas.

And in the here and now of 'Cool Washington', Mr Clemons is one of the premier intellectual entrepreneurs. While his official title at the New America Foundation sounds, well, boring (he is 'senior fellow and director of the American Strategy program'), he is really a very cool kind of guy - a cross between a public intellectual, a political operator, a media star, and a world traveller. And he does not dress like an insurance adjuster.

After shaking my hand and inquiring about the latest developments in Southeast Asia, Mr Clemons takes a few moments to discuss with an assistant the last-minute details regarding a conference on American foreign policy in the Middle East he is organising and which will run live simultaneously on C-SPAN, a public affairs cable network, and on his blog.

The conference, like much of what he has been doing in recent weeks and months is part of a campaign aimed at influencing the policy agenda of the new president who, he hopes, will 'erase the last eight years' of the Bush administration. Mr Clemons is confident that this conference like many others he has organised will help trigger a 'paradigm change' when it comes to the new administration's policy in the Middle East, including on Iraq, Iran and Israel/Palestine.

'I am a surfer of opportunities and ideas,' is the way Mr Clemons describes himself to me, sounding a bit breezy, like the beach dweller he used to be when he lived and worked in California in the early 1990s. The Washington Note blog that he publishes focuses on global political and economic policy issues and is a 'must read' among 'insiders' (Congress, State Department, media) in Washington and is widely browsed worldwide.

If Mr Obama will be remembered as the first leading presidential candidate who succeeded in utilising the Internet, YouTube and other new media during his run for the White House, then Mr Clemons will be remembered as one of the first policy wonks in Washington whose online exposure has been central to his success in getting his message across Washington and beyond.

'Remember that foreign policy and other global issues like trade used to be the province of the elites, dominated by the high priests of the East Coast establishment,' Mr Clemons explains. 'My blog helps open up the debate on global affairs, and gets more people as opposed to the elites involved in the process.'

Indeed, Mr Clemons has a lot of fans outside Washington whom he invites on the posts on his blogs to meet with him in this or that cafe in Chicago or Portland, Milan or Tokyo, when he goes for conferences. 'Unfortunately, most Americans do not know a lot about global issues, but my blog helps to educate them,' he insists.

'I am helping in creating economies of scale and efficiencies by building a wider and younger group of professionals and analysts interested in global affairs.'

Mr Clemons launched The Washington Note in August 2004 'at a time when the neoconservatives were still in charge and critics of the Iraq War like me were a minority,' he recalls. 'The neocons seemed to be winning in the war of ideas and the 'other side' needed to exert its influence.'

Mr Clemons together with a small staff and several guest bloggers started posting reports and analyses critical of the Bush administration's unilateralist foreign policy and blaming it for eroding American prestige and influence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

'The feedback we received was fantastic - we helped to energise a more assertive anti-neoconservative foreign policy community in Washington and around the country, linking with other groups, promoting the debate over the Iraq War and mobilising support in opposition against a US attack on Iran,' he says.

But notwithstanding Mr Clemons' critique of the Bush foreign policy, you should not pigeonhole him as a left-wing activist or anti-war polemicist. 'I grew up in a military family, with parents from Texas and Oklahoma, and I have always regarded myself as someone who came from a traditional, pragmatic Midwestern conservatism with strong Republican leanings,' he explains. 'But after eight years of self-proclaimed conservative Republicans promoting Big Government at home and launching ideological crusades abroad, it is getting very hard to say who is a Republican and who is a conservative anymore.'

From Mr Clemons' perspective, classic conservatism is in decline, his old Republican home is in disarray, and he has been searching for political parties and candidates that will advance 'pragmatic strategies and not hardcore dogmatic solutions'.

'I know that it is not politically correct to say this, but (President Richard) Nixon was the shrewdest and most pragmatic Republican president that this country had in recent memory, especially when it came to foreign policy,' Mr Clemons notes, recalling that, unlike the current crew of Republican politicians, Nixon also supported the idea that government should play a role in the economy, especially in response to failures on the part of market forces.

That Mr Obama ended up as Mr Clemons' presidential candidate reflects his hope that the next president will discover his 'inner Nixon', in a sense of adopting pragmatic solutions to domestic and foreign policy issues. 'I am very encouraged by the fact that Obama has been in touch with Scowcroft and I think that the fact that he has chosen establishment figures like Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and Jim Jones for his foreign policy and national security team suggests that he is planning to make some major strategic shifts on Iran, Russia and China, and return to the principles that guided us in the pre-George W Bush era.'

With regard to Asia, Mr Clemons suggests that the US has made many missteps since the Asian crisis of 1997/98. '(Lawrence) Summers and (Robert) Rubin squashed efforts by the Japanese and the Asians to create a regional monetary architecture that supposedly violated the principles of the Washington Consensus,' he points out.

'So since the end of that crisis, the Japanese and the Chinese and the Koreans amassed these massive amounts of foreign reserves which produced these enormous imbalances in the global financial system. That encouraged this gigantic spending and consumption in America and the saving and export-driven policies of the Chinese and the rest of Asia.

' And that is where we find ourselves today, affected by the destructive outcome of this process: a global economic earthquake. Now, China is emerging as an economic giant (it is the Google of nations, an economy that is expected to grow) while America is losing ground - it is the Xerox of nations, an economy that seems to be underperforming, lacking innovation, and is expected to decline.

'At the same time, we have been distracted by the war in Iraq and the many crises in the Middle East and leaving other policy issues, including East Asia, unattended. I met in China a guy in the foreign policy establishment and asked him what he was working on. 'Well, we are trying to keep you distracted in small Middle Eastern countries,' he said. Indeed, while we were absorbed with Iraq, China was rising economically.'

Mr Clemons' prediction that Washington under Mr Obama is going to chart a new direction in US foreign policy will probably come as good news to East Asians, who were troubled both by the Bush administration's unilateralist military policies in the Middle East and its inattention to China and other parts of East Asia.

'We need to ask ourselves what China most needs,' he says. 'Is it Taiwan? What can we do to help China achieve its strategic priorities so we will be able to lock China into our strategic priorities, like Iran and North Korea? We have to remember that without China we could not have made any progress on North Korea.

'But I am not really sure whether Obama is committed to such a strategy that places China at the centre of our foreign policy. I wish his first foreign trip will be to China in order to highlight its importance to us. But my guess is that Obama will first travel to Indonesia and then to China.'

But while Mr Obama may pay more attention to East Asia and global economic issues, Mr Clemons does not think that the direction he needs to take will necessarily please the Chinese and the rest of East Asia.

'Obama was elected in order to repair the American economy and assist the nation's middle class that has been devastated by the kind of policies pursued by Bush and earlier administrations,' Mr Clemons explains.

'We need to change the global financial system and the way it operates today, when we Americans overconsume and underproduce, and the Chinese and the Japanese overproduce and underconsume. We cannot accept the status quo, when the Chinese continue to export their way to prosperity. And we will need a new global financial architecture that brings more balance into the system.'

Mr Clemons also predicts that the Obama administration is going to slow down the process of global trade liberalisation. 'Moving fast on Doha is going to antagonise many of Obama's core political constituencies, including the labour movement, and burst his political bubble,' he points out. 'Obama promised to reassess Nafta and expressed opposition to the proposal for a free trade agreement with Korea. So if he decides to renege on these commitments, you should expect the Democratic Congress to oppose him.'

'There is a lot of scepticism in Washington and around the country about the notion that Americans have benefited from the process of market opening and that it rewarded only a small sector of the population.

'In fact, many of the supporters of manic globalisation proved to be crooks. What we need now is not an anti-trade regime, but a new model on trade that is neither protectionism nor manic globalisation, and that could demonstrate to America's middle class that they will benefit from the expansion of global trade.'


Born 1962, Salina, Kansas, USA

Publisher of the influential blog dedicated to Washington politics: 'The Washington Note'

1999-present: Senior Fellow and Director, New America Foundation, Washington, DC

Co-Founder and Director, Japan Policy Research Institute

1997-99 Executive Vice-President, Economic Strategy Institute, Washington, DC

1995-97 Senior Policy Adviser for International and Economic Affairs to US Senator Jeff Bingaman (Democrat from New Mexico)

1994-95: Executive Director, Nixon Centre, Washington, DC

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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