In an era when most Washington political pundits are prone to predictable and fiercely partisan posturing, Steve Clemons is an informed rarity.
A former director of the Nixon Center and policy advisor to a Democratic senator, Clemons this year parlayed his popular foreign policy and political blog — thewashingtonnote.com — into a job as Washington editor-at-large of the Atlantic magazine. Employing a mixture of non-ideological intellectual curiosity, a clear, easily digestible writing style and a tireless, roll-up-the-sleeves work ethic, Clemons has gradually emerged as one of Washington’s premier foreign policy opinion leaders.
In addition to his editor-at-large duties, Clemons is also director of Atlantic Live, the magazine’s event arm. It’s a position that has solidified his status as one of the leading organizers of major policy and news events in the city. Clemons’s last event, the wide-ranging Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, boasted interviews with foreign policy stalwarts ranging from Vice President Joe Biden to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Clemons describes himself as a “progressive realist,” and sometimes displays a Democratic-leaning bent in his writing, but he’s not hesitant to criticize foreign policy leaders of all political stripes.
Over the past two months, Clemons has chastised President Obama for telling the Palestinians to effectively “stay in the back of the bus” during their recent United Nations statehood bid and ripped Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona for threatening to abandon the so-called congressional super committee’s negotiations on deficit reduction if he doesn’t get his way on defense spending. Clemons also chided Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for hyping the al-Qaeda threat to win budget increases from Congress, while calling Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s foreign policy vision “a big dud.”
“I’m not ideological, and I find that a weakness of how people operate in this town,” Clemons said during a recent expansive interview at the Atlantic offices in Washington’s famed Watergate building. “I try to be open minded and ambidextrous intellectually. You have to keep an open mind in this town. I just don’t believe in drawing a line.
“Anybody who reads my writing will see an effort at trying to continually challenge myself, reach out to different communities, and not let the flame-throwers define who I am and what my views are,” Clemons added.
The son of an Air Force officer, Clemons was born in Texas and moved around frequently as a kid. In 1987, he landed a job as the youngest executive director of the Japan America Society of Southern California.
“It was right on the end of when the Japan investment boom began in the United States, and California was the beachhead of that,” Clemons recalled. “I developed a real interest in foreign affairs and I was interested in the shift I felt about how strategists analyzed power.”
Clemons said the “Kissinger-Nixon crowd” tended to think about power in terms of military might, or “throw weight in nuclear arsenals and things of that sort.”
But Japan’s economic emergence in the 1980s altered that reality.
“Those were the building blocks of power during the Cold War but then you had Japan rising,” he said. “Japan didn’t have a real military capacity. It was defensive and it was tied with the United States. But you saw the yen begin surging and you saw the ’85 Plaza Accord, which essentially devalued the dollar and increased the value of the yen.
“It changed the economic weight of Japan,” Clemons said.
During seven years at the Japan America Society, Clemons learned a lot about international power and economics and met influential people in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including Kissinger, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. His work impressed them and those contacts led to an offer in 1994 to move to Washington to become the first executive director for the Nixon Center, which this year was renamed the Center for the National Interest.
“It got me thinking about how to organize a public affairs center that would deal with these foreign policy issues in a contemporary kind of way,” Clemons said.
During the mid to late 1990s, Clemons went to work on Capitol Hill for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who served on the Armed Services Committee and was interested in U.S.-Chinese relations and U.S.-Asian relations in general. After a few years writing op-eds for Bingaman and advising him on foreign policy, Clemons decided he wanted to write in his own voice. He joined the New America Foundation think tank, serving as executive vice president and later as founder and director of the American Strategy Program. He remains a senior fellow at the organization, in addition to his Atlantic work.
In a Washington environment where information is currency and the number of eyeballs reading your work is indicative of influence, Clemons realized early on that Internet blogs were gaining traction, especially those that weren’t affiliated with mainstream media or the often stodgy op-ed pages at newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. His friend Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, a respected source of left-leaning reporting, encouraged him to start the Washington Note blog.
“To be a blogger and write every day is a hard thing,” Clemons said with a laugh. “I was writing but [as an op-ed contributor]. I wanted to take time to think and strategize and seduce the editor. Blogging is immediate — you get rid of all that foreplay and uncertainty. I didn’t know if I had it in me. But he [Marshall] got someone to design my site and I haven’t really stopped since.”
The transition to blogging wasn’t easy but it was illuminating.
“It completely changed how I looked at the policy and ideas industry in Washington,” Clemons said. “Because you realize that the people who succeeded in the blogosphere are the same people who were succeeding in the old systems — they’re writers, they are professors, thought workers, knowledge workers — but they are coming up in a system that is much faster. You have a new ability to carve up content and deliver it in much more sexy ways with video, etc.”
Clemons, in fact, was an early adopter of videoconferencing to project public policy events across the Web.
“No one was doing live streaming, no one was saying I can have eight people in the room but I can have 600 people watching at their desk,” he said. “The order of magnitude changed the outreach we were doing and it made a difference in a lot of the policy stuff.”
Although Clemons is an avid reader and occasional contributor to newspapers, he doesn’t romanticize them. He is also relieved that blogs are becoming more widely accepted as disseminators of real news — not just snark and commentary.
“I’m not one of those who lament the death of mainline journalism, or the slow erosion,” he said. “There was this point where the blogs became recognized by the political set as powerful and people began talking to them. The accountability became something.”
The root of all of Clemons’s new media exploration remains foreign affairs, evident in his writing at the Atlantic and his ongoing Washington Note blog. In the middle of the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations in September, Clemons wrote an essay after Obama’s speech comparing it to his highly regarded Cairo speech a year earlier and concluding that the president had “lost his groove.”
“Perhaps most disappointing is that President Obama … who felt that achieving an Israel-Palestine two state deal was of such strategic significance to the United States that he made it one of the very first out-of-the-gate priorities of his administration, has not only offered nothing new to break the Israel-Palestine negotiations deep freeze but has acquiesced to the very narrative on the negotiations that Israel embraces,” Clemons wrote. “For Israel at the moment, doing nothing is best.”
He added: “Obama is assuring the further emasculation and perhaps final demise of Palestine’s moderates.”
Clemons told The Diplomat that Obama hasn’t helped to create a solution to the conflict because he hasn’t set forth a “broad plate” of issues that could be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Don’t solve everyone’s problems but lay out generally what the parameters of American expectations are and force the Israeli electorate to respond. He should make the weather,” Clemons suggested. “What we’re doing is letting [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu make the weather and we’re responding to that weather. We’re in a mode of holding our finger in the dike and trying not to offend many on the Israeli side of the equation and the American Jewish community, although I think the American Jewish community is frankly mixed on this. It has put Obama on the defensive, not the offensive, and it makes him look inconsistent with the values he talked about in Cairo.”
Clemons also recently called out Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and current defense secretary, for talking out of both sides of his mouth on al-Qaeda.
“It seems that one week, al-Qaeda is on the run and ‘near collapse’ and the next, al-Qaeda remains the reason why the U.S. needs to continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a Pentagon designed to fight the wrong wars,” Clemons wrote in September. “This is irresponsible hyping of a threat to justify massive defense spending during a period of real fiscal stress.
“Leon Panetta needs to get to work transforming the Pentagon and needs to elevate his game — learning how to talk about vital national security deliverables in terms of deeds done and future strategy rather than trying to convince increasingly skeptical Americans that national security is purely a function of the dollars spent.”
In his interview with us, Clemons made it clear that he respects Panetta, but thinks he should be held accountable for contradictory statements coming from the CIA and Defense Department.
“He said the biggest threat to the U.S. is al-Qaeda and I’m going, ‘Wait, didn’t the intelligence agencies just this week say they are decimated and on the verge of collapse?'” Clemons pointed out. “This is fear mongering for budget numbers that isn’t educated. What I was saying is this flamboyant overstatement of need is no way to do this.
“He was essentially using a beaten foe or hyping a threat to some degree because of what I see as legitimate concerns about how the defense budget will be cut,” Clemons added. “What I object to is the manufacturing of threats to justify budgets.”
In the realm of domestic politics, Clemons has also been critical of what he views as a growing acceptance of anti-Sharia rhetoric from conservatives who fear the influence of radical Islam in America.
“We are at the point today where well-organized minority viewpoints matter,” said Clemons, who has spent time in recent months trying to understand the Tea Party movement better. “New technology has given everybody a voice, even the ones who are more radical or maybe fringe.
“The anti-Sharia groups are probably a combination of people,” he continued, referring to the religious law of Islam. “Some of them see themselves as patriots — in my book pugnacious patriots who have a pretty nativist view of normal Americans based on race. There are many Muslims in the country, and the [anti-Sharia crowd] won’t accept the notion that a Muslim can fundamentally be American. What you have are people stoking fear to network and organize in their communities.”
Turning the subject to President Obama and the recent Libyan conflict, Clemons said the president might have established a laudable “new intervention model” for how the United States responds to international crises. He pointed out that America didn’t get all the credit for Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, but neither did America have to do all the heavy lifting.
“Allowing others to have the spotlight — whether it’s Arab nations or the French — we’re going to get less credit for a successful operation. We’re engaged but we’re not the whole thing,” Clemons said. “I think that’s where we need to be today because we just don’t have the resources to manage everything in the same way we did before.”
As for Obama’s re-election chances heading into 2012, Clemons said the president has serious reason for concern.
“His deficit with Americans right now is some degree of doubt, not about his vision but his ability to produce results and get things done without conceding so much of the field to his opponents politically, so it looks like he’s not a man of principle and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions,” Clemons explained.
Of course, the economy, not foreign policy, is priority number one — something that Clemons said Obama waited way too long to realize.
“A lot of Americans like myself are saying, ‘You had a lot of choices in the policy things you did and you chose a track that many of us said wasn’t going to work,'” Clemons argued. “He should have focused on jobs and the economy right up front and he didn’t do it.”
As a result, Obama may learn the same lesson that President George H.W. Bush learned in 1992, when President Clinton stymied his re-election chances, Clemons says.
“Fundamentally, his fortunes are going to rise and fall on two things: the quality of the opponents who oppose him and where the economy is.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.