Salvadoran voters go to the polls next Feb. 2 to choose between former guerrilla Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the ruling FMLN and San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the ARENA party as their next president. By all accounts, it will be a rough-and-tumble showdown between two parties with starkly different views for El Salvador's future.
Now, dirty tricks are dirty tricks, but last week President Mauricio Funes, in a bid to boost the electoral prospects of Sánchez Cerén, crossed the line by releasing to the press what he claims are sensitive U.S. Treasury Department documents attempting to damage former President Francisco Flores, who just happens to be Quijano's campaign manager.
Funes alleges the documents "prove" that Flores misappropriated a $10 million donation from the Taiwanese government while in office, a charge Flores vehemently denies.
First of all, it is impossible, as surely the FMLN knows, to prove or disprove the authenticity of the documents and whether they have been doctored. A subject matter expert I forwarded copies of the published documents to said that they had a "cut-and-paste feel" to them. That said, any statement as to their validity would have to come from the U.S. side, and it is unlikely anyone will comment on confidential correspondence between the two governments.
Secondly, and more importantly, releasing such documents to the press -- in the middle of a presidential election no less -- is an egregious abuse of power by Funes and a violation of the protocols governing sensitive law-enforcement cooperation between the United States and El Salvador (or any other country for that matter).
Moreover, the documents in question, alleged to be from the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, are much like FBI background investigations in that they record anything and everything on the matter of financial transactions across borders, whereupon investigators then begin the meticulous work of sorting through the accumulated information to determine whether there is indeed any suspicious activity worth investigating further. In short, the documents prove and disprove nothing.
That a foreign government would feel unencumbered in publicly parading purported confidential U.S.-provided information for political purposes is beyond the pale. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration certainly does not need to address the specifics of any allegations, spurious or not. But it does need to unmistakably call out Funes for his gross abuse of standing procedures that govern such confidential communications between the two countries. And if it is to have an appropriate deterrent effect on other governments that may see the value of using the imprimatur of supposed U.S.-supplied information to discredit political opponents, then the administration ought to leaven its condemnation with a healthy dose of sanctions.
Photo: Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
It is relatively easy to criticize what's going wrong in Afghanistan. It is much harder to propose a realistic way forward. Seth Jones and Keith Crane have done just that. Some critics are content to recommend "get out" or "give up," but Jones and Crane in a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations, "Afghanistan After the Drawdown," suggest a calibrated political and military approach that protects U.S. interests at a realistic level of manpower and investment.
I served on the advisory committee for the report, which means I gave input that the authors were free to accept or ignore. The committee included folks with an impressive level of knowledge and experience on the subject, including Andrew Wilder* of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Ronald Neumann, former Ambassador to Afghanistan; and folks across the ideological spectrum, including Steve Biddle, whose knowledgeable views I appreciatively critiqued in a previous post; and Micah Zenko, with whom I shared a debate about the dangers America faces in the pages of Foreign Affairs a year ago.
Jones and Crane rightly note that "Even after most U.S. forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014, the United States will continue to have important national interests in Afghanistan and South Asia," an important point often overlooked by advocates of withdrawal. Among U.S. interests in South Asia are the continued presence of al-Qaida and other like-minded jihadist groups; regional stability and, especially, stability in Pakistan; and the effect of the war on U.S. credibility. (I am less persuaded that the last is a legitimate concern. One can invoke credibility for virtually any foreign policy position anywhere in the world, which means credibility can never help you prioritize among competing interests or tell you when not to get involved.)
If the U.S. still has interests in South Asia affected by the war in Afghanistan, then some level of continuing involvement in the region makes sense. Jones and Crane endorse the current policy of training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to enable the government to defend itself and pursuing negotiations with the Taliban. But Jones and Crane go further, advocating a role for the U.S. in brokering a national unity government in Afghanistan through next spring's presidential elections -- a political role the U.S. has shied away from since 2009. They also recommend sustaining up to nearly $4 billion per year in economic development assistance to Afghanistan for years to come.
The political and economic recommendations are what set this report apart. I have long argued that governance and development are the weak legs of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The U.S. has, justifiably, thrown an enormous amount of money and effort at building an entire army and police force from scratch. We finally began seeing the fruits of that massive effort over the last few years, especially since June when the Afghans assumed lead responsibility for security. But the U.S. has never come close, under either President Bush or Obama, to putting out the same level of effort rebuilding the Afghan state or the Afghan economy.
The net result is that the U.S. has built a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan state. That is not a recipe for lasting stability, and anyone with a passing familiarity with political science or the history of post-colonial states knows what that mixture yields. Jones and Crane are right to complement their security recommendations with strong political and economic components.
The report isn't perfect. Jones and Crane recommend between 8,000 - 12,000 U.S. troops "plus additional NATO forces," which is probably too small and conveniently consistent with the numbers reportedly under consideration by the administration. If U.S. forces are going to train the ANSF, continue counterterrorism operations, and sustain support for rural, Afghan-led counterinsurgency operations, even 15,000 is a low number. Considering the stakes, there is every reason to err on the high side to ensure the U.S. and Afghanistan can consolidate recent gains before drawing down to a lower troop presence.
That aside, it is refreshing to see a report that does not rely on knee-jerk criticism and does the hard work of proposing solutions that are realistic and achievable. The administration could do worse than to copy and paste CFR's report into a new presidential directive and call it policy.
Paul Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. A former CIA analyst, he served from 2007 to 2009 as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House's National Security Council.
*Correction (Dec. 5, 2013): This post originally stated Andrew Wilder's first name incorrectly. It has since been corrected.
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Barack Obama's administration is under the gun to produce a "final" agreement justifying its six-month sweetener for Iran. In return for cessation of progress in the country's nuclear programs, Iran has received some sanctions relief. The White House is trumpeting this as a great advance toward eliminating Iran's nuclear threat, even hinting it could dramatically reshuffle American alliances in the Middle East. What the Obama administration appears not to understand is how much the interim deal highlights its incredible -- literally, lacking in credibility -- declaratory policy.
President Obama has stated unequivocally that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. His closest aides have defended the interim deal as forestalling military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. In fact, the administration has explicitly tied the negotiations to forestalling "another war in the Middle East."
After watching the debacle of the president's aborted military strikes on Syria and hearing the audible sigh of relief from the White House when Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him an exit strategy, the Iranian government would be stupid to think that the American people would back "another war in the Middle East" or that Obama would launch one without the public plebiscite he allowed to dictate his policy. And the Iranian government is not stupid.
The Obama administration seems genuinely to believe public opposition to "another war in the Middle East" is caused by George W. Bush's administration invading Iraq. The American public opposes all wars until persuaded that they need fighting and that their government has a reasonable plan to achieve its goals at an acceptable cost. Team Obama seems genuinely not to understand that its incontinent policies are responsible for the current malaise. Choosing not to win wars is responsible for it. Inability to build common cause with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan is also responsible. Presidential inattention to the subject is responsible. Having no predictability to when the United States would intervene and when it would not is responsible. Turning on a dime from opposing to advocating intervention is responsible. Advocating tiny little strikes is responsible. Treating military intervention as though it isn't going to war is responsible -- responsible for public resistance, irresponsible as government policy.
And that's the problem with national security policy by plebiscite: What the public wants may not be what the public needs. That's why the United States has a representative democracy with legislators and an executive to govern. That's why presidents spend time talking about national security policy: The public needs to have the arguments presented and time to think and debate the alternatives. They need to know the alternatives are worse, because the president has no business taking the country to war if there are better alternatives.
Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will.
Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East -- on a nuclear hair trigger -- just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.
Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium -- the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited -- on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests -- they just got it, in spades.
Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.
But of course Iran is not Japan -- a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.
Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.
Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element -- the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will -- of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Read the full article here.
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As the Twain-attributed cliché goes, history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. The parallels between Obama and Bush's policies are a staple (some might say a tiresome obsession) of my posts. Well, here I go again...
The eerie parallels between the way the politics of President Obama's first year of his second term played out and the political dynamics of President Bush's first year of his second term are what prompted me to make the Katrina analogy in a recent discussion with a New York Times reporter (which I gather produced "an email and Twitter explosion" -- my apologies to the intrepid reporter at the center of the explosion).
Of course, I am hardly the only or the first to see the Katrina-Obamacare parallels (see another careful discussion here), but it is one that is particularly vivid for me because I lived through that crucial period in the Bush administration.
The parallel just got a bit more apt: According to the most recent CBS poll, Obama's approval rating at this point in his tenure is right where Bush's rating (in the separate Gallup poll) was at the same point. Of course, the mix of issues that brought each president to this political point is not an exact repeat, but the mixes sure rhyme: questions of competence, questions of candor, questions of how a White House could take its eye off the ball on an issue it had identified as central, etc. This last parallel points to the Iraq comparative, which I think is an even more apt one than Katrina.
I wonder if there are additional insights to be gleaned from the parallel. President Bush's approval rating recovered a bit a few weeks after it hit this low, following on a major communications push the White House undertook. The push included the release of the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq and a series of major speeches outlining the president's strategy in Iraq. (Full disclosure: At the time, I got more credit than I deserved for this initiative.)
This initiative worked (as I and my co-authors explain here on pp. 232-233) when the Bush administration was able to couple the communications push with some real progress on the ground in the form of the peaceful Iraqi parliamentary election in December 2005. But it only worked temporarily, because the problems ran much deeper than the election could fix. A few months later, President Bush's approval rating lost all of the ground it had regained in in the winter. There are several reasons for this, but one I would highlight here: During the Fall 2005 decline, the White House, myself included, thought that we had the right policy in Iraq and primarily had a communications problem. We were wrong. We had a policy problem. A year later we realized that and changed the policy, but by then it was too late to undo the political damage.
Right now, the Obama White House believes it has a communications problem, not a policy problem. Yes, the White House acknowledges that the website is a problem, but mainly because it is making it hard for people to get the full benefit of the policy. So while the president tinkers around the edges of the policy, his effort has mainly been in the area of communications: selling harder the original policy. And if the administration couples the communications push with some improvement in the form of getting the website up and running -- or if intense spinning designed to make the Iranian nuclear deal seem better than it really is gives the administration a tactical success that offers a respite from the drumbeat of criticism -- it could reverse the public approval slide much the way President Bush's big push on Iraq reversed his slide in late 2005.
But if the critics are right and the real problem with Obamacare is the policy, specifically the internal contradictions of the policy and the intrinsic unpopularity of a massively complex redistributionist policy, then Obama might experience only a short-lived respite on the political front.
One further lesson: As the Iraq surge proved, even a politically strapped president still can do some very consequential things, particularly on foreign policy. So it is too soon to write Obama's obituary. It is entirely possible that one or more of his most important policy decisions will be made in the months and years to come. In other words, perhaps President Obama has in him another "surge," defined as the pursuit of a controversial but consequential foreign policy gambit. We may even be seeing the outlines of that now with the Iran nuclear issue -- whether it yields a lasting diplomatic solution, failed negotiations leading to war, or failed negotiations leading to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
I wonder if the Obama White House realizes all of this right now. I don't think we did when we were in their shoes.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
With 68 percent of the ballots counted from this past Sunday's presidential election in Honduras, National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández holds an "insurmountable" (as the Associated Press put it) lead over the LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro, the wife of disgraced former President Manuel Zelaya. As of now, Hernández leads Castro 34 percent to 29 percent.
Monitoring teams from the Organization of American States and the European Union have endorsed the credibility of the electoral authorities' numbers and have reported that the election was transparent and valid. So far, Spain, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and even leftist Daniel Ortega in next-door Nicaragua have recognized Hernández as the winner.
What needs to happen next is for U.S. President Barack Obama to pick up the phone and congratulate the winner. Why the rush? Two reasons.
First, as expected, Castro's husband, Zelaya, is threatening anarchy in the streets if his wife is not recognized as the winner. Early on Sunday, Castro had intemperately and prematurely declared herself the winner, and now Zelaya, ever the troublemaker, is claiming the election results are fraudulent.
One thing Honduras doesn't need at this point is another political crisis on par with what happened in 2009, when Zelaya was unceremoniously removed from office for his repeated illegal attempts to rewrite the Honduran Constitution in the mode of the late Hugo Chávez. With Zelaya supporters in the United States already moving to frame a narrative of electoral fraud and crisis (see here, here, and here), the specious claim that she is the rightful president of Honduras needs to be strangled in the crib. Of course, an Obama phone call will not stop this campaign, but it will help considerably in validating the integrity of the election and Hernández's standing as the legitimate president-elect.
Secondly, Honduras needs to move forward quickly post-election. If there is anything everyone agreed on heading into Sunday's election, it was that whoever emerged the victor is inheriting an array of deep and seemingly intractable problems without a majority and without a mandate. (Now, the challenges may even include a divided Congress.)
In short, the country is a basket case. Not only is it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere -- with a poverty rate of some 71 percent among its 8.5 million people -- but gangs and drug traffickers have made it also one of the most violent on Earth, with a homicide rate of some 20 murders per day. Annual growth will likely drop below 3 percent this year, down from 3.3 last year, while public debt amounts to 35 percent of GDP. An IMF deal expired last year, and some new relief is desperately needed. Foreign investment is hampered by high levels of crime and corruption.
In other words, trying to get the country out of its tailspin and moving in the right direction will be a massive undertaking, one the country is incapable of managing on its own. It needs strong neighbors like the United States, Colombia, and Mexico to engage and support it in tamping down violence by standing up professional security forces, while at the same time supporting economic growth policies. A new administration in Honduras committed to those goals provides an opportunity to move quickly and with purpose. For the sake of the Honduran people and regional stability, there is simply no time to wait.
Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
China's unilateral declaration of an air defense
identification zone (ADIZ) over waters and islands claimed and administered by
both Japan and South Korea has prompted protests from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul,
Canberra, Taipei, and other regional capitals. Statements by U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asserting that Beijing's
announcement will have no impact on U.S. operations were appropriate. The
decision to fly two B-52s from Guam through the area was also a necessary
demonstration that U.S. deeds would match U.S. words.
What comes next is also important, though. First, the administration must take a clear-eyed view of why Beijing took this provocative step. It is possible that the Chinese were responding to Japanese public debate about the right to shoot down Chinese drones if they hover over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and seen in the photo above). It is possible that the move was a nationalist play by Chinese President Xi Jinping to consolidate conservative control for economic reform measures after the Third Plenum. But it's also possible -- I would argue probable -- that the ADIZ comes out of a playbook developed by China's Central Military Commission under Xi's supervision that anticipates and is readying for confrontation with Japan and other maritime states in the East and South China seas. The People's Liberation Army's new "Near Sea Doctrine" and Xi's recent statement that the PLA must be ready to "fight and win wars" need to be looked at in a new and much more serious light. This is not a one-off, but part of a long-term Chinese strategic view toward the offshore island chains in the Pacific that must be recognized as a major challenge in Washington.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will not be able to ignore this issue when he travels to Japan, China, and South Korea next week, of course. His message in Tokyo must reinforce the U.S. commitment to Japan and dissuade China, including explicitly reiterating that Article V of the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkakus. In Beijing he should not expect Xi to reverse the ADIZ announcement, nor should he legitimize the ADIZ announcement by discussing how it might be safely implemented. Instead, he should make clear that China has overplayed its hand and then encourage Xi to think about how to undo the damage to Chinese interests. This message will be far more credible if the administration is coordinating regional responses so that the array of opinion against China is unmistakable.
The United States has many areas of mutual interest to address with Beijing, ranging from Iran to North Korea, but this most recent provocation will require sustained effort beyond the appropriate and necessary statements and deployments of U.S. military assets we saw this week.
Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
Commenting on last weekend's Iran deal, today's New York Times reports:
White House officials suggest that the president always planned to arrive at this moment, and that everything that came before it -- from the troop surge in Afghanistan to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- was cleaning up after his predecessor.
Let's consider that claim. Is it really credible that the last five years of American diplomacy have been little more than a mopping-up operation by Team Obama of its predecessor's mistakes? According to presidential aide Ben Rhodes, for whom the 2008 campaign never ended, the answer is apparently yes:
"In 2009, we had 180,000 troops in two wars and a ton of legacy issues surrounding terrorism," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "So much that was done out of the box was winding down those wars. We've shifted from a very military face on our foreign policy to a very diplomatic face on our foreign policy."
Set aside the fact that, during George W. Bush's administration, the United States was attacked on its soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor by a terrorist network that continues to actively target the American people -- events now known as "legacy issues surrounding terrorism."
If President Barack Obama wants his diplomacy to be judged against that of his predecessor, it is worth an honest look at Bush's own scorecard. It certainly included its share of stumbles and setbacks. But set aside the ideological blinkers, and it appears that the Bush administration conducted some rather credible diplomatic footwork. This included:
It would be unfair to Obama to benchmark against eight years of his predecessor's diplomacy when he has had only five -- particularly given the historical trend of second-term presidential activism in foreign policy. But American statecraft under Obama has seemed mainly to involve delivering a set of well-written speeches while pivoting toward America's adversaries and away from its friends.
Obama's diplomatic record is patchy, to put it mildly. It includes:
Bush's critics at home and abroad charged his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to China's authoritarian rulers, and naiveté in seeking a disarmament deal with North Korea. Obama's critics at home and abroad charge his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to Russia's authoritarian ruler, and naiveté in seeking disarmament deals with Iran and Syria. Maybe not so much has changed after all, Mr. Rhodes.
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.