According to expert testimony this summer before two House panels, the State Department's recent report on Iran's activities in the Western Hemisphere, which argues that the country's activities there are "waning," is marred by a lack of inter-agency unanimity. In two hearings (here and here) on the Congressionally mandated report on Iran in the Western Hemisphere both members and expert witnesses hotly contested State's conclusion.
The second hearing, which occurred on Aug. 1 before a joint House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, shed new light on what may be inter-agency disagreement about the content of the State Department report.
Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testified that the "people who wrote this report did not, in a timely manner, consult with people who have the information. Those people, both within the department and elsewhere are quite upset that they were not properly consulted."
Michael Braun, former Chief of Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration followed by testifying that "the report was written in a vacuum. I don't think that the authors physically met with probably some of the most important players in town. It was poorly written by unseasoned, probably, analysts that contributed and I would sense that there wasn't a strong leadership involved as well."
This is no small matter. The department claims, as it did in an Aug. 1 letter to Senator Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican, that the report "represents the clearest and most current assessment by the intelligence community on Iranian activities, capabilities, and intentions in the hemisphere." Both sides cannot be right.
At issue as well is the recent 500-page report released by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman detailing how Iran has systematically built a clandestine intelligence network throughout the region "designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks." Some members of Congress are upset that the State Department did not factor that tome into its report to Congress.
A senior department official told the Miami Herald that the Nisman report was issued too late to be incorporated into their report but that it would review the report and "reassess" its present position if need be. Some believe that may provide State the opportunity to deflect ongoing Congressional criticism by producing a more serious assessment of Iranian activities in the hemisphere. That remains to be seen.
It is difficult to explain State's ostrich-like reaction to discussing Iranian activities in the hemisphere openly and forthrightly. It may be that they truly believe that Iranian activities in the region are "waning," despite the troubling evidence to the contrary. Or they may simply want to avoid openly discussing issues our neighbors in the region would rather not have to address publicly. Either possibility is simply unsatisfactory.
We are all adults here. Honestly assessing and responding to threats to regional stability and U.S. security constitutes neither alarmism nor waving the bloody shirt. Moreover, it is better to conduct that now, rather than after some preventable incident. Let's hope the State Department undertakes a serious reassessment of its report -- in which all relevant agencies, offices, and departments are allowed to contribute without a preordained conclusion.
The rising tide of war in the Middle East is giving way to a rising tide of chaos. It is also making me think that my balanced appraisal of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy may have been too optimistic. I credited Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy with avoiding what Obama supporters like to call "another Iraq." What they usually mean by that is, as I put it: avoiding "a controversial decision for war that yields a bloody conflict that crowds out other national security priorities by committing the lion's share of our defense, diplomacy, and development tools to a venture with uncertain prospects."
However, Obama's strategy has yielded "other Iraqs," as defined thus: bloody sectarian conflicts that, unless resolved successfully, put in jeopardy American national interests, threaten wider regional conflicts, and hasten a global perception of American decline. Syria has long since passed that threshold. Egypt seems teetering on the edge. Iraq is inching back in that direction too. If Egypt and/or Iraq follow Syria over the abyss, can Jordan or Lebanon be far behind?
Is it fair to credit/blame these developments as the fruits of Obama's regional strategy? In political terms, perhaps not (yet) to the degree that George W. Bush's administration bears responsibility for Iraq. It is easier to trace a direct line of responsibility from acts of commission (invading Iraq) than it is from acts of omission (failing to intervene decisively as Syria, Egypt, or Iraq devolves).
The extent of Obama's culpability depends on whether alternative policy choices could have yielded better results. In that regard, I was intrigued by Thomas Pierret's detailed account (over on FP's Middle East Channel) of the effects of differential levels of external support on the Syrian insurgency. Pierret's bottom line is more bullish on Syria than I would be. Here is his rosy assessment:
In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
But his analysis of the past contains a powerful, if implicit, critique of Obama's hands-off approach to Syria:
The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric....The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities.
In other words, at the crucial early stage of the crisis, when Obama was resisting pressure to provide material support to moderate factions, the jihadi terrorist groups used this window of opportunity to skew the rebel movement in their direction. Of course, Pierret goes on to argue that moderate factions can regain the initiative -- and perhaps are already in the process of doing so -- because the underlying ideological distribution within Syria favors them.
If Pierret's prospective judgment is correct, Obama may yet dodge the Syrian bullet. But if only his retrospective judgment is correct, it is Obama's critics, not his defenders, who are right.
The historical debate matters in many ways, but one that has been comparatively less remarked upon is that if Pierret's retrospective analysis is right, it provides the outlines for Hillary Clinton's brief on foreign policy in 2016.
Clinton will have many things going for her in a 2016 presidential run, but it looks increasingly like the Obama foreign-policy legacy could be a net negative. Of course, many things could change between now and then, but if current trajectories hold, it may be hard to argue that the United States is in a better global position in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yes, the easing of the global recession will be a major positive factor, and the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But on most other foreign-policy lines, a fair-minded assessment could well be negative for Obama's legacy.
Clinton is tightly linked to that Obama foreign-policy legacy, so she'll look for ways to take credit for any good while blaming all of the bad on others within the Obama administration. In this regard, look for candidate Clinton to remind voters that she famously argued for a more muscular approach to Syria earlier in the crisis. Such an approach might have better positioned the moderates to resist the influence of the terrorist fringe. It might also have meant the toppling of Bashar al-Assad's regime before the sectarian civil war reached the horrific levels it now has reached. Of course, the case of Iraq shows that even a rapid regime change with substantial U.S. military force and influence on the ground is no guarantee of success. But Clinton will benefit politically if she can argue with some credibility that Obama's most dramatic foreign-policy failures are associated with times when Obama overruled his secretary of state.
It is harder to see what will be her line on Egypt. The Obama administration's Egypt policy has utterly collapsed, and perhaps Clinton has an explanation of her role in the crafting of that policy that puts her in a better light, but if so, it has yet to get much traction.
Of course, responsibility for repairing U.S. policy rests with the sitting administration, but the one who would like to shoulder that responsibility next -- especially one so closely tied to Obama's foreign-policy legacy -- has got some explaining to do.
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Having coaxed Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after an unprecedented drought of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry can claim at least a measure of vindication for his seemingly single-minded focus on the peace process. But now that negotiations have commenced, that same single-mindedness could prove the talks' undoing and the unraveling of Kerry's achievement.
In approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry was wise to put aside the settlements-first approach that bedeviled the Obama administration's first term. The process that Kerry has put together appears instead to pick up, structurally speaking at least, where the 2007-2008 "Annapolis process" between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas left off.
That process comprised not only high-level talks on the so-called "core issues" of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem, but also a number of other pillars: economic cooperation and institution-building, Palestinian security reform, regional security cooperation, and Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Kerry has quietly pursued similar tracks, announcing a multibillion-dollar initiative to bolster the Palestinian economy, naming Gen. John Allen as an envoy for regional security issues, and securing the endorsement of the Arab League for his proposals, all in recent weeks.
However, the challenges now facing the parties are much steeper than those at the time of Annapolis.
The first and foremost of these challenges is the turmoil gripping the surrounding region. The Arab League's endorsement is just the first and easiest contribution regional states will be asked to make. To ensure its security can be maintained despite the loss of West Bank territories, Israel will need to reach cooperative arrangements -- not just the sometimes frosty peace that exists today -- with Egypt and Jordan. For a Palestinian state to succeed, it will need intimate commercial and economic links -- not just the hand-to-mouth aid received today -- with neighbors.
But today the neighborhood is more a source of distraction than support for the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli leaders worry about chaos in Syria and Egypt, as well as the burden imposed on Lebanon and Jordan by the Syrian civil war. They worry even more about Iran and its nuclear ambitions and regional adventurism. For his part, Abbas must worry about the regional resurgence of political Islam, of which his rival, Hamas, is the local manifestation. Allies that were once staunchly supportive, such as Turkey and Qatar, have recently been more supportive of Abbas's Islamist rivals, while other former stalwarts like Egypt and Jordan are consumed with internal issues.
Another major challenge facing Israel and the Palestinians is the position of the United States in the region. The United States has long been looked toward as not only an honest broker in the peace process, but a guarantor of whatever arrangements that process produced and of Israel's security as it gives up hard-won territory. It is no accident that major episodes in the peace process have coincided with major U.S. security commitments to the region.
Now, both U.S. roles are in question. Washington's position as an honest broker is a function not of its neutrality or equidistance from the two parties, but of its closeness to both. Despite being perceived as pro-Israel, the United States has also been the most consistent and pragmatic advocate of a Palestinian state and contributor of aid and expertise to the Palestinian Authority. Under President Barack Obama, the United States and Israel have drifted apart, and the U.S.-Palestinian relationship has also soured as Abbas has expressed bitterness over shifts in American strategy and pursued gambits at the United Nations disapproved of by Washington.
The United States' role as guarantor can also no longer be easily assumed. The widespread perception in the Middle East is that the United States is experiencing "Mideast fatigue" in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and would prefer to disengage. This has manifested itself not only in the uncertainty that marks U.S. policy in places like Egypt and Syria, but in deteriorating alliances across the region. This inevitably will reduce the value and credibility of U.S. security assurances to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, for which there is no alternative outside power to turn.
The final challenge the parties face is themselves. The Annapolis conference took place following years of violence -- the Second Intifada in the first part of the decade, followed by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In contrast, the past five years have largely been peaceful, providing no great incentive to depart from the status quo.
Both parties also face internal challenges: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must balance compromise with the Palestinians against the views of coalition partners and members of his own party who are skeptical that territorial concessions will bring peace or security. Abbas must deal not only with Islamists who continue to preach war against Israel, but also his own apparent reluctance to sign on the dotted line. After his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, rejected an Israeli offer in 2000 at Camp David and he rejected an even more far-reaching offer in 2008, it is reasonable to question whether Abbas has the strength or confidence to compromise.
It is these challenges on which the United States must now focus. This is one of the paradoxes of the peace process: If the United States wants a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, it must focus on everything but the so-called "core issues" that will be at the heart of the negotiations. It has been frequently but incorrectly claimed that the solutions to those issues are well-known; the broad outlines may be clear, but the devil is truly in the details, which are anything but. Nevertheless, those details must be worked out by the parties who know them well and can in any event draw upon the myriad plans and ideas already put forward.
For its part, Washington should run interference for the two parties -- thwarting the efforts of spoilers to derail the process, lining up support from regional and international partners whose priorities are elsewhere, bolstering Netanyahu and Abbas to the extent possible, and, in so doing, providing space to the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. This implies an altogether different approach to the Middle East than that which has characterized the first five years of Obama's tenure -- one that stresses deep engagement not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian talks themselves, but in the conflicts, politics, and alliances of the region from which Washington has of late appeared keen to disengage.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
The finest national security advisor you've never heard of died Saturday, Aug. 10. Judge Bill Clark served as President Ronald Reagan's national security advisor for just under two years, from January 1982 to October 1983. These crucial years marked the foundational period in Reagan's Cold War policy. During this window, Reagan began to implement his strategy for confronting the Soviet Union and bringing it to a point of negotiations and collapse. Reagan's strategy, highly controversial at the time but now more appreciated in hindsight, depended on Clark to channel the president's vision and translate it into doctrines and specific policies.
Why is Clark so little remembered today? The position of the assistant to the president for national security affairs (NSA for short) has been defined in the popular mind by luminous giants such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, who wielded tremendous influence while at the White House and have continued to have a prominent public voice in the decades since. Not so the self-effacing Clark, who never wrote a memoir, gave few interviews, and otherwise seldom spoke out after leaving office, content instead to repair to his beloved California ranch. Clark's historical reputation was also diminished by a few of the memoirs written by some of his former Reagan administration colleagues that unfortunately tried to settle old policy scores at Clark's expense (and to which the devout former seminarian generally turned the other cheek). For example, former Secretary of State George Shultz's otherwise superb memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, is, to my mind, unduly critical of Clark.
In a regrettably revealing display of the stale conventional wisdom that ignores Clark's legacy, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post even saw fit to write a dedicated obituary of him. Instead both merely ran this minimalist treatment by the Associated Press that devotes but two sentences to his tenure as national security advisor. Clark's legacy, as well as the history of the Cold War, deserves better. (Some conservative outlets have shown a greater appreciation for Clark; see especially this thoughtful remembrance by Steven Hayward over at Power Line, or this one by K-Lo at National Review. For an affectionate tribute from the journalist who knew Reagan and Clark best, see this from the indispensable Lou Cannon).
Part of the reason for the prevailing underestimation of Clark, then and now, was his relative lack of foreign-policy experience -- a deficiency he readily admitted. His résumé was indeed thin; before becoming national advisor he served only one year as deputy secretary of state, which in turn only came after an embarrassing Senate confirmation hearing that highlighted his callowness in the field. Yet Clark also possessed several attributes that proved essential to his successful tenure as NSA. These included a close personal relationship with Reagan, a shared set of convictions about the nature of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, organizational acumen, and the loyalty and affection of his staff.
Clark was Reagan's alter ego. Rejecting the prevailing conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union was stable and destined to coexist with the United States as a perpetual rival, Reagan and Clark instead saw the USSR as vulnerable and sought to exacerbate its internal contradictions. The pillars of this strategy included launching a massive arms buildup that would stress the fragile Soviet economy in a failed effort to keep pace, highlighting the Soviet Union's illegitimacy through ideological and economic warfare and active support for political and religious dissidents, and transforming the perverse nuclear trap of mutually assured destruction. At the National Security Council, Clark developed these insights through an ambitious series of national security decision directives and implemented the strategy through new measures as varied as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Now that the Reagan administration archives are beginning to be opened and declassified, the process of historical scholarship should hopefully begin to restore Clark's reputation as an essential architect of American Cold War policy. For scholars, I hope this will serve as yet another caution against relying excessively on conventional wisdom and personal memoirs. For policy practitioners, Clark's role as NSA serves as a reminder that while foreign- policy knowledge is important, ultimately it is secondary to wisdom, integrity, the unreserved trust of the president, and the right set of policy convictions.
Not long ago I had dinner with a former Reagan NSC staff member who had served under several of Reagan's NSAs. I asked his assessment of Clark. Without hesitation came his firm response: "Bill Clark won the Cold War."
An exaggeration, perhaps, but not as much as the prevailing neglect of Clark's legacy would have you believe. With his death the nation has lost a great and a good man. May he rest in peace.
Photo from 1985: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
One of the persistent ironies of the Obama administration's foreign policy is that a president who initially campaigned on restoring diplomacy has in practice proved so inadequate at diplomacy. A common theme that strings together many of this administration's foreign-policy deficiencies are failures of diplomacy. Sometimes these failures stem from pure neglect, other times from botched relationships with prickly leaders, mistaken tactics, or severe disconnects between words and deeds. Taken in the whole, it is a poor diplomatic record. Others and I have commented before on President Barack Obama's puzzling lack of close personal relationships with other world leaders, which contributes to this diplomatic deficit. But there is more involved than just presidential aloofness.
"Diplomacy" of course is one of those oft-invoked yet little understood words. Just what is it? For these purposes, it is the personal employment of the elements of national power in the peaceful pursuit of foreign-policy goals. "Personal" because the involvement of U.S. diplomats (including Diplomat in Chief Obama) in cultivating relationships and dialogue with foreign leaders and emissaries is essential. "Peaceful" because diplomacy is an alternative to the use of force, though the threat of force is an important part of diplomacy and sometimes necessary for diplomacy to succeed. And all "elements of national power" because behind the words used by diplomats are the resources of the nation they represent. Most visibly this is military and economic power, but it also includes institutional influence, the strength of a nation's alliances, and especially the nation's history. In other words, diplomacy is much more than just talk, though talk is an essential part of it.
In practice, this means that the words of diplomacy depend as much on who is saying them as what is said. When foreign leaders listen to a U.S. diplomat talk (in contrast to, say, a diplomat from Liechtenstein or Burkina Faso), they interpret those words through their perception of the military and economic power that the United States possesses and the influence that the United States wields in institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. Foreign leaders also assess American words through the filter of history, specifically of past American actions. For example: Does the United States stand by its allies? Does it deliver on its promises, and does it follow through on its threats? Does it show a consistent commitment to international engagement?
Obama's past hollow threats and "red lines" on Syria have eroded American credibility and now regrettably make a diplomatic solution to that war all but impossible. The administration's confused and contradictory policies on Iran have likewise emboldened Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to resist a diplomatic settlement. On Egypt, the White House has somehow pulled off the trifecta of diplomatic debacles by alienating the liberals, the Islamists, and the military (in other words, almost everyone). In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more and more sides against U.S. interests, even while terrorism and instability begin to afflict his country again. The administration's poisoned relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai mirrors the overall deterioration in Afghanistan. (To be sure, Maliki and Karzai are two of the most difficult characters in international politics and bear much blame themselves, but the pronounced decline in their relationships with the United States is in part a diplomatic failure by the Obama administration).
Elsewhere the picture is little better. The pathetic Edward Snowden affair revealed among other things just how little diplomatic credibility the United States has with China and Russia, as leaders in both countries spurned American pleas, threats, and supplications to send the miscreant back home. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have little affection for or fear of Obama, they decided the diplomatic cost of sheltering Snowden was easily paid. As Eliot Cohen, former advisor to George W. Bush's administration, pungently observed of the White House's fecklessness, "Nobody's saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing [Obama] -- and that's an awful position for the president of the United States to be in."
In the case of Russia, this week's announcement that Obama is canceling his summit meeting with Putin is merely a minimal needful response (though I agree with Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, that better options would have been to either cancel the entire G-20 trip or make a public statement in Russia denouncing Putin's authoritarianism). The Moscow visit-no-more itself is not a failure of diplomacy. As Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake describes, the five years of U.S.-Russia relations that preceded it were a sustained failure of diplomacy, as the once vaunted "reset" has finally become disabused of its strategic illusions and ignominious moments such as appeals for "flexibility," unilateral concessions on arms control, and an American blind eye and deaf ear to Russian regressions on human rights all now loom larger as signature moments of myopia. This excerpt from Peter Baker's excellent New York Times article distills the grim state of affairs:
Andrei A. Piontovsky, a political analyst, said the cancellation underscored a visceral personal enmity between the two leaders. "Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness," he said.
He added that Russia sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.
"The fact is the relations were completely broken for a very long time," he said. "The main raison d'être of Putin's policy now is to make an enemy of the United States."
These diplomatic deficiencies extend to relations with America's allies and partner countries as well. U.S.-Saudi relations continue to deteriorate, evidenced most recently by Riyadh's emerging collaboration with Moscow on a major arms deal. The once promising U.S.-India strategic partnership is stagnant, and prospects for improved ties with other allies in the Asia-Pacific are not promising, following the retirement this year of Kurt Campbell, one of the administration's most capable diplomats, from the State Department. Ties between the United States and major NATO allies such as Britain and France are beset with tensions more than cooperation in multiple areas. Ironically, one of the few bilateral relationships with recent diplomatic progress is the one between the United States and Israel, thanks largely to Secretary of State John Kerry's frenetic devotion to relaunching another round of the peace process (whether that is the best use of diplomatic capital at this juncture is another matter).
The Obama administration still has more than three years in office, which is ample time to reverse course and give diplomacy a renewed priority. But doing so will take more humility, resources, and resolve than this White House has thus far demonstrated.
Could a good night's rest, a true flat-bed, and an international wine selection rescue global trade policy? Were U.S. relations with South Korea saved by a lakeside stroll? My esteemed interlocutor, Dan Drezner, raises these questions in the context of looming sequester cuts to the travel budget of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
With the demise of Intrade, it's hard to give precise figures on how severely the odds on the trade policy wager I struck with Dan have swung in my favor, but Dan seems to sense that he may come up just a few million dollars short.
I'm sympathetic. The sequester is no way to set fiscal policy. Ideally, the White House would put forward budget policies that enjoyed a chance on Capitol Hill, and the Senate would pass a budget more often than once every four years. Requisite choices about how to spend scarce (borrowed) dollars could certainly be made in a more sensible way.
I also concur that it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to skimp on diplomatic travel. I'm quite certain it is possible to come up with compelling examples in which the ability of a diplomat to rest or get work done on a long flight had a measurable impact on national well-being.
Yet neither Dan's post nor his citations from the New York Times manage to do so. The Doha trade talks really faltered after prolonged negotiations in Geneva failed in the summer of 2008. Those talks stretched on so long that jet lag cannot be held responsible for their demise.
The other example given is of an informal conversation between Michael Froman, then U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, and South Korea's trade minister that helped seal a trade bargain. Imagine what might have happened had Froman's travel budget not allowed him to be there!
Well, then perhaps the administration could just have pushed for passage of the perfectly good U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement bequeathed them by George W. Bush's administration. Barack Obama's administration unwisely failed to back that earlier agreement, spent a great deal of time and effort (and travel) making changes that did little to enhance national welfare, and ended up with one of the more awkward outcomes in international relations -- when two leaders stand on a podium at an international gathering and publicly announce they have failed. Closure only came later, when the Koreans flew to the United States.
There is a useful distinction here between necessary and sufficient measures to promote national interests abroad. Diplomatic travel falls into the "necessary but not sufficient category." Dan should rest assured that he will not lose his bet because an assistant U.S. trade representative was asked to travel on frequent-flier miles. He will lose because of the unwillingness of the administration to make politically difficult choices on trade -- an interesting parallel to its aversion to tough budget choices.
To be helpful, though, let me offer a suggestion: Fully restore funding for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In fact, be generous and allow business-class travel more liberally. But attach this funding to a broad, new "trade promotion authority" bill, the sort of measure that senators such as Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have been pushing for years, with no administration support. If done properly, such a bill would grant negotiating authority for the full range of agreements on the U.S. agenda -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and an international services agreement under the World Trade Organization. It would resolve difficult open issues about the stances negotiators should take on labor, the environment, intellectual property, and regulation.
That's likely to be a fractious debate. But with trade promotion authority in hand, we can have more confidence that U.S. negotiators' intercontinental flights will actually lead somewhere.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
It's official: President Barack Obama showed President Vladimir Putin his tough side by canceling out of the bilateral summit in Moscow. In yet another of those carefully calibrated messages the "realists" in the White House commend themselves for sending, the leader of the Free World will not give Russia's leader the benefit of His Grace one-on-one (oh, but he'll still participate in the St. Petersburg G-20 summit).
What a bold move. Except for the fact that Putin has little to gain from a bilateral summit with the United States just now. What are the deliverables Russia could expect from a face to face? There are no policy issues ripe for agreement. Putin could expect to be harangued by Obama about Edward Snowden (we extradite criminals to you without a treaty), Syria (end your lucrative defense supplies and use your influence with Assad to create an outcome you don't want and set a precedent you may suffer from), visa liberalization (not after Boston), gay rights ("I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them"), and nuclear reductions (a safer world is in all our interests even if it takes away your only military leverage). Who wouldn't want to skip out on that meeting?
Putin may well benefit from discomfiting the American president, but he achieved that only weeks ago at their bilateral meeting in Ireland, where news stories carried pictures of tense, dissatisfied expressions and stories of stalemate, and in the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. No need to stoke those embers again so soon, especially if Obama might step on Putin's preferred story line that by granting asylum he's preventing Snowden from revealing damaging information about the United States. Putin might like to play up supposed American hypocrisy, but you can't fault his understanding of realism: the man has an unapologetic insistence that goals come before morals.
There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia's authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest -- the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies -- in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy). Realists would never make that trade. In classic liberal fashion, Obama is constraining American power by rules and norms to which all states could be subjected.
The reason President Obama's Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal. It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests. All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.
Why has Russia policy gone so wrong? Not for lack of effort or desire for a fresh start. The Obama administration rightly set out in 2008 to refashion U.S.-Russian relations, which were in a dismal state after years of mutual disappointment and creeping authoritarianism in Moscow. One of the benefits of changes in government is a routine reevaluation of policies and the sense of a new beginning. President Bill Clinton tried to build a solid partnership with President Boris Yeltsin. President George W. Bush, too, took his chance, saying after his first early meeting with Russia's leader that he had looked into Putin's eyes and could see his soul.
The Obama administration put talent on the team for this problem: Mike McFaul is both a serious scholar of Russia and an ardent advocate of democratization who, before joining the Obama campaign, had run an important study of the opportunity cost to the Russian economy of Putin's governance. In showing quantitatively the ways authoritarian policies inhibited economic growth, the study up-ended Putin's argument that his policies were responsible for increased Russian prosperity.
But, of course, McFaul is a poor choice of advisor to the president and plenipotentiary to Moscow if getting along with Putin's Russia is the administration's aim. If realists were actually in control of Obama policies, he wouldn't have been nominated. Belief that our values are universal -- that all people deserve and yearn for freedom -- and can take root even in the Russian tundra would have been disqualifying. No amount of private correspondence and Tom Donilon's shuttle diplomacy makes up for it.
Liberals are ignoring an important reality about Putin's Russia, which is that he has the consent of the majority of Russian people. According to a Pew poll, 56 percent of Russians report themselves satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election that swapped Medvedev and Putin. Seventy-two percent of Russians support Putin and his policies, a level of public endorsement Obama can only dream of. Fifty-seven percent of Russians consider a strong leader more important than democracy; a 25 percent margin over those who believe democracy is essential. And by a margin of 75 percent to 19 percent, Russians consider a strong economy more important than democracy.
Much as we might hope Russian reformers force progress, American policies need to acknowledge that Russians are mostly satisfied with the governance they have (and thus get the one they deserve). The Pew polling indicates that economic growth and social mobility are the bases of Putin's public support. And unless Washington can craft policies that affect those variables, it ought not expect the Putin government to be responsive to our appeals.
The Obama White House likes to think of itself as full of foreign policy realists. But realism, as it exists in international relations theory, has three main tenets: 1) power calculations as the metric of importance in understanding state behavior; 2) willingness to discard policies that are not advancing one's interests; and 3) the willingness to use one's advantages to threaten and enforce preferences on other states. For all their pretensions to realism, the Obama administration does none of these three things well.
The White House has been willing to sacrifice some U.S. interests and allies for the cause of U.S.-Russia comity. It refuses to intervene in Syria or anywhere else without a United Nations Security Council resolution. It cancelled the anti-ballistic missile deployments to Europe that NATO had agreed to. And it has prioritized issues to some extent, placing cooperation on Iran sanctions above European missile defenses and continuing to pull Georgia westward. But the administration has allowed lesser events like Libya, where we were duplicitous in gaining Russian consent for U.N. action, and half-hearted endorsement of congressional activism on the Magnitsky Act to foster Russian resentment.
Moreover, the compromises the Obama White House has made are consistent with the administration's overall policy preferences: avoiding foreign interventions wherever possible, and putting "diplomacy" before security on missile defense. But a better test of realism is when it requires compromising core tenets of either principle or policy. Handing over Syria's rebel leadership so Assad can consolidate his grip and "end the human suffering" of that civil war would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side, agreeing to write off Georgia's western aspirations for Moscow allowing a U.N. intervention in Syria would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side of the flip side, arming Caucasian separatists to aggravate Russia's security problems would be a realist move.
Putin has an economy seemingly incapable of diversification, dependent on high oil prices and current demand levels. And, like China, it has a public that's politically quiescent as long as standards of living are rising fast. But these are major weaknesses that Washington either doesn't want to seize upon, or doesn't have the ingenuity to figure out how to affect. Add to these the debilitating brain drain of technologists and creative types, business practices that are unlawful and predatory, and a foreign policy that's seen -- not just by the United States -- as bad guys keeping bad guys in power, and you have a choice of levers.
Instead of a Nixonian ruthlessness that presses our advantages or identifies common interests and sells off issues (and allies) of lesser importance to achieve them, the Obama administration has become a continuation of the Bush administration in Russia policy: a bossy liberal, condescendingly explaining to Moscow that if only they understood their true interests as we understand their true interests, they would adopt our policies.
But Putin has already made his own pivot, disavowing the values on which "Western" (by which is meant free) societies are based, and the Russia people are willing to permit it. President Obama may think he's sent a tough message to Putin that actions have consequences, and that keeping Snowden means a cold shoulder -- but when it comes to playing the realist chess game, he's got a lot to learn from grandmaster in Moscow.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
How should the administration respond to the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and his expressed desire to work with the international community to lift the sanctions?
For starters, I agree with my Shadow Government colleagues when they warn that the administration should not be naïve. So far in this latest round, I think it is fair to say that the administration has not been naïve. Team Obama appears to understand that Rouhani is doubtless sincere in his desire to see the sanctions lifted, but Iranian hardliners remain adamant that they will not quickly do the one thing that would guarantee rapprochement: verifiably abandon the nuclear weapons program. Rouhani may be more pragmatic than his predecessor was, but that is so low a bar to clear that the prudent emotion should be wariness, not giddiness.
Yet, I am not sure I go as far as my other Shadow Government colleagues do when they call for increasing sanctions now, even before diplomatic overtures have been attempted. I understand the logic for additional sanctions. Iran will likely only accept a painful compromise that would guarantee President Obama's stated policy of prevention -- i.e. preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability rather than containing Iran after it has developed a nuclear weapons capability -- if all other policy options are deemed to be even more painful. Ratcheting up the pain of Iran's status quo path thus could contribute to a diplomatic solution.
However, it is also true that the Iranian regime will only verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions if it believes the United States will honor its side of the deal, namely lifting the sanctions and welcoming Iran back into the international economic community after Iran lives up to its obligations.
This is the dilemma of coercive diplomacy. For it to work, the threatening state (United States) must convince the target (Iran) of two opposite potential futures. First, the state must convince the target that continued defiance will receive continued (painful) punishment. Second, the state must convince the target that acquiescence will receive a lifting of the punishment. In other words, coercive diplomacy requires simultaneously threatening and reassuring one's opponent.
Coercive diplomacy can fail if either the threat or the reassurance is undermined. As I have explained before, if the target gets sanctions relief too soon -- say, for merely entering negotiations -- then it is unlikely the target will actually compromise. Why should they when they get what they want -- sanctions relief -- without giving up anything? Failed reassurance frustrates diplomacy in the opposite way: if the target believes it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't make a deal, it will refuse to compromise.
The history of negotiating with Iran is a history of the international community being too concerned about reassurance and consistently failing to maintain the pressure side. We have repeatedly pursued negotiations with inadequate sanctions pressure and then given into well-meaning calls to ease the pressure with "confidence-building measures" aimed at bolstering reassurance.
It is also the case that multilateral sanctions are only as tough as the weakest link. The Iranian regime has proven masterful at exploiting weak links in the international community and thus the net effect of sanctions has often been less pressure than the sanctions would seem to promise on paper.
A good case could be made, therefore, that Iran knows only too well that the West would like to give up the sanctions and welcome Iran back into the global economy. Reassurance is the easier side of the equation, the one we are more likely to default to when inertia sets in. Thus, if we are going to err, better to err on the side of too much rather than too little pressure.
I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning, but it is also the case that presently Iran is subject to more painful sanctions than it has endured heretofore in the nuclear negotiations era. This pain is clearly evident in Rouhani's messaging. Whether it is enough pain to produce a deal is uncertain, but given the stakes it may be worth exploring with another round of negotiations -- provided that we can simultaneously threaten and reassure.
That is why I think that Congress may have handed the Obama administration a gift when the House passed substantially ramped-up sanctions -- provided that Obama handles this deftly.
If the Senate passes this and Obama signs it into law, it would likely cause negotiations to fail even before they begin. Maybe later, after the new sanctions have taken hold and the pain becomes intolerable, the Iranians might come around and float other diplomatic offers, but in the near-term the Iranians would view the additional sanctions as a rebuff to Rouhani -- and some key U.S. partners might even sympathize with them on that point. It could even backfire and result in international partners isolating U.S. policy, rather than joining U.S. policy to isolate Iran.
But if the Senate passes these new sanctions with a national security waiver, and if Obama exercises that waiver but keeps all of the other preexisting sanctions, we might just enter into negotiations in the coercive diplomacy sweet spot: Obama will have provided the requisite gesture of reassurance, waiving the new harsh sanctions, without undermining the prevailing economic pressure that has driven the Iranians to the current inflection point.
Of course, even sweet-spot coercive diplomacy may be inadequate to the daunting task of convincing the Iranians to verifiably abandon the nuclear weapons' option. But the alternatives -- negotiating with an Iranian regime that believes it has already won the prize of sanctions relief or negotiating with an Iranian regime that believes the United States will not honor any deal -- face even less of a chance of working. A deft Obama administration would take advantage of the gambit that Congress is providing.
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.