It is customary for beltway types to snicker when a senior official in the government indicates that he or she is stepping away from power in order to "spend more time with my family." I think that attitude is unfortunate and regret having done my fair share of snickering in the past. The truth is that service at the highest-most levels of government can be exceptionally demanding, and it is usually the family that pays the biggest price. So I now have a rule of thumb that presumes any such claim is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
That is how I reacted to the news that will General Allen turn down a possible assignment to be SACEUR. General Allen's explanation -- that after multiple combat tours he needs to spend more time with an ailing wife -- rings true to me. And after checking with some people who are in a better position to know, I am even more confident of this judgment.
Some critics have charged that General Allen was forced to step away, raising questions about a growing politicization of the military engendered by a hyper-partisan White House. The White House did do something like that with respect to General James Mattis, so the allegation was not wildly implausible. But in Allen's case, I do not think it was correct.
The Obama Administration has enough real civil-military challenges to manage. It does not need to be distracted by fake ones. General Allen's departure should not become such a distraction.
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For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
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During last week's congressional hearings, America's military leaders outlined the dire consequences they envision if, as has long seemed likely, the sequestration provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act comes into effect. The hearings were scheduled by sympathetic Armed Services committees to give vent to the Pentagon's alarm.
In one exchange, Rep. Mike Rogers asked the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff if he had informed the president of the dire consequences to readiness from sequestration beginning on March 1. "We have had that conversation," Gen. Martin Dempsey answered. Rogers followed up to ask how the president responded. "He assured me he's working on it," said Dempsey.
The president "working on it" has not equated to producing a budget that piles up less than a trillion-dollar deficit for fiscal year 2013. It has not equated to finding means within his executive powers to minimize the effect of the reductions -- to the contrary, the White House explicitly instructed agencies to spend and plan as though the law would not come into effect. It has not equated to working with Congress to strike a deal; the president has no meetings scheduled with congressional leaders. It has not equated to acknowledging his critics may have a point or have proposals that could be incorporated into his plan (he has not offered a plan). It has not even equated to acknowledging that mandatory spending is driving our debt. The president is allowing these cuts to discretionary spending in order to protect mandatory spending, otherwise known as "entitlement" programs.
Congress is stuck. It is stuck because two years ago markets started signaling concern about the level of America's national debt and the rate at which the U.S. government continued to incur it. The Congressional Budget Office reported in December that federal revenues increased by $30 billion in the first two months of the fiscal year, but federal spending increased by $87 billion. We borrow $4.8 billion dollars a day. The United States borrows 31 cents of every single dollar it spends.
As the euro crisis has demonstrated, market confidence can collapse quickly and is very expensive to regain. Ratings agencies have already downgraded the U.S. because of our inability to bring our spending and revenue into balance. That is the political impetus behind draconian measures to force an end to deficit spending and produce a medium-term plan to ramp down our national debt. Unless we show markets the United States has the capacity to bring our budget into alignment, we will be at great risk of getting involved in the kind of escalating game of chicken European governments have been forced into over the past three years: committing ever more money to a firewall that forestalls a market run and driving interest rates up to devastating levels. And to be clear: markets are not to blame for gaming our currency. We are to blame for putting ourselves at risk by racking up so much debt.
Breaking the congressional deadlock requires presidential leadership. That's why our form of government has a chief executive. But the president is now not only leading from behind in foreign policy, but also leading from behind in the domestic policy that is the basis of our international strength. Instead of working to prevent sequestration from going into effect -- with two weeks remaining until training is curtailed for 80 percent of Army forces, the military faces what Gen. Dempsey described as an unprecedented readiness crisis, and the pivot to Asia becomes unaffordable -- President Obama took the long weekend to golf in Florida with Tiger Woods. The military is claiming dread crisis, and the commander in chief has gone golfing. Is it possible all of us missed the seminal role Tiger Woods must have in breaking the political stalemate in Washington?
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We now have another opportunity to gain some insight into the inner workings of al Qaeda through captured documents. The French military intervention in Mali apparently forced the insurgents to flee without their most confidential papers. In the chaotic aftermath, journalists found a large number of documents produced by al Qaeda's shadow government in Timbuktu. The documents demonstrate the extent of the bureaucracy erected in just a few months, and show just how seriously al Qaeda takes the political objectives that they have set for themselves.
Although the majority of the material seems to be routine court documents, two deserve closer attention: a complex document that consists of a cover letter and a partial copy of minutes from a meeting of the Notables (A'yan), and a nearly complete document from the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): ‘Abd al-Malik Drukdal (also known as Abu Mus‘ab ‘Abd al-Wadud). The complex document has interesting things to tell us about the administrative and political organization of AQIM, and I will be discussing it in greater detail in another post next week.
It is the document from Drukdal that has the most significant implications, however. Of first importance is that it claims to be a set of Directives (Tawajihat) from a commander to his subordinates. Although his language is collegial, it is clear that Drukdal believes he has the authority to give orders to his "brother Emirs" and that they will obey. The entire document is, in fact, a case study of how much command and control al Qaeda has over its forces in the field, and specifically gives us new evidence about the relationship between AQIM and other jihadist groups in Mali (such as Ansar Dine). The evidence from this document suggests that Ansar Dine, and thus other groups, are in fact an integral part of AQIM and willing to obey orders from AQIM's emir. Thus Drukdal tells the other emirs to make a peace deal with the nationalist Tuareg movement (the MNLA), and Ansar Dine followed through, signing an accord with the MNLA in December 2012. He also instructs commanders to stop imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia in a harsh manner in order to win over more Malians to their cause. In November 2012, Ansar Dine again followed through, publicly announcing that it would no longer seek to impose sharia as aggressively throughout Mali.
Just as interesting is the fact that the emir of AQIM admits his group uses the pretense of a local focus as a cover for its real nature as a global jihadist, al Qaeda organization. He tells his commanders to "adopt mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms. To do so, you must avoid any statements that are provocative to neighboring countries and avoid repeated threats. Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic' movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to expose that we have an expansionist, jihadist, al Qaeda project or anything like that." In one short paragraph, in other words, Drukdal explains how to confuse current analysis not just of AQIM, but also of al-Qaeda's branches worldwide.
Finally, the pragmatic nature of al Qaeda's political strategy comes through in this document, providing a strong counterpoint to the group's commitment to ideological purity. This is evident in Drukdal's decision to back away from an immediate and rapid imposition of every sharia statute. His reasoning is entirely based on "interests": the new Islamic state is still in its infancy and therefore the group needs to be flexible and pragmatic in order to win over the people first. He even recommends that commanders on the ground begin with da'wa toward the people of Mali, a process of convincing people to join the movement through argumentation, which al Qaeda has traditionally avoided. In the end, however, he remains committed to imposing al Qaeda's extremist version of sharia, just waiting until the state passes through "infancy" and is an "adolescent" -- one strong enough to stand on its own.
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No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.
For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'" Har har.
Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.
That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.
Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies.
No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.
Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.
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The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?
On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.
On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."
Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now. Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.
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When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms:
"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."
That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:
Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.
All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.
Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.
I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.
Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!
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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.