One of the many caricatures that has arisen in the years since 9/11 is the charge that President Bush's primary exhortation to the American people in the aftermath of the tragedy was simply to "go shopping." I have heard this charge countless times, usually offered as a laugh line, in the manner of a snarky late-night comedian's monologue about "how dumb can someone be to think that shopping is a response to terrorism?"
In some of his early remarks after 9/11, President Bush did urge not to be afraid to "go shopping for their families," as part of a general appeal not to be intimidated from an ordinary daily routine. And he even encouraged Americans to "go to Disneyworld," as part of broader appeal to renew confidence in the safety of air travel.
Of course, he also made it clear that the struggle against terrorists would involve many other sacrifices and, over the years, much more was asked of the American people. But President Bush also made it clear that the terrorists would like to intimidate us out of normal living and that if we give into that fear we can compound the damage inflicted by the terrorists. So part of a comprehensive response that mobilized all elements of national power -- military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and psychological -- would involve ordinary Americans refusing to surrender to fear of terrorists.
I am reminded of this when I hear President Obama praise the way Bostonians have refused to be cowed or when I see Thomas Friedman suggest that a rational response to the Boston terror attack is to "schedule another Boston Marathon as soon as possible." Friedman is not alone in responding this way, and some even argue that embracing resilience in the face of terror is as important as trying to prevent or avenge the terror.
I think resilience -- including the psychological resilience with which a society refuses to give into terrorist intimidation -- is indeed an important response. For most Americans it may be their most tangible and practical way to connect their own daily lives to the broader societal challenge.
I do wonder, however, whether the current reasonable response will get caricatured as did Bush's reasonable response.
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A surprising thing happened on the way to the coronation of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the designated heir to chavismo, the movement created by the obstreperous former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer last month. Evidently, a good number of the Venezuelan people decided that bread-and-butter issues like inflation, shortages of basic goods, electricity blackouts, and soaring street crime were more important to them than the circuses Chávez regularly supplied.
Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez last October by some 11 percentage points, narrowly missed an epic upset, losing this time to Chávez's chosen successor by a count of 50.7 to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. "We are not going to recognize the result," he said, "until every vote is counted, one by one." He has also called for peaceful street demonstrations outside the electoral council offices. In welcome developments, both the Obama administration and the Organization of American States have backed the call for an audit of the election results.
Maduro's reaction was predictable, rejecting any recount and accusing Capriles of "coup-mongering." He has no doubt calculated that a recount is more dangerous to the continuation of chavismo than trying to tackle Venezuela's myriad post-Chávez challenges while dogged with questions about his legitimacy. Not only must he address declining socio-economic conditions -- including soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- he must also deal with a reinvigorated opposition while attempting to manage a movement that is splintering under the weight of corruption and competing interests.
Already, Maduro has been put on notice that he is under scrutiny from his own side. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long-seen as a Maduro rival within chavismo, said of the election: "These results require deep self-criticism ... Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chávez] in danger."
What is clear is that Venezuela's contested election likely presages a period of political turmoil not seen in the country since 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted from power. But it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to actively defend its regional interests. No one is advocating that the Obama administration engage in mud-slinging contests with Hugo Chávez wannabes, but neither should we remain silent on matters of principle and U.S. security.
For example, the Iranian presence in Venezuela, including the existence of a number of suspicious industrial facilities, and the prodigious use of Venezuelan territory for drug shipments to the United States and Europe have been tolerated for too long without any effective U.S. response. (Several high-ranking associates of the late President Chávez have been designated as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Maduro's shaky standing today within Venezuela means there is increased leverage for the United States to hold the government accountable for its threats to regional stability. It is not likely Maduro will be able to withstand the pressure coming not only from the opposition and his own coalition, but from the United States as well. That can come in the form of more designations and indictments of Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and violating sanctions against Iran, but also repeated public calls to disassociate his government from these criminal activities.
The administration must also continue to stand behind the Venezuelan opposition on matters of principle. Voters deserve a clear accounting of what transpired last Sunday. The future of their country hangs in the balance.
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In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist bombing in Boston, I've been surprised to hear many commentators warn against "speculating" who may be responsible. That's nonsense. Of course we should speculate: That's the first step in formulating a hypothesis to guide an investigation that will lead to facts. The facts may disprove our speculation, but we simply can't skip the first step. So here are some initial hypotheses, in descending order of plausibility. Most of these will later be proven wrong.
1. Al Qaeda, or a copycat jihadist group, did it.
2. North Korea did it.
3. Several groups cooperated in the attack.
4. Domestic right-wing terrorists did it.
5. Domestic left-wing terrorists did it.
6. Anarchist/lone nut.
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As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.
The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade's worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.
The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President's formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.
The president may have been skittish about calling it an act of terror in part because of uncertainties about who was responsible and perhaps also because of the unfortunate timing of the attack, which coincided with a rise in speculation, some of it fueled by still more SAO's, about a belief that AQ has been strategically defeated. Ironically, I learned about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks while I was reading a spirited debate among academic security specialists over the putative "end of AQ."
Of course, if the Boston Marathon attack does turn out to be the work of domestic anti-government terrorists, then the coincidence with the debate about AQ will seem prophetic. If, on the other hand, yesterday's attack gets traced back to an AQ-inspired or AQ-linked source, then the debate takes on a somewhat different cast.
Regardless of source, the attack fit the profile of a certain kind of threat that those of us in the business have worried about for over a decade. From the beginning of the global war on terror, it was recognized that some attacks held the potential for greater political impact than others.
In the coming days and weeks, we may play out this third scenario and, in so doing, learn a lot more about the threats we face and about the strength of our society.
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
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True to form, the Venezuelan government and its Cuban minders have spared no effort or expense to ensure the outcome of Sunday's snap election to elect the late Hugo Chávez's chosen successor. Challenger Henrique Capriles has been game (and his singular effort to revive the fortunes of the Venezuelan opposition commendable), but in the end his lot has been to be cast as a mere prop in Venezuela's version of "casino democracy," where the house always wins.
Ironically, Capriles should privately be relieved that Chávez's appointed successor, the dour and robotic Nicolas Maduro, and not he, will inherit the ticking economic time bomb that Chávez has bequeathed his country. Most sober observers of the Venezuelan scene give the country's economy 12 months at most before the wheels start coming off. As I have written before, some may remember Chávez for his embrace of the country's marginalized, but all Venezuelans are now poised to reap the whirlwind of the balance of his legacy: soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Far from demonstrating any appreciation for the gravity of the economic situation, Maduro has indicated he only intends to dole out more of the same. In fact, even as the campaign has been taking place, the government has been pushing a new law in the rubber-stamp National Assembly that further undercuts the private sector and concentrates even more economic power in the state.
The so-called Law against Monopolies and Other Similar Practices is a capricious measure that empowers the government to confiscate any business that it deems not acting in the public interest. Yet the law would discard traditional metrics for the determination of monopolistic practices and instead leave it up to a politically appointed board to decide if a company has a "decisive domain" over the setting of prices or other market conditions. (State-owned enterprises would be exempt under the law, further tilting the playing field against the private sector.)
In other words, any successful company runs the risk of confiscation at any time by crossing the government's arbitrary line of being "too successful." And with the judicial sector also controlled by the government, private companies are left with no outlet to appeal adverse decisions.
The fall-out if such a law was to be implemented is not difficult to imagine: a further retraction of private sector activity, less production, and less opportunity for working Venezuelans. Just what the Venezuelan economy does not need at this critical juncture.
This is a far cry from the image of Nicolas Maduro that U.S. audiences were presented by the news media after he was named by Chávez as his successor. We were told the former bus driver was "pragmatic" and "likable." (Call it the Yuri Andropov Syndrome, after the soft-pedaling to the American public of the former KGB-head's supposed fondness for "Western jazz and scotch.")
Well, during this recent campaign, when the likable, moderate Maduro was not expelling additional U.S. personnel from the U.S. embassy in Caracas, accusing the United States of poisoning Hugo Chávez, or implicating former U.S. officials in attempts to assassinate either him or Capriles (depending on the day), he was making homophobic slurs about his opponent and characterizing the opposition as fascist coup-mongerers. And, at the same, planning further actions to destroy what is left of the private sector in Venezuela.
There will be those who will dismiss all this as just so much campaign bluster. They do so at risk to U.S. national interests. There is no evidence that Maduro is anything other than a deadly serious ideologue beholden to Cuba and to further pushing Hugo Chávez's destructive agenda. Consider him Chávez without the charm -- and come hell or high water he is about to be with us for another six years beginning this Sunday.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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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.