Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, is venting to journalists and foreign diplomats about his irritation at feckless Obama administration policies in the Middle East, ominously suggesting his country is at the point of making a "major shift" away from the United States. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of Saudi intelligence, joined in with an address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, saying, "The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people." The Saudi complaints include not attacking Syria, not providing weapons and support to Syrian rebels, American support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, U.S. cuts of assistance to the military that overthrew that government, and a lack of consultation on negotiations with Iran.
The Saudis are not alone, of course, in their criticism. Every country in the region is exasperated, as are many Americans. As former Centcom commander Jim Mattis so memorably put it, "I defy anyone to tell me what U.S. strategy is in the Middle East." But the Saudis' unhappiness is not proof that U.S. policies are wrong. Obama administration policies are wrong, but not in the ways or for the reasons the Saudis excoriate them. And bringing U.S. policies into alignment with Saudi Arabia is likely to create a Middle East even less in America's interests than the Obama administration's bungling has.
Saudi Arabia wants a very different Middle East than we do. The Saudis oppose democracy. They oppose freedom of the press. They oppose freedom of conscience and practice of faiths other than Islam. They oppose women's equality before the law. They oppose the idea that individuals have rights and loan them in limited ways and for limited purposes to governments. They deny rights to their own Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia, while advocating and enforcing the same in Bahrain. They denigrate domestic opposition as solely agents of Iran.
Not only do the Saudis oppose these fundamental values of American society, but they have funded and armed some of the most virulent jihadists. Rachel Bronson's superb history of U.S.-Saudi relations, Thicker Than Oil, makes clear that the United States was complicit in Saudi Arabia's fostering of the mujahideen in Afghanistan; the Saudis now want U.S. complicity in supporting jihadists in Syria and the return to power of the deep state in Egypt (a model they would perpetuate throughout the region).
Secretary of State John Kerry did a fine diplomatic turn in London on Tuesday, outlining the areas of U.S.-Saudi common interest, toning down the problem, and conveying a calm confidence that the two countries will continue to work together. The policy question is what form greater Saudi opposition to U.S. policies might take.
Photo: JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times has published a deeply reported and well-sourced account of the tortuous 2011-2013 path of the Obama administration's Syria policy. The money quote is attributed to a "former senior White house official" (which rather narrows the list of possibilities considerably): "We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that's the tragedy of it."
The reporting reinforces the most important thing that we already knew: The equivocation at the heart of the administration's approach to Syria can be traced directly to the ambivalence within the Barack Obama himself. Yes, the rest of his administration was deeply divided, but they were cueing off the divisions within the president's own mind.
The reporting also tells us new things that even close observers of the process may not have known, including:
Throughout the NYT's account, one is struck by the way the 2012 reelection campaign negatively influenced the evolution of policy on Syria. Ironically, sympathetic experts have traced the initial failure of the health-care reform website to a similar desire to delay tough choices until after reelection. The administration's struggles in getting the policy and the politics to work together, rather than at cross-purposes, have had a profound effect on foreign and domestic policy.
The NYT's account rings true to me. Similar accounts could be and were written about how previous administrations wrestled with difficult national security policy choices, including during the last two, which I served in. The article is a powerful corrective for anyone who thinks the choices are easy and is a useful reminder that often the best policies are merely the least worst ones available.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that member companies should invest in Pakistan, where global giants like Colgate-Palmolive and Nestlé have made substantial profits. Today, he will meet with President Barack Obama to discuss an economic program to spark Pakistan's development. This is a nice change of pace from the regular drones/terrorists/Taliban agenda -- vitally important as these issues are.
In fact, many of Pakistan's pathologies -- including Army dominance over civilian institutions, poor governance, pervasive insecurity, and the continuing generation and export of violent extremists -- would be mitigated if Pakistan's political class, and the world, focused more intensely on steepening its growth trajectory. Arguments that Pakistan cannot successfully modernize for cultural or religious reasons should be rejected on their face, so diverse have been the developmental success stories of emerging economies in East Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
It is not impossible to imagine Pakistan's ultimate emergence as an Asian tiger in its own right. In this scenario, the economic miracle that started with postwar Japan and subsequently encompassed Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, China, and India would finally make its way to Pakistan. That most of these countries are not Muslim should be no cultural barrier; Turkey's modernization into a middle-income country over the past decade and Indonesia's economic transformation into a second-generation BRIC country demonstrate that populous Muslim democracies outside the Arab world are well-positioned to embrace modernity. They have done so not by relying on foreign aid, but through domestic reform and by taking advantage of globalization's enabling environment to welcome foreign trade and investment.
Pakistan's future as an Asian tiger has been predicted before. As early as the 1950s, it was viewed in the West, including by Dwight Eisenhower's administration, as one of the Asian economies most likely to successfully modernize (along with Burma!). As recently as 2005, Goldman Sachs identified Pakistan's then-high rate of economic growth amid the Musharraf reforms, its growing internal market powered by a demographic boom, its advantageous geographical position astride economic hubs in the Gulf, Central Asia, China, and India, and other factors as reasons for global investors to put their money into it as one of the "Next Eleven" (N-11) emerging economies or next-generation BRICs. Goldman's Jim O'Neill, who coined the BRIC acronym, reiterated Pakistan's long-term importance as a key emerging market in his 2011 book The Growth Map.
Pakistan's natural advantages -- a vibrant civil society, a moderate voting majority, an advantageous geographical position between prosperous Asian and Gulf economies, geopolitical allies in the world's superpower and rising stars, a professional and capable armed forces, a youthful demographic, a large internal market of nearly 200 million potential consumers -- suggest that a sustained dose of security and good governance could put it on track toward comfortable middle-income status. This would likely require greater economic integration with India; a diminished Army role in public life; a rate of urbanization that fueled rising demands for reform and economic opportunity; continued assistance from the West, the Gulf, and China; and, critically, the rollback of domestic political violence.
In his meeting with Sharif today, Obama can launch a "new normal" phase of U.S. relations with Pakistan -- one focused not on Afghanistan or India, as in the past, but on the future of Pakistan itself -- by delivering on American commitments to assist with the hard and soft infrastructure of development, from energy to education. Sharif campaigned on a modernization agenda, and America should support him. Even more important than aid would be a trade agreement to drop U.S. tariffs on Pakistani textile imports.
Pakistan need not remain a basket case forever. The economic transformation of countries with Pakistan-scale Muslim populations and their own histories as victims of terrorism, including Indonesia, India, and Turkey, show what is possible.
Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
When the Defense Department has to make cuts of the magnitude it currently faces, it no longer has the luxury of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. It must weigh cuts to muscle and, perhaps, to bone.
The U.S. military has entered that phase. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno reports that he has only two brigades that are combat-ready. He says he hopes to improve that number next year, but it is hard to see how when national security planning continues to operate against the backdrop of perpetual fiscal crisis and the sequester straitjacket.
When training and readiness take such hits, it is hard to argue for other desiderata like preserving the military's connection to a broad cross-section of American society. Thus, if the collapse in readiness is shrugged at by the odd alliance of fiscal hawks and anti-military/pro-domestic spending politicos who defend the defense cuts, I do not expect much outrage at reports that ROTC will drop its program at 13 colleges and universities. But those cuts are lamentable and, in the long run, likely not good for American civil-military relations.
Fiscal considerations aside, my preference is for as large and distributed an ROTC system as possible. ROTC can help bring diversity -- intellectual, demographic, and regional diversity -- into the military. Of course, the service academies can provide that too. But ROTC enjoys one advantage that no service academy can match: It provides unrivaled connections to broader civilian society. All the roommates, hall-mates, and classmates of the officers who are commissioned through the service academies are themselves part of the military institution. Not so for ROTC.
This is why I am especially worried that a green-eyeshade mentality seeking "maximum efficiency" may shrink ROTC down to just a few mega-programs that produce huge numbers of future officers -- essentially mini-service academies at the handful of large schools that could sustain such a program (e.g., Texas A&M). Viewed through the narrowest of lenses, one can see why it is tempting to save on overhead by cutting a tiny program at, say, one of the elite Ivy League institutions (or my own Duke, for that matter) and making up the difference as needed by adding more ROTC accessions to the larger schools.
What is lost when that happens is the diversity of the elite-trained officer. That is worth something. Worth even more, I would argue, is the lost elite-trained nonmilitary friends of those officers: the roommates and hall-mates -- future leaders in business, politics, education, and popular culture -- who now have at least one close friend serving in the military, whereas otherwise they might have none.
Looking at the list of ROTC programs cut this time, it is clear that they avoided targeting such elite programs, at least in this round. I do not know enough about the ROTC programs at these schools to determine whether they were the right ones to cut. Perhaps, if there had to be ROTC cuts, these were the ones to make if you were determined to preserve as broad a cross-section of connections between the military and American society as you could. But any cuts in ROTC exacerbate this general problem, and I worry that the next round will have even worse side effects.
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This month marks the 15-year anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRF Act), which among other things created the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom and an office of the same name at the State Department. Coincidentally, this month will also witness a new vacancy in the position, with the impending departure of Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook who has filled the role for the last 17 months. So it seems fitting to take stock of the law, and also offer some suggestions for what Barack Obama's administration and Secretary of State John Kerry should look for in picking a new ambassador.
How has the IRF Act fared? I was one of the congressional staff authors of the original bill, and my own evaluation is ambivalent and leans negative. If one only judges results, the world has certainly answered in the negative. Globally, religious persecution and religious intolerance are as prevalent now as they were 15 years ago. According to the authoritative Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, religious repression has actually increased in recent years, to the point that "three-quarters of the world's approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion."
If considered as a counterfactual -- how would things be if the IRF Act had never been passed -- the record is more mixed. At a minimum, religious freedom promotion is now institutionalized as an official policy of the U.S. government. The State Department's annual report on religious freedom is widely acclaimed as a judicious, sophisticated, comprehensive resource. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been led by a diverse, bipartisan array of luminaries and continues to be a vigorous independent watchdog and advisory body.
On the negative ledger, the IRF Act's "countries of particular concern" mechanism has been employed in rather stale ways, instead of as a creative instrument of diplomacy and, when necessary, of punitive measures as originally intended. The Office of International Religious Freedom itself is subordinated in the State Department's bureaucracy, rather than reporting directly to the secretary of state as the legislation originally intended. State Department and USAID funding of democracy programs overseas includes only a pittance for religious liberty. Most regrettably, religious freedom promotion is still seen as a boutique, marginal issue of concern only to religious communities and a few zealous activists, rather than having any relation to core foreign-policy interests such as security, peace, and stability.
So the IRF Act has done some good, but could do so much more. Perhaps, as my former State Department colleague Tom Farr (now running the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs) has suggested, it is time for the Senate to hold an oversight hearing evaluating the implementation of the IRF Act, following the one conducted by the House in June. Some legislative updates are in order as well, such as perhaps adopting the tiered ranking system of nations similar to that employed by the trafficking-in-persons office.
Before the Obama administration appointed Ambassador Johnson Cook, I had offered these recommendations here and here of the qualities that a religious freedom ambassador should have and how the policy should be pursued. While Johnson Cook brought energy and devotion to the job, she faced several hindrances, including the office's tertiary location in the State Department's bureaucracy, the Obama administration's relative indifference to religious freedom, and her own lack of foreign-policy experience.
Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
As the bell rings, signaling the end of the current round of Washington scuffling over the debt ceiling, and as the participants return to their respective corners, we can take a moment to assess the damage. There is plenty, but we can focus on the question of what the last few weeks meant for the Obama administration's effort to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
The current incarnation of TPP talks dates back to late 2008; these have been going on a while. The 12 countries now participating have set themselves a notional goal of wrapping things up this year.
The Financial Times concludes that the recent budget standoff took a toll, when President Barack Obama decided to skip the APEC leaders' gathering. It quotes the director of research at the Asian Development Bank Institute as saying, "Obama not coming here means that the TPP probably didn't get the big push it was to get." Instead, the Financial Times story describes how China used the occasion to advance its alternative trade vision -- the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership -- which just so happens to exclude the United States (as the TPP excludes China).
There are plenty of reasons to worry about the TPP's prospects, and the budget debacle in Washington likely made things worse. But the main problem was not Obama's absence from the Asian gatherings, nor China's chance to peddle its wares. Had the president used the government downtime to find common ground with Republicans and repair a broken relationship, the TPP's prospects would likely have improved. Had there been a grand bargain on budget matters, as some participants sought, Congress could have moved on to other matters, such as granting the president negotiating authority for the TPP and the agreement with Europe (the TTIP - another casualty of government-shutdown theater).
Instead, the president seemed determined to vanquish his off-balance Republican opponents. The putative deal that emerged from the Senate only provides a few months' respite, guaranteeing that Congress will return to fight over the issue another day.
This matters for the TPP (and TTIP) because it will be virtually impossible for the president to conclude these deals successfully without cooperation from congressional Republicans. As I noted in the wake of our early-fall foreign-policy crisis (over Syria), Congress has the ultimate say over trade policy. With Republicans in the majority in the House, the TPP would need their support to pass.
An optimist might counter that this is hardly a serious concern. Are Republicans really going to vote down a concluded agreement just to spite Obama? The threat hardly seems credible. And that would be right -- if the president already had trade negotiating authority. It is that authority which would give him his negotiating instructions and let him put a completed agreement before Congress for an up-down vote. But he doesn't have any such authority. The last version of trade promotion authority (TPA) expired in 2007. There have been attempts since to revive it, notably in 2011, but the White House didn't back the effort and Senate Democrats blocked it.
The road to successful trade agreements runs through TPA. To get TPA, there has to be agreement on what subjects trade pacts ought to cover. This is not just haggling about tariffs; it involves trickier domestic policy issues such as labor standards, environmental measures, intellectual property rights protection, and regulatory practices. There is substantial opposition to the current approach to trade among House Democrats, represented by the House Trade Working Group. The veteran trade skeptics on the left have recently been joined by a smaller group of novice trade skeptics on the right, who voice concerns about the delegation of congressional power to the executive.
One can still imagine a successful coalition in the House that could back TPA, but it would likely involve Obama working hand in hand with Republican leaders to craft a bill that would embrace Republican principles, enjoy majority Republican support, and win over a minority of internationalist Democrats. At this point, such cooperation seems fanciful. Even if the president could fracture the House Republican caucus and get a group to endorse the principles of the Democratic skeptics, the outcome would likely be unpalatable to the country's TPP trading partners.
The TPP is yet another illustration of the analytical value of political scientist Robert Putnam's idea of two-level games. Those lamenting Obama's absence from recent Asian summitry implicitly give greater weight to the international negotiations as an obstacle. At this point, domestic obstacles may loom larger.
Astute TPP partners will be less worried about the president's decision not to mill about in a colorful shirt and more worried about the implications of the recent fight for comity up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. The president showed not that he could work hand in hand with congressional leaders, but that he could deliver a sharp uppercut. Progress on trade will likely have to await the conclusion of the budget fight, Round 2.
Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
As Republicans and Democrats continue their standoff in Washington, developments overseas directly affecting U.S. security interests continue apace. Think of multiple boulders tumbling down a hill. Let's just hope a distracted Uncle Sam isn't clobbered by one of them.
In Venezuela, the United States' fourth-largest supplier of crude oil and 14th-largest trading partner, conditions are spiraling from bad to worse. The late Hugo Chávez's hapless successor, President Nicolás Maduro, has requested emergency decree powers, which he says are needed to save an economy in free-fall -- including an inflation rate among the world's highest, collapsing public services, and shortages of basic goods such as milk, meat, and toilet paper. This, in a country sitting atop perhaps the largest reserves of crude oil on the globe.
Until now, Maduro has become little more than a laughingstock since claiming a suspicious victory over challenger Henrique Capriles in the April election following Chávez's death. Obsessed with blaming others for Venezuela's travails, he has announced some 13 (and counting) conspiracies against his government, plus four assassination "plots." That strategy has run its course, however; the time for fun and games is clearly over.
Not even reported annual oil revenues of $100 billion has been enough to paper over an inflation rate of 49 percent, a scarcity index of 20 percent, the dollar trading on the black market at seven times the official rate, wanton corruption, electrical blackouts, and horrendous street crime.
The situation is simply not sustainable -- and Maduro has neither solutions nor much room to maneuver. His Cuban minders are insisting that he not only hold the line, but that he double down on command economy policies.
Yet the key dynamic in Venezuela today is not between the government and the opposition, but within the regime itself. That's because there is no shortage of powerful figures in the government who continue to proudly identify with Chávez's movement, but who clearly recognize that the country is disintegrating and that Maduro's incompetence is making matters worse. Many of them as well, especially in the military, have always resented the heavy Cuban presence at the top echelons of civilian decision-making. It will fall to these forces to pick up the pieces when Maduro's mismanagement finally overwhelms him.
Barack Obama's administration cannot be caught flat-footed in the event of a change in leadership in Venezuela. The State Department spent the last six months doing everything it could to normalize relations with the Maduro government, but the recent expulsion of the U.S. chargé d'affaires (the ambassador was expelled long ago) has brought that effort to an ignominious end. Now, they need quite a different plan, one that seeks to help guide a peaceful transition to a post-Maduro government less hostile to the United States. If one thing is certain, Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba -- all heavily vested in the regime's radical wing -- are not about to stand idly by and let events play out.
Of course, there is always a chance that Maduro can muddle through (oil is an excellent lubricant), but that is a risky bet. A key date ahead is Dec. 8, when Venezuela is supposed to hold municipal elections. Many see those elections as a referendum on Maduro's presidency. If the ruling party does well, it may buy Maduro time. If not, hold on tight.
A Venezuelan transition will provide significant opportunities for a welcome course correction in bolstering U.S. security interests in the region. Numerous bad actors believe they hit the mother lode in chavismo and have profited immensely, at the expense of the U.S. interests. Either way, if a post-Maduro government is interested in a less toxic relationship with Washington or not, the United States will have new leverage. U.S. interests lie in nothing less than the expulsion of the Cubans, the Iranians, and the drug cartels from Venezuela. If a new leadership in Venezuela seeks a future sans such nefarious associations, the Venezuelan people and their historical friends in the United States stand to benefit.
Photo: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter is stepping down is unwelcome for those of us who are concerned about the health of civil-military relations in Barack Obama's administration. No one is indispensable, but Carter has earned an unusual amount of respect on both sides of the partisan aisle and across the uniformed divide. (Full disclosure: Way back in the days of the Cold War, Carter was on my dissertation committee, which surely disposes me in his favor, though it probably doesn't make him very sympathetic to me!)
I believe that Carter would have been a good secretary of defense, and I think he has helped Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel do better than was feared, especially after Hagel's rocky confirmation. I hope that he is replaced by someone who can similarly command respect from Democrats and Republicans, and from civilians and the military, for we appear to be heading into rocky civil-military waters.
Some have said we have already entered.
A few weeks ago, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reviewed the civil-military debate over Syria and concluded: "civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War." Since that period saw the conflict over "don't ask, don't tell" (not to mention the prevalent military contempt for President Bill Clinton early in his tenure) and the Rumsfeld-era civil-military friction, Zenko's assertion is a dramatic one.
The evidence Zenko cited included reports that the military is unhappy with poor White House planning on Syria and was generally reluctant to do the strikes Obama was threatening. Retired Gen. Robert Scales claimed explicitly that he was channeling "the overwhelming opinion of serving [military] professionals" when he said that they were embarrassed by the "amateurism" of the Obama administration in the Syria episode. Zenko also discussed the doubts, primarily from congressional Republicans, about the way the administration handled the Benghazi debacle.
Curiously, Zenko left off what is arguably the most important driver of civil-military tensions, now and especially going forward: the persistent fiscal crisis that has resulted in sequestration.
Sequestration was designed to be something so horrible that it never would be implemented. Almost everyone in the Defense Department, whether in or out of uniform, still views it that way. But there is a growing sense that the White House, and the commander in chief in particular, has come to view the first round of sequestration as tolerable. Worse, the president's refusal to negotiate with Republicans has raised fears that perhaps he is willing to prolong sequestration, at least insofar as it applies to the Defense Department.
This is a real civil-military problem -- much more consequential than the Obama administration's odd decision to prevent World War II veterans from visiting their open-air monument as a way of ratcheting up pressure on Republicans. Harassing wheelchair vets makes for compelling television, but imposing arbitrary cuts on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars across the FYDP undermines national security. There is no question which hurts civil-military relations more.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.