Barack Obama's administration is under the gun to produce a "final" agreement justifying its six-month sweetener for Iran. In return for cessation of progress in the country's nuclear programs, Iran has received some sanctions relief. The White House is trumpeting this as a great advance toward eliminating Iran's nuclear threat, even hinting it could dramatically reshuffle American alliances in the Middle East. What the Obama administration appears not to understand is how much the interim deal highlights its incredible -- literally, lacking in credibility -- declaratory policy.
President Obama has stated unequivocally that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. His closest aides have defended the interim deal as forestalling military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. In fact, the administration has explicitly tied the negotiations to forestalling "another war in the Middle East."
After watching the debacle of the president's aborted military strikes on Syria and hearing the audible sigh of relief from the White House when Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him an exit strategy, the Iranian government would be stupid to think that the American people would back "another war in the Middle East" or that Obama would launch one without the public plebiscite he allowed to dictate his policy. And the Iranian government is not stupid.
The Obama administration seems genuinely to believe public opposition to "another war in the Middle East" is caused by George W. Bush's administration invading Iraq. The American public opposes all wars until persuaded that they need fighting and that their government has a reasonable plan to achieve its goals at an acceptable cost. Team Obama seems genuinely not to understand that its incontinent policies are responsible for the current malaise. Choosing not to win wars is responsible for it. Inability to build common cause with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan is also responsible. Presidential inattention to the subject is responsible. Having no predictability to when the United States would intervene and when it would not is responsible. Turning on a dime from opposing to advocating intervention is responsible. Advocating tiny little strikes is responsible. Treating military intervention as though it isn't going to war is responsible -- responsible for public resistance, irresponsible as government policy.
And that's the problem with national security policy by plebiscite: What the public wants may not be what the public needs. That's why the United States has a representative democracy with legislators and an executive to govern. That's why presidents spend time talking about national security policy: The public needs to have the arguments presented and time to think and debate the alternatives. They need to know the alternatives are worse, because the president has no business taking the country to war if there are better alternatives.
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Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will.
Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East -- on a nuclear hair trigger -- just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.
Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium -- the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited -- on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests -- they just got it, in spades.
Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.
But of course Iran is not Japan -- a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.
Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.
Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element -- the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will -- of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Read the full article here.
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As the Twain-attributed cliché goes, history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. The parallels between Obama and Bush's policies are a staple (some might say a tiresome obsession) of my posts. Well, here I go again...
The eerie parallels between the way the politics of President Obama's first year of his second term played out and the political dynamics of President Bush's first year of his second term are what prompted me to make the Katrina analogy in a recent discussion with a New York Times reporter (which I gather produced "an email and Twitter explosion" -- my apologies to the intrepid reporter at the center of the explosion).
Of course, I am hardly the only or the first to see the Katrina-Obamacare parallels (see another careful discussion here), but it is one that is particularly vivid for me because I lived through that crucial period in the Bush administration.
The parallel just got a bit more apt: According to the most recent CBS poll, Obama's approval rating at this point in his tenure is right where Bush's rating (in the separate Gallup poll) was at the same point. Of course, the mix of issues that brought each president to this political point is not an exact repeat, but the mixes sure rhyme: questions of competence, questions of candor, questions of how a White House could take its eye off the ball on an issue it had identified as central, etc. This last parallel points to the Iraq comparative, which I think is an even more apt one than Katrina.
I wonder if there are additional insights to be gleaned from the parallel. President Bush's approval rating recovered a bit a few weeks after it hit this low, following on a major communications push the White House undertook. The push included the release of the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq and a series of major speeches outlining the president's strategy in Iraq. (Full disclosure: At the time, I got more credit than I deserved for this initiative.)
This initiative worked (as I and my co-authors explain here on pp. 232-233) when the Bush administration was able to couple the communications push with some real progress on the ground in the form of the peaceful Iraqi parliamentary election in December 2005. But it only worked temporarily, because the problems ran much deeper than the election could fix. A few months later, President Bush's approval rating lost all of the ground it had regained in in the winter. There are several reasons for this, but one I would highlight here: During the Fall 2005 decline, the White House, myself included, thought that we had the right policy in Iraq and primarily had a communications problem. We were wrong. We had a policy problem. A year later we realized that and changed the policy, but by then it was too late to undo the political damage.
Right now, the Obama White House believes it has a communications problem, not a policy problem. Yes, the White House acknowledges that the website is a problem, but mainly because it is making it hard for people to get the full benefit of the policy. So while the president tinkers around the edges of the policy, his effort has mainly been in the area of communications: selling harder the original policy. And if the administration couples the communications push with some improvement in the form of getting the website up and running -- or if intense spinning designed to make the Iranian nuclear deal seem better than it really is gives the administration a tactical success that offers a respite from the drumbeat of criticism -- it could reverse the public approval slide much the way President Bush's big push on Iraq reversed his slide in late 2005.
But if the critics are right and the real problem with Obamacare is the policy, specifically the internal contradictions of the policy and the intrinsic unpopularity of a massively complex redistributionist policy, then Obama might experience only a short-lived respite on the political front.
One further lesson: As the Iraq surge proved, even a politically strapped president still can do some very consequential things, particularly on foreign policy. So it is too soon to write Obama's obituary. It is entirely possible that one or more of his most important policy decisions will be made in the months and years to come. In other words, perhaps President Obama has in him another "surge," defined as the pursuit of a controversial but consequential foreign policy gambit. We may even be seeing the outlines of that now with the Iran nuclear issue -- whether it yields a lasting diplomatic solution, failed negotiations leading to war, or failed negotiations leading to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
I wonder if the Obama White House realizes all of this right now. I don't think we did when we were in their shoes.
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Commenting on last weekend's Iran deal, today's New York Times reports:
White House officials suggest that the president always planned to arrive at this moment, and that everything that came before it -- from the troop surge in Afghanistan to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- was cleaning up after his predecessor.
Let's consider that claim. Is it really credible that the last five years of American diplomacy have been little more than a mopping-up operation by Team Obama of its predecessor's mistakes? According to presidential aide Ben Rhodes, for whom the 2008 campaign never ended, the answer is apparently yes:
"In 2009, we had 180,000 troops in two wars and a ton of legacy issues surrounding terrorism," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "So much that was done out of the box was winding down those wars. We've shifted from a very military face on our foreign policy to a very diplomatic face on our foreign policy."
Set aside the fact that, during George W. Bush's administration, the United States was attacked on its soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor by a terrorist network that continues to actively target the American people -- events now known as "legacy issues surrounding terrorism."
If President Barack Obama wants his diplomacy to be judged against that of his predecessor, it is worth an honest look at Bush's own scorecard. It certainly included its share of stumbles and setbacks. But set aside the ideological blinkers, and it appears that the Bush administration conducted some rather credible diplomatic footwork. This included:
It would be unfair to Obama to benchmark against eight years of his predecessor's diplomacy when he has had only five -- particularly given the historical trend of second-term presidential activism in foreign policy. But American statecraft under Obama has seemed mainly to involve delivering a set of well-written speeches while pivoting toward America's adversaries and away from its friends.
Obama's diplomatic record is patchy, to put it mildly. It includes:
Bush's critics at home and abroad charged his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to China's authoritarian rulers, and naiveté in seeking a disarmament deal with North Korea. Obama's critics at home and abroad charge his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to Russia's authoritarian ruler, and naiveté in seeking disarmament deals with Iran and Syria. Maybe not so much has changed after all, Mr. Rhodes.
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The six-month interim deal is simply a standstill agreement, generally providing that neither party will be further disadvantaged while a broader settlement is negotiated. Whether or not such an accord can be completed and enforced remains in doubt. Already the two sides are sparring over what the interim deal means.
The White House case for the agreement notes that it: halts production of uranium enriched above 5 percent and requires that existing stocks be diluted or turned to oxide form; halts installation of new centrifuge capabilities; freezes stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (unless converted to oxide); freezes construction of the Arak heavy water reactor; and affords the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better access and more information. These provisions generally slow progress on declared civil nuclear activities, and in the case of the uranium enriched to near 20 percent, impose a modest rollback.
In return, the U.S. administration claims that Iran will receive only "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, amounting to about $7 billion, while broader sanctions will remain in place, with over $100 billion in funds frozen, and restrictions on oil sales continuing to cost Tehran $4 billion per month.
Why, then, has the deal evoked such opposition in the United States, with even influential Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer criticizing it?
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In the United States, the prospects for additional international trade opportunities look dim. The continuing fallout from revelations that the National Security Agency snooped through millions of pieces of European telephone data has cast a pall upon the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks. Additionally, the government shutdown forced the cancellation of the second round of negotiations on the pact, as well as forcing President Obama to miss the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which squandered an opportunity to push to finalize a similar commercial agreement in Asia. Internally, past and future fiscal fights are likely to further sour the possibility of future collaborative action between President Obama and Congressional Republicans, which will be necessary to pass any trade legislation.
However, it is always darkest before the dawn, and our neighbor to the north provides a light for those interested in promoting international trade.
Canada and the European Union have come to an agreement on a bilateral trade accord that would eliminate tariffs and open new markets to companies on both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks to some shrewd politicking from Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper, the measure enjoys overwhelming support from the public and could be finalized by 2015, practically light speed for a trade agreement.
Economists from both sides foresee financial benefits. Canada would join a select coterie of nations that have preferential access to the United States and the European Union, the two largest markets in the world. Increased exports, particularly in the services industry, could help inject some dynamism into a sclerotic European economy.
A leaked EU analysis of the trade agreement with Canada gives the United States a leg up when it comes to negotiating with the continent. If the EU views the recent bilateral accord as a guide, America has the benefit of knowing where the box canyons and strong currents are located.
There will be plenty of challenges and debates with European negotiators, so President Obama should be doing as much as he can to limit friction over the deal at home. That will require a more hands on approach to getting Trade Promotion Authority passed through Congress. In addition to the inside game in Washington, the White House will also have to play a strong outside game with businesses and unions that may not have as much to gain from tariff reductions as other sectors of the economy. A serious breakthrough on trade could provide some spark to a second term that is losing power fast.
If enacted, TTIP has the potential to boost economic output by some $100 billion a year on each side of the Atlantic, according to trade officials. It would offer the prospect of much needed job growth and improve the ability for America and Europe to compete with emerging markets. Additionally the maneuver would go a long way towards setting a global standard for bilateral trade agreements and commerce more generally.
There's no doubt that the task will be difficult, but the United States and Europe have worked together to slay more vicious dragons in the past. The scourge of communism was more formidable than any special interest group could ever dream of becoming.
The United States joined Europe to form the G-6 in 1975 to initiate the idea of global economic cooperation for mutual benefit. Canada followed suit a year later to make it the G-7, and today the pact has evolved into the G-20.
It is now the United States' turn to follow Canada's lead. If both America and Europe can break through gridlock at home and once again join hands, each side will benefit immensely, and the world economy could get a much-needed boost from the transatlantic partners who have long been the twin engines powering global prosperity.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
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I agree with Dov that the White House is behaving utterly irresponsibly with regard to defense spending and policy -- and I even favor further spending cuts, which Dov does not. President Obama has for his entire term in office treated DOD like an ATM machine, cutting its budget to free up money for his priorities while excoriating Congress for the consequences of those cuts. President Obama clearly doesn't share the Pentagon's concern about further cuts, blithely saying the $490 billion already cut can be matched. The White House chose to exclude personnel costs from budget cuts, ratcheting up pressure on other parts of the budget. The president was shameless enough to go to Camp Pendleton during the government shutdown, stand in front of the assembled Marines and say "what makes me frustrated is that sometimes the very folks who say they stand with our military, the same folks are standing in the way of the sequester. It's important to look at deeds, and not just words."
But Hagel is also to blame for the mismanagement evident at DOD. The Defense Department turned in a FY 2014 budget $54 billion in excess of the Budget Control Act ceiling, exacerbating the cuts that would need to be made when sequestration came into effect. Services were permitted to spend in excess of their annual burn rate in the months before sequestration went into effect, in order to accentuate the degree of cuts and therefore the damage they could claim was the result of sequestration. According to former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, the Pentagon only began "prudent planning" for sequestration two weeks before it came into effect. Services that had programmed their money carefully enough that they didn't need to furlough civilian employees (the Navy) were required out of solidarity to transfer money to the other services and participate in furloughs.
Hagel's Strategic Choices Management Review was supposed to identify where trade-offs would need to be made. Beyond the simplistic "quantity or quality" metric Hagel summarized in his out-brief to the press, it produced very little. Army end strength wasn't even raised as an issue. The leader of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review team said of the SCMR "there was no strategy in it, there were no choices in it."
Dov is exactly right that the cutting-edge enablers of our military proficiency (ISR, precision strike) and shielding our vulnerabilities (space, cyber) are where to prioritize spending, but very little in Hagel's actual choices as secretary suggests he is doing so. The criticism holds across all six of Hagel's priorities: reduce "the world's biggest back office" by 20 percent; make contingency scenarios drive force structure; tier readiness; protect emerging capabilities; "preserve balance" between compensation, training, and equipment; and reform personnel compensation.
Compensation reform is the most egregious illustration: it needs doing, but DOD isn't doing it. It's great that he set up a commission to review compensation...except that the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation concluded its work less than a year ago. Budget experts like the estimable Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have provided a welter of suggestions for curbing the runaway cost of personnel compensation. The debate is not lacking ideas or alternatives, it is lacking the leadership heft -- both from DOD's civilian and military leaders -- to shame Congress into accepting that not every "vote to support our men and women in uniform" is actually good for the Department of Defense in these austere times. Especially when denying them the training and equipment that will make them effective and reduce the risk of casualties is the alternative.
I very much hope Secretary Hagel will actually take up some of these ideas, and those that his own commission will put forward, but giving speeches and setting up commissions are not the same as taking on the Military Officers Association of America and other lobbying groups that will make votes uncomfortable for members of Congress to cast. The service chiefs will have to play an active part in changing the political dynamic from one that rewards compensation votes to one that educates the Congress and public to understand greater compensation will actually be harmful because training and equipment will get short shrift.
That DOD is in such a parlous state is largely its own fault, the result of weak leadership and bad management. Even former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been critical, saying "these decisions have been by the seat of the pants, what's essential and what's not essential. I think not enough thought was put into how exactly this would be implemented." Hagel needs to up his game, and so does the military leadership.
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends for Japan to become the major power leading East Asia in the face of Chinese aggression, and China is responding. All of this is bad news for the United States, its regional allies and the world.
Abe is going down this path of "proactive pacifism" not because he is an atavistic shrine-visiting militarist (he is not), nor because he leads a country bent on war with China (it is not). It is simply because he governs a country that is unfortunately placed close to an assertive power that wants to alter the international system and reap more economic benefits from sea-bound minerals, and the erstwhile referee, the United States, has decided to lay low for eight years. If drone attacks can't solve a problem, the Obama administration is not interested in engagement, and drone attacks won't solve this dispute-cum-crisis.
Trouble has been brewing for over a year regarding the disputed sovereignty of the islands in the East China and South China Seas. China has been stepping up its maritime presence while declaring unilaterally its sovereignty over the islands. Moreover, China's ally North Korea continues to provoke in many ways, not least of which by hurling missiles over Japan and kidnapping Japanese nationals. The Japanese PM has had enough, announcing in parliament for the entire world to hear that "the ocean should be protected and the freedom to navigate must be protected." He said similar things the next day reviewing troops, and he is flexing his military's muscles.
These words are typically spoken by U.S. presidents when tensions are high because only the U.S. can say them with authority. But more importantly, only the U.S. can say them and mean them as a true balancer who intends only to keep the peace and keep the commerce flowing. That is, no country in the region -- literally not one -- wants to see Japan try to solve U.S.-size problems. Nevertheless, we have come to a point in year five of the Obama administration that our militarily weak allies who have no regional, moral, political or diplomatic authority have to do our job against change agents. The reality of the danger the world faces from disputes and provocations that can get out of control does not depend on whether China's leaders are simply warmongers (I don't think they are) or the stewards of a dangerously slowing economy who perhaps fear that now is their last chance to break out of their perceived encirclement.
It is simply a fact that the prime minister of Japan, no matter who he or she is, cannot tolerate a situation like the region faces today. The countries of the region -- friend, foe and whatever the term is for the in between -- have been waiting for five years to see the U.S. lead. All they have witnessed is the Obama "pivot" to Asia. But that was never a serious foreign policy measure because it was not predicated on a strategy comprised of careful calculation of the investment of resources to achieve specific goals. Rather, it was a way to say "we are doing something to attend to things that Bush didn't do." Japan and the rest know that, and so the one country with the economic might capable of developing a military that can challenge China is acting. Maybe Abe means really to do something; maybe he means just to get Obama's attention. Abe is certainly aware that Japan is not the leader desired by the region given its history as colonizer and pillager, and that makes his statements all the more likely to get our attention.
What does China think? While that question has never been easy to answer about any situation, we can speculate that some in the leadership, military types probably, want to break out of what they consider U.S. hegemony and the encirclement they believe we have engineered since Mao took over. And now is the time because they've never had a U.S. president be so reticent to lead and so willing to tolerate challenges to the international order. Perhaps other Chinese leaders -- those who are able to calculate economic realities -- secretly desire the U.S. to finally take up its responsibility and find a solution that saves face for all and prevents a crisis. It is all but certain that the other powers in the region share this desire.
With Obamacare floundering and Benghazi and the IRS scandals far from over, it is unfortunately very unlikely that the administration will engage. As I noted a few months back, this probably is only going to get worse.
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America's foreign relations appear to have hit a perfect storm. The ongoing Snowden-NSA scandal, which has resulted in the near-alienation of Europe's most powerful leader, the hitherto staunchly pro-American Angela Merkel, as well as anger in Brazil, Mexico, and several other countries, has overlapped with the Tea Party-inspired partial government shutdown and the angst generated in the run-up to the vote on the national debt. Just as everyone thought Washington's credibility could not get much lower after the series of administration about-faces in responding to Assad's use of chemical weapons, it has managed to sink further still.
President Obama and his administration are no innocents in this matter. They have completely mishandled the NSA eavesdropping affair, refusing to acknowledge reality in the face of overwhelming Snowden-leaked evidence, and thereby compounded European and Latin American anger. Moreover, the President's stubborn refusal to negotiate with Capitol Hill Republicans, despite his constant refrain about the need for comity in Washington, certainly contributed to the government closure.
That said, the Tea Party's Congressional adherents have even more to answer for. By pressing their quixotic attempt to force the President's hand on Obamacare, they conveyed an image of an America that cannot get its house in order, and that has little concern about the international ramifications of its absurd proclivity to lurch from crisis to crisis every few months.
American reliability was already questionable in the aftermath of its support for the Morsy government in Egypt in the face of increasing popular hostility (supposedly on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood's election victory needed to be respected) in contrast to its desertion of Hosni Mubarak (who also held office by virtue of an election) when the people turned against him. Its treatment of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who, after all, had reached a solemn agreement with the United States to terminate his nuclear weapons program, and appears to have adhered to that agreement, likewise projected an image of perfide Americana. And Obama's tortured reaction to Assad's use of chemical weapons obliterated the credibility of his "red lines" that were meant to deter the Syrian leader.
The Congressional supporters of the Tea Party have compounded the damage to the image of American reliability, however. Foreign observers think the United States has lost its collective mind; allies are looking elsewhere for security support; friends are reconsidering how tightly they wish to be aligned with America; adversaries are convincing themselves that Washington is withdrawing from the world, allowing them to wreak havoc on the international scene. The Tea Party's adherents simply are ignorant of the ramifications of their behavior. They do not realize that America's economic security, indeed its secure way of life, is intimately linked to a stable international order, which itself requires that Washington maintain and enhance its partnerships with like-minded governments. They are dragging America to a new international low, from which recovery may be very long in coming.
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Former State Department official Christian Whiton's book Smart Power is a needed and useful book on "the missing middle" in American foreign policy. Relying on history as well as the tried and true understanding of the term diplomacy before it was neutered by time-servers, place-seekers and the McGovernite left, Whiton outlines an approach that urges policymakers to adopt tactics that fall between the extremes of simply dialoging and a shooting war. Importantly, he argues persuasively that smart power is not only a matter of tactics that are part of a well-laid strategy; it is also a mindset about defending one's country and its interests everywhere and at all times. Personally, I think the book is a good read for those who are desperately in need of a little bit of self-reflection on whether or not they are cut out for foreign policy officialdom.
Whiton begins the book by relaying stories about the use of tactics short of U.S. military force but much more involved than simply issuing démarches and convening conferences during the early years of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan and his allies abroad and in the United States (Democrats and Republicans) were masterful at bringing down the communist system, but the policy foundations of U.S. resistance to Soviet aggression were set long before by Truman and Eisenhower when we fought in various ways to keep Western Europe free. The Soviets knew we would resist and that we would not just talk but act to support our allies and the underground freedom fighters in whatever way was necessary to ensure their success--including supplying bags of cash and inventing ways to broadcast real news into closed states, all in an effort to harm the Soviets' ability to capture nations. Communist leaders knew how the U.S. defined its interests and they experienced measured pain in response to their efforts to deny us the fulfillment of our goals.
Whiton contrasts this success story by showing how things are different now that we've had thirty years of an academic-inspired approach that assumes that the United Nations and international lawyering will somehow cause everyone to work out differences and establish peace. The problem with this approach is that it most obviously does not work very often and so the only thing left in the basket of tools is to drone or bomb or invade. Whiton argues that we have done the latter far too often, or our officials on the left and the right have argued for that, when smart power thinking and tactics would have been the wiser choice.
Mining his time in the Bush '43 State Department for examples of missed opportunities, Whiton tells of poor judgment and careerist-thinking (both among political appointees and FSOs) that left the U.S. with only two options: convene a conference or bomb someone. Missing were a thorough examination of who are real enemies are, our interests over time, the setting of goals (short, mid-range and long-term), and the choosing of appropriate tactics to achieve each.
It is worth noting that smart power is not "soft power" because the latter almost never means the use of force in any form. Whiton argues that there are various forms of persuasion as well as force short of war that should be available to policymakers to complement the use of whatever Foggy Bottom means by "soft power."
Whiton and I served together and I experienced some of what he laments firsthand in my work on the Freedom Agenda. I believe President George W. Bush had the right mindset and knew U.S. interests well, but especially in the second term he was ill-served at times by some political appointees who were captured by the career officials who wanted a return to the old system of démarche and convene. This is especially unfortunate given the development of the Freedom Agenda and all the good theory and practice (that drew on successful experiences of the Cold War) that it entailed. We were stymied more than once and the president was in turn frustrated by the failure to achieve his goals. I am not as critical of neoconservatives as is Whiton because I think he and most of them share not only the same goals but also a similar approach and mindset. The few whom he considers trigger-happy do not discredit the whole lot. Besides, those too quick to bomb have been moved by frustration at the return of the lawyering and conferencing approach to foreign policy. If there were more tools to choose from-smart power tools-they would readily embrace them. As to Whiton's judgment of the (Ron) Paulist isolationsists, I share his views wholly.
Whiton's book is useful in reminding us that embracing smart power not only has facts and logic on its side, it has a successful track record borne out by history. But it is worth stressing once more: if policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches do not have the right mindset and attitude about the role and interests of the United States in the world, they will never move beyond the current approach practiced with vigor by the Obama administration. They will be reluctant to do anything but what is considered the polite and genteel approach to foreign policy which his to démarche and convene. And then when that fails, as it so often does, they will be moved to use exceedingly large amounts of force with all the political, diplomatic and collateral damage that comes with it. The public will react negatively and our alliances will be harmed. It's time to get smart again.
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President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Asia makes vividly undeniable what has been clear in certain quarters for some time: The administration's foreign-policy agenda has lost its mojo. Watered-down Syria resolutions, overhyped Iranian diplomatic overtures, and an understandable preoccupation with the U.S. fiscal melodrama do not obscure a fundamental truth -- Obama is really struggling on foreign policy. This is obvious to anyone who has served in positions of responsibility in the foreign-policy arena, and the American public has noticed too. With the highest disapproval ratings on foreign policy in his entire tenure, it is time for Obama and his foreign-policy team to step back and reconsider what they are doing. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but accomplishing that feat will require some fresh strategic thinking.
The pundit community is mostly focused on how to jump-start a healthy domestic political process. But even if fixing the domestic political dysfunction is indeed "Job No. 1," there is plenty of work to be done on the foreign relations front as well. Moreover, Obama and his team must also plan for the undesirable contingency that the domestic political crisis could worsen before it improves. We may face months of continued paralysis at home, and the international challenges will not wait for the resolution of the domestic challenges. The president cannot afford to let his foreign-policy languish -- or worse, to try to obscure domestic setbacks with faux diplomatic "breakthroughs" that come at the cost of sacrificing long-term U.S. national security objectives.
What Obama needs is a rebooted foreign-policy agenda, one that identifies real opportunities and confronts real challenges, and that can be pursued even if the domestic political crisis lingers. As the "loyal opposition," we at FP's Shadow Government blog have not been shy to point out when and where we think the Obama administration's policies have been wanting. But we are patriots first and Republicans second, and for our nation's sake we fervently do want to see American foreign policy succeed. We are also all former policymakers, and we know firsthand the profound difficulties in crafting and implementing successful policies. Many of us served during the second term of George W. Bush's administration, so we understand what it feels like to work in a presidency facing declining approval ratings, widespread pundit criticism, violent turbulence in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism, and agonizing challenges elsewhere in the world.
We also understand how hard it is to manage the daily deluge of the inbox, let alone find even a few minutes to think about new policy ideas. With that in mind, our contributors have each taken up the question "What one specific new policy proposal can I suggest to the Obama administration that could be realistically achieved in the next three years?" So, for our friends and readers in the Obama administration -- and we know there are at least a few of you -- we hope you will find the following helpful.
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Since last month's large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria injected a new sense of urgency in Barack Obama's administration regarding America's declining fortunes in the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged the administration to articulate a coherent strategy for the region (see here, here, here, and here). The administration had a Middle East strategy -- what I called a "no more Iraqs" strategy -- but it was played out. It was prone to errors of omission that were leaving U.S. interests in the region in far worse shape than they had been even five years ago.
Today, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered something of a sneak peek at the administration's latest thinking about Middle East strategy. Alas, too much of the new thinking looks like the old thinking. One is left wondering how candid the administration's internal strategy sessions really have been.
The president still talks naively about "ending" wars, when all he has really accomplished is ending U.S. involvement in the wars. Iraq is arguably in worse shape today than it was when Obama took office. The trajectory for Afghanistan is very uncertain, but if Afghanistan declines as Iraq has declined since Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops, the forecast is bleak. Despite that, in his speech Obama actually declared mission accomplished in Afghanistan: "Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11." [Emphasis added.]
Some of Obama's claims are suspect, but in the usual "White House spin" way that everyone recognizes and automatically discounts, e.g., his claim that he is "working diligently to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay." Other claims seem almost like a pathological dare to the fact-checkers, e.g. his odd boast that "we have limited the use of drones" when the world knows that Obama substantially expanded the use of drones.
The heart of the problem is Obama's boast: "The world is more stable than it was five years ago." One could argue that the global economic crisis is a bit more stable, though there are good reasons to fear that this is but a lull in a storm that has by no means exhausted itself. However, it is not really possible to argue that the Middle East, the subject of the president's speech, is more stable. On the contrary, virtually every state is in a more perilous condition than it was when Obama took office. How can he hope to fashion a coherent strategy when he struggles with the very first stage of strategy formulation: ascertaining the global environment?
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Much ink, literal and virtual, has been spilled over the past five years by scholars and pundits trying to ascertain and define the core doctrines of President Barack Obama's foreign policy. Pick your option and there has been a voice to argue for it -- asserting that the Obama administration is motivated by realism, or liberal internationalism, or prudent interventionism, or strategic restraint, or burden-sharing, or some other manner of identifiable strategy. Or perhaps, as Tom Friedman and Steve Walt have suggested, Obama may have a clear strategy but just chooses not to articulate it. Even in the whiplash-inducing wake of last week's Syria decisions, an otherwise critical Noam Scheiber still finds a (you guessed it) "Obama doctrine" embedded in the president's Sept. 10 speech, when he said, "When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death ... I believe we should act."
Perhaps this, or any of the other alternatives, does define the real "Obama doctrine." But I wonder whether the theory that best fits might be a simpler one: that President Obama just is not interested in prioritizing foreign policy in his second term?
I don't want to believe this is the case, but it does make sense of a lot of things that are otherwise quite puzzling. Most recently, the multiple confusions of the past few months on Egypt (and its coup that wasn't a "coup") and now Syria actually help resolve these debates. Maybe the answer is much simpler and has been in clear view all along. Maybe there is no Obama doctrine or strategy because Obama does not have a deep interest in foreign policy.
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This is a move borne out of weakness.
Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don't want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."
Given the predicament the administration's own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.
It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.
But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama's and his advisor's own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.
On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president's abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.
Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president's biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.
And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.
It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.
The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.
But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:
* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama's strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.
* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.
* a negative vote that Obama defies -- a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).
And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.
This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national interest. Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there. We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.
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The politics over Syria are remarkably fluid. On the one hand, Secretary Kerry gave the most impassioned speech given by any Obama administration principal on any foreign policy matter, dramatically intensifying the drumbeat of the military option. On the other hand, Senator John McCain, who favors the military option, leveled some serious charges at key Obama administration officials, claiming that earlier statements amounted to giving Syria a "green light" to use chemical weapons.
Put the two statements together and you have the prospect of a resort to military force, albeit likely a strictly limited one at the outset, without the customary level of political buy-in.
There are many reasons for this political uncertainty, and not all of them can be blamed on the Obama administration. But one reason that is within President Obama's control is the confusing stream of contradictory messaging from the administration -- from the White House in on the record and anonymous quotes and from the rest of the relevant executive branch players. President Obama's own on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand remarks on Syria in a CNN interview did not help.
But President Obama is uniquely equipped to address the messaging problem. He should resort to the Big Stick of presidential rhetoric and give a prime-time Oval Office address, outlining his strategy for dealing with Syria. Too often, the administration has delegated the messaging on major national security developments to lower-ranking officials.
A retaliatory strike against Syria would be too important a development to be addressed in any forum less authoritative than remarks from the Oval Office.
So, assuming the Obama administration has thought out the kind of long-view strategy on Syria that they claim their critics have not, and assuming that the expected military action is an integral part of that long-view strategy, now is the time for the president to explain it to the American people.
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The United States and its allies have at least three distinguishable interests with regard to Syria's WMD arsenal, particularly the chemical weapons the Assad regime has apparently used on its own people. Arranged from least to most important, they are:
The signs are now clearly pointing in the direction of some kind of military escalation involving the U.S. military and, probably, some NATO allies. A senior Obama administration official, anonymously but in writing, burned one of President Obama's retreat bridges by confirming to the New York Times there was "very little doubt" within the administration that the Assad regime had blatantly violated Obama's redline. And the conventional wisdom has shifted noticeably, too. Richard Haass, who criticized President Bush for launching a "war of choice" against Iraq's WMD programs, now argues that it is "essential" that the United States choose to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria lest U.S. credibility be lost.
The kinds of military options Obama administration officials floated over the weekend -- limited air or cruise-missile strikes against Syrian military targets -- at best may help with the first of these goals. They are not likely to do much on the second. And they may worsen the third.
A limited strike against Syrian military targets would punish the Assad regime for its defiance of the red line, which might affect Assad's calculations on the margins when contemplating using such weapons again. If there are such strikes, it would send a very clear message to Assad: The international community will not get decisively involved if you keep your battle with the rebels at a conventional level, but if you escalate to chemical weapons in a dramatic way, we will bomb you. Such punitive strikes could "do the trick," in the sense of redirecting Assad back to the conventional level.
It is more debatable whether limited strikes would have much of an effect in bolstering the taboo globally. Other rogue actors would probably see the limited strike as, well, limited and set it against the months of public foot-dragging in response to earlier reports of taboo-breaking. Probably, it reinforces the taboo more than abject non-response does, but not by much.
However, it is hard to see how limited military action would do anything to address the third, and most important, U.S. interest related to Syria's chemical weapons: ensuring that the arsenals do not end up in the hands of terrorists. And it is quite easy to see how they might exacerbate that problem. If the punitive strikes are heavy enough to tilt the balance of power in favor of the rebels, they hasten the day when the crumbling Assad regime loses control over the arsenal. If the punitive strikes are light enough not to hurt the Assad regime, they intensify the incentive of the rebels to gain control of the arsenal so as to inflict more proportional revenge on the regime. Already, the more radical rebel factions have claimed that Assad's use of chemical weapons gives them the right to launch reprisal attacks in kind. Given the makeup of the rebel coalition, the United States probably would prefer that the Assad regime retain control over the arsenal, which is why it is likely any limited strikes would try to punish without crippling Assad.
The leakage problem should not be exaggerated. The portion of the Syrian chemical arsenal that consists of binary weapons -- where the weapon is inert because the chemical agents are stored separately and only combined immediately prior to use -- offers significant protection against unauthorized use. But no U.S. president could trust those technical measures indefinitely, and so a breach in the custody of the Syrian chemical arsenal, particularly one that resulted in the radical Islamist groups gaining custody of the weapons -- whether the AQ-linked rebel groups or the Assad-supporting Hezbollah terrorist group -- would rightly be deemed a grave threat to U.S. national security.
Only the options that the Obama administration has appeared to rule off the table -- massive aerial bombardment of the depots themselves or boots on the ground to secure the depots -- stand much chance of delivering on this third and more important interest.
It would be ironic if the chemical issue catalyzed U.S. intervention in Syria, but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about concerning the chemical arsenal.
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Egypt is chaotic and the blame rests on the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition, the military and the Obama administration.
The Islamists bear the most blame because they are the group that had the best chance to lift Egypt out of a cycle of oppression and violence by simply being what they said they would be when they eked out an electoral victory last year: democrats. They broke their word; indeed, they showed themselves to be exactly what their critics said they were: revanchist and violent religious bigots who, as Talleyrand said of the Bourbon court, "learned nothing and forgot nothing" -- in this case, about the reason for the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, as well as the aftermath that revealed a nation clamoring for an end to political oppression and economic ineptitude. The Brotherhood turned the Arab Spring's goal of a nascent democratic polity on its head by assuming their victory was a mandate (from heaven?) to create another radical Islamic republic like Iran -- this one Sunni. They even took time and effort to persecute Christians and repress women while bungling the economy all the while. Small wonder that the 47 percent who voted against them took to the streets and many of their own supporters grew cold to them.
Next up for blame is the opposition, especially the leaders, who, though rightly outraged at the actions of the Brotherhood, gambled that secretly calling on the military to oust Morsy would afford them a chance to put Egypt back on the path to a truly representative democratic state. This bet might have made some sense if the opposition had spent the last year catching up to the Brotherhood by unifying their forces and organizing politically so that they'd be ready for the next elections. But they did not do that in the interregnum between Mubarak's fall and the Brotherhood's victory and they failed again to do it while the Brotherhood was in power. They had left themselves with no option but to once again rely on the military to take power and take Egypt back almost to square one. Maybe they are Bourbons, too.
And the military shares blame, of course. It is understandable that this element of Egyptian society felt threatened by the rise to power of its long-time opponent, one that shamed it in 1981 by infiltrating the security forces and killing its head of state. And I cannot blame them for thinking, as the opposition does, that the Brotherhood had its chance and now deserves to be eliminated from the political playing field. Looking back at the 1989 to 1991 fall of the Communists, most of them could not reform themselves and I doubt the vast majority of the Brotherhood can either. But Gen. el Sisi's apparent policy of massacring his opponents almost wholesale over a period of several days is not going to heal Egyptian society. It is one thing to confront armed and violent members of the Brotherhood with lethal force; it is quite another to shoot down peaceful protestors in camps, such as the daughter of a Brotherhood leader. Egypt is still on the road to building a state that is more democratic in nature-the Egyptians are unlikely to give up the vote now that they have it. But we are a long way from that goal and in the meantime the military can afford to let protestors languish in camps for months if that is what it takes to preserve its role as defender of the people and honest broker. And by all means, one way to demonstrate clearly that the military is on the side of all Egyptians is to turn that force on the Brotherhood thugs that have destroyed upwards of fifty churches since Morsy was removed.
Last, but not least, and certainly most unhappily for the United States, the president bears considerable blame. He worsened our standing in the Arab world by vacillating on every crisis in the Middle East to date; he persisted in his naiveté by trusting in the Brotherhood; he made a mockery of his foreign policy by appearing not to understand what a coup is; and he made a joke of U.S. law by pretending that if he doesn't use the word coup he doesn't have to suspend aid. Four and half years of fecklessness and refusing to understand that the United States must lead in the world or no one else will has left us perilously short on prestige. And prestige is not some throwback to a monarch's bragging rights; it is a very real element of power by which nation-states husband the security of their citizens. Elliott Abrams and Donald Kagan explain this well in their very good volume on the topic. President Obama's administration has made clear its contempt for this concept and we are the less secure for it.
What are the costs of this attitude and these deeds? Egypt will now pass into a phase of being tutored and funded by the Gulf states; and Israel, Iraq and Jordan -- to varied but important degrees our only allies in the immediate vicinity -- have every reason to doubt our resolve. Israel must conclude that it is on its own; Jordan can only hope that Israel will help her; and Iraq has to decide if the ascendency of the radical Islamic powers and their thuggish minions means it will soon have to choose a side.
Nice work by a president who was going to preside over an administration that was to be so intensely "not Bush" that the world would voluntarily return to peace and harmony.
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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.
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.
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I am intrigued by the press coverage of the man responsible for the press coverage of Obama foreign policy: Ben Rhodes. Rhodes's title, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, implies a role limited to crafting the administration's foreign policy message, i.e. presenting the administration's policies in the best light possible to the (often credulous but sometimes skeptical) press. Most days, Rhodes is quoted delivering the administration's talking points, explaining why President Obama's vision is good, his insights are profound, and any problems or setbacks should not really be blamed on the president.
This is an honorable line of work and Rhodes is, by all accounts, very good at it. He has the trust of the president and enjoys the kind of fawning press coverage most press flacks would kill to get for their boss, let alone for themselves.
Yet, as Will Inboden has noted, when you read between the lines there appears to be more of an interesting backstory going on.
This puff piece on Rhodes describes him as not merely a wordsmith but also a key policy advisor. Apparently, he was a key advocate for opening up Myanmar -- so far, one of the genuine original successes of the Obama foreign policy team.
More than that, he appears to be a key internal critic. He apparently opposed the initial hesitancy in Libya and successfully persuaded Obama to topple Qaddafi. He likewise opposed the initial waffling on Egypt and backed the eventual policy of withdrawing support for Mubarak. He unsuccessfully pressed for a more vigorous policy of confrontation with Assad.
And, more recently, we learn that he has been an internal critic of the administration's decision to claim that the military toppling of Morsy does not constitute a coup.
Some Republicans distrust Rhodes for his contributions to the Benghazi scandal -- he played a major role in drafting the misleading talking points that then-Ambassador Susan Rice (now Rhodes's nominal boss at the White House) memorably delivered at the height of the 2012 campaign. However, if his own press coverage can be believed, Rhodes appears to be an advocate for some of the policy changes that many Republicans have been calling for.
It is usually not a good thing for the communications and political shops to be driving policymaking quite as prominently as they have in the Obama administration. But it is interesting to note that, Benghazi aside, Rhodes may well have been an insider voice resonating with important outsider critiques.
Of course we won't really know "who advocated for what policy when" until more memoirs are written. And we won't know which memoirs to trust until the Obama White House archives are opened years from now, allowing outsiders to sift through the voluminous papers and emails that document internal Administration deliberations.
But in the meanwhile, what is publicly known leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand, it is striking to read repeated reports airing how the senior staff member responsible for message discipline has been an internal critic of his president's policies. On the other hand, given that Rhodes's critiques seem to mirror the policy criticisms leveled by many outside experts, perhaps we should be glad the White House bubble can be penetrated.
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In his recent Foreign Policy blog post, Stephen Walt offers up some ideas for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Walt believes that the Pentagon's upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review "won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy," and he's got the team to do the job. He believes that the secretary of defense needs the assistance of "knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself...people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods." He also excludes "people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum." Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of "smart academics and independent thinkers" that Walt puts forward more or less share Walt's advocacy of a diminished international role for the United States. Walt also advises Hagel to "remind everyone [that] the name of the organization in question is the ‘U.S. Department of Defense.' It is not the ‘Department of Imperial Power Projection,' ‘Department of World Order Maintenance,' the ‘Department of Democracy Promotion,' or the ‘Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control.'"
I agree with Walt that the secretary of defense should seek out the advice of the best minds from across the political spectrum and including those who possess diverse views of the way the world operates. Moreover, I have high regard for a number of the "academics and independent thinkers" on Walt's list. I have consistently found Barry Posen to be a thoughtful and articulate proponent of "offshore balancing," and Daryl Press has written thoughtfully about nuclear weapons. The secretary of defense appoints members of the Defense Policy Board to advise him, and Hagel could do much worse than to appoint to the board members of the caliber of Posen and Press.
However, Walt's call for Hagel to undertake a review of U.S. grand strategy is misplaced. The Defense Department is not the right customer for Walt's grand strategic ideas, because it is not in the grand strategy business. Grand strategy is (or should be) the concern of the president, who is elected by and accountable to the voters. That is as it should be. Although Hagel may choose to follow Walt's advice and remind everyone that we're not in the "regime change" or "democracy promotion" business, the president may have other ideas. Hagel is no doubt aware that this President has already engaged in one "regime change" in Libya, and other such operations, whether wise or unwise, are not out of the question.
The secretary of defense's job is to determine how the military can best support the President's strategy. That calls for creative approaches to acquisition, deployment, doctrine, and training. That is a tough enough job without taking on American grand strategy.
The Pentagon very much needs realistic assumptions upon which to base planning for the future. I also strongly agree that such assumptions should be questioned before they are accepted. For example, even offshore balancers acknowledge that a powerful and aggressive China would threaten U.S. interests, although reasonable people may disagree about the probability and proximity of such a contingency. It is unclear, however, just how seriously the Pentagon has taken the challenge posed by Chinese military modernization. Similarly, although sea power will play an important role in the future, it is unclear whether the U.S. Navy has received the level of support that it requires to be able to protect U.S. interests in the future.
The Pentagon is very much in need of new ideas, but those offered by Walt and his colleagues are likely to be of limited use.
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The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is being raked over the coals by the Senate's most prominent military expert for not disclosing in congressional hearings the advice Gen. Martin Dempsey gave the president about intervening in Syria. Peter Feaver is, of course, to blame for this, he having argued in these electronic pages for grilling Dempsey. Let those who've doubted that Shadow Government controls Washington now quail.
Commentary less thoughtful than Peter's has narrowed in on the exact wording of the U.S. code regulating the chairman's responsibility in order to debate how fully obligated the chairman is to advise Congress. This approach takes the issue in unhelpful and legalistic directions when common sense provides a practical solution that has long been successfully employed by other senior military leaders.
That solution is for the chairman to provide his best military advice to Congress, affirm that he has given his advice to the president, and respectfully decline to be specific about the counsel he gives the president. When pressed by members of Congress, deference and humor in acknowledging that Congress is placing said general in an untenable position are often effective as deflection (see ref: Colin Powell).
Barack Obama's administration does the U.S. military leadership no favors by trying to make those leaders take responsibility for its political choices -- but again, this is neither without precedent nor without time-honored defense, which is for military leaders to answer that what is being asked is above their pay grade.
There are many good arguments for intervening in Syria, which is what Sen. John McCain was pressing Dempsey about. The best argument for staying out is that Obama is not invested in solving the problem. The president may intone that Bashar al-Assad must go, but he has no strategy for achieving that end, is clearly unwilling to commit the national effort to attain that objective, has made no attempt to convince the American people of the importance of doing so, and therefore has no business putting America's sons and daughters in harm's way, no matter how worthy the objective.
That we are having such a tangled-up conversation about the chairman's responsibilities suggests that public discourse could use a refresher course on civil-military issues. The president deserves to receive military advice in private and has every right to disregard that advice because he has been elected to balance the country's competing priorities and determine how much effort, treasure, and risk to apportion. It is the president who is responsible for winning or losing the country's wars. To place the responsibility on the military's shoulders both gives the military too wide a latitude in the country's affairs and removes from the political leadership its proper accountability for national outcomes.
I myself have always been partial to the Powell doctrine as the starting point for understanding civilian and military responsibilities when using force. Critics often construe its meaning in a strictured way as advocating overwhelming force, but the guidelines actually delineate what the military needs to do (bring properly trained and equipped military force decisively to bear to achieve political objectives) and what tasks rest with the political leadership (identify the vital national security objectives, determine they are attainable, analyze the costs and benefits, exhaust nonmilitary means to attain the objectives, and build public and international support). The country has allowed too many of these responsibilities to migrate to the military, when they properly belong to the civilians to whom the military is subordinated.
The Powell approach has been much criticized as constraining the president's freedom of action as commander in chief; in fact, what it does is give the civilian leadership a template for asking questions that will lead to the successful use of force. And the debate over Dempsey's testimony shows that the country is in need of political leaders -- both in the executive branch and in Congress -- who will do more than advocate tactical military approaches and actually advance strategies for achieving outcomes in the U.S. national interest that they have convinced their fellow Americans are worth the risk and effort.
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When things are going poorly for an administration, one of the hardest things for insiders to discern is whether they have a communications problem or a policy problem. Do they have the policy basically right, but they are not effectively rebutting critics with convincing explanations of what they are trying to do and why? Or is the policy itself flawed, so no amount of explanation -- no amount of spin -- could salvage it? And if it is a policy problem, is the problem principally one of strategy -- the wrong ends or an ends-means gap or flawed theories of cause and effect -- or one of execution of a generally sound strategy?
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories. When things are going really poorly, as they are right now for Barack Obama administration, the answer can be "all of the above." Yet it is usually the case that one element is the shakiest and thus the highest priority for senior-level attention.
If it is primarily a communications problem, then the appropriate response is to better deploy the administration's unrivaled capacity to lead the public discussion. No administration is all-powerful, of course, and over the past several decades generally presidents have seen an erosion of their capacity to dominate the information space. Even so, there is no single actor better positioned to move the needle than the president, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
If it is primarily a strategy problem, then the appropriate response is a strategy review, one that questions fundamental assumptions and considers bold, even costly alternatives. Strategy reviews of this sort are especially difficult for administrations to conduct because they undermine existing strategies, especially when they leak to the public. And if these reviews do not arrive at a superior alternative strategy, they can leave the administration worse off, left to defend a strategy in which it has manifestly lost confidence.
If it is primarily an execution problem, the appropriate response is to change personnel and have the president spend more political capital imposing his/her will on the system.
A friend of mine from the communications side of the White House in George W. Bush's era pointed out to me a pattern that held true in the Bush administration and may well hold more generally across administrations: Communications people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of policy (strategy or execution), whereas policy people tend to be quicker to believe that the problem is one of communications. My friend would send me trenchant internal critiques of policy and lament the trenchant internal critiques of communications that he was receiving from senior policy people.
From the outside, it is hard to determine what would be the Obama Team's self-diagnosis. It has doggedly stuck with existing strategies, and there is little evidence of a fundamental rethink of its global strategy. Likewise, if the administration thinks the problem is one of communications, it has not yet used its ace -- President Obama -- very effectively. The messaging out of the White House has been disciplined, in the sense of sticking to talking points, but not very convincing, in the sense of engaging thoughtful critics thoughtfully.
I suppose there is some evidence the administration thinks it has an execution problem. It has certainly had substantial changes in personnel, but the personnel changes have had the feel of the routine second-term revolving door and have not brought bold changes of perspective into positions of influence. So far, I have not seen much evidence that the president is committing the political capital necessary to drive a difficult strategy through to a successful conclusion.
That leaves open the disturbing possibility that the administration believes it faces neither a communications nor a strategy nor an execution problem -- that the administration merely believes that things are tough and everyone else just cannot understand this basic fact. I know of no one outside the administration, whether an ardent ally of the president or a fervent critic, who would endorse this "no problem here" diagnosis. But for folks inside an insular, thin-skinned administration that tends to dismiss critics, it is possible the "no problem here" diagnosis holds sway.
If that is indeed where the administration is, there is only one way out before the tyranny of reality forces a new diagnosis, but one that arrives too late to salvage success on the foreign-policy front: get out of the bubble and expose the president to the best critics across a broad spectrum of political opinion, Democrat and Republican.
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I arrived in Europe this week to a torrent of continental outrage that has an odd "back to the future" feel about it. Led by the leaders of France and Germany, European heads of state and their incensed publics are denouncing the U.S. president for what they see as overly aggressive national security practices that violate international law and smack of American unilateralism and arrogance. Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and (of course) the Guardian pile on with new revelations and editorial denunciations of perfidious American policies. In short, European abhorrence over the Obama administration's policies in 2013 looks and feels much like European abhorrence over the Bush administration's policies in 2003.
This is all somehow simultaneously disquieting and reassuring. Disquieting because as a committed Atlanticist I worry about yet another point of tension in the fraying of transatlantic relations. Already an inward-looking United States has sent multiple signals of passivity and disengagement to its European allies on issues including Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, and the ongoing eurozone economic fragilities. The American stock of diplomatic capital with Europeans is diminished, and in this context l'affaire Snowden and its fallout about surveillance policies only make things worse, especially since the United States still needs robust cooperation from its EU allies on many issues, counterterrorism among them -- the political will for which is now further diminished.
At the same time, the European outrage is oddly reassuring insofar as in its wake might come notes of realism and perspective to both sides of the Atlantic. For President Barack Obama and his senior team, I hope that this will encourage them not to confuse the (much diminished) overseas appeal of Obama's personality with support for his national security policies, and instead marshal a new measure of substantive transatlantic outreach. Likewise, perhaps now the White House will adopt a more humble awareness of its own fallibility and maybe even at last express public gratitude for the counterterrorism policies that George W. Bush developed and Obama has embraced -- rather than the tiresome cheap shots that the president indulged in during his National Defense University speech in May. Meanwhile, for European heads of state this likely marks the final denouement, after a steady five year decline, of their enraptured delusions about Obama. Gideon Rachman puts it well in July 1's Financial Times: "It has taken a long time, but the world's fantasies about Barack Obama are finally crumbling. In Europe, once the headquarters of the global cult of Obama, the disillusionment is particularly bitter." Once this latest spate of European umbrage passes, as it will, American and European leaders would do well to engage in a private, candid dialogue about the threats of terrorism and Middle Eastern instability and the shared transatlantic responsibilities to respond.
It is no small irony that Tuesday Obama and Bush appeared together in Tanzania and jointly commemorated the 1998 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The two U.S. presidents displayed solidarity in Africa in the fight against terrorism at the very same time that Obama is being reviled in Europe for aggressive counterterrorism measures in much the same manner that Bush was. Sometimes bipartisan continuity in American national security policy appears in unusual ways, and unlikely places.
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President Barack Obama's Syria policy is best described as a policy of halfhearted offshore balancing, as I have argued before.
So far, the prospects for success for Obama's offshore balancing strategy look bleak, and recent reports suggest that the window for success may be closing within weeks if not days. This is not too surprising since Obama's halfhearted offshore balancing strategy is matched against Iran's wholehearted onshore intervention strategy.
Let us be clear. The dismal trajectory of the current strategy is not by itself proof that Obama should switch to a more robust interventionist position now. As I argued before, such a U.S. intervention is likely to fail if Obama is reluctantly dragged by events into that approach. Everything I have seen suggests the president would continue to be halfhearted about intervention, even if he authorized it. So while a resolved, robust U.S. intervention might hold some prospects of changing the trajectory of events -- and, counterfactually, would have had even better prospects earlier in the crisis -- it would demand of Obama a commitment to the region that he has hitherto been unwilling to show.
So what then? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, suggests one possible answer: try to contain the damage by doubling down on the offshore balancing approach. Specifically, he says the United States would consider stepping up military training efforts to bolster Lebanon's and Iraq's armed forces (and presumably Jordan's as well). The United States already has invested substantially in such regional military assistance, but more assistance would probably be welcome. Whether it would be enough to contain the rapidly escalating sectarian war is more doubtful.
Opponents of robust U.S. intervention have an effective rhetorical weapon that they use to discredit proposals for greater U.S. involvement: asking, "If that doesn't work, then what?" It is a reasonable question, but it is one that is rarely asked by the intervention opponents of their own favored policy. If the current halfhearted offshore balancing strategy doesn't work, then what?
I do not know the answer to that question, but I suspect it will soon shift from being rhetorical to being real and unavoidable.
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A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama's speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.
Second, Obama's call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow's only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces. Similarly, Obama's call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.
So what if Putin's Russia doesn't reciprocate Obama's overtures? Previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with modernization to make a smaller arsenal more reliable and effective. Obama's approach, by contrast, has been reduction without modernization. Although the administration has pledged additional funding for U.S. nuclear infrastructure, there is skepticism as to whether it will ever materialize. And opponents of the U.S. nuclear enterprise increasingly frame their arguments in budgetary terms, stressing the "savings" that could be achieved if the United States slashes its nuclear stockpile. In a period of declining defense budgets, nuclear programs represent juicy targets.
Largely lost in such discussions is the real reason the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal: to protect the United States and its allies against aggression and coercion. It is a purpose that John F. Kennedy and the Germans who greeted him in Berlin half a century ago understood all too well, but one that seems to make the current president uncomfortable.
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Editor's Note: This guest post is second in a series by Kim R. Holmes on the changing face of American foreign policy. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and was an assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in George W. Bush's administration. This post is adapted from his forthcoming book, Rebound: Getting America Back to Great.
In the first installment of this series, I laid out three prevailing strategies in American foreign-policy thinking and practice today. The first I label "pull back," and it is the viewpoint primarily of those who want to dramatically reduce America's (particularly military) presence overseas. The second I call "retrenchment," and it roughly corresponds to the views of Barack Obama's administration, which accepts limits on American power but is reluctant to pull back too far. The third is the view of the "neoconservative hawks," who believe American power is being constantly tested and thus must be maintained and exercised vigorously to ensure American credibility in the world.
Each of these strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than critique them thoroughly, I suggest that each in its own way is incomplete. Neoconservative hawks, for example, don't capture the dominant mood of the Republican Party today, which is largely inward-looking and skeptical of Obama's handling of military interventions. At the other end of the spectrum, the liberal "pull back" group may be loudly portrayed in the media and certainly is a dominant voice in the academic world, but theirs is not the worldview of the Obama administration or even of establishment liberalism in Washington. Obama talks a good international engagement game, but he is deeply reluctant to get involved in overseas interventions and often is quite passive when it comes to showing leadership.
Overall the new mood is somber. This is one reason that so-called "realists" are making a comeback. They are emerging on both the right and the left, sometimes dissolving the differences between the two camps.
On the right, scholars at the Center for the National Interest see themselves as conservatives but are uncomfortable with neocon interventionist policies. As realists they hark back to Richard Nixon and in some cases even Ronald Reagan, whom they believe exercised a more restrained foreign policy than did George W. Bush. On the more liberal side of realism are journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, who argue for a more restrained role for America and thus tend to agree with Obama's strategy of retrenchment. Unlike more conservative realists, there is a tendency to accept liberal standards of international governance -- the idea that international organizations, conventions, and legal regimes are substitutes for the exercise of hard power. But there is ambivalence as well, particularly in Haass's case. He bemoans the growing "gap between global challenges and effective international arrangements," but hints that the problem may not be too little international governance, but overly inflated expectations of it.
One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the waning of the humanitarian intervention wing of the Democratic Party. For years humanitarian interventionism, under the rubric of the concept of a "responsibility to protect," was a watchword of liberal internationalism. Even though that doctrine was invoked in the U.N. resolution authorizing the intervention in Libya, it has not been applied to Syria. Obama recently agreed to send arms to the Syrian rebels, but did so only reluctantly. The appointment of Susan Rice as national security advisor and Samantha Power as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations may or may not signal a change back to the old humanitarian liberalism of the past, because Obama himself remains a reluctant warrior in humanitarian causes.
Nor is Obama as committed to international governance as one might expect. His support for the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is more about appeasing domestic gun control advocates than pleasing international arms controllers; his advocacy of the U.N. disabilities treaty is equally motivated by domestic considerations. Moreover, his engagement of the United Nations has been mainly symbolic. He did not take the lead in the response to crises in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Syria, for example; nor has he taken the lead on dealing with Iran. Yes, he rushed through the New START treaty in 2010, and he revived his interest in arms control in his Brandenburg Gate speech in Berlin. But his main motivation here is to reduce nuclear arsenals (even if it means forging agreements rather than treaties with the Russians), rather than establishing international treaties or regimes controlling weaponry.
Overall, the defining characteristic of Obama's foreign policy appears to be preventing overseas crises from distracting from his domestic agenda. He remains a committed liberal, at least in principle, but his foreign policy is highly influenced by political expediency, which causes him to want to avoid risking overseas interventions.
Another example of this new convergence of views involves defense spending. Both Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (and many of his fellow Tea Party friends) are not big on defense spending, but in Paul's case that is because defense as a species of "government spending" should be scrutinized for effectiveness and waste, whereas in Obama's case it is because he'd rather spend the money on social programs. While some neoconservative hawks lobby for intervention of some kind in Syria, they are not averse to taking a fairly sharp knife to the defense budget, which used to be a conservative sacred cow. Nor are those Republican leaders in the House and Senate who agreed to the sequestration deal which is drastically cutting defense.
Yet another example involves civil liberties. Conservative libertarians and liberals have long held similar views of civil liberties, but Obama's drone and eavesdropping policies have united them in opposition to others as well. Paul's filibuster over Obama's drone policy received plaudits from many liberal civil libertarians. Reports that Obama's National Security Agency was eavesdropping on phone conversations and Internet communications was denounced equally severely by some liberals and some conservatives. There are still many national security conservatives who support Obama's counterterrorism policies, mainly because they are seen as carrying over Bush's policies. But there can be no doubt that there are divisions within both left and right over the domestic implications of current counterterrorism and homeland security policies.
What's behind all this?
First there is the reaction to the wars; both liberals and some conservatives are now skeptical of hyper-military interventionism. The silence of much of the right as Sen. John McCain lobbies for a more interventionist policy in Syria is as deafening as that of the humanitarian interventionism wing of the Democratic Party. Secondly, there is the fiscal crisis; a lack of money is forcing both liberals and conservatives to focus on what they care most about. In the case of liberals it is saving money from defense to spend on social programs, whereas for conservatives it is to cut spending period. And third, the rise of the libertarian right has opened a new line of criticism of interventionism that had once only existed below the surface.
Whatever the causes, the upshot is a new world weariness with big ideas in foreign policy. Liberals are not as excited as they once were about stopping humanitarian catastrophes like genocide, while conservatives are not as set on using force to make the world safe for freedom and democracy. Far-reaching strategies to transform the world are out of fashion now on both the right and the left.
Is it possible with all this change to create a new realignment of views? Probably not in the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and academia in the near term; there are too many entrenched battle lines drawn and too many careers dependent on the defense of long-standing ideological positions. But who knows how a new generation will handle the change?
In the next installment, I will outline a strategy that may be able to take advantage of some of these convergences of views.
Toward the end of President Barack Obama's first year in office, I had dinner with a senior White House official, and in the course of the meal I asked my friend whether Obama believed himself to be a "wartime president." I was trying to get a sense of the new president's assessment of the priorities and burdens of his office and his view of national security issues. My dining partner responded defensively with a rather huffy and evasive answer that boiled down to "of course President Obama supports our troops." Even making allowance for the still-raw aftereffects of the 2008 presidential campaign and Obama's strenuous efforts to distinguish himself from what he saw as the excessive militarism of the Bush years, our exchange was revealing. Yes, Obama would still quietly pursue an aggressive set of counterterrorism measures modeled on the Bush framework. Yes, he would surge a large number of new forces to Afghanistan. But he did not see himself, and did not want to see himself, as a "wartime president."
This exchange has come to mind in recent weeks as Obama has struggled with a new set of national security challenges. His National Defense University speech on May 23 may have been intended to gain the domestic political benefit of declaring an end to America's wartime posture, but the new revelations of National Security Agency surveillance measures, the about-face on arming the Syrian rebels, and the looming crossroads with the Iranian nuclear program are all reminders that threats and conflict are not so easily spoken away.
In the case of arming the Syrian rebels, Obama's evident reluctance and the limited, too little, too late nature of the aid show that this was hardly a great moment in presidential leadership. In New York Times correspondent Peter Baker's description, Obama "had to be almost dragged into the decision at a time when critics, some advisers and even Bill Clinton were pressing for more action. Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome." Andrew Sullivan, generally an effusive Obama supporter who opposes any Syria intervention, was even more scathing:
I hate to say it but this president looks as if he is worse than weak here. He is being dragged around by events and pressures like a rag doll. And this news that we are entering the war with military supplies is provided by Ben Rhodes, not the president. That's nothing against Ben, but when a president is effectively declaring war, don't you think he has a duty to tell the American people why and what he intends to achieve?
Obama's Syria decision seems to have accomplished that rarest of feats in Washington: uniting virtually all commentators from left, right, and center in criticism of it. Whether the critics think this limited package of arms is too little to make a difference, or too much U.S. involvement, pretty much all agree that Obama doesn't seem to believe in his own policy and that the policy holds little prospect for success.
Instead, we have Obama reverting to one of his least appealing tendencies in trying to explain his Syria policy: professorial lecturing. Thus in his Charlie Rose interview this week, Obama said, "If you haven't been in the Situation Room, poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking, what are all our options, and examining what are all the consequences.... Unless you've been involved in those conversations, then it's kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation." As a professor myself (who has to guard against this same tendency), I often tell my students that one telltale sign of policy confusion and ineffectiveness is when a leader sanctimoniously describes the "complexity" of the situation.
Even more suspicious is when a leader invokes the "SitRoom excuse," as Obama also did, as a defense for not having a more coherent policy. Unfortunately for Obama's use of the SitRoom excuse on Syria, many others who have spent a lot of time in the SitRoom -- such as many of his own cabinet and staff members, let alone most members of Shadow Government including yours truly -- also know that his Syria policy has been a failure.
There seems to be a profound disconnect between the Obama administration's rhetoric of wars ending and the actual world it faces, let alone some of the administration's ongoing (and necessary) counterterrorism policies. One of Obama's biggest deficiencies as commander in chief is a reluctance to lead his own nation -- another unfortunate variation of "leading from behind." If the country still faces the threat of jihadi terrorism (and it does), if it is intervening in Syria (and it is), then the commander in chief needs to explain to the American people why, and enlist their support. This applies to the ongoing measures for combatting terrorism as well as increased U.S. involvement in Syria. Rather, Obama seems to want to derive the political benefit of claiming to end war while simultaneously pursuing wartime policies. The White House can't have it both ways.
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We are to arm the rebels in Syria. So sayeth the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications yesterday. The Obama administration has satisfied itself the intelligence is reliable that the Assad government did in several instances use chemical weapons against its own population. President Obama set a red line, Bashar al-Assad crossed it, and now American credibility is at stake, so the administration must finally do something.
It's bad policy to go to war to preserve American credibility -- much less any particular president's credibility. As a general rule, if you have to fight a duel to defend a lady's honor, she's probably already compromised it. And -- much as we bridle to hear it -- in the eyes of much of the world, American credibility is always in doubt. Even in the canonical cases, it looks much different to others: Europeans recall how much of World War II we sat out, as well as our eventual joining. We are an unpredictable ally, even an unreliable one to many of our partners.
Moreover, the argument has something of a domino theory feel to it: We must defend American credibility here, otherwise we won't have it over there. It brings to mind the scene in the anti-war movie Gallipoli in which two young soldiers are explaining World War I to a hobo in the Australian outback. "If we don't stop the Kaiser in Europe, he could get all this," the soldier explains as the camera pans around hundreds of unpopulated miles in every direction.
America should go to war only when the war itself merits it. If we need credibility for managing the Iranian nuclear program, we're going to have to earn it on the basis of countering the Iranian nuclear program. If the atrocities of the Syrian government against its own people, the provocations for a wider regional war, deepening sectarian divide across the Middle East, and tottering of American allies under the weight of refugees demands credible policies, we are not going to bluff our way to changing the Assad government's behavior because we've done what we said we would do elsewhere.
Syria does merit going to war. Bashar al-Assad is a butcher, a major supporter of terrorism, a threat to our allies and our interests in the Middle East. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are keeping him in power argues for, not against, U.S. intervention. The Syrian opposition is fractious and increasingly beholden to jihadists; the longer this conflict drags on, the more fractious rebels will become and the most beholden they will be to the forces that are assisting their fight.
The White House may resent being pulled into the conflict, but that is a problem of the president's own making. He declared that Assad must go. He set the red line on chemical weapons use. As with so much else in Obama administration foreign policy, they are tripped up on the conflict between their lofty statements of intent and their unwillingness to act.
In announcing the new policy, the deputy national security advisor said that in light of Assad's forces having crossed President Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons, we would commence providing military assistance to the Syrian rebels. "Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale," Rhodes said of the new assistance. But he did not say what that new scope and scale of assistance would entail. He did say what it would not entail: enactment of a no-fly zone or involvement of U.S. troops. Others in the administration tell journalists the lethal assistance will consist of small arms and ammunition.
Before Hezbollah fighters joined in on the regime side, most analysts considered the major regime advantage to be airborne firepower. The regime has heavy weapons and the rebels do not; it has been sufficient to create a stalemate. As the war dragged on, jihadists flowed into rebel ranks, improving their fighting power, and arms flowed into regime stockpiles, improving their firepower. As the fall of Qusayr shows, the regime is gaining ground.
Rhodes said our arms shipments would be "responsive to the needs" expressed by the rebel command. General Idriss, in charge of the rebel forces, has openly and repeatedly requested anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired rockets to shoot down the aircraft that the Assad regime is using against civilians. The rebels have also requested a no-fly zone to level the fighting field. The Obama administration will be responsive to their needs by providing small arms and ammunition. So, in fact, the rebels' needs have very little to do with the assistance the Obama administration has decided to provide.
The Obama administration continues to labor under the illusion that bold statements are an adequate deterrent. They have -- again -- made a hortatory commitment and will allow time to lag before determining whether to proceed with doing anything. They have -- again -- made the choice to do just enough to keep the rebels fighting, but not enough to help them win. Suffice it to say, this policy will once again be too little too late. And the American credibility it is designed to bolster will be further degraded.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama's administration is taking a lot of heat for newfangled intelligence activities, but it is old-fashioned intelligence problems that bedevil the administration in Syria. As a recent Wall Street Journal article (available here, but behind a subscription wall) explains, the intelligence community is divided on a basic question that figures heavily in the policy debate over what to do: Is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doomed, despite recent battlefield successes, or has he sufficiently changed his political fortunes so that he may "win" his battle with the rebels?
The reported division among intelligence analysts provides a good teaching moment to explain the limits of intelligence, insofar as it informs policy. At most, intelligence can inform policy. It rarely if ever is dispositive in the sense of making absolutely clear that one policy alternative is "right" and the others are "wrong." And all too often, the intelligence is sufficiently ambiguous that reasonable people can disagree as to the policy implications. In those cases -- the majority of the cases, in my experience -- the final policy decision rightly hinges on judgments and bets that only the policymaker can make.
Consider how this plays out in the Syria case. The Obama administration is making a bet about the future, a bet that hinges on multiple predictions about what will and won't happen. One big prediction is whether Assad will fall without substantially more robust U.S. assistance to the rebels. This is not the only prediction related to Assad that matters. Other subsidiary ones, like whether there is an available alternative regime -- another strongman or some sort of power-sharing agreement -- that would better suit U.S. interests, also matter.
But Assad's fate is a biggie, and knowing the answer to that question would go some distance to determining the costs and benefits of Obama's current hands-off policy. The Obama administration so far has been betting that Assad will fall without ramped-up U.S. prodding. This is what the administration devoutly wishes will happen, because it would neatly and cheaply resolve the contradiction between the central pillar of the Obama doctrine of "no more U.S. ground interventions in the Middle East" and the obvious U.S. national interest in seeing Iran's strategic ambitions in the region thwarted. The problem is that no one -- not Obama, not the intelligence community (IC), not Assad himself -- knows the answer. In fact, in the current instance, the IC (and probably the Obama policymaking community itself) is divided on the question.
There is no alternative, therefore, but to make a bet. And while the IC is betting in its estimates, only policymakers have the assignment -- what I would call the political competence -- to make the bet fully, implementing it into a policy decision one way or the other.
The Obama administration might have greater confidence in its bet if the IC were united in its own estimate (though the administration might also come to doubt such a consensus on a thorny prediction like this, suspecting groupthink at work). But even then the administration would not, or should not, have total confidence that the IC estimate was correct. And in the present situation, with some analysts betting one way and others betting the other way, the only thing that Obama can be sure of is that, if his bet comes a cropper, someone in the IC could say "I told you so."
Some of the administration's intel problems in Syria are of its own making, or at least exacerbated by choices the administration made. A more activist policy earlier would have likely improved information gathering inside Syria -- a safe-haven zone, for instance, would have been an intelligence bonanza. Most of the problem, however, is inherent in the business and should not be blamed on the administration.
Bottom line: Yes, we should work to improve the quality of intelligence collection and analysis, but the buck will never stop until it lands in the Oval Office.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.