When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow recently to discuss the deepening crisis in Syria, he brought with him the hope that the severity of events in the Middle East would finally be sufficient to spur Russia to reconsider its rigid support for Bashar al-Assad's regime, and plans for a new multilateral diplomatic initiative. What he did not carry with him, however, was leverage; without it, Kerry's latest gambit to bring the Syrian conflict to a negotiated conclusion is bound to fail.
It is right, of course, to prefer a diplomatic resolution of the Syrian conflict over a Western military intervention; and it is imperative, from the U.S. point of view, that whatever resolution is reached leave neither jihadists nor Iranian proxies in charge of Syria. However, successfully reaching this sort of resolution diplomatically depends on the parties to the conflict identifying an outcome that all of them prefer to the alternatives.
No such common ground exists at present, which is why diplomacy has been so unsuccessful and the war has ground on relentlessly. Both the Assad regime and the radical elements of the opposition are externally supplied and believe they can win, and thus be positioned to dictate terms in a post-conflict Syria. More secular elements of the Syrian opposition, on the other hand, are resource-poor and riven by internal differences, and they're unable thus far to mount a sufficient challenge either to the regime or to the extremists.
Outside Syria, Russia and Iran are supporting the Syrian regime, but appear primarily interested in frustrating Western aims, particularly in preventing the emergence of any Western-friendly successor to Assad. America's regional allies are alarmed by the violence in Syria, but are wary of the risks of deeper involvement, are split by rivalries among themselves, and lack the capacity to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
Almost entirely absent from this list of key actors is the United States, despite the vital interests the country has at stake in Syria. Washington has limited itself to the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria through various channels, as well as "nonlethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition.
U.S. officials from the president down have all but sworn off any further American involvement in Syria. They have variously stated that securing Syrian chemical weapons would take tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops, that providing arms to the Syrian rebels is too risky, and that Syrian air defenses are too formidable to consider airstrikes or a no-fly zone, which in any event would require international legal sanction. Other Western officials have echoed these sentiments.
Those who oppose intervention in Syria and instead support a negotiated resolution might find comfort in this. This reaction, however, is misguided. The absence of any significant U.S. involvement in Syria -- or even the prospect of it -- means that the United States lacks the leverage necessary to support its diplomatic efforts. It is easy to take American influence for granted, but that influence depends on neither goodwill nor esteem. Rather, it depends crucially on how others perceive America's willingness to exercise its power to advance its objectives. If other parties sense that the United States is unwilling to act -- whether to advance their interests or set them back -- they will discount the country in their calculations.
It should be little surprise, in this context, that Russian officials announced a major arms sale to the Assad regime shortly after pledging support for Kerry's peace conference. The move does little to bolster Assad's effectiveness in the fight against opposition forces; rather, it serves to embarrass the United States and undermine U.S. military options while underscoring Moscow's own commitment to its policy, bolstering Russian leverage in advance of any eventual negotiations.
If Barack Obama's administration is serious about achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict that advances U.S. interests, then it must develop leverage of its own. There are two ways to do this. First, the United States could link Syria to other issues in which Russia and other supporters of the Assad regime have stronger interests; for a host of reasons, this is unlikely.
Second, the United States could boost its involvement in Syria and alter how other parties perceive the prospects of even further U.S. involvement. Doing this would require two major changes in policy.
First, the United States must get serious about supporting the Syrian opposition, politically, financially, and militarily. Washington can strengthen the position of secular opposition leaders by channeling assistance through them. This assistance should include funding to allow the opposition to begin governing areas it holds inside Syria, as well as arms to tip the military balance against both the regime and extremists. In addition, Washington should be more hands-on in helping the opposition to overcome its internal rivalries.
This assistance should come, explicitly, at a price. The opposition should offer assurances to the minority groups that fear for their future after Assad's fall, and it should engage meaningfully in a diplomatic process aimed at ending the conflict.
Second, the Obama administration should stop swearing off military involvement in Syria and instead leave the possibility of intervention open. This could decisively change the calculus of the elites surrounding Assad as well as that of Russia and Iran, which may prefer a diplomatic resolution to Western intervention.
These steps would also finally provide U.S. allies in the region a strategy to rally around and a chance to spread the risk of increased involvement in Syria, perhaps finally bringing the policies of countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into greater alignment with one another.
Increased support for the Syrian opposition and credible threats of military force are not steps that should be taken lightly. It would be a mistake, however, to see such steps -- or even more serious actions -- as alternatives to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead, they should be viewed as vital to diplomacy's success, insofar as they alter the calculations of the parties to the conflict. Diplomacy and coercion are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing; there will be little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria until U.S. actions measure up to U.S. pronouncements.
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Will and Peter have raised important points about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their ideological proclivities.
An intervention focusing on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948. Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover, constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role -- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S. involvement.
An intervention that seeks to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas. Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone, or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
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Peter Feaver raises a very interesting issue in his recent post on choosing an optimal policy for Syria. He suggests that we should not dwell on policies that would require a vigorous wartime leader, since he doubts President Barack Obama's ability to play that role.
At one level, this seems an eminently pragmatic suggestion. Different leaders have different strengths. As a nation, Americans just made a leadership choice -- why not recognize the constraints that choice may pose and limit the policy discussion accordingly?
And yet ... this line of argument puts me in mind of the summer of 2008. Friends who worked for the Treasury Department or White House at that time have told me that they could see the signs of economic trouble on the horizon and knew they did not have tools adequate to the task. Recall that a major reason George W. Bush's administration did not bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was that it did not think it had the authority to do so.
But there was advance warning of the economic crisis that exploded that fall. Bear Stearns had failed in the spring of that year, six months before Lehman broke. Bear and Lehman had been two institutions noted for their very high leverage ratios. When the first went, there were more than a few hints that the second might follow.
So, if Bush administration officials felt themselves ill-equipped, why did they not seek greater authority from Congress that summer?
The answer I've gotten is that it seemed futile to make the request. The Congress of that time was controlled by Democrats who were in no mood to expand Bush's authority. The president's public standing and political capital were at low ebb. So the administration took a pragmatic approach of the sort Feaver advocates and did not bother to ask for additional tools. They took their constraints as given.
That was likely a disastrous decision for the Republican Party. It may have cost the 2008 election and thus, in turn, the 2012 election. Had the Bush administration yelled that danger was approaching and had Congress subsequently refused a well-thought-out request to act, there might have been a very different narrative in the fall of 2008. Instead of "reckless Bush administration deregulation driving the economy into a ditch," it could have been "farsighted Bush administration stymied by petty Congress."
Perhaps that's fantasy. It would have required an objective media, for example. Proposed financial legislation may not have been enough to quell the tingling in the legs of the media we actually had. But it's hard to believe that it wouldn't have been better to push Congress to do the right thing, rather than sitting quietly and looking inept and culpable.
I wonder whether there's an analogy with Syria. If we all sit around and accept that we're at a constrained optimum and the constraints bind, we effectively excuse leadership failure. Doing that can have long-run repercussions, particularly when we next make choices about our leaders.
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These have been tough weeks for the Obama administration on foreign policy. On so many issues of consequence, the trajectories of real-world events have been running decidedly against the Obama policy line. If you had to pick a major foreign-policy issue where the United States is in better shape today than it was six months ago, which one would you pick? I am hard-pressed to think of one. When the brightest foreign-policy story is a trip to Latin America, you know the White House is struggling.
Some of my Shadow Government colleagues have responded to the spiraling chaos by urging President Barack Obama to face facts and change his policies, particularly with respect to Syria.
The same news headlines have elicited a different reaction from me, however. I am not entirely comfortable with my reaction, so I post it here in the hopes that someone will persuade me that I am wrong.
When I read stories like this one, which outlines how careless the president was in setting up the Syrian "red line" on chemical weapons use, or this one, which raises serious questions about whether the administration's handling of Benghazi amounted to a politicized coverup, or this one, which details the extent to which partisan political considerations have shaped national security decision-making in the White House, it undermines my confidence that this administration could intervene effectively in Syria.
In other words, recent events and revelations have made me less inclined to support a robust intervention in Syria, not more inclined. I have reached this tentative conclusion not because the hawks are wrong and the doves are right about the stakes. My colleagues who are pushing for a military intervention are probably right about the negative consequences that are heading our way because of Obama's Syria policy (see Inboden's version here, and Zakheim's version here).
And those who downplay the costs of nonintervention must rely on cherry-picked analogies and dubious wishful thinking to bolster their conclusions (see Fareed Zakaria's version here, which ignores how regional adversaries interpreted the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon, or Stephen Walt's version here, which ignores the extent to which U.S. interests are affected by adverse global developments).
Rather, I am sliding toward nonintervention because, as I argued before, any U.S. military intervention will be led by the commander in chief we have, not the commander in chief we might wish we had. Obama has many strengths, but among them is not martial resolve in the face of wartime adversity.
Yes, he authorized a military surge in Afghanistan, but he did not back it up with a civilian/diplomatic surge -- instead, he undercut it with the strategic blunder of the arbitrary withdrawal timeline dictated by the domestic political calendar. And as doubts about Afghanistan mount, he has done almost nothing to mobilize public support for his own surge. Yes, he reluctantly went along with the British-French initiative to intervene in Libya, but he has subsequently tried to wash America's hands of responsibility for the aftermath. And, so far as I can see, he has not done much to back up his boast that the terrorists who attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi would be held accountable.
In other words, Obama is a buck-passer, as Walt has pointed out with approval. You may or may not want a buck-passer conducting your foreign policy -- it matters greatly whether you have significant interests at stake (Walt explicitly claims America does not) and whether someone else is there to receive the buck (Walt is silent on this question, but if he pursued it he might realize that a sustained strategy of buck-passing creates the conditions for the emergence of a hostile peer rival, which even Walt acknowledges would be an adverse development).
But you surely do not want to go to war with a buck-passer. Not as your ally, which helps explain why Obama's declared policy of building an international coalition on Syria has failed. And not as your commander -- recognition that Obama's heart is not in the wars he already is leading reinforces the military's natural reluctance to intervene in any new conflict.
There were more promising options that may have been less demanding of presidential resolve earlier in the crisis. A more forward-leaning intelligence and rebel-support operation earlier on might have produced better rebel groups to support now. Perhaps it is fair of the hawks to criticize the president for missed earlier opportunities.
But because he missed those opportunities, we are where we are, and from here the options look exceptionally bleak. A robust policy today would certainly require a leader as committed to winning wars as he is to ending them.
So I would like those who are recommending that the United States take a more robust interventionist stance on Syria to tell me how they think Obama would lead such an intervention when, as seems likely, it will demand more political-military resolve than a drone strike. Without a more satisfying answer to that question, I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that the only thing worse than the current policy of halfhearted nonintervention could be a policy of halfhearted intervention. Perhaps Obama's preferred policy of not intervening decisively is the least worst of a very bad menu of choices.
And we at Shadow Government should acknowledge the theoretical possibility that Obama has been right all along on Syria and the rest of us have been wrong. In this hypothetical universe, Obama would appear almost a profile in presidential resolve, albeit resolve to do nothing as opposed to doing something. In the face of mounting evidence that his Syria policy might not be working, Obama nevertheless doubled and tripled down on the policy. It would be like the resolve that produced the Iraq surge, but in reverse. I do not think this theoretical possibility is likely, but it is imaginable, and those of us critiquing the policy should have the humility to acknowledge it.
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Wading through all of the Benghazi hearing revelations prompted me to review my own blog posts on the subject. If I caught them all, my progression runs something like this:
1. Initially, I was inclined to give Team Obama a passing grade for its tactical response, but to ding it for the larger strategic failure of understanding the roots of the problem in the Middle East. Also, I dinged Obama partisans for viewing the crisis narrowly through the lens of the electoral campaign and trying to shout down critics from Mitt Romney's camp rather than address the substance of their charges.
2. Next, I credited Team Obama with handling the ceremonial role well -- better than the Romney camp did -- but noted that new revelations pointed to problems with the Obama administration's preparation for and response to the crisis.
3. Next, I dinged the media for waiting so long before they started asking tough questions about Benghazi, but noted that once they started, Barack Obama's administration seemed unable to provide convincing answers. Nevertheless, I still defended the administration from Republicans who were pushing the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme. I said it was far more likely that rather than outright lying, what Team Obama was doing was mere partisan political spin control. It was all designed to distract public attention from an embarrassing fiasco, but to do so without willful deception.
4. Next, I pointed out that the Obama campaign in the televised foreign-policy debate tried to pretend that it had always been candid about the Benghazi terrorist attacks when, of course, it had not and had, in fact, followed exactly the spin script I had forecast.
5. Finally, I noted that the official State Department report tried to fix blame for Benghazi on Congress and despite presenting evidence for the myriad ways that Obama's regional strategy had itself contributed to disaster, studiously avoided reaching that obvious conclusion. The report read a bit like a whitewash designed to protect higher-ups.
Since then, the Benghazi revelations have suggested that I might have been too kind to the administration. There are four key questions, and on all of them, the evidence keeps piling up in a more negative direction:
1. Did failures of strategy and comprehension of the regional challenges contribute to the Benghazi disaster (in other words, was it just bad luck, or were there deeper failures involved)? From the beginning, this was a valid concern, and it is even more valid today. No new revelations have exonerated the administration on this crucial question.
2. Did failures of tactics and response contribute to the Benghazi disaster? Initially, it looked like those concerns were at best Monday morning quarterbacking and at worst partisan sniping, but the recent testimony shows that at least some responsible officials were begging for a better response in real time. The best that Obama defenders can say now is that even if these measures had been tried, they wouldn't have worked. Perhaps, but they were not even tried.
3. Was the initial public messaging up through Ambassador Susan Rice's infamous talking points tolerable spin and understandable fog-of-war confusion in the face of conflicting reports, or something much worse? Initially, I thought the administration earned the benefit of the doubt. Now, especially based on this bombshell story, the evidence points pretty convincingly to the conclusion that there was willful misleading going on in the earliest days.
4. Regardless of how it handled things under the pressure of a hard-fought reelection campaign, has the administration come clean since the election ended? Given how much of the recent testimony was missing in the State Department's official report, it is hard to credit the administration with candor even at this late date.
In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a single element where the Obama case looks stronger today than it did before.
For months, my friends in the Romney campaign thought that Benghazi was a genuine scandal, and my friends on Team Obama have insisted that there is nothing to it (though one friend did concede that there was probably more to Benghazi than there ever was to the faux scandal over Valerie Plame). Throughout I have argued a middle-ground position of faint praise and faint damns. However, the evidence keeps mounting that the Romney folks may have been closer to the truth all along.
Here is one more piece of evidence: Obama defenders seem to have stopped trying to argue substance and instead are emphasizing how little the public cares about it and how quickly it will all be forgotten by the time that Hillary Clinton runs for president. They may be right about both of those points, but that is tantamount to pleading nolo contendere on the key charges. If the facts were with them, I think they would be mounting a more substantive defense.
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The debate about the Obama administration's lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president's lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama was forgiven in most quarters for not having a grand strategy. He was new to the national scene, and all the talk was about the economy. When he did talk about foreign policy, he said he'd get us out of Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and then get out, pursue international agreements on climate change, talk more to our enemies through a series of "resets," and close Guantánamo, implying that the war on terror was ill-founded and no longer necessary. I suppose one can argue that getting us out of wars is a strategy, but to leave it at that assumes that the only threats we face are being bogged down in wars and that if we'd quit the international scene, all would be well. That is no grand strategy no matter what Ron Paul says.
As a candidate in 2012, President Obama had the good luck to be opposed by a man with no foreign policy experience and who did not articulate very well what he'd do on those issues, so the president just doubled down on the tactics of his first four years. Add to all that the voters' consistent lack of interest in foreign policy unless there is a crisis, and the president got to sidestep these issues for the most part.
But thoughtful observers and analysts wonder now in the fifth year of the Obama presidency what the he and his team intend to do about the myriad problems besetting the globe: wars, lower level conflicts, and a continuing terrorist threat that erupted again most visibly and most recently in Boston and Benghazi. Whether Obama is a realist or not has been discussed on this site (by Stephen Walt and by yours truly, among others), but trying to put a theoretical label on the president's foreign policy approach does not tell us what he is trying to accomplish and why. Calling him a realist, an idealist, or anything else does not tell us what to expect from him as commander in chief. It might tell us how he intends to accomplish goals, but we don't know what the goals are. After five years in office, we still have no grand strategy from the president. Comparing him to his predecessors reveals a stark deficit of strategic thinking and intentionality.
As grand strategists, some of Obama's predecessors were stellar, others mediocre, but all operated strategically. Truman, Ike, Nixon, and Ford sought to contain communism. Carter wanted to do that, too, but also focus on human rights. Reagan determined to defeat communism while ensuring that the United States remained and grew more prominent as a beacon of liberty, the last best hope of mankind. Bush 41 and Clinton's foreign policy was largely about managing the fall and transformation of the Soviet Union and its former satellites -- and they acted determinedly to make the United States the catalyst for a boom in international trade. But terrorism was a growing and deadly threat for Clinton and his policy regarding it looks more like a holding game than a well-thought out plan to defeat it.
Enter Bush 43, who stated very clearly and repeatedly that the mission of this presidency was first and foremost to keep the United States safe by defeating terrorists and ending their effort to shape global politics. Importantly, to achieve this aim he intended also for the United States to be more than a beacon of freedom, to do what Reagan did regarding Lech Walesa's Solidarity but to do it on steroids: support democrats all around the world with both moral and material support as a means to defeat terrorism and all other threats to the peace.
Agree or disagree with the policy, George W. Bush had one, and it amounted to a grand strategy. It was carefully crafted internally, and all agencies played a role in it -- especially the primary departments and agencies that conduct foreign policy, including the development agency USAID and foreign assistance programs in other departments. For eight years, and especially after the 2004 inaugural address and the articulation of the freedom agenda, the goals were announced, the means to achieve them were devised, and the resulting policies and programs were implemented. That is, the Bush administration pursued ideas, funding, and assessment mechanisms and did so using both an executive branch and a Capitol Hill strategy. A grand strategy, if you will. The Bush Center at the president's recently inaugurated library tells the story, at least in terms of what the public saw and experienced over eight years. President Bush's former staff can fill in many of the details of how it all was planned and enacted.
These comments are not meant to be political shots taken at the Obama administration by a former Bush official keen to score points. Truly, this is a worrisome situation that the United States faces. Not since we became a great power, and indeed a superpower, have we been led by a president who has no clear goals for securing the people and interests of the United States from the many manifest and latent threats. He stated in his 2012 campaign that al Qaeda is on the run (but it is not); he treats North Korea, Iran, Syria, and the larger Middle East as distractions from his domestic agenda to be paid attention to only when he absolutely has to (but these are existential threats to US allies and serious ones for us); and he has no agenda to expand trade (but we need it given the global economic situation). He and his team appear to be so focused on the domestic front and to not follow the path of securing U.S. interests that Bush put us on, that one can arguably conclude that not only doesn't he have a grand strategy, he doesn't want one.
As the leader of the free world, such an approach is not a valid option. We can discuss the economy as a national security matter all we want to, but that does not free the president from his duty to anticipate threats from abroad and devise a grand strategy, along with the Congress, to deal with them. We currently face rogue states that are building nuclear weapons and a Middle East in flames, threats that in their severity rival the Cold War. Perhaps these threats are worse because we are not dealing with what Jeanne Kirkpatrick called the steely-eyed realists in the Kremlin but fanatical regimes whose apocalyptic imaginings could well overtake their reason.
It is time for President Obama to do the job his predecessors did before him: trying to shape the world to fit our interests. I'd settle for a bad strategy; at least it would demonstrate the willingness and ability to have one.
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
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The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.
There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.
However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.
First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.
When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.
This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.
Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.
Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.
Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.
Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline.
Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.
The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks.
But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.
None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.
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While America's attention has been drawn to last week's terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December.
Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond -- particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.
The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration's zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama's team scrapped the Bush administration's missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB.
Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient. The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:
"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.
Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.
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[Update: Last night, Venezuelan electoral authorities agreed to a partial audit of Sunday's vote, although not the full recount demanded by challenger Henrique Capriles.]
After an ill-advised overture to Hugo Chávez's government last November, the Obama administration has regained its footing with a strong, principled stance on Venezuela's contested election. Based on the razor-thin margin and opposition protests of irregularities, the administration has yet to recognize as the winner Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, and has instead supported a review of the vote count.
In appearances before both the House and Senate in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed that position "so that the people of Venezuela who participated in such a closely divided and important election can have the confidence that they have the legitimacy that is necessary in the government going forward."
He said, "I don't know whether it's going to happen. ... [But] obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."
Kerry's statements brought the predictable howls of protest from Venezuela. "It's obscene, the U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Mr. Maduro said. "Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here! Enough interventionism!"
But no one should be intimidated by such false bravado.
Maduro is in a panic. He knows he cannot handle declining socio-economic conditions in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, dissension in his own ranks, and an engaged U.S. government standing firm on principle regarding the legitimacy of his election.
Of course, the administration will face a vociferous public campaign by chavista sympathizers pressuring it to accept Sunday's disputed result. Already, the feckless Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has backtracked from the organization's initial strong statement on behalf of a recount and now has accepted the result.
Recognition proponents will tell us the United States faces "isolation" in the region if the administration doesn't recognize Maduro (only Panama and Paraguay have joined the call for a recount) and that its supposed intransigence plays right into Maduro's hands, allowing him to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Nonsense. Those proposing such arguments fail to recognize that governments are pursuing interests. Certain countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and even Russia and China, have benefited greatly from economic ties with Venezuela under Chávez and their short-sighted view is to try and keep that spigot open.
Most citizens throughout the region, however, tend to be more appreciative of principles, such as the security and integrity of one's vote. One can be sure that, in case of a disputed election in their own country, they would hope to count on external support for an honest accounting in their own electoral processes.
Secondly, as the election just demonstrated, Maduro is not Chávez, and his capacity to whip up anything but official violence against Venezuelans protesting in the streets is extremely doubtful (Warning: graphic photos here). In short, no one should be misled by the noisemakers.
A continued firm stand on behalf of a clean election will resonate positively throughout the region, sending a strong signal to all democrats that the United States does indeed care and that intimidation and violence have no place in any democracy. It is not likely that such sentiments will sway Maduro and his Cuban advisors to accept any sort of recount, but it will certainly place the United States on the right side of the debates and confrontations to come.
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As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.
The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade's worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.
The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President's formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.
The president may have been skittish about calling it an act of terror in part because of uncertainties about who was responsible and perhaps also because of the unfortunate timing of the attack, which coincided with a rise in speculation, some of it fueled by still more SAO's, about a belief that AQ has been strategically defeated. Ironically, I learned about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks while I was reading a spirited debate among academic security specialists over the putative "end of AQ."
Of course, if the Boston Marathon attack does turn out to be the work of domestic anti-government terrorists, then the coincidence with the debate about AQ will seem prophetic. If, on the other hand, yesterday's attack gets traced back to an AQ-inspired or AQ-linked source, then the debate takes on a somewhat different cast.
Regardless of source, the attack fit the profile of a certain kind of threat that those of us in the business have worried about for over a decade. From the beginning of the global war on terror, it was recognized that some attacks held the potential for greater political impact than others.
In the coming days and weeks, we may play out this third scenario and, in so doing, learn a lot more about the threats we face and about the strength of our society.
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.
Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.
Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land."
Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope."
Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.
Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.
At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.
Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Saturday's New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama's most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration's presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak's exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes' policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House's negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration's posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House's denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon's deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss's policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation's paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House's failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes' public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.
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The New York Times headline from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's speech yesterday on Obama's Asia strategy was uncompromising: "U.S. Demands Chinese Block Cyberattacks." And it is true, in the sense that Donilon's speech did include some tough language on cybersecurity:
"Another such issue is cyber-security, which has become a growing challenge to our economic relationship as well. Economies as large as the United States and China have a tremendous shared stake in ensuring that the Internet remains open, interoperable, secure, reliable, and stable. Both countries face risks when it comes to protecting personal data and communications, financial transactions, critical infrastructure, or the intellectual property and trade secrets that are so vital to innovation and economic growth.
It is in this last category that our concerns have moved to the forefront of our agenda. I am not talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking. And, this is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government. Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. As the President said in the State of the Union, we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats.
From the President on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments. And it will continue to be. The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side. First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses-to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace."
But a demand implies "or else." What is the "or else"? Donilon understandably did not spell it out in any detail beyond "we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats." In backgrounding the speech, the White House told the NYT that Donilon did not get more detailed because they wanted to motivate China to act without engaging in "finger-pointing."
Finger-pointing, however, was precisely what Donilon was doing in the speech, and rightly so. Finger-pointing goes by another name, "naming and shaming," and it is an accepted early stage of diplomacy when dealing with core national interest conflicts. China has an understandable national interest in stealing as much as they can from the United States and the United States has an understandable national interest in preventing this. Those interests are in conflict, and one way to resolve it peacefully is to raise the costs to the Chinese of engaging in this behavior so they will end up in a different place in their own internal cost-benefit calculation. A peaceful way of raising those costs is to name and shame the Chinese for their activities.
However, naming and shaming only goes so far and, in this case, the Chinese preemptive response has been predictable: We deny we are doing this but tu quoque, you are engaged in cyber-espionage, Mr. Obama, and so we are not ashamed.
That means that naming and shaming alone is unlikely to resolve the underlying conflict. The Obama administration may soon face a tougher choice: continue to live with the waves of cyber-attacks from the Chinese or escalate to some form of retaliation beyond naming and shaming in the hopes of raising the costs to the Chinese beyond what they are willing to pay. Donilon's speech gave little insight into what the administration would do when confronted with that choice.
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The Obama administration's minimalist foreign policy, animated by domestic political expediency and a cramped view of America's responsibilities to uphold the liberal international order from which it has benefited so richly, can lead observers to forget what a more traditionally engaged foreign policy even looks like. The new national security strategy developed by a bipartisan group under the aegis of the Project for a United and Strong America fills that gap. It maps out a robust vision of a foreign policy guided by the belief that the United States is not "the dispensable nation" but in fact has a singular role to play in sustaining a world safe for the values and interests of free peoples.
As attested by the bipartisan constitution of the group that produced the report -- chaired by Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute and Jim Goldgeier of American University and drafted by Ash Jain of the German Marshall Fund -- this is not a Republican or Democratic vision. It is an American internationalist ambition that pays tribute to the legacies of Truman and Reagan. It is also a potent antidote to the policies of retrenchment and buck-passing that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2009.
As the report argues, America's power, reach, network, and example are, in fact, exceptional:
The United States remains the single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world. It has a unique ability to mobilize actions by allies and friends and to project force and influence on a global scale. Through its own commitment to democratic values, its protection of human rights, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice, and its capacity for adaptation and renewal, the United States continues to inspire efforts to realize these values in societies around the world. For years to come, no other nation can play this role.
Nor can the United States simply retreat from the world's trouble spots and assume that its position and interests will be unaffected:
The world is not a passive and neutral playing field, but one in which competing views and interests are constantly being pressed. U.S. interests are continually being challenged.... In this environment, a lack of active U.S. leadership can lead to a steady erosion of U.S. interests. The United States not only has the unique ability to lead, but an imperative to do so -- for the protection of its own national interests and values, as well as for the advancement of democratic values, human development, and security around the world. The protection of these values in turn reinforces the long-term security and well-being of the United States.
What is wrong with a foreign policy that brings American forces home from hot spots like Afghanistan, stays out of messy civil wars like that in Syria, largely leaves allies like Israel and Japan to their own devices, and engages vital parts of the Islamic world mainly through long-distance drone strikes?
[T]he distinguishing feature of America's global role since its founding has been its broad-based conception of national security -- the belief that the advancement of an open, rules-based international order that promotes universal values of liberty, democracy, human dignity, and economic freedom is essential to the security and economic vitality of the United States.
To put American foreign policy back on a more traditional footing of values-based engagement with the world, the report recommends a strategy guided by:
Acknowledging limited resources in an age of debt and deficits, it calls for cost-effective investments in our core capacities of economic vitality, preeminent military power, and foreign assistance, while pursuing smarter public diplomacy and more effectively leveraging the capabilities America's many allies and partners offer in support of our joint objectives.
Beyond managing near-term challenges posed by Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, global terrorism, and economic weakness in the Eurozone, the report wisely calls for a set of longer-term, strategic investments to reinforce American security and prosperity for coming generations. These include:
As the report concludes:
What is essential is that facing limited resources, the United States must make choices and engage strategically. The issues identified above represent either those crisis areas where the United States has no choice but to engage, or alternatively, where it can make strategic investments to help shape the global playing field long into the future. A national security strategy that focuses on these critical challenges and investments -- while based on the core principles of advancing a liberal democratic order and a proactive American global leadership role -- offers the best opportunity to assure the long-term security and prosperity of the United States, its citizens, and the global democratic community.
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Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
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Mike Green's interesting post on the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe illustrates an important but oft-ignored principle of foreign policy: It takes two to tango. Too often, analysts focus on just one of the players, usually the president, and score the resulting foreign policy for good or ill based solely on that perspective. But as U.S.-Japan relations dramatize, the same president can have greater or lesser success pursuing much the same lines of policy with the same country depending on who is the counterpart. The Bush administration had fraught relations with France and Germany under Chirac and Schroeder respectively and most of the mainstream U.S. media laid the blame at President George W. Bush's feet. Yet the same Bush had excellent and cooperative relations with France and Germany under Sarkozy and Merkel. Likewise, Bush had excellent relations with Japan under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and for a while looked set to reprise that with Abe. Relations with Japan have suffered during Obama's tenure, but this is as much due to the problems inside Japan as to specific failings of the Obama administration.
Now, with Abe back in power, Green makes a compelling case that there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to regain lost ground. Abe's "Japan is Back" speech was an ironic double-joke that was not lost on insiders. First, it was an obvious homage to Green's own "Japan is Back" article in Foreign Affairs, which analyzed Abe's foreign policy the last time Abe was in power. Second, it was a gesture to the oft-repeated boast by Obama administration officials that the United States was "back in Asia." Of course, Abe and his team knew what team Obama has been reluctant to admit: The United States never left Asia, and Obama inherited a strong Asia strategy with bipartisan support and significant momentum behind it and and upon which, after some stumbles, they have managed to build with new initiatives.
But perhaps Abe and his team are worried by what they might consider drift in Obama's Asia strategy. The much-ballyhooed Asia pivot has been looking more and more like an Asian pirouette of late. Secretary of State John Kerry has bent over backwards to underscore the differences between him and his predecessor, and the easiest contrast to draw thus far has been his prioritization of Europe and the Middle East over Asia. The top Asia hands have left government, and the departure of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in particular deprives the administration of someone whose stature in the region could compensate for the unintended side-effects of a perception that Kerry is preoccupied with other regions. Campbell spoke to my program at Duke last week and argued persuasively that the Obama administration should redouble its efforts in Asia in the second term and somewhat less persuasively that they will.
In Abe, the Obama Administration has a promising Asian partner. Will they hear the music and dance?
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When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms:
"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."
That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:
Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.
All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.
Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.
I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.
Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!
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Over on The Daily Beast I have a piece, co-authored with my long-time comrade-in-scholarly-arms Chris Gelpi, looking at whether Senator Chuck Hagel's views about when and how to use force are out of step with the military rank and file.
Drawing on a book we published some time ago, we argue that Hagel's reluctance to intervene in Syria is fully in keeping with what might be called a "military dove" position. The military and veterans of the military like Hagel are particularly reluctant to intervene in humanitarian and nation-building missions, and this is fully in keeping with Hagel's oft-expressed opposition to such missions. Hagel's strong opposition to the Iraq surge and his tepid support-cum-skepticism regarding the Afghanistan surge less readily fits the military profile, for we found that the military tend to oppose interventions but favor higher levels of escalation once an intervention has occurred. That is, we found that in general the military favor what has been called the Powell Doctrine: Use force rarely but decisively. Non-veterans in the civilian elite, by contrast, were more willing to intervene, even in humanitarian scenarios, but also more willing to see those interventions constrained and at lower levels of escalation.
Of course, we are talking about general patterns and there are always important exceptions. Indeed, just last week General Dempsey indicated that he was more willing to see the U.S. intervene in the Syrian crisis, at least covertly. Dempsey's stated position on Syria does not seem to fit the Powell Doctrine and was at odds with the position of President Obama -- the most consequential non-veteran in the policymaking apparatus -- as well as Senator Hagel, the veteran Obama picked to be Dempsey's boss.
In other words, Hagel's views on whether and how to use force are within the mainstream of civil-military patterns that show up at the aggregate level, even though they may diverge somewhat from the particular constellation of choices he might confront should he be confirmed to lead the Pentagon.
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As I wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, calls for direct talks with Iran have been on the rise, in large part due to the lack of movement in talks between Iran and the P5+1, which includes the United States, the United Kingdon, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The P5+1 is entering its eighth year of discussions with Tehran, yet has made little progress toward a nuclear agreement while Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear capacity. This raises a question I do not address in the op-ed -- is there a continued role for the P5+1?
For diplomats, large international coalitions hold an irresistible allure, especially when dealing with troublesome regimes. Acting in concert through groupings such as the P5+1 improves international compliance with sanctions and reinforces the target state's isolation, in theory amplifying the pressure upon it and enhancing the prospects for achieving the coalition's objectives.
Such a broad grouping has downsides, however. First, coordination -- whether on carrots or sticks - takes time, and lots of it. A host of factors, from each state's domestic politics to unrelated international disputes among the members, prevents quick resolution of differences.
Second, the states all have different interests at stake. The United States sees Iran as a broad threat, given its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, which is only magnified by Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Russia and China see the issue differently. Tehran may target restaurants in Washington, but it avoids entangling itself in Chechnya and Xinjiang. As a result, many in Moscow and Beijing see Iran not as a threat, but as a potential (if difficult) partner in constraining Washington's exercise of power and influence in the region.
The result of these varying interests is a lowest-common-denominator approach, whereby the group focuses on the one thing that they can all agree upon. In this case, that is Iran's compliance with the international nonproliferation rules, which all of the major powers would like to see preserved. Any agreement the P5+1 reaches is likely to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear capabilities; other issues of interest to the United States and the European Union -- whether Iran's regional activities or human rights record -- are left to be pursued by separate, ad hoc coalitions of likeminded countries outside the official negotiations.
Given these downsides and the plodding pace of the negotiations, it is little wonder that calls for direct U.S.-Iran talks are on the rise. But the dismissal of such talks by Iran's supreme leader and the long and unsuccessful history of U.S.-Iran contacts suggest bilateral talks would not prove any more of a silver bullet than multilateral ones have been. The US offer of direct talks with Iran is likely to make more of an impression on our coalition partners -- convincing them that we are going the extra mile on diplomacy and hopefully pushing them to do the same on pressure -- than on the Iranian regime.
Indeed, while we should not hesitate to employ diplomacy creatively and flexibly in service of our policy aims, Iranian truculence likely ensures that the P5+1 will remain the most meaningful forum for talks on Iran's nuclear program. Tehran appears to see compromise as more dangerous than maintaining its confrontational stance toward neighbors and the West; Iran's leaders must be persuaded that in fact failing to compromise is the greater danger. Doing so will require various forms of international pressure -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- which must be marshaled through multilateral diplomacy. As I note in the Times piece, a broader U.S.-Iran breakthrough, if it occurs, is more likely to be a consequence of a strategic shift by Iran than a cause of one.
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Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.
Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient. While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.
Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."
Sounds like good advice, right? Sure -- but only up to a limited point.
Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.
More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.
Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.
To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.
Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."
Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.
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The weekend's reading in the Washington Post turned up two intriguing bits that could profitably be explored in Senator Hagel's forthcoming confirmation hearings. Neither is a game-changer or a show-stopper. I continue to believe he will be confirmed and I expect he will have plausible answers to both of these questions. But it would be revealing to hear those answers and the process of thinking them through might even help him be a better secretary of defense.
First, what does the Obama administration consider to be the necessary legal conditions for the use of force abroad? The question arises out of an interesting bit in Saturday's story about internal deliberations over whether and how much to assist the French in the Mali operation. There are numerous legal hurdles, including some domestic ones related to assisting governments after a coup (among its myriad troubles, Mali suffered a coup last year). But the part that interested me was this brief reference to other international legal hurdles:
"At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France's military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate."
Now, I well understand the political desirability of international mandates, and I also know what the UN Charter stipulates. Since the Mali government asked for aid -- no, begged for aid -- the self-defense exception of the UN charter would seem to be easily met. Perhaps there was some legal confusion regarding whether a post-coup Mali regime was more legitimate than the militant islamists attacking the government from the north? Or perhaps there was something else at work, with the Obama administration entertaining a more stringent standard than U.S. governments had hitherto required for military action? If the latter, that would seem to be quite newsworthy with profound implications for coercive diplomacy in other settings: does the Obama administration believe it has the requisite legal predicate for military action in Iran (setting aside the policy wisdom of such action), or would it require a new and specific UNSCR or NATO authorization? What are legal options if we have neither a new UNSCR nor NATO authorization?
Second, what specifically did Senator Hagel find lacking about civilian control of the military during the past 6 years? This question arises out of a quote attributed to Hagel from today's opinion piece by Bob Woodward: "'The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,' Hagel said privately in 2011."
Now Hagel's quote covers a lot of history, including the stormy 1990s when serious questions were raised about the quality of civilian control. While an historical disquisition on the evolution of civilian control since 1992 from the secretary-nominee would be fascinating, for the sake of time and focus I would encourage the Senators to ask Hagel to answer just with respect to the last several years, covering the tenure of Secretaries Gates and Panetta. In what ways does Hagel consider the Pentagon to have been out of "commander-in-chief control" during that period?
This second question might be the more important one. After all, Hagel is not the lawyer who will be deciding the Obama administration's interpretation of international law. His hearings do provide an important opportunity for Congress to ask such questions to key officials under oath, however, so it is worth asking.
But the second question goes to the very heart of Hagel's job. As secretary of defense, he will be the interface between the political White House and the uniformed military -- something like the ball-bearings or even the grease in the ball-bearings of civil-military relations. He will be the single most important civilian working 24-7 on the civilian control issue. Understanding his theory of civil-military relations is crucial for helping the Pentagon (both civilian and military tribes therein) prepare for his arrival. And I can think of few better ways to clarify his expectations than for him to explain how he believes Gates and Panetta failed to bring the Pentagon under "commander-in-chief control."
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Is President Obama willing to hear from people who disagree with him? Is he capable of recognizing any merits in arguments from those on the other side? His most loyal staff assure us that he is, but the public record keeps piling up evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is time for the president to consider some extra steps to ensure he is not trapped inside a bubble of groupthink.
When then-Senator Obama was first gaining prominence on the national stage, a friend of mine who had worked with him over many years assured me that Obama was particularly gifted at the art of "understanding the other." Obama, I was told, naturally, even reflexively, appreciated the arguments of all sides and was skilled at finding common ground -- finding the synthesis that did not do violence to either the thesis or the antithesis. Ever since my friend painted that portrait, I have been waiting for that Obama to show up in the Oval Office.
If that Obama exists, he did not seem to play much of a role in the inaugural speech-writing process. As Michael Gerson observed, Obama's second inaugural address was a "raging bonfire of straw men." For those of us hoping to recapture some of the consolations of pride-in and hope-for our American system that sustained us four years ago, this second inaugural had precious little to offer.
It is one thing to engage in such systematic distortion during a bitter electoral campaign. It is another thing to let it permeate through all of the presidential rhetoric, including speeches usually reserved for appeals to unity and common purpose.
Yet it is a third, and more worrying thing, if that same dysfunction distorts the advisory process. In that regard, Tom Ricks' reporting (here and here) on the treatment given General Mattis, the CENTCOM Commander, is especially disturbing. Ricks alleges that the White House hurried General Mattis into retirement because they resented the way he was asking probing questions that pointed to deficiencies in current policy.
Of course, it is the President's right to pick the advisors he wants, but shouldn't the President want to have advisors that ask tough, probing questions that flag deficiencies in current policy?
For the record, an Obama spokesman denied that Mattis was being moved along because of the way he provided advice, but even Ricks, a reliable Obama supporter, did not find the denial very convincing. There have been too many of these reports to dismiss this concern with a "nothing to see here" rebuttal: cf., Michael Gordon's account of how the White House sought to stifle military advice it did not want to hear; Rosa Brook's insider account, augmented by extensive additional reports, of a dysfunctional decisionmaking system that muzzled advisors; or then NSA-Jim Jones' infamous "whisky, tango, foxtrot" moment in Afghanistan when he apparently told the Marines not to request additional resources lest their request anger the President.
When I joined the Bush administration early in his second term, I joined a team that was similarly criticized as being "in a bubble" and incapable of understanding contrary viewpoints. Like Obama's current staffers, I could attest that that was not the system I saw from the inside. But unlike Obama's current staffers (so far as I can determine), we went beyond looking around the table and reassuring ourselves that we were each very reasonable fellows, fully open to new ideas. We put in place a series of informal institutions and procedures that brought us and White House principals, especially the president, into direct contact with the opposing views -- on paper and, crucially, in person. These ranged from academics (historians, political scientists, economists, etc.) to think-tank experts to key Democratic foreign policy advisors. Perhaps we should have done more of that than we did, and earlier, but I am pretty sure we did more of that than the Obama team has done thus far.
I do not doubt that Team Obama reads opinion pieces drafted by people who disagree with them. But do they engage those people in candid conversation and debate? Do they ensure that the president meets and converses with people who disagree with him? And are those people only critics from the left, or does he also regularly interact in a substantive way with critics from the right?
Perhaps it would be too disorienting at first to reach all the way across the aisle actually to engage the loyal opposition. An easier, but still worthwhile, step would be to reach out to avid supporters who nevertheless see some of the same things that are so obvious to folks on the other side. I am thinking here of Tom Ricks, mentioned above. Or what about other long-time Obama boosters like David Ignatius, who has called Obama "missing in action", and criticized Obama's "passivity" on Syria, and found the Inaugural Address "partisan" and "empty"? Or even Foreign Policy's own Dear Leader, David Rothkopf, who called Obama out for being a "lousy manager"?
Such interlocutors would be sure to sweeten the pill of truth-telling with ritual denunciations of the Bush era. But by drawing attention to Obama's own record, they might help the administration deal more honestly with the debate they face today. And they might even prepare the way for honest conversation across the spectrum of foreign policy views.
I think if Obama actually talked with people who disagreed with him, he would find it harder to sustain the straw-man caricatures of their views. Perhaps he would still end up policy-wise where he is today, but he would make more compelling arguments for those policies. He might even persuade some people he is right. It is a risk worth taking.
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We have a problem in Mali: an al Qaeda franchise has taken over most of the country. President Obama only two days ago recommitted the United States to "combat[ing] the scourge of terrorism in the region." An American ally has been working tirelessly to bring the United Nations forward, provide a political solution, organize countries in the region to provide troops, and take the lead in operations. It would seem a perfect illustration of the Obama Doctrine: U.N. mandate, regional buy-in, leadership by an American ally, the United States one contributor among many.
And oh, by the way, the military coup that overthrew a democratic government in Mali, setting off the instability that enabled al Qaeda to prey on the country? That coup was the work of military officers and units trained by the United States. The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya's transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest -- and in the interest of the administration's vision for the new international order -- to stamp it out.
And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as "crap," and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali's capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven't even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes. "This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
That's not leading, even from behind. That's undercutting your allies.
It's also incredibly damaging to the United States, even on the terms the Obama administration itself espouses. The White House wants our country to step back from unilateral actions, to have a share but not the lion's share of the work. That requires others to be both willing and able to step forward.
Our European allies have twice in the past couple of years shown themselves willing to lead military operations when we would not. In neither Libya nor Mali has the Obama administration denied that we have an interest in achieving the objectives for which our allies fought, and are fighting. So we agree it needs doing, we just don't want to do it.
Europe has several of the world's most capable militaries; not just Britain and France, but also Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have all acquitted themselves admirably. But even those militaries lack outright or run short of some of the things that Americans take for granted in our operations: persistent surveillance of battlefields, reliable communications, rapid identification and targeting, the ability to strike promptly, transportation to deploy troops and equipment, precision-guided munitions to minimize unintended casualties, air-to-air refueling to enable strikes from great distances and repeated passes at targets.
That Europeans don't have these "enablers" in sufficient supply is their own fault. They chose to spend their money differently, predictably reducing military prowess and increasing the risk of failure. They mostly ignored decades of American pleading and NATO initiatives to boost defense spending, from the percentage rules of the Carter administration to the current incarnation of "smart defense." And they often spoke of their cultural superiority in spending money on social programs rather than militarism, even while they depended on our militarism. There is in some quarters a smug satisfaction about the Europeans finally realizing what we've been trying to tell them for so long.
But indulging that schadenfreude is unworthy of us. We want a world in which countries that share our values act to protect and promote those values; otherwise, the hard work all accrues to us. We want allies that see the right and take responsibility for acting to advance it.
Why not expect the Europeans to pay for what they need, especially when the United States borrows 30 cents of every dollar that our own government spends? The Obama administration isn't wrong to try and shift the burden-sharing toward Europeans. But there is a time for negotiating the terms of support to allies. That time is not when they are undertaking a military operation with goals that we support -- nor even when they are undertaking a military operation we don't think is a good idea.
Denying support in extremis leaves scars -- as Americans well know (Turkey denying us search-and-rescue operations from their territory during the Iraq war, France denying us their airspace during the El Dorado Canyon attacks on Libya, Belgium threatening to close its ports to us in 2003). Our own experience as an ally often in need of support even when governments oppose our policies ought to make us more, not less, willing to help when it counts most.
The French defense establishment had the grace to be embarrassed by their government's choices in 2003. The Obama Pentagon has not expressed similar embarrassment, either with regard to Mali or generally. It is from the Pentagon that the demand for reimbursement emanated. Nor is the fault confined to political civilians. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States did not want to be complicit in any Israeli strike on Iran. If I were in Tehran, I would interpret that to mean we would deny Israel assistance. Denying France assistance now will reinforce the perception -- both among allies and enemies -- that U.S. allies are on their own.
The Obama Doctrine depends critically on others stepping forward and undertaking the work we are stepping back from. There will be fewer allies willing to do that if we continue to be stingy with our help and generous with our criticism
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As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:
Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."
The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.
Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.
Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:
"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."
Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.
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As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.
It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.
Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.
Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?
Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?
The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.