Did the Obama administration just score a big foreign policy victory on Chinese currency practices? Over the weekend, China announced that it would let its currency begin to move for the first time in years. As trading for the week opened, the Chinese renminbi (RMB) broke free from its long-held 6.83 rate to the dollar, and rose above 6.80.
This certainly seems like the successful culmination of a strategy the administration pursued at some political risk. In the spring, pressure was mounting on the Treasury to name China a "currency manipulator." The administration resisted the pressure and ignored the Congressionally-mandated April 15 deadline for a determination. Top administration officials persuaded Congress to await the outcome of multilateral efforts to persuade the Chinese to move. Key Congressional figures, like House Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) set out a new deadline: get results by the G-20 meetings at the end of June, or Congress would act.
Now, the Chinese seem to have responded in the nick of time. Not only did China seem to relent, but it did so on the eve of the G-20 summit in Toronto. The Obama administration had previously trumpeted the elevation of the G-20 as the world's premier multilateral forum as a principal foreign policy success of its first year.
So what's not to celebrate?
China has long said it would change its policy; it had just not said when. In its weekend announcement, Chinese authorities were exceedingly vague about the specifics of the new policy. The only real clarity is that the change will not be a dramatic one-off appreciation of the sort that some U.S. critics of China have been calling for.
The most likely outcome is that the RMB will bounce around as it gradually appreciates, perhaps at a rate of 6 percent per year. This is the most likely outcome only because it is the policy China pursued in the only other instance in which significant appreciation was allowed, from 2005 to 2008. Nouriel Roubini has even noted that the RMB could depreciate, should the euro continue its sharp decline.
The change could be sufficiently minor that the real puzzle is why China did not do this months ago. The move relieves a great deal of international pressure on the Chinese and they incur minimal costs in terms of new competition for their exporters. Now the Chinese are free to spend their summit time criticizing Western budget deficits.
The U.S. domestic politics of China's currency move get complicated. The only position that really united the bulk of Western critics was that Chinese stasis on currency was unacceptable. Some prominent critics pointed to Chinese revaluation as a cure for U.S. job market ills. Fred Bergsten, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote that Chinese revaluation would be "by far the most cost-effective possible step to reduce the unemployment rate and help speed economic recovery" in the United States. A Washington Post story Sunday cited Bergsten to note:
"A jump of 20 percent (in the RMB) could cut as much as $150 billion off the U.S. trade deficit with China and create as many as 1 million U.S. jobs by making American exports more competitive..."
This weekend's move will not come close to meeting those expectations. The analysis promising job gains is problematic at several levels. For example, in our sole previous experience with Chinese appreciation, the 20 percent rise from 2005 to 2008, the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China actually expanded.
A more fundamental issue is that the link between trade deficits and jobs is tenuous. The United States has experienced full employment at times of large trade deficits, and we've experienced painful rates of unemployment at times when deficits were declining. Normally, we think trade deficits have little to do with the overall rate of unemployment. The relatively sophisticated argument being put forward by Paul Krugman is that we are suffering from a ‘liquidity trap,' placing us in an exceptional time in which the standard rules do not apply. That view is controversial, but let's accept it for the moment. There is little indication that the liquidity trap, if we are in one, will go on indefinitely. [A key feature of liquidity traps is that interest rates are near zero, and right now longer term interest rates are not]. Thus, if Chinese currency appreciation were to cure U.S. unemployment, it would have to be big and quick. The Chinese announcement just made clear it would be neither.
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I have a few more musings on the
the war clocks" issue, specifically the question of accelerating the
Afghan battle clock by getting more help from Pakistan. What might the
outlines of a deal with Pakistan look like? I don't have specifics, but I
can think of some design features and suggest some out-of-the-box things to
think about. In the spirit of stimulating the strategic policy planners
who have better access to the information necessary to do this exercise right,
here are some considerations.
General Design Features
The absolutely essential element is explicit quid pro quo. It is fine for us to offer intangible, mood-setting quids, but their quo better be tangible and clearly spelled out in advance. The entire deal would not have to be public; indeed perhaps some elements would have to stay confidential. But the deal would have to be worth it to risk the inevitable leaks and set-backs and it is only worth it if Pakistan delivers concrete action.
The United States would also have to be willing to step back from the deal if
the other players are not doing their part. This is harder to do than it
sounds because, once established, every "deal" develops political
inertia and American leaders can be reluctant to break it off even when it is
clearly not delivering.
What should we ask for?
I would let General McChrystal draw up the list of asks, but I am pretty sure it would involve the movement of sizable Pakistani military units to put pressure on the areas that most affect the Taliban's freedom of movement as well as the sharing of intelligence that would substantially change the local balance of power on either side of the Durand line.
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An Oval Office Address to the
Nation (OOAN -- to coin a new acronym) is a "big gun" presidential communication
tool -- perhaps only a special address to a joint session of Congress is bigger.
All administrations keep the OOAN powder dry for an emergency, but few
have husbanded it as carefully as has the Obama administration. This will be
the first Obama OOAN, but he has previously conducted at least three addresses
to a joint session of Congress, not counting the annual State of the Union
With the president's polling numbers falling and domestic and international problems mounting, the time is fairly ripe for Obama to deliver his first OOAN. Fairly ripe, but not fully ripe, because the usual peg for an OOAN is missing: either a) A recent tragedy or b) A recent potentially pivotal development in an ongoing challenge or c) an announcement of an abrupt change of course. (Technically, this last one was not an OOAN because it came not from the Oval but from the Library, so it was a LAN.)
By contrast, President Obama will deliver his OOAN: a) on day 57 of a slow motion crisis, that b) has not just had an on-the-ground pivot (on the contrary, the most recent development, a lightning strike igniting a fire on a recovery vessel seems like an almost Biblical piling-on of trouble), and c) apparently without any dramatic change of course to announce.
I could be wrong about a dramatic policy announcement, of course, but I don't think so because the pre-speech spinning by White House advisors has emphasized how President Obama, simply by virtue of giving his first address, can rhetorically deliver a pivot in the story. He will apparently use the address to reinforce some old talking points ("We have been on the job since Day One") that have not sold well and to refocus attention on old energy proposals that have been stuck in Congress. He will make news simply by giving the speech, but it seems unlikely that the news will be about new policies that will produce a pivot in the Gulf or on the shores.
All of this is domestic policy, of course, so why raise it in a blog devoted to foreign policy? Several reasons:
For our country's sake, I hope tonight's OOAN does represent a pivot point in this crisis. Obama has famously risen to the occasion, especially when the occasion is a "big speech." By rolling out their long-saved big gun, the White House has indicated they think this is the President's biggest speech thus far, so he may once again deliver on his promise.
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General McChrystal's recent report that the Kandahar operation is on a slower track than expected puts the Obama administration's familiar "two clocks" strategic dilemma in sharp relief. Any war has two clocks, one driven by domestic politics and the other driven by battlefield outcomes. The challenge for the commander-in-chief is to manage both clocks so that success on the battlefield is achieved before time runs out on the domestic political clock. The dilemma is particularly acute in democracies, where the impatience of leaders far from the battlefront can put in jeopardy the ability of the government to continue fighting, regardless of the stakes. If you think this is a new, post-Vietnam problem associated with small wars in far-off-lands, just ask General Washington about "sunshine patriots" or President Lincoln about "Copperheads"
If the clocks get out of synch there are only two ways to re-synch them: Accelerate the battlefield clock or slow down the domestic politics clock.
General McChrystal's report was a warning that he does not think he can accelerate the battlefield clock, at least not tactically/militarily on the battlefield. Getting our NATO allies to deliver on promised resources to help accelerate the training of the Afghan security forces would help, as Jackson Diehl points out in a perceptive column today, but even if they materialized tomorrow their impact would not be felt for a year. I agree with Bill Kristol that there are doubtless more things that could be done on the civilian side of the Afghan surge, but they too would not have near-term effects. Getting Pakistan to pressure the Taliban on their side of the border more effectively would help even more, and perhaps it is time to consider some out-of-the-box options like developing a very explicit quid pro quo arrangement with Pakistan: drawing up a list of their strategic "asks" and putting a concrete price tag in terms of anti-Taliban/pro-Afghanistan actions on each of them. If Pakistan delivers more, we will deliver more. It would be worth some strategic planning shop doing brainstorming on this point.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that notwithstanding Obama's courageous but belated decision to authorize the surge last December, much of Team Obama's efforts have unwittingly slowed the battlefield clock down. In fact, if in January 2009 one had sat down and tried to formulate a plan for slowing down the clock in Afghanistan, one might have devised the following:
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Pundits have had a feeding frenzy over the fact that President Obama chose to replace Admiral Dennis Blair with another soldier, General James Clapper, as director of national intelligence (DNI). But that's a minor point compared to the unfinished business of intelligence reform and the question of presidential interest.
Blair was reportedly sacked for a blunt "take charge" attitude didn't fit the coordinating role envisioned for the DNI when it was created in 2004. He clashed with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta over authority to name station chiefs overseas, deliver the president's daily intelligence brief, and other matters such as training.
Such conflicts are likely when a new bureaucracy is created to assume some of the functions of an existing one without broad systemic adjustments. Funny it didn't happen sooner, except Blair's two predecessors, John Negroponte and Admiral John "Mike" McConnell worked fairly diplomatically with the leaders of the16 civilian and military agencies that make up the intelligence community. And, they had the backing of the president who appointed them. Still, Gen. Clapper will be the fourth DNI in 5 years.
So, it's fair to ask whether creating the DNI post was the right move. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, policymakers and security experts wanted to know what caused America's intelligence failures. The 9/11 Commission concluded the CIA Director had too much on his plate. He had to run his own shop, brief the president, and coordinate programs among all the other agencies across government.
The Commission proposed splitting off the briefing and coordinating roles. Congress agreed. The DNI became the president's chief intelligence advisor, retaining authority over policies and budgets, and monitoring intelligence community performance, particularly on issues that involve sharing across agencies. The DNI also began supervising counterterrorism programs in the subordinate National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), another function once performed by the CIA.
All this took place against the backdrop of 1990s-era CIA budget cutbacks and operational restraints that drove away talent and prevented information sharing between foreign affairs agencies and domestic law enforcement. Over the last decade, Congress has restored some of the resources needed for the CIA to recover lost capabilities. However, one wonders if more timely CIA reforms and stronger leadership could have avoided the need to create another layer in the national security bureaucracy.
Like the old Director of Central Intelligence, the DNI has an internal shop to protect. With some 1,500 employees, it is nowhere near the size of the CIA (about 20,000), or Pentagon agencies that consume 70 percent of the intelligence budget. Yet, if the CIA director couldn't wear three hats and see the big picture, how can the Director of National Intelligence with similar responsibilities do much better?
Other reforms have slipped by the wayside. Both the 9/11 Commission and Congressional Research Service reports have highlighted the erratic nature of Congressional oversight. Fragmented jurisdictions in House and Senate committees still foil efforts to strategically balance resources and hamper cooperative working relations among agencies. Temporary committee assignments that contribute to member turnover limit the development of committee subject matter expertise. So far, Congress has made minimal efforts to address these concerns.
If General Clapper is the capable, knowledgeable public servant and facilitator that his resume suggests, the fact that he will be another soldier in a supposedly civilian position should not cloud his confirmation prospects. Yet for him to succeed, the president must make him a trusted member of his national security team and take an interest in the unfinished business of intelligence reform. It's hard to know how much faith President Obama ever placed in Admiral Blair, or whether he cared much about how the intelligence system worked.
But he should care now. The DNI and staff could benefit from some structural streamlining to ensure impartiality in overseeing intelligence community programs -- which probably means shedding some operational aspects of the Office of the DNI and the NCTC to other agencies.Without needlessly duplicating existing capabilities, the DNI should be able to advise the president to ensure that our nation's varied intelligence services are properly chartered, resourced, and mutually supportive. Congress can help by modernizing its oversight as well.
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What does the ongoing BP oil spill imbroglio in the Gulf have to do with the war in Afghanistan? Probably not much, from the vantage point in the United States. But here in London this week, the two issues are being linked in some ways that should be worrisome for the Obama administration.
Two particular stories have featured in headlines in the major U.K. newspapers this week: BP's plummeting share price from President Obama's rhetorical attacks, and the London visit by Secretary Gates and General Petraeus urging a continued strong U.K. troop commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan (followed by Prime Minister David Cameron's surprise visit to Afghanistan today). Separate though they may be, the two stories are combining to produce one narrative in the minds of many British citizens: the Obama administration is attacking a pillar of our economy while urging us to sacrifice even more blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
BP of course bears the most blame for the catastrophic spill, as well as responsibility for stopping it and remedying the damage. And in the first few weeks after the rig exploded, there was little sympathy for BP even here in the United Kingdom. Most U.K. media coverage initially focused on the horrific environmental damage being wrought as well as the Obama Administration's apparent insouciance as the oil continued to gush.
But now that attacking BP (or "British Petroleum" as Obama calls it, even though that has not been the company's name since 1998) has emerged as a core tactic in the Obama Administration's scramble to arrest their own falling political fortunes, they risk doing real damage to relations with a key ally and the largest non-U.S. troop contributor to Afghanistan.
As recently as two months ago, BP was Britain's largest company by market cap, and is a core holding of most British pension funds. In other words, it is not just BP executives or investors in the City who take a hit when BP's share price plummets, but also every average Brit who has any type of stake in a retirement fund. Which is most of the country -- many of whom have also grown weary and skeptical of their nation's military role in Afghanistan.
Last week had already demonstrated one unintended consequences of the administration's intensifying campaign against BP: the vocal attacks that drive the share price down also erode billions of dollars in market value and diminishes the resources BP will have available to pay for the damage, clean-up, and compensation. The White House needs to be mindful of not going too far and triggering a second unintended consequence of further eroding British support for their force posture in Afghanistan. Fortunately at the U.K. end, Prime Minister Cameron, at least up to this point, is trying deftly to strike a balance and not further escalate tensions with the United States either over BP or over Afghanistan.
Pursuing a unified grand strategy is always a hard task, but this situation shows even more acutely the challenges of linking domestic and foreign policy such as the Obama administration's National Security Strategy attempts to do. Last week it was American strategic interests in Asia that got short shrift, as Obama cancelled (again) his Australia/Indonesia trip to focus on the BP spill. This week it is the U.S.-U.K. relationship that is suffering, as a beleaguered White House tries to shore up its domestic political standing at the expense of relations with a key ally.
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Supporters of the Obama administration's "reset" policy toward Russia tout the New START Treaty, Russian support for sanctions against Iran, transit for Afghanistan across Russian territory, and cooperation in dealing with North Korea and non-proliferation more broadly as the fruits of its success. National Security Advisor Jim Jones cites the reset as one of the main successes in the administration's foreign policy (that, to some, says a lot about its overall foreign policy). There is no denying the vastly improved tone and rapport between the American and Russian presidents compared to the end of the Bush-Putin days. But before people get too carried away, let's focus on two recent developments that remind us of the challenges we face in dealing with Russia.
On May 31, Russian authorities brutally broke up opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg and arrested more than 100 people. A journalist participating in the protest suffered a severely broken arm at the hands of the police. The U.S. National Security Council spokesman issued a statement expressing "regret" at the detention of peaceful protestors ("condemn" would have been a more appropriate verb -- we "regret," for example, the recent death of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky). While violent suppression of demonstrations is nothing new for Russian authorities, what makes this latest example noteworthy is that it happened just days after an American delegation went to Russia for the second round of the Civil Society Working Group co-chaired by NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov.
When this working group was first announced last July during President Obama's visit to Moscow, I argued that having Surkov as the chair was comparable to putting Chechnya's brutal leader Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of a working group on stabilizing the North Caucasus. The choice of Surkov, the brains behind "sovereign democracy" (the concept that justifies the regime's crackdown on political opponents) was widely condemned by Russian human rights activists who wrote to Medvedev urging that he be removed from this working group. The U.S. side argued that it had no veto authority over the choice of Russian co-chairs of the various bilateral working groups, but in this case, it would have been better to have nixed the civil society working group than to have had Surkov leading it.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in South America this week participating in the 40th General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Lima, Peru. From there she travels to Ecuador, Colombia, and onto Barbados to meet with Caribbean leaders. The Associated Press says a "crowded agenda" awaits her, but don't expect much in substance to come out of the trip.
Secretary Clinton has been game, but she is reaping the whirlwind of Obama campaign operatives relentlessly pummeling President Bush for supposedly "ignoring" the countries of the Western Hemisphere. In doing so, they stoked outsized expectations around the region about what would result from an Obama presidency. The fact is not much has resulted and the last thing our neighbors see is anything like a supposed golden era of U.S. engagement with our neighbors.
Indeed, many Latin countries are flaunting their lack of interest in strong ties with the United States. Whether it is the anti-American and anti-democratic agendas pursued by Hugo Chavez and his ilk or Brazil's efforts to carve out a separate role for itself on the global stage by pushing an Iran nuclear deal that the United States rejects or keeping alive the issue of Honduras' ousted president Manuel Zelaya that the Obama administration clearly wants to move past, divergent pursuits are overtaking a commonality of purpose.
Neither is the OAS General Assembly the most accommodating venue for the administration to re-seize the initiative. Rather than a useful platform to address real problems in the hemisphere, such as criminality, corruption, and bolstering democracy, the meeting is more a cacophony of voices airing pet parochial grievances that will only magnify our differences, platitudes aside.
Of course, not all is gloom-and-doom in the region. There are positive stories -- including Colombia's return from the brink of narco-fueled chaos, Peru's upbeat economic performance, the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, and Mexico's desire to cooperate more closely on the war on drugs -- but these initiatives were well in train before the current administration took office.
The administration has its work cut out for it in trying to create momentum in the service of the shared interests we still do have with a number of countries in the Americas. But that will not be created in visits to Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and other precincts currently infatuated with the anti-American fad. Instead, it will come with continuing to work with like-minded governments unabashed about identifying with our vision for the hemisphere of prosperity for all through free peoples and free markets.
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Perhaps I am guilty of piling on, but I think there is one more important thing to add to Will Inboden's timely observations. Obama's unfortunate, if understandable, decision does provide the administration with an opportunity to do something that the 2008 campaign promised but the administration has yet to deliver: A change in tone. President Obama could give brief, rueful remarks apologizing that he and his spokespeople made political hay criticizing President Bush for "ignoring Asia" and boasting that "America is back" and now they are even more guilty on this very score than Bush ever was.
This critique was always nonsense because the Bush administration pursued a nuanced regional strategy that showed exceptional results with a record of good relations simultaneously with Japan, India, and China that no other administration matched. (To be fair, the record was far more mixed with respect to North Korea, but no worse than Obama's thus far.)
The only "evidence" that critics could tout -- and tout they did, even the serious Obama players who knew better -- was a decision to downgrade the delegation to a few regional meetings and to cancel a trip. If memory serves, one of those was justified by the need to stay in Washington to defend General Petraeus and ambassador Crocker, who were facing particularly nasty partisan attacks over the Iraq surge in September 2007.
Democrats have never really apologized for the shabby treatment of Petraeus and Crocker and I don't expect them to do so now. But wouldn't it be classy for President Obama and his foreign policy team to admit that their criticism of Bush's Asia policy was unwarranted? Or, if they want to hold onto it, wouldn't it be classy for them to admit that the critique now applies in spades to themselves?
This is a real "mote and beam" moment for the Obama administration. If they were to seize it and actually offer genuine contrition, the earth and waters might not begin to heal, but they would surely honor what was the most popular as-yet-unfilled promise they offered. And doing that would be the most politically smart and useful thing the White House could do -- at a time when they need all the good news they can generate.
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President Obama's decision to cancel for the second time his trip to Australia and Indonesia so that he can ostensibly focus more on the Gulf oil spill is understandable as a political matter. He depends on the support of the American people, and not on Australian and Indonesian voters. But as a matter of foreign policy, this is a bad decision, and not in America's strategic interests.
There is never a "good" time to neglect Asia, but even so this announcement comes at a particularly bad time. North Korea's recent aggression has escalated regional tensions, China is coyly hedging its bets and maneuvering for advantage, and American allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia are looking towards the United States for strategic reassurance, not neglect. Australia and Indonesia were already left standing at the altar back in March when President Obama cancelled his visit the first time in order to focus on getting his health care bill passed (and technically, this is now his third cancelled visit to Indonesia if one counts the scrubbed Jakarta stop from his November 2009 Asia trip). Even the stop on Guam is important not just for boosting the morale of American service members but also as a signal to the region of America's presence and power-projection capabilities. All things considered, the White House's recent boasts about "restoring [American] leadership" in Asia now ring especially hollow.
The cancelled trip is also unfortunate because the domestic political problems behind it are largely of the White House's own making. Of course the oil spill itself is not their fault, and as many have noted, there is not very much that the White House can do to stop the leak -- BP is still in the lead. But the Obama administration bears responsibility for the subsequent political crisis for at least two reasons. First, this White House has repeatedly made audacious assertions and raised colossal public expectations about the competence of government in general, and President Obama in particular, to solve problems. From the push to expand government control over the health care system to the grandiose campaign rhetoric that his election would mark the moment when "the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal," this is not an administration marked by modesty about government's role. Second, for over a month after the spill began, the White House was remarkably inattentive to the political imperatives of at least displaying attention and concern. (Perhaps they finally realized they had a problem when voices ranging from David Gergen to James Carville joined the ranks of critics). So now the White House finds itself in a political panic and overcompensating at the expense of a national security priority.
The Asia trip cancellation also highlights another potential weakness of the White House's recently released National Security Strategy. The NSS calls for "a broad conception of what constitutes our national security," and of the need to maintain strong economic, health and education policies at home as ways to bolster national security abroad. On one level this is a truism, though on another level, as Mike Gerson points out, "it is shameless to use a national security document to advance a debatable domestic agenda."
Even worse, however, is when this linkage between domestic and foreign policy cuts in the opposite direction, and short-term domestic politics trump long-term foreign policy priorities. Such as when low presidential approval ratings from a botched response to an oil spill leads to major slights against an important ally and a strategic emerging power. Australia is the only nation to have fought alongside the United States in every single war from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq. Indonesia, as this administration's capable Asia policy hands know, is a new partner of considerable strategic potential. Both nations deserve better than this. Most important, American interests in Asia demand better than this.
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The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to
assess how well President
Obama's "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment:
not as well as I might have hoped.
Recall that Obama's foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program).
Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel's? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don't you do more to help us on Iran?
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If President Obama wants to solve America's immigration dilemma, he should avoid mixed messages. On May 19, he naively sided with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón who complained that Arizona's new immigration control law could lead to racial profiling. This last week, he ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border and requested an additional $500 million from Congress to step up border enforcement.
While his words may have pleased undocumented migrants (a potential constituency) and immigration lawyers, his deeds seemed too much like bait for Republican votes on upcoming reform legislation. In both cases, he forgot to do his homework.
For starters, he was too quick to criticize the Arizona law. It hardly differs from federal statute that penalizes illegal entry, or a 2007 Prince William County, Virginia ordinance that allows police to check the immigration status of detainees. As amended, the Prince William law ensured that the status of all detainees would be reviewed, not just those who looked like migrants. Fears of profiling abated. With similar tweaking, worries over the Arizona law are likely to recede.
Obama also backed up his Mexican counterpart without knowing the history behind his remarks. President Calderón (an otherwise fine leader and good friend of the United States) carps at our immigration policies to satisfy Mexican voters -- including entrenched elites who resist land tenure and market reforms that would end monopolies and expand jobs at home. His predecessor Vicente Fox felt compelled to do so and now it seems to have become a ritual.
Limiting myself to trade and economic matters, I had two principal reactions to the new National Security Strategy:
Neither of these is terribly surprising. The document is full of aspirations and very light on firm stands or tough choices. With the exception of some references to contemporary events, much of the document could have been cribbed from November 2008 campaign themes. The administration gets points for consistency, but after 18 months it would have been nice to see more progress toward solutions.
On trade, the Obama administration has tended to either say the right thing -- or something that could be positively interpreted by a charitable audience -- and do very little. A standard version of the chorus appears in the NSS:
We will pursue a trade agenda that includes an ambitious and balanced Doha multilateral trade agreement, bilateral and multilateral trade agreements that reflect our values and interests, and engagement with the transpacific partnership countries to shape a regional agreement with high standards."
The problem is that global audiences have become less willing to accept empty rhetoric over time. Over a year into the Obama administration, governments abroad want to see active engagement and definite U.S. strategies to achieve a Doha agreement under the World Trade Organization. Instead, the administration keeps returning to its chorus of vague good will, without accompanying action (as one specific example, the administration has not event requested trade negotiating authority from the Congress).
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It is a hard task to produce a National Security Strategy. The challenges are manifest, including: addressing multiple audiences (international, domestic, the U.S. government's national security agencies, Congress, the media, scholars, pundits -- and yes, even erstwhile policy-makers-turned-bloggers), balancing precise policy guidance with lofty principles, describing complex objectives in clear prose, and anchoring sound ideas in a coherent framework. The Obama administration team has clearly put much time, thought, and effort into producing this document, and for that they are to be congratulated.
On substance, how does the Obama administration's first NSS stack up? As I wrote earlier this week, the basic pillars of the strategy are sound and moreover show considerable strains of continuity in U.S. foreign policy -- including continuity with the Bush administration's grand strategy. Peter Feaver makes these points in more detail and shows numerous consistencies between the Obama NSS and the 2006 Bush administration NSS.
However, now that I've had a chance to read the entire Obama administration NSS, I worry that as a strategy blueprint the overall sum is less than the parts. In other words, it fails to articulate a compelling strategic logic that connects an analysis of opportunities and threats with resources, policies, and goals.
Why? To begin, it is too heavy on process and light on strategy. Much of the document is devoted to heralding worthy things like "engagement," "cooperation," and "partnerships." These are all essential methods of foreign policy, of course, but they are more means rather than ends in themselves. Yes, the "strategic approach" chapter includes sections on "The World as It Is" and "The World We Seek." Yet both of these sections are regrettably thin. The former offers up the customary points on the challenges and opportunities of globalization. The latter identifies the "world we seek" as "a just and sustainable international order," but does not adequately specify what this order should look like. A stable balance of power among nation-states? The global expansion of free market democracies? A world in which multilateral institutions and transnational communities eclipse the nation-state system? Or some combination of these, or another world order altogether?
A few other thoughts on various particulars:
These points notwithstanding, there is still much that is good in the strategy. The real evaluation, of course, will come as the Obama administration continues to develop and implement these policies in a very challenging world.
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The roll-out of President Obama's National Security Strategy tries to frame the strategy as a repudiation of his predecessor's. But the reality is that the new strategy is best characterized as "Bush Lite", a slightly watered down but basically plausible remake of President Bush's National Security Strategy. If you only read the Obama Team's talking points, or only read the mainstream media coverage, which amounts to the same thing, this assessment may come as a big surprise. But if you actually read the Obama's NSS released today, and President Bush's most recent NSS released in 2006, the conclusion is pretty obvious.
Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead. This was an important theme of Bush's NSS. Effective action depended on American leadership - "the international community is most engaged in such action when the United States leads." The conclusion of the 2006 NSS hammered home the point:
The challenges America faces are great, yet we have enormous power and influence to address those challenges. The times require an ambitious national security strategy, yet one recognizing the limits to what even a nation as powerful as the United States can achieve by itself. Our national security strategy is idealistic about goals, and realistic about means. There was a time when two oceans seemed to provide protection from problems in other lands, leaving America to lead by example alone. That time has long since passed. America cannot know peace, security, and prosperity by retreating from the world. America must lead by deed as well as by example."
Obama's NSS similarly emphasizes America's "global leadership" and "steering those currents [of international cooperation] in the direction of liberty and justice" and "shap[ing] and international order" because " global security depends upon strong and responsible American leadership." Leadership goes beyond seeing the world as it is and includes transforming the world according to America's interests and values or, as Obama puts it: "In the past, the United States has thrived when both our nation and our national security policy have adapted to shape change instead of being shaped by it." Even the extra focus on rebuilding America at home (what the NSS deems "renewal") is justified not merely as an end in itself (which it surely is) but also as a means to another end of expanding America's global influence. To those who hoped Obama would embrace American decline, this NSS should come as something of a shock.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama's West Point speech on Saturday provides a great example of the structural continuities in American foreign policy. As president and commander-in-chief, Obama now embraces and owns policies that he previously eschewed. For example, after running his campaign denouncing the Iraq War and doubting the surge, he is now essentially declaring Iraq a victory ("this is what success looks like: an Iraq that provides no safe-haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.") After spending much of his first year in office downplaying if not ignoring democracy and human rights promotion, he is now making democracy and human rights promotion one of the four pillars of his national security strategy. After previously rhetorically distancing himself from American exceptionalism, he now says that a "fundamental part of our strategy is America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding."
In short, through a combination of the burdens and responsibilities of office, prevailing geopolitical realities, the deep cultural currents of U.S. foreign policy, the bureaucratic systems that reinforce those cultural currents, and the crucible of learning that takes place every day in the toughest job in the world, the President Obama of today acts and sounds considerably different than the one elected in November 2008. (John Hinderaker over at Powerline -- a site never hesitant to criticize the Obama administration -- makes a similar favorable observation about the speech and its essential continuity with U.S. foreign policy). This is not at all to say that his foreign policy is identical to that of his predecessors -- in important ways it does differ, and as I have written elsewhere, often not for the better -- but only to point out that truly profound structural changes in American foreign policy are very rare. And generally for good reason.
Some media coverage, such as Peter Baker's New York Times article, attempts to portray the speech as a "repudiation" or at least distancing from the Bush administration's grand strategy, and makes much of the fact that he did not emphasize "unilateral American power" or affirm "pre-emption" or "prevention." Baker is one of the very best, and best-sourced, White House correspondents around, so it may be that his article reflects some additional background conversations with Obama administration staff attempting to advance a particular message. But at least when it comes to the text of the speech, here I think Baker's article overshoots.
For example, in the midst of discussing the importance of international cooperation, Obama described American leadership in "steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice" -- in other words, a polite way of saying that American power and influence will continue to shape the international order. Or the fact that President Obama did not explicitly affirm the possibility of the preemptive use of force does not mean that his Administration actually rejects it. As historian John Gaddis has shown, since the days of John Quincy Adams (while Secretary of State to James Monroe), American presidents have reserved, and sometimes used, the right to take action against looming threats. Unless President Obama were to explicitly reject the possibility of ever using force in a preemptive or preventive manner to protect the nation (highly unlikely), it will remain an option within American national security doctrine.
In his speech, President Obama also previewed his soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy, ostensibly built around the four pillars of connecting renewal at home with strength abroad, integrating diplomacy and development, building international cooperation and international institutions, and promoting human rights and democracy. As basic principles, these are sound. Whether they will amount to a coherent strategy (which needs to identify end goals, identify threats or obstacles to those goals, and explain how and why the tenets of the strategy will defeat those threats and overcome those obstacles) remains to be seen, once the NSS document itself is released.
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Anyone interested in civil-military relations should read this fascinating excerpt from Jonathan Alter's authorized account of President Obama's first year in office. Because Alter had such extensive access to senior White House sources and relates their views so uncritically, this may be as close as we can get to the "Inside the West Wing" perspective on President Obama's Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and, of special import, the ITWW perspective on civil-military relations. That perspective makes me a little uneasy.
Alter reports that Team Obama (not surprisingly) was very proud of its review and believed it to be quite literally the model for sound strategic planning. They were (again, not surprisingly) upset by the leaks, but (and here is where I start to get surprised) they felt that the leaks were entirely due to the clever machinations of a media savvy military that threatened to dance rings around the too-sincere and too-trusting White House. Read this delicious quote and realize that the "neophytes" Alter is describing include Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Jim Jones, and Bob Gates:
In fact, the military, practiced in the ways of Washington, now ran PR circles around the neophytes in the Obama White House, leaking something to the Pentagon reporters nearly every day. The motive for all the leaks seemed clear to the White House: to box the president into the policy that McChrystal had recommended, at least another 80,000 troops and an open-ended commitment lasting 10 years or more."
Looking past the leaks charge and ignoring (as Alter does) the daily anti-military leaking from the White House, the ITWW perspective has a very odd way of describing the military's goal. I am sure that if you asked General McChrystal, he would say that he thought he was identifying the plan with the best chance of achieving the stated objectives of Obama's plan to win what Obama repeatedly (and very recently) called a necessary war -- said stated objectives having been reaffirmed just a few months prior when Obama announced the results of what was then described as a thorough, systematic, top-to-bottom review of Afghanistan policy. According to Alter, Team Obama thought the military was merely trying to "box the president into the policy."
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I have been reflecting on President Obama's foreign policy thus far and I think I have identified what my Duke colleague Ole Holsti might call his "operational code": the link between beliefs and behavior that generates a predisposition, a general pattern of action that, more often than not, points to the options taken or not taken. Of course, as with any leader, there is a fair bit of ad hoc cost-benefit calculation and some making it up as they go along. But I also think there is a strategic logic that one can trace through it and that explains a remarkable number of the choices President Obama and his team have made.
I call it the "yes, but" strategic logic because what Obama has sought to do is systematically neutralize (in a rhetorical debating sense of the term) the laundry list of complaints about US foreign policy that other countries use as excuses whenever we would push them to help us on pressing American priorities like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so on. We would ask for help on Iraq because it was so vital, and they would say, "Yes, but you haven’t done anything on Israeli settlements." We would ask for help on strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime and they would say, "Yes, but you have your own nuclear arsenal." We would ask for help on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and they would say, "Yes, but what about the Israeli nuclear arsenal?" or (in Russia's case), "Yes, but what about your missile defenses in Poland?" We would ask states to encourage moderate Muslims to speak out more forcefully against terrorists and they would say, "Yes, but what about Guantanamo?" Etc. etc.
Well, I think Obama has sought to build his own "yes, but" response. "Yes," in the sense that he tends to agree with the complaint, and "but" in the sense that he has a good talking point to offer in rebuttal: "But we signed an exec order closing GITMO," "But we slapped Israel around on settlements," "But we have committed to global nuclear zero," "But we have publicly endorsed a Middle East nuke-free zone," "But we have committed to climate change," "But we have shut down the Polish missile defense site," and so on.
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When a large group -- of Republicans, Democrats, Senators, Representatives, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, scholars, activists, realists, and idealists -- all voice agreement on something, it probably merits attention. Such is the case with the need to appoint an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
Almost one and a half years into its term, the Obama administration still has yet to even announce the nomination of an IRF Ambassador (as the position is known in the State Department lexicon). In recent months, a growing chorus of disparate voices -- including Members of Congress, a bipartisan and multi-faith group of religious leaders and human rights activists, an government commission, an independent study task force, and scholars such as my former colleague Tom Farr here in the pages of Foreign Policy -- have all urged the administration to move expeditiously in finally filling the position after 16 months of vacancy. Even if a nominee is announced soon, it could be many more months until the ambassador is sworn in, depending on the vicissitudes of the Senate confirmation schedule. It may well be that President Obama reaches the halfway mark of his term without an IRF ambassador on board.
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Secretary Gates's speech
in Kansas sounds as though budget axes will be falling all over the Department
of Defense. In an homage to Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary Gates said "what I
find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to
defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and
limits enforced." I'm in favor of cutting defense spending to help get
America's fiscal house in order, and commend Secretary Gates for turning his
attention to budgetary discipline.
But both the Kansas speech, and the Naval Institute speech he delivered a week prior (in which he also questioned procurement programs), had an odd ring to them. You wouldn't know by listening to these speeches that Gates has had the ability these past three years to accomplish any of the work he deems essential. Neither he nor the administration has yet given us a strategy that defines what they believe the United States needs to do in the world, how our military activities fit into that broader framework, and what size and type of military we therefore need.
President Eisenhower had a strategy for securing the international order at a price consistent with his overall objective of maintaining America's economic power. That strategy entailed racing to purchase intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons to threaten complete destruction of the Soviet Union, pushing ahead protections for us against such missiles by enemies, substituting nuclear for conventional forces, preventing a Soviet conquest of Western Europe by using nuclear weapons on the territory of our allies, declining to fight peripheral wars -- even in support of our closest allies -- or assist liberation movements, engaging the CIA in overthrowing governments that trended communist and often replacing them with dictators.
It was a cost-effective strategy with some terrible consequences. But it accepted the risks and effects of its choices. In the Basic National Security Strategy, priorities were established, alternative means of achieving our objectives analyzed, cabinet secretaries debated the trade-offs and created a whole of government approach. In the National Security Council meeting notes from the BNSP reviews, on several occasions the secretary of the treasury refuses to support the strategy as unaffordable, and the president sent DOD back to find other ways to achieve the necessary national objectives.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
news is that Afghan President Karzai's visit to Washington this week gives the
Obama administration an opportunity to press the reset button on Afghanistan
policy. The bad news, as made clear in two revealing
in Sunday's Washington Post is that the administration needs to do so.
The problems, at least at this juncture, do not seem inherent in the strategy. What is needed is not a fundamental strategic review along the lines of the one that paralyzed policy last fall. Rather, the problems are in implementation and perhaps personnel, and so what is needed is the kind of team reassessment and refocus a major head of state visit can provide.
The Obama administration is apparently aware of one of the problems: its clumsy diplomacy with Karzai. As the one Post story relates: "President Obama has bluntly instructed his national security team to treat Afghan President Hamid Karzai with more public respect, after a recent round of heavy-handed statements by U.S. officials and other setbacks infuriated the Afghan leader and called into question his relationship with Washington." Relations got so bad that last fall the Obama administration was reduced to out-sourcing this vital diplomacy to Senator Kerry rather than using the two administration officials supposedly in charge of the relationship: Richard Holbrooke, the AfPak policy czar, and Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Kabul. Relations soured again during the President's trip to Afghanistan in March when National Security Advisor James Jones gave reporters and advanced briefing on how Obama was planning to administer "tough love" to Karzai.
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The Loop is reporting that President Obama will appoint Jim Jeffrey to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. I think this is an inspired choice and the most hopeful news to come out of Iraq in some time. Jeffrey has extensive experience with Iraq policy, serving as both deputy chief of Mission and as the State Department's Iraq Coordinator, and this first-hand knowledge will be a very useful asset.
I had some doubts about Chris Hill, Obama's first choice to be ambassador to Iraq. I think a charitable assessment is that Hill has not been as bad as I feared but also not as successful as his predecessor, Ryan Crocker. If Tom Ricks is right it has been a lot worse than that.
The recent news out of Iraq has been
troubling and there are ominous warnings that the political paralysis in
Baghdad could lead to a revival of more virulent
sectarianism. Of course, the situation in Iraq is nowhere near as dire as
it was in 2006, but that is due in part, I believe, to the efforts of the U.S.
country team in Baghdad, especially during the critical 2007-2008 years. As
U.S. involvement in Iraq shifts to more of an advisory role, the need for a
strong and capable ambassador -- one who can cooperate effectively with both the
U.S. military and our Iraqi partners (both inside and outside the government) -- is acute.
If the Loop report is accurate, President Obama may well have found such an ambassador and I hope he has a speedy confirmation.
GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images
Watching Greeks fire-bomb their banks, shut down their airports and ruin the tourist trade that is their economy's main prospect, I can't help but hear Virgil reprised. In that Roman poet's great narrative The Aeneid, survivors of the Trojan War seek a place to start anew, after much difficulty founding what will become the Roman Empire. It's rough going, and after much hard luck and stormy seas, the Trojan women burn the ships in order to prevent the men returning them all to sea.
They knew the Sybil (a rough approximation to an oracle for the Greeks) had prophesied that when they "quit at last of the sea's dangers / for whom still greater are in store on land... wars, vicious wars / I see ahead, and Tiber foaming in blood." Seeing the fleet in flames, Ascanius' reaction is "but your own hopes are what you burn!" And so it is with the Greeks -- they burn their own hopes by such unwillingness to do the unpleasant but necessary belt tightening.
Tourism provides one in five jobs in the Greek economy and a full sixteen percent of its gross domestic product. Being tied to location, it cannot be manufactured elsewhere. Being tied to history and culture, it is inherently Greek. And the best way to attenuate the effects of the austere cutbacks in government spending necessitated by Greece's financial crisis is to grow their economy as fast as possible. The debt to GDP ratio goes down both by reducing the numerator and increasing the denominator. Yet the Greek riots against the austerity program are sure to diminish tourism.
It is difficult not to sympathize with German hesitation to bail Greece out. Germany has labored for nearly 20 years to bring the former East Germany up to par with the West. Greece leapt into the euro on questionable accounting and proceeded to splash around the cheap credit that German stolidity in finances extended to the rest of the eurozone. One in three Greeks is a government employee. Hairdressers can retire at age 50 with full pensions because their jobs are categorized as hazardous.
But now much more outrageous is that than our Foreign Service Officer's Union refusing rewarding diplomats that serve in war zones? When Secretary Rice tried to give preferential promotion to diplomats that volunteered for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, the union representatives argued that every posting is dangerous -- as though volunteering to serve in Iraq took no more courage than volunteering to serve in Costa Rica. Currently two-thirds of foreign postings are designated as hazardous duty posts.
The state of our public finances is not as bad as Greece's, but we'll get there fast. Current and future obligations already incurred by our government amount to 500% of our GDP. And President Obama's budget will triple our already staggering national debt by 2020.
What may -- may -- save America from Greece's fate is that public outrage is building at our government spending money we don't have. When California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to move against public sector unions in 2005, voters rejected his ballot initiatives. Californians cannot yet bring themselves to make the hard choices Greece is now having imposed on it by the IMF and its EU allies. New Jersey governor Chris Christie seems more successful, perhaps aided by greater public awareness of the parlous state of government finances. The hold of "entitlements" and public sector unions over government finances needs to be broken -- otherwise we really will be Greece.
Markets will not bankroll U.S. profligacy forever. No one can say when the chill will start, but once it does -- as Greece's example demonstrates -- the effects are dramatic. The longer we stall before facing up to the unpleasant reductions we must make, the more draconian will be the demands. As the spiraling cost of reassuring markets of the EU's commitment to support Greece demonstrates, it's much better to beat markets to the reckoning.
Here again Virgil offers sound advice. As the Sybil gives Aeneas instructions to Hades, she cautions:
The way downward is easy from Averinus.
Black Dis' door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil.
It's easy to become Greece. But it's very hard to get out of their predicament.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
I have been struck by how the various sides in the war on terror debate have all found justification for their prior positions in the unfolding drama of the Times Square terrorist. Advocates of treating terrorism primarily as a law enforcement problem praise the rapid forensics that caught the suspect (albeit, just barely). Critics point to the near-misses and other troubling details and renew their complaints about the Obama-Holder approach to terrorism.
So far, everyone seems pretty sure that their prior convictions were sound. Alas, I am no exception. It seems to me that the following four points, all of which I already believed, are supported by this case:
It is possible that these and other similar points are merely evidence that I am a victim of confirmation bias, seeing in a new case only those things that confirm what I already believed. If so, I am probably in very good company. At least I am willing to ask: what in this case disproves these four points?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
History does not repeat itself but it rhymes. I am
reminded of this cliché as I watch the Obama administration strive
mightily to build a rhetorical cordon to prevent the off-shore oil spill
from becoming their "Katrina Moment." The vigorous push-back was necessary
because the Obama administration's early reaction to the oil spill was uneven
-- as was the Bush administration's early reaction to Katrina -- and even pro-administration
media outlets were forced
to admit as much.
There is never a good time politically for an environmental disaster of this scope, but the timing is especially delicate for the administration. Not only does it come just a few weeks after the president made a much-ballyhooed compromise to allow off-shore drilling -- a move that dismayed this leftwing base -- but it is also comes in the same news cycle as two other bad stories: another near-miss attempted terrorist strike on U.S. soil and the visit to American soil of the Iranian troublemaker President Ahmadinejad. With all of this toxicity heading towards the U.S. homeland at the same time, the administration can be forgiven if their spin sounds a bit defensive.
Katrina arrived at a similarly bad time politically for the Bush administration. It came on the heels of a bruising political fight over Social Security reform culminating in August's cable news faux-crisis of Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside the president's ranch in Crawford. And shortly after Katrina, the administration got bogged down in a politically costly battle over a Supreme Court nomination (yet another eerie parallel to present day with Obama's next Supreme Court pick looming?). Many political veterans of the Bush administration view Katrina and the political damage that ensued as the pivot point in the presidency.
It is too soon to say whether the oil spill will be become Obama's "Katrina Moment." President Obama has advantages that President Bush did not have, the most important of which are competent state and local leaders. But these advantages will be sorely tested if the damage from the oil spill approximates the worst-case estimates. Likewise, as my new Shadow Government colleague Mary Habeck notes, it is scary to think what would have happened in Times Square if the President's luck had run out and the car bomb had detonated as the perpetrators had hoped. If the threats emanating from Hakimullah Mehsud, the terrorist who survived a U.S. drone strike several months ago, are credible, this is another sore test that will play out in the coming weeks and months. And Ahmadinejad's visit is an untimely reminder that the Iranian nuclear forecast remains bleak and getting bleaker by the day.
This would be a lot to handle even for Jack Bauer who can count on his scriptwriters to rescue him at just the right moment. President Obama, however, is writing his own script and so these next several months may prove to be pivotal ones for his presidency.
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is already gearing up its push for Senate ratification of the recently signed New START agreement between the United States and Russia, with hearings that began yesterday and a vote possible by the end of the year. As senior administration officials make their case around town at various think tanks and before Congress, they need to do a better job of refining their message to make sure it stands up to scrutiny.
In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher stated three times that the New START agreement "does not constrain U.S. missile defense programs." Despite the repetition, Tauscher's claim, like that of other Administration officials, is simply not accurate.
Article V, Section 3 of the text states: "Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launchers and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein." This section makes clear that the treaty does indeed constrain one possible way for the U.S. to develop missile defense capabilities. This may not be the way the current administration envisions developing its missile defense system, but that isn't what Tauscher claimed. (A White House fact sheet issued March 26 is more accurate in stating, "The Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs..." [emphasis added].)
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Europe's financial difficulties were predictable, but they have been unfolding at a startling clip. This has brought out different reactions in different commentators. Paul Krugman, for example, is preparing to hide under a table. I am no less impressed by the potential for disaster, but I am also struck by the undemocratic nature of major deliberations in Europe and by parallels here in the United States.
"Far too much time has been wasted on inaction," said Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. "We should have intervened two or three months ago. The markets have developed negatively since then, unnecessarily. That's why we have to act now, quickly and decisively."
The North Rhine-Westphalia election has the potential to upset the existing balance of power. At stake is not only the state legislature, but also control for Mrs. Merkel's coalition over the little-watched upper house of Parliament, the Bundesrat, which has to sign off on legislation. Billions of dollars in assistance for Greece may not play well with voters in a state with its own financial problems.
"May not play well" is an understatement. A German poll found that only 16 percent of Germans support a Greek bailout while 65 percent are opposed. I am not an advocate of governing by referendum (a number of years living in California clarified the problems with that approach). Yet the avoidance of the electorate on such matters is deeply problematic.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
Tom Donnelly, blogging over at AEI's Center for Defense Studies has an interesting reaction to my earlier post on Obama's NSS. Donnelly is a good friend and, despite harboring deep-seated suspicions about academic political science (or, as he would insist, because he harbors those suspicions), he always has something interesting and important to say.
He notes, for instance, that the drafters of Obama's NSS can draw on two very different streams of Obama rhetoric, one that seems to celebrate exceptional America's role in the world and another that seems to be bothered by that role. The tone of Obama's NSS could change dramatically, depending on which stream dominates.
I found some of Donnelly's other points less convincing. He claims, for instance, that speechwriters had the pen in the drafting of the Clinton and Bush NSS's. That is not true for Clinton's first, nor for either of Bush's two NSS's. Of course, speechwriters had some influence, if only because the president's existing body of spoken text on foreign policy is some of the source material for an NSS. But the drafting, for better or worse, was in the hands of strategists, not speechwriters. Whether this has been the case for Obama has not been reported yet, but here I suspect Donnelly might be on firmer ground, given the prominence of speechwriter Ben Rhodes in recent weeks.
But where he really loses me is his proposal to give the Senate a formal role in ratifying the NSS. Donnelly despairs that the NSS is not sufficiently strategic and is too oriented to political communication. Then he recommends something that would exacerbate those very problems. Indeed, it would be hard to identify a proposal that would make the NSS even less strategic in orientation and more oriented to political theater than to give the U.S. Congress a formal role in approving the document. "There are too many cooks watering down the stew, let's add 100 more and, by the way, let's make sure each of them considers themselves to be a principal whose vote is co-equal with the President's." The mind boggles at the potential for Cornhusker Kickback and Louisiana Purchase mischief.
This idea is so manifestly wrong-headed that I suspect Donnelly may have a more devious strategy in mind. Perhaps his goal is to kill off the NSS once and for all as an act of (note to editor: stand by for gratuitous abstruse academic reference) Schumpeterian creative destruction. Perhaps Donnelly hopes that out of the wreckage of his proposal would come new, more strategic modes of planning.
I prefer to reform the NSS process on the margins. Bolster the strategic planning offices, especially at the White House. Give them more resources and authority to monitor implementation and to trigger ad hoc strategic reviews (such as the one that produced President Bush's Iraq surge strategy). Give the NSC a greater role in OMB budget review. Bolster strategic planning capabilities at State and other non-defense players.
I do think the strategic planning process could be improved, but I don't think the process is as dysfunctional as Donnelly does. In fact, I have a question back over to him: what great or near-great power has done better strategic planning in the post-Cold War era, and, for that matter, when was the golden era of U.S. strategic planning?
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York Times analysis
piece by Peter Baker and Rod Nordland raises two intriguing questions, one
about the politics of Iraq and the other about our ability to learn from
The gist of the Baker/Nordland article is that Obama is doubling down on the rigid Iraqi withdrawal timeline even though the assumptions on which the timeline was based have proven overly optimistic. Respected Iraq hands -- some on the record and, more ominously for Obama, some insiders on a not-for-attribution basis -- told the reporters that the political delays in Baghdad should be accompanied with a commensurate delay in the withdrawal schedule.
The original timeline was supposedly dictated by the Iraqi election clock: whatever newly elected Iraqi government took power would need the reassurance of a sizable U.S. combat troop presence for some period of time (months, not weeks) to ensure a smooth transition. On the original political calendar, an August deadline for completing the withdrawal seemed ambitious but doable. The Iraqis are now well off the original political calendar, however, and it now seems likely that by the time of the August deadline there will be no new government seated, or at best one only seated for a few weeks.
The article dangles tantalizingly the possibility that it is the American political calendar that is dictating the timeline now: "... with his liberal base angry at the Afghan troop buildup, any delay of the Iraq drawdown could provoke more consternation on the left." It is hard to predict where August will fall in the Iraqi political trajectory, but it is a rock-solid certainty that August comes comfortably before the U.S. midterm election. The reporters are right that letting the August deadline slide could pose an enormous political headache for an administration already struggling to mobilize its base when the national mood favors the Republicans. But a failure to heed the situation on the ground in Iraq would, I suspect, pose much greater headaches down the road for the administration so I fervently hope that the U.S. midterm elections are not dictating the timeline.
Even without domestic politics confounding the calculation, the strategic challenge would be vexing. One of the hardest things to do in war is to ascertain when developments on the ground require a change in plans and when the plan is still viable despite some setbacks. The Bush administration did not always get this right. It came under withering and justifiable criticism for being slow to adjust to Iraqi realities in the months after the invasion. Even though the unfolding events revealed that several of the assumptions of the original Phase IV plan had been overly optimistic, critics charged that Secretary Rumsfeld stuck with the original military plan.
The Obama administration
is now facing its own version of that very same strategic challenge. Even the
way the current internal debate is reported is eerily reminiscent of the
conventional critique of the first year of the Iraq war:
Two former officials who worked on Iraq policy in the Obama administration said that after it became clear how late the elections would be, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander in Iraq, wanted to keep 3,000 to 5,000 combat troops in northern Iraq after the Aug. 31 deadline. But the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter, said it was clear that the White House did not want any combat units to remain."
Of course, the article also includes on-the-record denials that Odierno wanted those extra troops and notes that Odierno recently gave the timeline a fairly strong endorsement. And, lest there be any doubt, the president's foreign policy speechwriter confidently stated, "We see no indications now that our planning needs to be adjusted..."
Yet officials gave similar assessments during the confusing summer of 2003 only to walk them back over the next several years. Given the stakes in Iraq, we should all hope that the Obama team's assessments prove more durable.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
When I became the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I was often told by my State
Department colleagues that if the U.S. and Russia worked well together in OSCE,
the organization would also work well.
The United States and Russia, indeed, worked well together in my initial years at OSCE and my Russian counterparts and I were able to achieve a few things. That has not been the case in recent years. The United States and Russia, in effect, gave up on the organization. Its budget shrank. Russia and others became disillusioned with western standards on human rights. Security took a back seat when then-President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) in 2007. In 2008, speaking in the Bundestag, President Dmitry Medvedev presented a plan for a new security architecture for Europe that did not seem to build on OSCE.
President Obama proposed to change the relationship when he called on both the United States and Russia to hit the "re-set" button. Suddenly, things began to happen. New incentives ranging from arms control to overflights to Afghanistan were agreed to. But nothing of consequence was happening at OSCE, one of the world's few organizations where both the United States and Russia are full-fledged, voting members. There was lots of attention given to NATO; little, if any, to OSCE, notwithstanding Secretary Clinton's Paris speech as recently as this past January, where she called for more responsibilities for OSCE.
There are many reasons for this inattention, especially from the United States. One is the absence of an OSCE summit since 1999, when President Clinton went to Istanbul with other national leaders. That was 11 years ago. According to an agreement at the Helsinki Summit in 1992, the OSCE was to have a summit every two years. That has not happened.
When Kazakhstan took over the OSCE chairmanship on January 1 of this year, as is done by a different member-country every year, it made an OSCE summit at the heads of government or state level its highest priority. Russia has indicated its support, as have a number of other states. Many more members are looking to the U.S. for its leadership on this issue. The United States has been tepid in its response. President Nazerbayev's visit to Washington, where he met with President Obama as part of the Nuclear Security Summit, was a missed opportunity for definitive U.S. agreement to an OSCE summit and for setting a time and place. The other OSCE members will follow if the U.S. and Russia agree.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.