President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
The Obama administration's two major weekend summits, the G-8 gathering at Camp David and the ongoing NATO meeting in Chicago, happen to be occurring as the U.S. presidential campaign gets underway. That coincidence of timing presumably helps explain an otherwise baffling statement by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon posted over at the Cable previewing the meetings:
Look for the Obama team to drive home the argument this weekend that the G-8 and the NATO summit are a testament to Obama's ability to repair alliances frayed during the George W. Bush administration.
"It had been an exhausting period leading up to 2009, and the president set about reinvigorating -- indeed, one of the first sets of instructions that we got during the transition, at the beginning of the administration, was to set about really building out and refurbishing, revitalizing our alliances," Donilon said.
"No other nation in the world has the set of global alliances that the United States does... And alliances, I will tell you from experience, are a wholly different qualitative set of relationships than coalitions of the willing."
The best explanation I can muster for this is that Donilon is channeling David Axelrod and indulging in some spin for the campaign "silly season." One hopes that the Obama administration doesn't actually believe that its record on alliances is so exemplary, because to do so means that the notorious White House-bubble must be even thicker than usual. Yet I suppose that as long as the media gives a free pass on these kinds of claims, they will be made. Even the Humble Cable-Guy, normally vigilant to call out any manner of fluff, spin, or distortion, seems to have missed this one.
Campaign spin notwithstanding, the reality is different.
First, taking Donilon's own timeline, the Obama administration inherited a set of alliances in solid shape. When Obama took office the Bush administration had largely repaired bilateral relationships that had been admittedly frayed during its first term. Gone were the "old Europe/new Europe" lines, the feuds with Chirac and Schroeder, etc. By 2008, America had very solid relationships with allies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as emerging partners such as India. Expanding these partnerships and inviting rising powers to the high table of international politics, Bush had even convened the first-ever G-20 summit in Washington to deal with the eruption of the global financial crisis.
Second, the Obama administration's record on relations with U.S. allies is wanting, to say the least. American allies and friends on almost every continent have been neglected or undercut by the Obama administration. These include specific countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, and Colombia. While the specific issues may have varied -- whether neglected and re-litigated free trade agreements, abandoned missile defense commitments, cancellations of state visits, shirking of defense needs, rebuffs on energy cooperation, dithering on multilateral interventions, hectoring on fiscal policy, or just thoroughgoing neglect -- all of these nations, among them America's most important allies and partners, have suffered poor treatment at the hands of the Obama administration. Anecdotally, one can hardly visit a European capital without hearing private complaints from European diplomats over the neglect they feel from the Obama administration.
Third, Donilon's sanctimonious dig contrasting "alliances" with "coalitions of the willing" was unflattering as well -- to the Obama administration. After all, this White House has, for justifiable reasons, made frequent use of coalitions of the willing on its most significant foreign policy initiatives, such as the Libya War (which included non-NATO members such as Sweden, Qatar, Jordan, and UAE), the P-5 Plus One coalition on Iran, the "Friends of Syria" Group, and the Afghanistan War (forty non-NATO participants).
The Obama administration's efforts to keep blaming Bush have an almost perfunctory quality. If anything, they reveal this White House's own anemic record to base re-election on [insert obligatory "three envelopes" joke here]. I have some sympathy for the administration in that working with allies in practice is much harder than campaign rhetoric would indicate. But here the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is significant.
Obama campaigned claiming he would improve America's global image, but his treatment of allies has undermined our nation's credibility. In a way, Obama's international reputation seems to mirror his domestic reputation. At both home and abroad, personal affection for him far exceeds approval for his policies. He has been successful at cultivating his personal image in the world, but in the process America's standing has been diminished. In terms I hope our Anglosphere allies will appreciate, this White House may talk like Ringo Starr, but too often it has acted like Mike Reno.
A few days ago, I had the privilege of testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject of the upcoming NATO Summit in Chicago.
The whole testimony is here, but the bits that Shadow Govt readers need to know is this.
The gathering of allied heads of state has to be more than the administration's desire for a low-key "implementation summit." The NATO meeting needs to "provide credible reaffirmation of the Transatlantic Bargain -- one in which the United States demonstrates commitment to Europe's regional security interests and our European allies demonstrate that they stand ready to address global challenges to transatlantic security."
Toward that end:
First, the president must credibly reaffirm Europe's centrality in U.S. global strategy. The drifting apart of the two continents has many causes, but a key one is a U.S. transatlantic agenda whose dominant elements recently have been a vaguely defined reset of relations with Russia, a defense guidance that articulates a pivot to Asia, and reductions of combat capability deployed in Europe. Through robust military engagement with Europe, the United States would reinforce the credibility of its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty and sustain, if not improve, the ability of European and U.S. forces to operate together within and beyond the North Atlantic area.
Second, the Chicago Summit should be used to reanimate the vision of a whole, free, and secure Europe as a guiding priority for the transatlantic relationship. NATO heads of state can and should: declare their intent to issue invitations to qualified aspirants no later than the next summit; underscore the urgency of resolving the Macedonia dispute with Greece over the former's name, the last remaining obstacle to Skopje's accession to the alliance; assert that Georgia's path to NATO can be through the NATO-Georgia Commission; and applaud Montenegro's significant progress under the Alliance's Membership Action Plan. By leading the effort to fulfill the vision of a unified, undivided Europe, the United States would drive forward a process that strengthens Europe's stability and security and thereby reaffirms the centrality of Europe in America's global strategy.
Third, the Alliance must chart its way forward in an era of financial austerity. In an age of austerity, the focus of the Alliance's Smart Defense initiatives should be on the practical and attainable. Such projects in the realms of effective engagement, JISR, logistics, and training are not only needed for operational purposes, they are more credible to NATO publics than promises concerning the distant future.
Fourth, the Chicago Summit should be used to expand and deepen the partnerships the Alliance has developed around the world. The globalized and increasingly hybrid character of today's challenges make it important for the Alliance to expand and deepen its relationships with non-governmental organizations and non-member states around the globe. By leveraging the potential offered by a network of NATO global partnerships, the United States and Europe can "pivot" together in the effort to address the global challenges that already define this century.
Finally, NATO must demonstrate unambiguous determination to sustain a stable Afghanistan. In Chicago, NATO aims to map out a strategic partnership with Afghanistan that will endure well beyond 2014. The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, even if it is fleshed out robustly, will likely be insufficient to ensure success in Afghanistan in the absence of a long-term transatlantic commitment to the Afghan people.
In these ways, the Chicago Summit can emerge as an important, if not inspiring, benchmark of American commitment and European ambition regarding the Transatlantic Alliance.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Drudge is pushing poll results that show a surprising tilt in favor of Romney: a 46-44 advantage among women registered voters.
I am puzzled, however, by a different poll that shows something different but equally surprising: a tilt in favor of Obama, but this time among the "veteran vote." According to Reuters, "If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population."
Part of the explanation is the way Reuters defines "veteran vote" to include not only the veteran but also "families." Adding in the families dilutes a demographic (male) that traditionally trends Republican with demographics (youth and women) that traditionally trend Democratic.
If adding in the family explains the gap, then there is not much of a story here. But if the Obama advantage extends to veterans and the military, that would really be something.
In previous elections, military and veteran (narrowly defined) voters have tended to vote Republican by margins bigger than what is seen in the civilian population. Of course, Democrats have worked very hard to overcome that gap. In 2002, they hugged the more popular Republican commander-in-chief. In 2004, they nominated a Silver Star winner as their standard-bearer who traveled the country with some of his fellow Vietnam vets and made a "reporting for duty" salute as his grand entrance at the national convention. In 2006, they ran on a "support the troops, bring them home from the front" platform. And in 2008, facing a war-hero and POW survivor, they tried to out-bid Republicans on pay and benefits for the troops and their families.
President Obama has assiduously courted the military along these same lines, and so I would not be surprised to see him outpoll his Democratic predecessors. But given other structural considerations between the two parties, I would be surprised to see him outpoll his Republican counterpart.
For one thing, in the same Reuters poll, Republicans have a 10 point advantage over Democrats among "veterans and their families" on the question: "In your opinion, which political party better serves the needs of veterans and their families." Republicans have a 5 point advantage over Democrats among the same group on "...which political party has a better plan, policy, or approach to the war on terror," a 6 point advantage on "...a better plan, policy or approach to Iran," and, for that matter, a 6 point advantage on "...the U.S. economy." Moreover, the veterans and their families are quite hawkish -- strongly opposing cuts to defense spending, tilting slightly in favor of something approximating unilateralism, and remarkably supportive of the use of force option to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (57 percent agree strongly or somewhat and only 17 percent disagree strongly or somewhat). If Obama has the advantage, it seems to derive more from a personal appeal than any across-the-board support for his platform.
For another thing, previous surveys of active duty and former military consistently show that military personnel tend to be conservative and tend to be more Republican than comparable demographic cohorts in the civilian world. Likewise, the regular survey of the Military Times readership -- which is not a representative sample of all veterans or all military, but is a useful sample of career military -- consistently has shown deep skepticism about President Obama as a leader.
For all those reasons and more, I still expect that Romney will "win" the military and veteran vote this time around.
Having said all that, however, I am not sure it is a good thing for civil-military relations that the campaigns vie for the military and veteran vote in this fashion. I understand why they do so -- it is a way of signaling that the party/candidate can be trusted on national security, and that is a legitimate thing to want to signal. But wooing the military/veteran vote can be corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The military have a distinctive position in American society. They are trusted with exceptional coercive power and a privileged access to our country's resources, but in exchange they are expected to be entirely subordinate to civilian authority.
We expect the military to salute and obey, even if they are not successfully wooed. President Obama is their legitimate commander-in-chief and has earned their respect and obedience by virtue of his success in persuading the entire electorate to support him, regardless of how he fared with the military themselves. Undue effort at wooing can contribute to a politicization of the military, making it that much more difficult for any commander-in-chief to exercise the constitutional role.
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
A recent Cable item from the intrepid Josh Rogin tells me that one of the consequences of the era of declining defense budgets may well be a further shifting of civilian roles back on to defense shoulders.
That is not a typo.
For years pundits have complained about the "militarization" of foreign policy, referring to the way that foreign policy tasks get assigned to the military even if the tasks do not involve military expertise per se (i.e. blowing things up). For decades, the military has been deployed to do everything from disaster relief to rural development to local banking reform to post-conflict venture capital, and so on. High defense spending has bought remarkable capacity in our uniformed ranks, and that capacity has been utilized in the service of a broad range of foreign policy goals.
Critics have complained that these tasks are not inherently military and they could be, perhaps should be, done by civilians in the State Department and elsewhere. Letting civilians do civilian tasks would, the critics maintain, "demilitarize" American foreign policy. Hence, a big push to boost capacity outside of DoD.
That push enjoyed substantial rhetorical support from Secretary Rumsfeld, who despaired of the military being the bill-payer for tasks better assigned to State and elsewhere. It enjoyed even more substantial material and political support from Secretary Gates, who joined first with Secretary Rice and then with Secretary Clinton to beg Congress to boost the budget of the State Department so as to build civilian capacity.
I suspect that effort may have reached a turning point, however. The very same fiscal pressures that are forcing deep cuts in the defense budget will be operating on the budgets of the State Department and other departments and agencies that might otherwise be expected to prop up the civilian side of the civil-military balance. And in such a hostile fiscal environment, it is likely that the military will lose less than civilian agencies will. Or rather: Even if the military loses more in absolute terms (because their budget baseline is so high), in relative terms they can weather those losses better without losing minimum functioning capacity.
In short, the civil-military balance is likely to tip even further in the direction of the military.
This was the gist of a talk I gave last month to the Army War College's Annual Strategy Conference. I made several points, which the latest congressional action on the foreign operations and defense budgets have only reinforced:
Therefore, while it is fine to remain rhetorically committed to Plan A (improving State capacity), the military should train and equip for Plan B (State and other civilian agencies are no more and probably less capable than they were in 2008).
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
The election may hinge on economic and domestic policy, but this past week the campaign was all about national security, specifically the president's role as commander in chief.
The prompt was the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden, which encouraged the Obama campaign to put out an extraordinary campaign advertisement praising the president for showing the courage to order the strike and suggesting that Romney would not have done so.
The critique of Romney was fundamentally dishonest in the way that campaign ads often are. The ad cherry-picked Romney quotes and deployed them out of context. The valid Romney observation that defeating al Qaeda would require a comprehensive strategy, not one limited to hunting down a single man, got distorted by the Obama scriptwriters into a hesitation to pursue Bin Laden. And the valid Romney observation that it was a mistake to boast in advance about conducting unilateral strikes against the territory of our Pakistani partner got distorted into an unwillingness to act in America's national interest.
Nevertheless, while the Obama campaign misrepresented Romney's position on the hunt for Bin Laden, the advertisement was (perhaps inadvertently) plausible in claiming not every president would have ordered the Abbottabad raid -- and, in this respect, it was odd to hear former President Clinton making this argument.
Others have commented on how unseemly it was for the former president to participate in a dishonest attack like this. Both former Presidents Bush have been scrupulous (thus far) about hewing to an elder-statesman, above-the-partisan-fray sort of role. It is unfortunate that former Presidents Carter and Clinton, for all the other good they have done after leaving office, have not been so scrupulous.
Still, the interesting thing about President Clinton's commentary was not how partisan but how ironic it was. Because of the last eight men who were the runners-up or winners of the office of president, the one least likely to have ordered the Abbottabad raid was President Clinton. Clinton was famously casualty phobic and uber-cautious in the use of force, for understandable reasons (as I have outlined at length elsewhere, including here and here.
And the Abbottabad raid required a commander in chief willing to take a risky bet. Consider the factors that might daunt an irresolute decider:
Under those circumstances, President George W. Bush probably still would have ordered the attack, as did President Obama. But is anyone confident that President Clinton would have?
The decision President Obama faced was a hard one and he took a gamble that paid off. He deserves credit for it -- credit that Americans of both parties have been reliably paying him. However, let's be honest that it is a decision that compares favorably not with Republicans but with other Democrats.
After Republican leaders rightly criticized Senator Obama, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, for being unqualified to be commander-in-chief and leader of the free world during the 2008 campaign, it would be an irony if they selected Marco Rubio, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, as vice president in the 2012 election.
Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie will almost certainly not be the vice presidential nominee for the simple reason that they don't want to be president. Both declined to run for the top job because, if rumors are to be believed, they were unwilling to undergo the rigors and personal scrutiny that a presidential campaign brings. If they were unwilling to do so for the presidency, why would they do so for the much lesser prize of the vice presidency?
Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is too valuable to the GOP in the House. As one of the more serious-minded legislators in the party, he would be wasted on the vice presidency.
Besides which, the vice presidential nominee almost never makes an actual difference in the election. The great myth is that the presidential nominee should pick a VP from a swing state in order to win more votes there. The problem is, that never happens. Perhaps once in American history has the VP delivered his state and swung an election: LBJ bringing Texas to give JFK the prize in 1960. That's it, just once.
So it comes down to this: Who is actually qualified to be president? That's the question Mitt Romney should be asking in selecting his running mate. That's the only criterion that should really matter. There are very few people in the country with a plausible claim to being qualified for the presidency. Unfortunately, Bob Gates has definitively retired, reducing the number of candidates by one.
That leaves David Petraeus. Petraeus served as commanding general of both wars the U.S. fought over the last decade, headed up central command, and is now director of the CIA. And, of course, he had the courage and professionalism to serve in a deeply unpopular war and, remarkably, come out with his reputation enhanced. Probably no person alive has a better grasp of the international situation, America's role in the world, and the limitations and capabilities of American power.
Petraeus has nearly universal name recognition and is one of the most well-respected figures in the country. A year ago only 11 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him, according to Gallup, half that of Christie. And as a non-partisan figure he has not been tarnished by the partisanship and mud-slinging of recent years. Additionally, Petraeus would bring foreign policy expertise to the ticket, balancing Romney's focus on economic issues. If Obama really intends to claim that his foreign policy accomplishments should earn voters' respect, there is no one in the country with more credibility than Petraeus to take Obama's argument apart.
He would bring gravitas and seriousness to a campaign season that, so far, has been more memorable for the parade of not serious GOP challengers who, thankfully, had the decency to drop out. His intelligence and ethic of public service would be a good match for Romney's own. I admit "Romney-Rubio" has a nice, almost poetic ring to it; it rolls off the tongue beautifully. "Romney-Petraeus" has too many syllables. It sounds like something out of a technical manual, or a nickname for a loophole in the tax code. On the other hand, they might actually govern competently, which counts for something.
Paul J. Richards-Pool/Getty Images
In truth much as I searched, I have found that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics actually has no analogue in foreign policy. Regardless, it is a good way to describe Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Call it the Uncertainty Doctrine.
Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth.
So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly.
Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan and then immediately a pull out date. Should our allies stick with us as we take out just enough bad guys to make the Taliban more vengeful when they return? Or instead should Kabul just make deals with the Taliban? An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable but so is Israel removing one from the hands of Iran. Assad must go, but we will not do anything to make that happen. On the other hand maybe its best if he just stayed -- easier to work with than the alternative.
China was a partner in global action problems -- perhaps even a G2 was in the offing! Together we would work on climate change, nonproliferation, who knows what else? Now the United States needs to pivot to Asia to keep China in check.
Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.
The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"
Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears.
India is a strategic partner whom we would like to join us in checking (or not checking?) China but we are going to leave Afghanistan for India to fight over with its archrival Pakistan.
I think the point is made. Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
From the photographs of Hillary Clinton partying up at a Cartagena disco during last weekend's Sixth Summit of the Americas, it appears she was the only U.S. official who enjoyed herself while in Colombia. (We'll leave out the members of the president's security detail who were sent home for allegedly consorting with prostitutes.)
Indeed, despite being commended for "listening politely," President Obama had to have been frustrated with being endlessly harangued by his counterparts over historical and ideological grievances that predated his birth. It was, as the president said, like entering a "time warp."
Rather than figuring out how to cooperate with our southern neighbors in meeting the challenges of the 21st century global economy, the president was instead forced to sit and listen as others complained about why Stalinist Cuba wasn't invited to a summit of otherwise popularly elected governments or how come the United Kingdom won't honor Argentina's specious claim to the Falkland Islands after more than two centuries?
It's a wonder nobody demanded that President Obama cede back to Mexico a huge chunk of the American Southwest.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of Latin American populism is nursing historical grudges; it's easier than having to solve real problems. But, still, the disconnect between the agendas of the United States and our neighbors to the south continues to widen. And, in this, those administration officials tasked with managing the Latin America portfolio are not blameless.
Three years of U.S. neglect -- combined with a period of economic prosperity built mostly on Chinese demand for agricultural commodities and raw materials -- have convinced many governments in the region that cooperation with the United States is not as important as it used to be. An expression of that new-found attitude is talking about issues they want to talk about, and in which the United States has no interest discussing.
It is perfectly natural that Latin American governments are branching out and establishing new economic relationships or boosting trade amongst themselves. But spurning closer cooperation with the United States -- whose economy still comprises almost seventy percent of regional GDP -- is in no one's long-term interest.
It may be that the region is enjoying good times economically, but Chinese demand isn't always going to be there, and it is hardly a foundation on which to build lasting prosperity. Moreover, confronting the U.S. over historical grievances may boost some sort of elitist self-esteem, but it is hardly relevant to the majority of the region's citizens who live on less than two dollars a day.
Enhancing long-term development is better met through closer regional cooperation in trade integration, promoting energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, and tackling drug corruption and violence. And, of course, it cannot just be a one-way street. The ground is shifting under U.S.-Latin America relations, with the days of demand and compliance a distant memory.
In an increasingly turbulent world, there is much to say for developing stronger relationships within our own hemisphere. By doing so, we will also necessarily crowd out those who would rather wallow in the past than look to a prosperous and mutually beneficial future.
With this most recent summit so dominated by issues no U.S. president can find any benefit in discussing, some have speculated that this may very well be the last such summit in which the U.S. will likely participate. That would be unfortunate. Better that the Sixth Summit of the Americas be remembered as the nadir of U.S.-Latin America relations, with the only way to go but up.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has distinguished himself once again, this time claiming that the Obama administration's refusal to send the 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea shows that President Obama is tougher than President Bush. It's amazing the White House is reduced to juvenile boasts of this sort in an effort to burnish their foreign policy achievements; even more amazing is that the deputy national security advisor seems innocent of awareness that the policy he extols is both (a) a repeat of the Bush administration; and (b) a departure from candidate Obama's promises of a brighter American foreign policy.
The article sounds like an Onion parody, but is worth reading to get a full sense of just how contorted is the logic associated with President Obama's claims.
Rhodes says "what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past." Wrong. What this administration has done is to exactly repeat the cycle of hoping to lure the North Korean government into cooperative behavior and then withholding our promised assistance when the North Korean regime proceeds with its nuclear and missile programs. The North Koreans claim bad faith, just as they did when the Bush administration withheld fuel oil after an earlier test.
President Obama came to office promising a new era of American foreign policy, an era of hope and change, in which we would reach out to our enemies, practice a new kind of positive engagement to attenuate the image of America as arrogant and overpowering. But the deputy national security advisor now celebrates the Obama administration withholding humanitarian assistance to badly malnourished people because of the provocative actions of an authoritarian regime. "Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," he said, as though it were a major foreign policy achievement.
He also criticized the Bush administration for having removed North Korea from the terrorism list, and for continuing to negotiate with the North Korean government to try and walk back its nuclear program. But note that the Obama administration has not taken any action to return North Korea to the terrorism list, nor has it broken off negotiations with North Korea. Last time I checked, the Obama administration favored negotiations and had limiting nuclear proliferation as a major foreign policy objective.
Not only has the administration returned to the policy of its predecessor, it has done so while claiming that policy was unduly lenient. Savor that for a minute: the same Obama who held an outstretched hand to the evil and erratic leader of North Korea is now claiming special foreign policy prowess for adopting the policy he condemns in his predecessor.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
A great hero for our time, Andrei Sannikov, was freed on Saturday afternoon.
For readers of Shadow Government who don't follow Belarus, this is very important. Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe, run by Alexander Lukashenko. Strategically located among Russia, Poland, and Ukraine -- Belarus has its own history but has been basically a Russian satellite since Lukashenko was elected in 1994. The only European country to be thrown out of the OSCE, Belarus has become more repressive with time. The December 2010 elections were considered farcical by all accounts. Andrei Sannikov, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and diplomat, was the most prominent opponent to challenge Lukashenko in those elections.
Lukashenko runs the country as a puppet state based on the worst instincts and whims of Vladimir Putin. One problem has been that Belarus is politically oppressed but has enjoyed relatively benign economic times, which many speculate is due to subsidized Russian energy that Russia provides Belarus and that runs to Western Europe through Belarus. Lukashenko enjoys some political support but that has dropped over time and he remains in power illegitimately using harsher and harsher tactics.
After the rigged elections, Sannikov was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and Amnesty International listed him as a prisoner of conscience. He was beaten while in custody and his life was in very serious danger as his health deteriorated. His four-year-old son was threatened with being removed from the custody of his family and put into a foster home. A key aid of Sannikov's died under very suspicious circumstances. In short, the regime has put incredible pressure on Sannikov and his family. He has kept faith and risked his life for a free Belarus.
The United States and Europe have maintained sanctions on Belarus for several years. Europe has been divided on Belarus and the U.S. especially under George W. Bush was particularly vocal against the bad actions of the Belarus government. The Obama administration has maintained sanctions, but is perceived to be less animated about seeing the end of the Lukashenko regime. The German Marshall Fund with offices in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere maintained Belarus on the agenda in ways that others could not, as sanctions require a transatlantic approach in order to work.
It is possible that Lukashenko is using the Sannikov release as an opening gambit to try to have the sanctions lifted. A free Belarus would likely want a foreign and economic policy similar to Kazakhstan -- with the ability to engage and balance among Europe, the U.S., and Russia on a free basis -- not operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia. The best medium-term outcome would be for Lukashenko to not seek another term in 2014, seek a cold exile in Moscow, and allow for democratic elections in Belarus. A free Belarus would be a big win for the United State and Europe. In the meantime, this weekend is a moment of relief and joy.
North Korea's apparently imminent test-launch of another ballistic missile brings an unwelcome complication to the Obama administration's overflowing inboxes. It highlights yet again the perpetual dilemma posed by the Kim regime: Whether you ignore it or engage it, North Korea invariably misbehaves. For all of the debates over U.S. policy, ultimately the main driver of North Korean behavior is not how the U.S. acts but rather the perverse nature of the Pyongyang regime itself.
Even though the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are in separate regions of the world, they share some linkages and reciprocal influences. In Pyongyang's case, the newest incarnation of the Kim dynasty does not like losing global attention to Tehran, and appears to be returning to its customary patterns of bluster and brinksmanship in part to recapture global headlines and increase its leverage in potential future negotiations with the U.S. Domestic politics no doubt play a role as well, as Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his hold on power and place himself in continuity with the legacies of his father and grandfather. From Tehran's perspective, one "lesson" from North Korea appears to be that possession of nuclear weapons helps ensure regime survival and increase bargaining leverage, despite international opprobrium.
Both nations' nuclear programs also complicate the Obama administration's planned "pivot" to Asia. I remain worried that the White House's Asia pivot contains a mistaken assumption that treats the Middle East and Asia as distinctly separate regions, subject to zero-sum allocations of American strategic resources. Yet as the administration weighs its limited menu of options for North Korea's latest provocation, there is an opportunity to consider potential strategic linkages between how the U.S. responds to North Korea and how it handles the Iran file. At least two possible paths come to mind. Both admittedly have significant downsides, but then what policy doesn't when it comes to North Korea and Iran? As tactically different as each approach is, both represent an effort to consider a strategic linkage between U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran.
Deterrent Linkage. This would mean the U.S. taking an aggressive response to North Korea's missile test, by throwing a brush-back pitch against Pyongyang and also sending a deterrent message to Tehran about American resolve and willingness to use force. Specifically, this could entail an attack on the North Korean Unha-3 missile while on the launch pad, or intercepting it after the launch in its boost phase. Bill Perry and Ashton Carter called for such a strike before North Korea's 2006 test, and Philip Zelikow laid out the case for a similar measure in 2009. Numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions (such as 1695, 1718, and 1874) have declared the illegality of North Korea's ballistic missile program, and such a strike could be justified on self-defense grounds by the U.S. and treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
A strike is of course a dramatic step that carries significant risks. The most significant is the potential for North Korean retaliation and escalation, but other risks include an embarrassing "miss" if the attack fails, heightened tensions with China, potential discord with South Korea if the Lee government disapproves, not to mention a further emboldening of Iran. On the other hand, if successful such an attack could serve as a strategic game-changer with implications in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Benefits could include restraining further North Korean provocations and bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table in better faith, diminishing China's virtually unqualified support for North Korea, and increasing Tehran's openness to a negotiated settlement by demonstrating that the U.S. mantra of "all options are on the table" is a credible threat.
Bargaining Linkage. If the Obama administration takes a less confrontational approach to North Korea's missile test (by, say, a ritual sternly-worded condemnation and perhaps yet another UNSC resolution), it could still be done in a way that creates linkage with the Iran issue. Given the limited options and risks of an aggressive North Korean response, this might be the more prudent path. If so, the White House should at least use its restraint with Pyongyang to increase its bargaining leverage with Beijing -- and thus potentially gain a strategic benefit in pressing Iran. This could mean quietly communicating to Beijing that the U.S. has considered but rejected the option of striking the North Korean missile, in part out of deference to China's preferences for a soft approach to its unruly ally. In return, the U.S. secures from China a commitment to publicly support increased sanctions pressure on Iran, in word and practice.
This approach also carries risks. China may be unwilling to credit American restraint on North Korea as a concession, and may likewise be unwilling to depart from its opposition to tightened sanctions on Iran. Pyongyang and Tehran might both perceive the lack of a strong response to the missile test as further evidence that nuclear adventurism ultimately has little cost (especially if Pyongyang follows up the missile launch with another nuclear test). But this path is also an opportunity for the U.S. to at least try to increase its bargaining leverage with Iran, by persuading China to see our restraint on North Korea as a trade-off rather than a giveaway.
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President Obama will join his 34 regional counterparts in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend for the Sixth Summit of the Americas. The theme of this year's meeting is "Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity."
A more appropriate theme would be, "Whatever happened to the Inter-American Democratic Charter?"
That landmark document, signed a decade ago by all the governments of the hemisphere (excluding Cuba), in Lima, Peru, states, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it."
But the rise to power of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and a passel of other leftist populists has turned that commitment on its head, as they have systematically gutted their country's democratic institutions and trampled on nearly every article enshrined in the Charter with nary a peep of protest from other governments in the region.
Indeed, the region's fading commitment to defending democracy has even dominated headlines leading up to the Summit. The ringleader in this case has been Ecuadorean rabble-rouser Rafael Correa, who in high dudgeon has declaimed that he is boycotting this year's summit because thoroughly undemocratic Cuba was not invited.
Castro's Cuba, which would not recognize a democratic principle if one walked up and slapped him in the face, has never been invited to a summit because conforming to the most elementary standards of democratic governance is a prerequisite to attend.
Predictably, Hugo Chávez was the first to rush to Correa's defense, saying that although he would attend the summit (health permitting), "This will be the last so-called Summit of the Americas without Cuba. The next one wouldn't occur," and that a "good number of us" will advocate Cuba's inclusion at the next such gathering.
He added that he had discussed the issue with leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Brazil.
It wasn't long before Argentina and Brazil also weighed in, toeing the same line. "This has to be the last summit in which Cuba does not participate," said Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman in an appearance with his Brazilian counterpart Antonio Patriota.
You know a regional commitment to promoting and defending democracy is in trouble when otherwise mature countries like Argentina and Brazil are lining up in support of Cuba's inclusion in the Summit of the Americas.
But the issue also goes beyond the incongruence of a Stalinist regime participating in a meeting of popularly elected governments. As noted, a deafening regional silence has accompanied populist encroachments on democratic norms and institutions over the past few years, whether they have occurred in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, or Nicaragua.
It may be true that there are limits to the appeal of the Chávez model throughout the region, but according to Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World (2012) report, Chávez's "quasi-authoritarian populism still stands as a threat to the region's political stability."
President Obama has an opportunity when he travels to Colombia on Saturday to make clear that the Charter is not just another regional declaration to be signed and forgotten. Instead, it stands as the crowning achievement of the region's history of perseverance and grit -- at great human cost -- to move past its authoritarian past and establish democratic governance as the hemispheric norm.
The president must unabashedly reassert the abiding relevance of the Inter-American Democratic Charter as one that transcends ideology and fuzzy notions of Latin "solidarity" and remains the foundation for any lasting regional peace and prosperity.
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Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both.
After Qaddafi's fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. power more effectively than previous administrations, something an advisor subsequently branded as a "lead from behind" approach. Even though Libya is still an unfinished project, if you talk to enough Obamaphiles as I do, sooner or later the Libya model will be touted again, especially the dramatic comparison of how low cost Libya was compared to Iraq.
It was low cost, at least for the United States, but as for a model, it may be a precedent for doing nothing in the future -- at least that is the impression one gets from the latest reporting on Syria. Apparently, the White House has told Syrian rebels that they are on their own, that the United States will not be assisting them further, and so Assad may be on track to accomplish what Qaddafi could not: kill enough of his own citizens fast enough to defeat the rebellion before outsiders can intervene to tip the balance in favor of the "right side of history."
In this, the Obama administration may be following the Libyan precedent to the letter. The problem with "leading from behind" is that it really means "following another leader." In the Libyan case, the real leaders were the Europeans, especially the French and British. They led, Obama followed, and Qaddafi fell.
On Syria, no one is leading, not yet anyway. Perhaps the cross-border violence will finally prod Turkey into leading and, if so, perhaps the "Libyan model" will lead the Obama administration into acting. But until then, the Libyan lesson may simply be this: When no one leads, no one follows, and when no one follows, the international community does not act.
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The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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Terrorism, as the United States has learned at a high cost in recent years, comes in many forms and from unexpected sources. The government of Ecuador has once again crossed the line between irresponsible policies and ideologically driven actions that have created a serious security problem not only for its citizens but also for the entire Western Hemisphere. The disarray created in Ecuador's immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups -- possibly including al Qaeda -- to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.
In June of 2008, the Ecuadorian government opened its borders to foreigners and ended visa requirements to enter its territory. This opened the floodgates to nationals from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Cuba, Pakistan, and Somalia). For example, according to statistics of its own National Immigration Office, in 2006 (before the policy change) there were 92 entries of Pakistani citizens, by 2008 were already 178 and in 2010, 518. This is an increase of 550 percent in 4 years. More significantly, just between 2008 and 2010 an estimated 60,000 Cubans entered Ecuador, according to intelligence sources.
Records shows that large numbers of these immigrants enter to obtain Ecuadorian nationality by naturalization and thus be able to travel freely throughout Latin America and eventually to the United States without arousing suspicion because of their original nationalities. The routes by which they enter the Americas generally include a first stop in Cuba or Venezuela, countries with highly subjective immigration controls. Two routes that are used repeatedly are Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables, Ecuadorian authorities were alerted in 2009 by various international intelligence agencies about this deception. However, it was not until mid-2010 when they began to again administer their immigration policies. Thereafter, the Ecuadorian government somewhat modified its visa policy for nationals of certain countries that were considered the riskiest.
Nevertheless, some reports suggest that despite this change, these immigrant groups have developed a criminal infrastructure of sufficient magnitude to keep functioning independently. To bypass the stricter immigration controls, criminal gangs have specialized in forging travel documents, visas, birth certificates, and fake residency permits that ultimately lead to illegally obtaining an Ecuadorian passport. Documents are not difficult to obtain because the Mafiosi suborn government administrators including civil registry officials, judges, and other government officials.
Of particular concern to U.S. security is the case of nationals of third countries who enter Ecuador with passports issued by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, countries for which Ecuador still does not require visas.
It is noteworthy that by Executive Order No. 1065 signed by President Correa on February 16, 2012, Ecuador has substantially eased the process of naturalization of foreign citizens. This resolution orders the granting of letters of naturalization to people who had provided "relevant services" to Ecuador and have resided for more than two years in the country, opening the door for virtually anyone to become a naturalized Ecuadorian and obtain a passport.
The danger these criminal networks pose is illustrated by two examples, among many: In 2011 an investigation was conducted by the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) attaché in Quito, Ecuador, the HIS office in Atlanta, the Miami division of the FBI and the Ecuadorian National Police. The operation led to the arrest of Irfan Ul Haq, a Pakistani citizen who according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was conducting a "human smuggling operation in Quito, Ecuador, that attempted to smuggle an individual they believed to be a member of the TTP from Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban) into the United States." The TTP was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Sept. 1, 2010.
A second case, which resulted in the arrest of Yaee Dawit, alias Jack Flora, probably the most important human trafficker in Africa and linked to different cells of al-Qaeda in East Africa, illustrates the good work of international cooperation, but also the importance that Ecuadorian cities have acquired as "hubs" for terrorists and transnational criminals.
These cases not only illuminate the crime of human trafficking, but they also show how they continuously finance other terrorist and criminal activities. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, describes these criminals as follows: "For financial profit, they [were] willing to jeopardize the safety and security of the American people. Human smuggling operations pose a serious risk to our national security, and we will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners at home and abroad to combat this dangerous threat."
While there is no evidence to show that the Correa government established the policy of "open borders" in an effort to attract criminal organizations, that has been the result. On the other hand, there is no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow. These examples show how Rafael Correa's Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as "government-authorized illicit tunnels" through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms. The time has come to close these tunnels.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:
Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called "Tier III" terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.
That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, "If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass -- an idiot."
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis -- provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and -- let's be frank -- humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington -- an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.
Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.
Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.
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There hasn't been a lot of good news on the Iraq front of late. But there is one bit, and I am going to grab it and hope for the best: President Obama has nominated Brett McGurk to be the next Ambassador to Iraq. I worked closely with Brett on Iraq policy back in the day and it is hard to think of someone Obama might have nominated who is more committed to success in Iraq. Brett was one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of the surge in 2006 and he has stayed active on the inside more or less ever since. There are few Americans inside or outside government with his breadth of experience and insider knowledge about Iraqi politics.
Senator McCain has expressed some very understandable frustration with Obama's handling of the Iraq file, but I hope those concerns do not hold up McGurk's confirmation. McCain is right that the prospects for securing American interests in the region would be better if the Obama administration had successfully negotiated a deal to keep the planned-for stay-behind overwatch force in place. And even if U.S. plans in Iraq have had to be scaled back, the embassy will still be extraordinarily large and something of a managerial nightmare; McGurk will need a very strong senior leadership team to manage it all effectively.
But those who still want to preserve as much of what the surge accomplished as can be preserved at this point will not find a more committed partner and advocate than Brett McGurk. I hope his nomination means we can count the president in that number.
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Yesterday, Josh Rogin highlighted testimony given by Peter Lavoy, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs before the House Armed Services Committee about U.S. plans to not move forward with the 240,000 tons of North Korean food aid it had promised during recent meetings in Beijing. This decision was made as a result of North Korea's plans to launch a satellite into space, violating the moratorium they recently agreed to.
I have said previously that linking a U.S. humanitarian assistance program to the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent. This type of action will lead many to believe that this would be a U.S. attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table by taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
Reports by U.S. non-governmental organizations working in North Korea are again saying that North Korean people are suffering from a severe shortfall in food supplies. This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s, when over one million people lost their lives.
What is more shocking is the effect the many years of living on less than 1,700 calories a day have had on the general population. I saw this first-hand in a Pyongyang park in 2008 where some elderly people were quietly harvesting grass so they could supplement a meal. Today, a North Korean child can expect to be up to 7 inches shorter than his/her South Korean counterpart and 20 pounds lighter by adulthood.
Those in the NGO community with access to remote areas of the country have confirmed many in North Korea suffer from malnutrition and infection. In many cases, people outside of the capital are on the brink of fatal starvation.
Recently, five U.S. non-governmental aid agencies urged the U.S. government not to delay the provision of food aid, stating that "delay or potential cancellation of this program would violate humanitarian principles which hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used to achieve political aims." I couldn't agree more.
These five organizations have been working in North Korea for years, have first hand knowledge of the situation in-country, and have proved their ability to work alongside the World Food Programme to assure food assistance reached those most in need.
Where is Special Envoy Robert King in this scenario?
Why has the administration allowed the Department of Defense to announce food assistance has been halted?
It was Special Envoy King and a senior representative from USAID who were responsible for negotiating the resumption of food assistance during the March meetings.
It begs the question -- who is in charge of U.S. humanitarian policy in North Korea and what is the Obama administration's overall strategy?
Until a coherent strategy is articulated, questions will continue to be asked about the philosophical and practical origins of this administration's approach to humanitarian assistance and the need for North Korea to halt its nuclear agenda. These are, and should remain, separate issues.
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I certainly understand why Michele Flournoy feels compelled to defend the Obama administration's national security record. Someone has to. And that record is so difficult to defend.
The situation in Iraq seems to go from bad to worse. The country is once again in the throes of sectarian violence. Baghdad's clandestine, and sometimes not-so-clandestine, support of Syria is a disgrace. Iran's influence in Iraq continues to grow even as America continues to provide assistance to the country that we rescued from Saddam less than a decade ago. And Nuri al-Maliki behaves increasingly like the dictator the United States overthrew.
As for Afghanistan, Mr. Obama's withdrawal plan has succeeded in galvanizing the Taliban, confusing the Karzai government and convincing the Pakistanis that America is a spent force. Accelerating the withdrawal of the "surge" forces ha only worsened an already precarious situation.
The Obama administration has frustrated allies around the globe: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Britain (despite the warm words to Mr. Cameron) to name but four. But its "outreach" to those who would seek to undermine American interests -- Iran, Venezuela, North Korea -- has yielded nothing. Moreover, the administration's support for the Arab Spring has won it no new friends, lost a key ally in Hosni Mubarak, and produced an uncertain outcome by leading from behind in Libya. In addition, even as it has berated Bahrain for its supposedly insufficient responsiveness to an intransigent opposition backed by Iran, it has done precious little to thwart the far greater brutality of Syria's Assad.
Finally, the "pivot" toward Asia, which has European and Middle Eastern allies deeply concerned, is in fact no pivot at all. It consists of a minor increase in American forces in Asia, but a meaningful decrease of forces in Europe and an uncertain posture in the Middle East. Indeed, the administration's defense cuts, which it portrays as a solution to the country's fiscal crisis while entitlements remain untouched, has reinforced a growing impression worldwide that America is a declining power.
The president surely deserves credit for authorizing the killing of Bin Laden. But one good move in nearly four years of setbacks is hardly a record to be proud of.
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Michele Flournoy’s extravagant campaign spin on the president’s foreign policy is politics, not policy, which inclines me against replying. But the outsize claims the campaign is attempting to peddle that America is “more secure, safer and more respected” deserve to be tested. The president's record is not nearly as good as this campaign puffery suggests, nor is it as thoroughly bad as his most boisterous critics claim, in part because the Pentagon has been effective in shaping policy on the war in Afghanistan and other key areas. Some of the credit for that is due to Michele herself, who handled her portfolio is a creditable way. But Michele Flournoy the policymaker is much more credible than Flournoy the campaign spinner.
First and foremost, it merits remembering that the counter-terrorism policies that made America safer are almost in their entirety policies that Barack Obama opposed in the Senate and campaigned against when running for president: long-term detention of terrorists, trial by military tribunal, support for the Patriot Act, Executive Authority to kill American citizens engaged in terrorism. Where he sought to change those policies, such as closing Guantanamo or prosecuting intelligence agents for torture, he was prevented by the Congress from doing so.
Second, the administration’s claim of the president’s unique courage in approving the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed is deeply unfair to President Bush. Can they really believe their predecessor, who bears the scars of having been in command during the attacks of September 11th, would not have made the same decision? It is uncharitable in the extreme, especially for a politician who claimed he would return civility to our public life.
Third, the campaign narrative on Iraq is dishonest. The president did not conduct a responsible withdrawal from Iraq; he conducted a retreat in place. By setting an arbitrary end to combat operations in August of 2010, he conveyed to Iraqis we were no longer committed to the objectives for which we were fighting the war -- as his withdrawal timelines have also done in Afghanistan. Far from “crafting a responsible plan to leave Iraq in the hands of its people,” he crafted a scenario in which Prime Minister Maliki had both the means and motive for seizing power and the non-sectarian future Iraqis had voted for fractured. The president also crafted an expensive and wholly implausible civilian mission that is already crumbling.
Fourth, the president reluctantly joined, he did not lead, the international coalition in Libya. Germany defends it’s refusal to participate in the mission on the grounds that their position was shared by the Obama administration two days before the vote. Instead of setting our allies up to be successful where they would take military action in our interest, the Obama administration only grudgingly supplied them enough help so they would not fail. That President Obama is taking such credit for Libya is resented, not respected.
Michele Flournoy makes it sound as though “fiery Republicans” are the only people who could object to her self-serving narrative of the president’s achievements. But her claims are actually testable propositions. Let’s take one of the president’s favorite metrics: American popularity in the so-called Muslim world. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, President Obama’s policies have caused our country to be more disliked in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia; and considered unreliable by Israel, and Europe. Only 8 percent of Pakistanis have confidence in President Obama to do the right thing, not surprising given the wild swings of policy toward Pakistan.
There are many more ways President Obama’s national security policies have either failed (trade policy) or are the continuation of previous administrations (the pivot to Asia, after all, mostly consists of accepting Bush administration trade agreements and multilateralism policies in Asia). And that's not even counting the colossal increase in our national debt that the president has piled up. But the most damaging effect of the president’s tenure is the divisiveness he has sowed in our body politic.
It didn’t have to be this way. A better president could have built bipartisan support for his policies. A better president could have worked with Congress to solve our country’s pressing problems. A better president could have graciously acknowledged where he built on the policies of its predecessors, reminding Americans of our broad agreement on most national security issues. Our country deserves such a president.
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Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It's a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn't make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here's the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran's influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran's main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that's a sufficiently vital interest; I'll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let's return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama's decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama's defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.
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The P5+1 -- which includes the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia -- has just accepted an Iranian offer of further nuclear talks. These talks will come at a crucial time. The West has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the Iranian regime through new sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and its central bank, and President Obama in remarks on Sunday took a tougher line than he has in the past by ruling out the notion of "containing" a nuclear-armed Iran. The next round of negotiations will therefore be an important test of the notion that pressure can force Iran to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, as well as a test of U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian obstinacy.
Sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly had an impact, driving down the value of Iran's currency, driving up inflation, and making it difficult for Iranians to sell oil or even buy food. But making life difficult for Iranians is not the objective of U.S. policy; indeed, for many years it was American policy to avoid causing widespread hardship in Iran. The U.S. goal is to halt Iran's nuclear activities, and that has not yet been accomplished -- Iran is spinning more centrifuges, and manufacturing more and higher-grade uranium than ever before.
If the upcoming round of talks, like previous iterations, fails to yield progress, the U.S. will be left with little recourse other than additional pressure, while Israel will have additional incentive to carry out a strike. But another alternative exists, which President Obama has yet to rule out -- that the U.S. will draw back our own redlines and accept a nuclear weapons-capable, if not nuclear -- armed, Iran. This would be a dangerous miscalculation.
While the official U.S. and U.N. Security Council stance has long been that Iran must halt uranium enrichment as part of any serious talks, Washington has demonstrated tactical flexibility in an effort to allow Iran to "save face" and get negotiations started. From 2006-2008, the U.S. and its allies offered Tehran the so-called "freeze for freeze" deal, whereby Iran would merely temporarily freeze new enrichment and the West new sanctions, as a brief prelude to the full suspension of both uranium enrichment and sanctions implementation called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Similarly, in October 2009, the U.S. and its partners offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the fuel plates Iran required to power its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), with which it manufactured medical isotopes. Washington asserted that the arrangement was intended as a confidence-building measure, but did not negate the U.N. demand that Iran suspend enrichment.
Recently, however, there have been signs of a U.S. shift. In his speech on Sunday, the President assiduously referred only to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not a nuclear weapons capability. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that the U.S. redline is that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. This leaves open the possibility of Washington acquiescing to a "latent" nuclear weapons capability, whereby Iran retains weapons-applicable components of its nuclear program, such its enrichment work, as long as it refrains from actually building a bomb.
Many analysts have urged President Obama to consider one of the various proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, though perhaps under somewhat stronger supervision. One of these is the so-called Russian proposal, under which Iran would address the IAEA's questions in phases and the West would reciprocally ease sanctions. Another was the vague offer by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his September visit to New York to cease Iran's production of highly-enriched uranium.
The allure of such a deal from the U.S. perspective is clear. Washington would cite the deal as a diplomatic triumph that averted war and limited Iran's nuclear capacity. Likewise, the Iranian regime, having compelled the West to recognize its nuclear status and retained its enrichment program, would tout the pact as a victory.
In reality, allowing Iran to retain its uranium enrichment program would carry serious risks for the U.S. and our allies. The Institute for Science and International Security warns that "without [a halt to enrichment], Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants."
In other words, the Iranian regime would have its cake and eat it, too. The current sanctions drive would fizzle and existing sanctions would be eased or lifted. A military strike would effectively be taken off the table, including by Israel, which would likely feel constrained from attacking nuclear facilities blessed by the U.S. The Iranian regime, having succeeded in defying not only the U.S. but the entire Security Council, would be strengthened domestically. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not be removed; instead, Iran could perfect its nuclear expertise, stopping just one turn of the screw away from producing a nuclear weapon, or even building one clandestinely.
As our confrontation with Iran enters a new, more dangerous phase, the U.S. must avoid the temptation of redefining our redlines and objectives in a manner that fails to satisfy our national security requirements. To avert war and diffuse tensions through clever tactics and smart policies is admirable; to do so by abdicating our vital interests is not.
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In the course of Congressional testimony this week supporting the Obama administration's $525 billion defense spending request for FY 2013, the Pentagon leadership was dire about the consequences of any further cuts to defense. In particular, Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey are seeking to prevent the law going into effect that would require an additional $500 billion to be cut across the coming decade.
The Pentagon leadership professes itself fine with this year's cuts. Panetta has said "the United States military will remain capable across the spectrum. We will continue to conduct a complex set of missions ranging from counterterrorism, ranging from countering weapons of mass destruction, to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. We will be fully prepared to protect our interests, defend our homeland and support civil authorities." General Dempsey fully endorsed the new guidance. Yet they both insisted no further cuts were possible without grave damage to our national security.
In seeking to persuade members of Congress to repudiate the 2011 Budget Control Act that established the topline spending levels, Panetta's tactic was to shame: "We have made no plans for sequester because it's a nutty formula, and it's goofy to begin with, and it's not something, frankly, that anybody who is responsible ought to put into effect." To be clear, he is declining to comply with the law.
Dempsey's tactic was to cry wolf: he said that if the sequestration cuts went into effect, "we would not any longer be a global power." This is nonsense. The Budget Control Act necessitates a 15 percent cut to DOD spending across ten years, in a budget that has doubled in the past decade. A budget that constitutes 42 percent of the entire world's defense spending, in a world in which all but two or three of the other big spenders are friends and allies likely to support our endeavors. A budget that after sequestration takes effect will hover at 2004 spending levels -- and the year 2004 was a profligate one in defense spending.
The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups; no other country in the world sails more than one. We have three times as many modern battle tanks, four times the number of fourth-generation tactical aircraft (and are already fielding the fifth generation), more than three times as many naval cruisers and destroyers, 19 times as many tanker aircraft and 48 times as many unmanned aerial vehicles as any other country. The additional public investment since 2001 has also allowed the U.S. military to develop and use cutting-edge equipment such as drones, better body and vehicle armor and more precise bombs. We have an operational and technological edge that is literally pricing our allies out of participation, and that leaves our adversaries incapable of winning so long as we are willing to pursue our objectives.
Secretary Panetta is right that our national interest would be best served by the president submitting a budget that reforms entitlements to put our country on a sustainable spending path. The president has not done that. Secretary Panetta might perhaps take his concern about the devastating effects of sequestration to the president, who has committed to veto any relief for DOD from the Budget Control Act.
But that General Dempsey would project American power as so fragile -- at a time when our strength is being tested on several fronts -- is incredibly injudicious. If he cannot maintain America's ability to operate military forces throughout the world on an annual budget equivalent to our spending in 2004, he does not deserve to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen was right: Our military has lost the ability to budget. We have a whole generation of military leaders with no experience operating cost-effectively. This, too, is a serious deficiency in our defense.
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The announcement that North Korea has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests and to freeze uranium enrichment at Yongbyon is welcome news, but it is far from a solution to the entire nuclear problem. Even if the agreement holds, and so many have failed, it apparently ignores a likely covert North Korean uranium enrichment program.
Pyongyang expelled U.S. observers working at the Yongbyon nuclear site in March 2009, and two months later the North's second nuclear test shook the Korean Peninsula. By November 2010, i.e. within about 20 months, North Korea built and revealed to former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sigfried Hecker a modern uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, with perhaps as many as 2,000 centrifuges. This effectively ended years of debate within U.S. policy circles as to whether or not North Korea had been cheating on an earlier commitment not to enrich uranium.
It is virtually inconceivable that North Korea could have constructed such a facility so quickly without transferring equipment or drawing upon experience from another uranium enrichment plant built elsewhere. But such a facility has never been disclosed, and the latest agreement apparently does nothing to reveal or halt it. Thus, while perhaps a constructive step, absent further disclosures and actions, there is no reason to believe that the latest agreement has halted North Korea's nuclear weapons production program.
The Obama administration says it won't pay North Korea for the same horse twice. That is sound policy. This nag isn't worth paying much for even once.
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The media is rightly focused on Iran and Syria lately, but something brewing in southern Africa merits our attention, specifically the Obama administration's attention. Zimbabwe slips further into the abyss as President (for life) Robert Mugabe keeps winning at the game of dictatorship. Two news items stand out: the dictator announced he's running for president again, and opposition leader-cum-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has gone over to the dark side.
Mugabe has been in power for over thirty years and all he has to show for it are grinding poverty and a deplorable human rights record. But it gets worse. His announcement comes amidst reports that his party, ZANU-PF, is not happy that he is running again. It is not yet clear why they are unhappy, but we can speculate. Though the party elite is privileged and comfortable -- benefitting also from the seizure of white-owned lands among other forms of corruption, injustice and economic mismanagement -- it realizes that perpetual dictators are not faring very well these days and their international allies are growing weary of supporting them. Watching the solidarity among Arab authoritarians breakdown must give them pause. Besides, the young dictators-in-waiting might simply be tired of waiting on the old man to retire. Mugabe arrogantly notes "Our members of the party will certainly select someone once I say I am now retiring, but not yet." He has more to do he says, such as continuing to defend independence (who threatens it? The British whose aid programs help keep him comfortable? -- see below) and furthering "black empowerment." With his dismal economic record, that last part as a campaign slogan adds insult to injury.
But it gets even worse. That other news item is a commentary in The Daily Telegraph that asks "Is the U.K. aiding corruption in Zimbabwe?" The piece notes that the British Department for International Development (DFID) is providing tens of millions of pounds for schools and health care while the Zimbabwean government spends nothing on capital outlays for schools and little for health care. So far, no story here. But the piece goes on to note that what the Mugabe regime is spending money on by the tens of millions is international travel and luxury living for the president and his regime -- including the opposition leader whom Mugabe allowed to share power with him three years ago after disputed elections and much violence. The Daily Telegraph is asking why the British government is enabling the dictatorship and its now compromised opposition leader to spend lavishly on itself for parties and palaces while the British taxpayer picks up the bill for the needs of the desperately poor and deprived Zimbabwean citizens. Good question.
Aid programs have been fraught with such waste and enabling for years, but in this day and age to help a dictator stay in power and aid in the debauching of a once-heroic opposition leader like Tsvangirai, is unacceptable.
So now we have Mugabe undaunted and running again, aided in his quest by British aid; the corruption of the opposition leader; and quite possibly the beginning of the internal breakdown of the authoritarian regime that could sow chaos if the young decide to dethrone the old and there's no opposition with integrity to pick up the pieces.
Now is the time for the US and the EU to pay attention and speak out against this turn of events and to encourage the UK to rethink its aid policy in Zimbabwe.
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U.S. policy in Latin America under President Obama has been mostly defined by a decline in U.S. influence and a languorous response to anti-democratic actions by a passel of populist regimes. Now we know the reason why: It's those obstructionist Senate Republicans.
That's the clear implication of an article last week in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. Sway Clipped in Latin America," in which Senate Republicans are left largely holding the shears.
According to the Journal, "Republican lawmakers have been blocking many of the Obama administration's Latin American nominations for three years," and that, "The Republican strategy has left many in the U.S. government perplexed about how to engage the vast territory."
Both assertions are patent nonsense.
While it is true that the nominations of a new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and one ambassadorship are being held up and that another ambassador was blocked from returning to post after a recess appointment (a third nominee was redirected to Panama after both a Democrat and Republican objected to his initial posting to Nicaragua), that is hardly indicative of a three-year campaign.
In fact, prior to these current holds, the only Obama nominee held up by Senate Republicans has been career official Tom Shannon, who is now Ambassador to Brazil. (Senate Democrats blocked not one, but two of George W. Bush's nominees for Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere.)
Secondly, the notion that Senate Republicans are hindering a more robust U.S. policy in the hemisphere mixes up cause and effect. One senior official told the Journal, "Obviously, embassies continue to work on important issues without an ambassador. But not having an ambassador muffles our voice. There are things that need to be spoken about. The bully pulpit just isn't as effective without an ambassador."
But it is precisely because the administration has failed to use ambassadorial bully pulpits in the face of the ongoing assault on democratic institutions in the region that has partly fueled Senate Republicans' current frustrations.
A particularly risible assertion is that a lack of an ambassador in Ecuador -- the last one was unceremoniously expelled by President Rafael Correa -- is hurting U.S. interests, because "Some point to progress being that was being made in bringing Ecuador's left-wing President Rafael Correa toward more moderate governing, particularly toward the business community, despite efforts by Mssrs. Ortega and Chávez to sway him further to their side."
Progress? In Ecuador? The only progress being made in Ecuador is in President Correa's systematic dismantling of separation of powers and rule of law and his unremitting war against the media, which the Washington Post recently called, "the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere."
Rather than being criticized, Senate Republicans -- primarily Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) -- should be applauded for trying to pressure the administration into injecting some purpose and energy into its hemispheric policy. Rather than attempting to placate angry leftists in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Argentina, the administration needs to be more vocal in its support for democrats throughout the region who feel abandoned by the lackluster response from Washington.
The administration has had three years to develop and implement a regional policy that serves U.S. interests and those of our responsible neighbors. Rather than being obstructionist, all Senate Republicans are trying to do is help bring that about.
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Next week Xi Jinping, China's Vice President and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao, will make his much anticipated debut in Washington. The playbook for Xi's visit will be the May 2002 visit that Hu himself made when he was preparing to move up from Vice President to the top leadership positions. On that trip Hu did everything he could to demonstrate his credentials as the future steward of Sino-U.S. relations without making any compromises, missteps or news. The White House understood the drill: this was about investing in the long-term relationship with the next leader of China and not shopping for "deliverables." The White House Spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was careful to tell the press that the President raised tough issues from Tibet to trade, while lowering expectations of major breakthroughs. It generally paid off in the longer-run, as Bush and Hu developed a level of trust that helped them navigate subsequent crises in North Korea, Taiwan and later the international financial system.
Presumably both Beijing and the White House would like to repeat that success. It will not be as easy ten years later, though. In 2002 the United States was focused on the threat from terrorism and not the threat from China; the business community was united behind the President's efforts to advance U.S.-China relations; there was some modest progress on human rights issues; and Hu himself was absolutely committed to Deng Xiaoping's admonition to bide time, gather strength and not challenge the United States.
This time around the environment is clearly more difficult. Chinese cyberattacks, aggressive territorial claims, anti-satellite missile tests, and non-transparent military modernization are all impossible to ignore, for the United States and for China's neighbors. The human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang and for political dissidents. The American business community is much more divided about China policy and more willing to criticize trade theft and non-tariff barriers (in particularly unfortunate timing for Xi, this week Dupont sued another Chinese scientist for industrial espionage, the second time in three years). The one issue that is quieter than 2002 is Taiwan, for which both governments are probably thankful.
And while Xi is unlikely to change the fundamental direction he is inheriting from Hu (and Hu from Jiang and Jiang from Deng), the new leader has a different style and faces considerably more domestic pressure to look forceful than his predecessor did a decade ago. Hu, for example, took extreme care to avoid any ideological collisions with the United States and the West, co-opting terms like "democracy" and "responsible stakeholder" rather than respond directly to the premise that China's value system needed to change. Xi, in contrast, gained kudos from nationalists at home for his 2009 statement on the "Three Did Nots" in Mexico City, in which he explicitly fired back at the critics of China. It is also hard to find evidence Xi is a more progressive thinker on human rights and political space. The Dalai Lama had a good relationship with Xi's father Xi Zhongxun decades ago, but Tibetan hopes for improvements under the son were dashed when the younger Xi denounced supporters of the Dalai Lama during a heavily policed visit to Lhasa last summer. Similarly, China watchers in Singapore and Southeast Asia have hoped that Xi would be more accommodating and reasonable on maritime disputes given his background as party boss in the coastal province of Fujien, yet as current Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission he has presided over Beijing's expanding military operations in contested waters around Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
On the other hand, Xi is a more confident and charismatic presence than Hu, knows more about the United States (next week he will revisit the Iowa town where he led an agricultural delegation in the early 1980s), and will likely announce major commercial agreements while he is here. So the jury is still out. As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently confessed, "it is going to take a while to really understand how he might move forward." Meanwhile, Xi's visit to the United States could prove a success despite the tougher environment because for both Washington and Beijing, failure is not an option.
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.