I imagine the Obama administration may be wondering whether or not to release another edition of the National Security Strategy (NSS). They released Obama's first (and so far only) one in May 2010. Although the law mandating the NSS calls for annual updates, at the time it looked like the administration might follow the George W. Bush precedent of releasing just one per term.
The one-per-term standard makes sense for a number of reasons. First, we shouldn't expect the overall national security strategy of the country to change on an annual basis. Second, producing a quality document takes a surprising amount of work; better to invest those resources in monitoring the implementation of the old one than in finding ways to repackage old wine in new wine skins. Third, as an administration creeps closer to the silly season of campaigning, the temptation to turn the document into a brag-sheet rather than a serious articulation of the administration's worldview becomes irresistible. Whether or not you agreed with the content of the arguments, Clinton's first NSS and both of Bush's were more substantial and thus more consequential documents than the later ones produced by the Clinton administration.
However, I would not be surprised to learn that a new version is under consideration. Doubtless the campaign temptation is pulling mightily on the Obama team. President Obama will be the first Democratic incumbent in decades -- maybe since Roosevelt -- to have reason to believe that his bragging rights on national security are stronger than they are on domestic policy and the economy. When the applause lines are louder on national security than they are on the economy, it is easy to predict that the candidate will proffer the former more often than the latter (insert late night comic riff about Giuliani mentioning 9/11 here). Whether or not they can produce a document at least as serious as their first one, let alone on par with earlier ones is tougher to predict. Campaign-induced distortions will be a big challenge.
Yet there is one good reason why they should release another version in the current term -- perhaps good enough to overcome all of my other caveats. A few weeks ago, President Obama released a much-ballyhooed "new strategic guidance" and the administration went to considerable lengths to emphasize the boldness and novelty of what they were doing. The commentariat responded in kind -- a Google search of "Obama strategic pivot" produces some 1,200,000 hits.
If it really is so new and so bold, it raises the obvious question: is it new and bold enough to require changes in the (now) old NSS, from which, in theory, such defense guidance is supposed to emanate?
On the other hand, if the new strategic guidance does not require a change in the NSS, how bold and new can it be?
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Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won't be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party's record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion's share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" -- and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team's rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor -- it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor's watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama's Asia strategy -- the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results -- were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton's watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama's successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama's national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won't cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is sending contradictory messages on a crucially important national security subject. At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Leon Panetta seemed to accelerate the withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan from the end of 2014 -- what NATO nations have been committed to -- to "mid-to late 2013." In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan, warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."
The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks.
The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.
This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war. Because arbitrary timelines do not translate into having achieved the objectives that cause enemies to throw down their weapons. And it is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning. Interrogations with prisoners in Afghanistan have caused the American military to conclude that "Once ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."
Secretary Panetta's public affairs folks will likely spend a few days prettying up the mess, emphasizing the secretary was referring to the transition from combat operations to advising and training Afghans. But the damage has been done. As Michael Clarke of Britain's Royal United Services Institute said, "the suspicion that America is going to pull out early will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and there will be a rush to the exit." The Obama administration created this problem by the president's own arbitrary timeline. It is hard to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for playing politics with the issue; politicization is contagious, and allies caught it from President Obama.
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Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.
But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.
This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.
The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.
This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.
Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.
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The Obama administration has changed U.S. strategy toward Iran three times. At the administration's inception, President Obama shed the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran's government, ending support for regime change, sending flowery good wishes at Persian new year and declining to condemn that government for election fraud in 2009. This was a strategy of unconcern for the nature of Iran's government, banking instead on working with it to achieve mutual interests. Let's call that strategy detente.
The administration's second policy shift was to give up hope for progress in government-to-government channels (after remarkably little effort), and instead emphasize multilateral sanctions. In order to gain support of reluctant potential partners, the administration further dialed back U.S. policy in two areas: threat of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, and condemnation of Iranian domestic policies. Even the Pentagon leadership -- civilian and military -- downplayed what could be achieved by destroying elements of Iran's programs.
The main limiting factor on the effectiveness of a sanctions strategy is our ability to cajole or coerce other countries to comply. The United States has had near complete sanctions against Iran since the 1979 seizure of our Embassy; there is little we can do directly. But to their credit, the Obama administration has done much to persuade Europeans and the countries of the Gulf to enforce sanctions. The EU is seriously considering an embargo of Iranian oil purchases; Gulf countries with close banking and commercial ties to Iran have even for the first time curtailed their activity.
And Congress, to their credit, has done even more, passing legislation to sanction companies that do business with Iran's central bank. Congress took the administration at its word and put in place sanctions that Iran could not circumvent. Ken Pollack, one of the best Middle East hands, estimates the new sanctions could impose a 30 percent penalty on the Iranian economy. That will put enormous pressure on the government of Iran, especially in the run up to Parliamentary elections in March.
The White House objected to the legislation so vehemently that Congress suspects the administration will stint on implementation. But Treasury Secretary Geithner was sent to China and Japan, lesser officials to South Korea and other purchasers of Iranian oil to explain the administration will have only narrow avenues to exempt countries temporarily from exclusion from the dollar zone unless they comply with the legislation.
The administration's third policy shift on Iran was necessitated by two things: the Arab spring, and Iran's provocative behavior. An administration that didn't want to champion democracy was pressed into it by the fact that the so-called Arab Street -- so often depicted as virulently opposed to American values -- actually wants the political liberties we have and is taking responsibility for outcomes in their own countries. But the way the Obama administration navigated our response to the Arab spring managed to infuriate both democrats in the region and authoritarian governments we are allied with.
Here the administration's incapacity to develop a strategy has had deeply detrimental effects. They don't seem to realize their writing off Iraq has fanned sectarian tensions throughout the middle east, how their inactivity on Syria is further destabilizing Iraq (and vice versa), or their approach to the peace process undercut Palestinians working to build a state and further isolated Israel, can't tell the difference between success in Libya and success in Egypt, what fleeting opportunities now exist to contain Iranian activity and influence in the region, how far -- and even just how -- to support the transition to democracy, whom to partner with, or coordinate their rhetoric about priorities (a pivot to Asia?) with in this once in a century set of changes occurring in the middle east.
Our saving grace, at the moment, is that governments in the region see the effects of our strategic incoherence and are taking actions that mostly help them and us. The two crucial changes are in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both precipitated as a reaction to, not an endorsement of, our policies. Many middle easterners see Turkey as a model for their own countries' development as democratic governments in Muslim societies, a position the government of Turkey thirstily wants to retain. Turkey refused to support U.N. sanctions against Iran and gets 30 percent of its oil there, but its policies have evolved and oil refiners are now moving to comply because of Iran's recent bellicosity and continued support of Bashir al Assad's bloody crackdown in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is even turning the screws on Iran, offering to provide additional supplies of oil to countries that refuse contracts with Iran. Iran reacted with predictable threats that Saudi and others will be considered accomplices of the West. That approach used to worry the Saudis, when Iran could plausibly claim the crown of Islamism to delegitimize governments. But Iran's use of religion to justify a fraudulent election, assassination plot involving the Saudi Ambassador, and stoking of sectarian tensions has devalued that currency even more than sanctions have devalued the rial.
This is worse than leading from behind: being handed a propitious set of circumstances, we are failing to set the conditions for a middle east that will be conducive to American security. Syria's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood actually declined Iranian offers of mediation, saying Iran's support for Assad made them unacceptable as an interlocutor. Allegiances cast in stone for generations are fracturing -- what opportunities the rocking of boats in the Middle East presents! What a pity the Obama administration can't come up with a strategy to capitalize on them.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In his 2009 Inaugural Address, President Obama laid down a marker to those who would threaten the United States:
"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
In 2011, he fulfilled this promise by ordering a daring raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, resulting in the death of the architect of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Given that the greatest responsibility of any commander in chief is keeping the American people safe, this action, combined with the president's continuance and expansion of many of the counterterrorism policies initiated by the Bush administration, were the president's greatest accomplishments in 2011.
However, lurking beneath these successes are the President's greatest failures of 2011.
The president's counterterrorism accomplishments over the last three years have been supported by his policies toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His willingness in 2009 to extend his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and his initial stewardship of the gains achieved by President Bush's 2007 surge of forces created the opportunity for a significant victory in the war on terror. As the events of the last two weeks indicate, that outcome, unfortunately, is no longer certain given the administration's inability or unwillingness to negotiate a U.S. military presence in that country after the end of this year.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the president initially appeared intent on achieving a military victory against the extremists that threaten Afghanistan's stability. His 2009 surge of forces has produced significant gains, especially in the south. But the president now seems more focused on winning reelection than winning the war. The surge forces will be out of the country by October of next year and the press is rife with reports of secret reconciliation talks with the Taliban that could undermine the Afghan government and reverse the gains made by the Afghan people since the brutal days of Taliban rule.
Compounding these two failures in 2011 was the president's inability to leverage the momentous developments of the Arab Spring. As people seeking their freedom took to the streets in country after country, President Obama stood by, letting others, many of whom do not share America's interests, take the lead. Fundamental change in the sclerotic Arab world has the potential to reverse the trends that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the extremism that continues to threaten our way of life. Unfortunately, the leader of the free world refused to lead.
Great leaders shape the strategic landscape rather than allow themselves and their countries to be buffeted around by world events. President Obama deserves credit in 2011 for policies that led to the deaths of many who plotted to kill Americans, but because of his unwillingness to consolidate gains in Iraq and Afghanistan and embrace the revolutions of the Arab Spring, 2011 will likely be remembered as a year of missed opportunities rather than strategic successes.
Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg via Getty Images
I might quibble with them on minor points. For instance, contra Inboden, Obama has not "creat[ed] a new strategic posture in Asia." Rather, after meandering a bit with some failed efforts (G-2, the 2009 Myanmar outreach), by the end of 2011 Obama can finally and truthfully claim that "America is Back," by which I mean, "America is back to pursuing the successful Asian strategic posture that President Bush bequeathed to Obama." And, contra Blumenthal, I think the Trans Pacific Partnership announcement is less significant than it otherwise should be precisely because the Obama Administration's record on free trade is so equivocal. If the gap between vision and execution gets too large, then the vision itself becomes a source of friction rather than inspiration. The soundings I have taken in the region convince me that we are uncomfortably close to that point when it comes to trade. But these are quibbles; my Shadow colleagues have done a good job compiling cheer-worthy and jeer-worthy steps taken this past year.
Since I have already weighed in with critiques and would like to end the year on a high point, I will only flag a cheer-worthy move (there will be time aplenty in the coming year for further critique): 2011 marked the year when Obama irrevocably embraced the bipartisan war frame in confronting the challenges of transnational terrorism.
Candidate Obama campaigned unevenly against the war frame. On the one hand, he criticized Bush for underemphasizing the war on terror, as when he alleged that Bush took his "eye off the ball" and when Obama boasted about a willingness to do unilateral strikes against Pakistan. On the other hand, Obama blamed what he considered to be excesses in the fight precisely on the war frame and promised to undo a long list of Bush policies.
The unevenness continued into the first year or so of Obama's tenure. On the one hand, he ramped up some aspects of the war on terror, particularly drone strikes and the surge in Afghanistan. On the other hand, he tolerated demoralizing witch-hunts to ferret out "wrongdoing" in the Bush Administration, promised rashly to close Gitmo without accurately counting the costs, and famously attempted to relabel activities (combat became "overseas contingency operations," and so on).
The unevenness was enough for reasonable people to debate whether Obama marked radical discontinuity or fundamental continuity in the war on terror. Reasonable people such as President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney used to plausibly claim the former. As 2011 closes and one by one the attempted changes fell by the wayside, only the latter is plausible.
As I argued earlier, resolving the question in favor of bipartisan continuity does not resolve all policy debates about what to do. There is still plenty to debate about the handling of the terrorism file, and the 2012 campaign will provide an opportunity to do so. But the cartoons and chimeras that contributed confusion to earlier rounds have finally been put to rest and that is a cheer-worthy foreign policy achievement.
Dennis Brack/Pool via Bloomberg via Getty Images
The administration's most important success in 2011? I'll go with the obvious: the Seal Team 6 takedown of bin Laden. Never discount the vital national interest in visiting harsh justice upon those who mastermind mass slaughter on the American homeland -- even 10 years delayed. The victims and their families deserved it. The country yearned for it. And the rest of the world needed a stark reminder that no matter how much time passes, no matter how far they run, the long arm of American retaliation will eventually reach out and touch those who opt to wage war against the United States. Republican or Democrat in the White House, it makes no difference. The message is the same, always the same: Don't tread on me.
It was the president's finest hour. His least charitable critics will demur. In retrospect, they argue, he had to take the shot. To have passed it up would have subjected him to intense criticism and ridicule. A political catastrophe that would have sunk his presidency.
Perhaps. And yet. The risks of giving the "go" order were substantial too. The odds that bin Laden was not actually in the compound may have been as high as 50 percent. Several of the president's most senior advisors argued against the operation. The potential geopolitical ramifications of a stealth raid deep inside Pakistan, the world's fastest growing nuclear weapons state and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, weighed heavy. As did the political and strategic costs of failure. Images of the carnage at Desert One in Iran, and of Mogadishu's Black Hawk Down, could not but have haunted Obama's thoughts. And still he went. A quintessential presidential decision. Lonely. Courageous. Necessary. Good on him.
The bin Laden hit was part of a larger pattern of counter-terrorism successes that rightly should inure to the administration's credit. Add to it the president's call to serve as judge, jury and executioner of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on a remote highway in northern Yemen -- constitutional niceties and the qualms of Obama's liberal base be damned. And more generally, the ten-fold escalation in drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan that unquestionably have wreaked havoc on the organization's capabilities and morale. Yes, the threat we face from bin Laden's evil spawn remains. But the president has combatted it well, with a steeliness of spine, a quotient of ice in the veins, that deserves respect and appreciation. His administration has kept the nation safe from further terrorist attack, despite the best efforts of a vicious and implacable foe.
As for the most important thing the administration got wrong in 2011? Perhaps too predictably, I'll venture Iraq. I don't believe the president ever really had the intention of maintaining a significant American military presence there. Deep in his bones, he long ago resolved that the war was a huge blunder, a blot on America's moral character and a dangerous distraction from the real threats and challenges facing the nation. No amount of progress on the ground could convince him otherwise, or wash clean the stain of the war's original sin in his eyes. Obama's mission from the get-go was to put Iraq into the nation's rear-view mirror, a goal from which he never really wavered. The trick was to do it in a way that didn't immediately sacrifice all the hard-fought gains of Bush's surge, to create the prospect of a "decent interval" that would limit the potential for political blowback.
To placate those -- especially among the military's top brass -- who saw the strategic sense in consolidating a long-term partnership, the president authorized, albeit belatedly, negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence. But his heart was never in it. As had been the case from the beginning of his term when it came to les affaires d'Irak, the president's involvement in the effort to get to "yes" was notable only for its absence. Anyone who'd ever spent any time working Iraq policy post-2003 could have told you from the start: A negotiation structured to limit the president's personal engagement in the muck and the mire of shepherding a deal through was in fact a negotiation structured to fail. And so it did.
Iraqi leaders certainly sniffed out long ago that Obama viewed them as the bastard step-children of Bush's failed policies, whom he hoped to kick to the curb at the first available opportunity. They knew he had no intention of ever taking any real risks for them. Predictably enough, when it came to the thorny issue of immunity for U.S. troops, they weren't about to take any for him either.
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images
Grand strategy appears to be the flavor of the month in the strategic community. I have planned or been invited to numerous conferences looking at the topic and the debates on this topic are as lively as I can remember in a long time. Just recently, I gave a talk to a grand strategy conference at NDU on the myths that afflict the field. Here is the gist of the talk.
Myth 1: The U.S.
can't do grand strategy
Many critics claim that the United States is simply too disorganized to do strategy on a grand scale.
In fact, we had a coherent grand strategy during the 19th century build around the Monroe Doctrine. We had a coherent grand strategy during WWII built around winning in Europe first. And we had a coherent grand strategy during the Cold War built around the idea of containment.
Myth 2: The U.S. lost
the ability to do grand strategy when the Soviet Union disappeared
Many critics concede we had a grand strategy during the Cold War, but claim that we haven't had one since. This is by far the most prevalent myth and some of the very best in the business peddle it.
In fact, we have had a coherent, bipartisan, and largely successful grand strategy from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama
Myth 3: A grand
strategy has to have a 3-syllable label that rhymes with "ainment"
This gets to the heart of why you get the odd argument that we had a grand strategy during the Cold War but we haven't since. When critics say that we haven't had a grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, what they really mean is that we haven't had a label like "containment" that enjoys widespread popularity. This is true, but trivial.
In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union a 5-pillar grand strategy has been clearly discernible:
Pillar I. The velvet covered iron fist. Iron fist: build a military stronger than what is needed for near-term threats to dissuade a would-be hostile rival from achieving peer status. Velvet covered: accommodate major powers on issues, giving them a larger stake in the international distribution of goodies than their military strength would command to dissuade a near-peer from starting a hostile rivalry.
Pillar 2. Make the world more like us politically by promoting the spread of democracy.
Pillar 3. Make the world more like us economically by promoting the spread of markets and globalization.
Pillar 4. Focus on WMD proliferation to rogue states as the top tier national security threat.
Pillar 5 (added by George W. Bush). Focus on terrorist networks of global reach inspired by militant Islamist ideologies as another top tier national security threat, i.e. co-equal with WMD in the hands of rogue states. The nexus of 4 & 5 is the ne plus ultra threat.
President has finished up a grueling trip to the Asia-Pacific region and can
generally feel good about what he accomplished. Like everything this President
does, however, the trip was very heavy on political spin. His team could not
stop talking about their "pivot" to Asia. Whether this is a foreign
policy strategy or just rhetoric in an election year, it deserves careful and
considered deconstruction. Our colleague Dan Blumenthal began the critique
last week by rightly pointing out that the pivot doesn't work when you
hollow out defense spending. And Dan is not alone; Tom Donnelly also pointed out
some of the flaws
with the pivot concept. Now that the trip is over, more
can be said.
The Indo-Pacific region is the fastest-growing economic zone in the world; home to six of the eight known nuclear weapons states or proliferators (US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea); and scene of both 21st century economic integration and 19th century balance-of-power rivalry. The United States is a Pacific power with interests, influence, allies and territory right at the center of the region. Polling by the German Marshall Fund of the United States shows that Americans, by a considerable margin, believe Asia is more important to their country's national interests than Europe. At the same time, Asians have real questions about American staying power in their region (as they have on-and-off since Vietnam).
The president's success in signaling high-level American attention to the region should be reassuring to nervous friends and allies. Enactment of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (after years of deferring to the Democratic Party's labor base) and progress on negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership put momentum behind the goal of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific that President Bush put forward. President Obama's conversion to these policies and the cause of trade liberalization has come late, but it is welcome nonetheless.
It also appears that despite embracing dangerously deep defense cuts overall, the Obama administration has decided that force structure reductions will mostly come in Europe and not Asia. Secretary of Defense Panetta sent that signal on his first trip to Asia, and it helped to blunt the growing concerns about American defense capabilities in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves credit for spending more time on
and in Asia than most of her immediate predecessors. For all those reasons,
whether it is called a "pivot" or not, the administration's increasing focus on
Asia has big pros.
But is a "pivot" the right way to frame this? First of all, without resources the big talk will quickly seem hollow to friends and foes alike. The United States is facing the prospect of up to a trillion dollars in defense cuts over the coming decade. Defense cuts of this magnitude cannot but undermine U.S. capabilities, and with them our ability to reassure and deter, in Asia. Defense spending cuts may come out of Europe and Southwest Asia, but when Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan get hot in the decade ahead, where will the forces come from? If we hollow out our force structure in Europe and Southwest Asia, we set up a situation where forces will eventually be drained out of East Asia. Our friends and adversaries know this.
In addition, the "pivot" spin makes the United States look like a
spastic superpower that swings around focusing on only one region at a time. During
the Cold War, the United States managed a grand strategy that was global in
scope with skill; are we not capable of doing so today, when our freedom of
maneuver and our relative power are in fact greater? It is unbecoming of a
global power; unnerving for our European allies (whose support we also need to
manage China's ascendance); and carries the unfortunate connotation that we may
"pivot" again based on a new, reductionist, one-region-at-a-time
concept of grand strategy.
Finally, by suddenly framing this entire trip as a swing against China, the White House risks unsettling the careful ground work done by American diplomats and military officials over the past year. The Australian base agreement is a good first step toward constructing a dispersed but robust forward presence as we prepare to cope with more missile threats to our forces. But as Teddy Roosevelt said, it is better to speak softly and carry a big stick. Now friendly countries like Indonesia are recoiling against U.S. strategy because of the last minute verbal assault on China. The "pivot" is even more jarring because the administration spent the first year framing Asia strategy in terms of a new U.S.-China bipolar condominium, articulated in the November 2009 Obama-Hu joint statement that trumpeted respect for each others' core interests and followed U.S. decisions to postpone meetings with the Dalai Lama and arms sales to Taiwan. Supporters of a strong U.S.-India relationship in Delhi were actually told by senior Obama administration officials at the time that the United States no longer believes in the concept of the balance of power. You cannot blame them for being a bit confused now. The pivot can be dizzying.
At the end of the day, we suspect the "pivot" is a convenient political frame for the White House to try to explain that the Obama administration remains muscular and strategic, despite its accelerated retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. When domestic politics intrude on the framing of foreign policy in this way -- especially when it happens so suddenly-- the result can undercut what would otherwise be solid building blocks for a regional strategy in Asia. Still, kudos to those like Secretary Clinton who have remained consistent in their focus on Asia and to those U.S. officials who worked hard to reverse misguided early policies against trade liberalization and an ill-conceived U.S.-China bipolar condominium. Their work paid off on this trip. Meanwhile, let's be clear: superpowers manage rising powers with leadership and steadiness -- not pivots.
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"What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?" famously asked the early church father Tertullian. His question in the third century addressed the relationship between the reason of Greek philosophy embodied by Athens and the revelation of Judeo-Christian religion embodied by Jerusalem. Today's foreign policy equivalent of Tertullian's query could be "What hath Damascus to do with Darwin?" (the Australian city that is, not its namesake English naturalist)
Plenty, because oftentimes strategic opportunities transcend just one region. This is the case with the Middle East and Asia today. Looking at those regions together, the Obama administration has a strategic opportunity to push far-reaching changes that will anchor American interests for a long time to come. Here I will echo many of the good points that Dan Blumenthal makes in his post below. The White House (and the Asia policy shop at the State Department) should be applauded for last week's moves in Asia, including plans to base a small contingent of Marines in Darwin, Australia, support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and further development of the AirSea Battle Concept. If one doubts the significance of these moves, just a glance at the querulous reactions from China tells another story. This new posture is all the more significant -- and welcome -- considering that the Obama Administration took office less than three years ago intent on pursuing a dubious "G-2" partnership with China.
While I share Dan's concerns about the administration's commitment to resourcing America's forward posture in Asia and political will to follow through on free trade, the fact of these decisions is still encouraging and merits bipartisan support. Basing a small contingent of Marines in Australia sends a political signal that far surpasses its military significance, and will bring positive reverberations not just in Canberra but also in Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, and Bangkok. And more may be yet to come, if the recent liberalization trends in Burma continue and Secretary Clinton's upcoming visit, encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi, helps lure Naypyitaw out of Beijing's orbit. If even Burma comes in from the cold, Beijing will have realized the dubious geopolitical distinction in the last two years of having alienated almost every other nation in its neighborhood (or at least everyone not named "North Korea").
Yet as Dan argues, the White House would be undercutting its own strategic initiative if it treats these moves in East Asia as pivots away from the Middle East and South Asia. Our nation's actions in one region shape our credibility and power in other regions. India realizes this, hence its hesitation to partner with an America that it worries will be drawing down prematurely in Afghanistan and further complicating India's rough neighborhood. China and Russia realize this, hence their efforts to constrain American influence by vetoing the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and watering down an emerging resolution on Iran, which as Mike Singh and Jacqueline Deal point out remains China's favored partner in the region.
Syria represents the crucible of strategic opportunity. The once-timorous Arab League has now spoken boldly that Assad must go. The European Union, too politically paralyzed to deal adequately with its own economic crisis, has marshaled the political will to impose severe sanctions on Damascus that are now bearing fruit. The people of Syria have braved the massacres of over 3,500 of their fellow citizens and persist in their demands for a new government in Damascus. It is time for the Obama Administration to capitalize on this multilateral momentum by leading a concerted diplomatic effort to end Bashar Assad's barbaric rule.
While moral concerns alone justify the demise of the Assad regime, the strategic consequences would be enormous. Iran would lose its only regional ally. Hamas and Hezbollah would lose a valuable patron state. Lebanon would have the chance to reclaim its sovereignty. Turkey would see the benefits of being a responsible regional actor. Iraq's border security would improve. The Green Movement in Iran would likely be resuscitated and pose a new challenge to Ayatollah Khameini's regime in Tehran that is otherwise barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons program. China and Russia would lose both a client state and international credibility, and democratic reformers in China might even be energized.
China, after all, sees its subtle rivalry with the United States playing out not just in East Asia but across the world. As David Ignatius describes, when American leadership is perceived to be diminishing in a region, other actors will step in to fill the void, such as the Saudis are doing in the Middle East. And if America abdicates our leadership in the Middle East, the effect will be to undercut rather than strengthen our posture elsewhere such as Asia. This is why Marines in Darwin and democracy reformers in Damascus are important players on the same global chessboard.
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There has been much ado in the media and from the Obama administration about a great strategic shift from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. Obama and senior administration officials are making the case for this shift by claiming that we have accomplished our Iraq and Afghanistan goals, and that the time has come to focus on the "real problem": China. This week, the president announced the basing of 2,500 marines in Australia and a pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement that excludes China. The U.S. military has also released some details on its new AirSea battle concept -- an answer to the dense network of submarines, mines, anti-aircraft capabilities, and missiles that China has created to keep the United States out of China's periphery. All of these moves are to be commended. However, they do not and should not add up to a new "pivot." Here are some reasons why:
1) There is no way for the U.S. to project the necessary influence into East Asia if Aghanistan and Pakistan are on fire. One major reason is that if India is tied down in a competition with Pakistan, China, and Iran in Afghanistan, it cannot become the kind of East Asian power we wish it to be. The Bush administration's India strategy was designed to help India break out of its squabbles in South Asia and exert influence in East Asia. A hasty pull-out of Aghanistan will reverse that sensible strategy.
2) China is exercising more influence in the Middle East in ways harmful to our larger goals (e.g., support of Iran). To compete with China in East Asia, we must retain our influence in the Middle East and South Asia and check destabilizing Chinese diplomacy.
3) The deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and the highlighting of a military concept to respond to China's military build-up are necessary but insufficient first steps. These developments cannot make up for the fact that our military has faced deep cuts in its budget and will face more. No matter what administration officials say, these cuts will affect our posture in Asia profoundly. We need more ships, more aircraft, more missile defense. To be a bit flippant, we are putting Marines in Australia without sufficient equipment to get out of Australia. Our allies and China need to see and feel our presence. That can only be accomplished with more sea patrols, surges in exercises that promote freedom of navigation, and so on.
4) The AirSea battle concept is a serious effort to meet the China challenge. But based on information released about it, the concept suffers from two flaws. First, the resource question -- how would we shut down Chinese military operations without sufficient platforms and munitions? Second, AirSea battle fails to take into account China's nuclear ambitions. China is already a nuclear-armed country with every incentive to continue its build-up of nuclear forces. That is because we have agreed on a bilateral (with Russia) rather than multilateral basis to cap our nuclear forces. Since China is bound by no important arms control treaties, and because we are openly talking about major conventional strikes on the Mainland, China has every reason to seek nuclear parity with us over time.
5) The TPP is a great idea. In particular, securing Japanese agreement to an FTA would be a great success . The question is, are we serious? It took the better part of Obama's term to ratify the FTA with South Korea. Are we really to believe that he will take on his base and sign more major FTAs?
There is no dispute that we need to take serious steps to balance China's power. But we cannot do so by "pivoting" away from two critical areas of the world. We need India to have peaceful borders in order to compete with China, and we need to diminish China's influence in the Middle East. And finally, the Obama Administration needs to resource its stated Asia strategy, which it so far shows little sign of doing.
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Having spent a week in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, and Rio meeting with senior representatives of the Brazilian government and major influencers in the country, it's clear to me that Republicans and conservatives need to understand that Brazil could be as consequential to the United States in the next twenty years as Canada or Mexico are to us now. The next Republican president needs to make Brazil a top priority by firstly, naming a high-level ambassador and secondly, making Brazil one of his first stops overseas.
Brazil is still considered a developing country, but this classification is about ten years out of date. The United States needs to develop new ways to work with countries like Brazil that are on their way to becoming industrialized countries. Instead of foreign aid and development, we have "cooperation interests" with Brazil that are linked to our foreign policy, national security, and commercial interests.
Republicans and conservatives, like others across the political spectrum, have historically had other interests in the region (e.g. Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, and Nicaragua to name a few). Brazil has not presented itself to the United States as either a security threat or much of a market. There, of course, have been historical ties that are often overlooked and ignored (e.g. Brazil sending troops to fight on the Allies' side in World War II).
The Brazilians have been too poor, too self involved, or too chaotic to warrant much of our attention or for them to pay us too much attention. Also, in moments of delusions of grandeur, the Brazilians have seen themselves almost as rivals to us -- something we have not reciprocated for the simple fact that Brazil has not been on our radar.
Over the last 20 years, much of the energy in the relationship has been around the environment. Many will remember the "Save the Rainforest" campaigns focusing on the Amazon of the late 80s and early 90s.
Finally, how many people in the United States actually speak Portuguese who do not have some family tie to the language? The Latin Americanists, almost to a person, speak Spanish and focus on Spanish speaking countries for good reasons. All of the above is changing or is going to change.
The window of opportunity is there.
Following the lead of Presidents George W. Bush and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Presidents Barack Obama and President Dilma Rousseff have been deepening relations between the two countries since at least 2005, with more frequent meetings and on-going high-level government dialogues. Rousseff and her Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota are broadly pro-American. We have an opportunity to consolidate this relationship and move it from a third level relationship to a first level relationship over the next 10 years. If there is a Republican in the White House in 2013, we need to build on the Bush/Obama legacy, create an office in the State Department focused solely on Brazil, just as we have for Canada, and find new, more strategic ways to work together through networks that exist or that need to be built between our two societies.
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President Obama flew west, met with Asia-Pacific leaders, and trumpeted his intention to strike a high-standards trade deal with other committed trading partners in the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
That paragraph could describe either this last weekend or Nov. 2009, when the president first revived the TPP (it was initially launched in Sept. 2008 under the Bush administration and set aside by the new Obama team). Perhaps that's why the story about the weekend's APEC leaders' gathering in Hawaii was buried in the inner pages of the Washington Post and failed to make the front page of the New York Times. The papers may have learned, with this president, to duly note the statements of grand intentions, but to save the gaudy headlines for actual accomplishments.
There has been some movement over the last two years, of course. The nine nations currently involved in the TPP negotiations have been meeting and hammering out a "framework" for the agreement. The Obama administration, over that time, moved from a tentative "intent to engage in discussions" to a full-fledged embrace of the TPP. New countries are now clamoring to join in the negotiations.
But enormous obstacles remain:
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The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously -- more seriously -- than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria's dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab League held him to account, decrying his continuing aggression. At Saturday's League meeting, they formally sanctioned Syria's leader for continued violence against the Syrian people and not honoring his promises of political dialogue and release of political prisoners. They called for a meeting of Syrian dissidents and urged consensus on them to more effectively pressure Assad. The Arab League set a clock ticking for Assad to comply; if he does not within four days, further political and economic sanctions will go into effect.
The only previous time the Arab League has been willing to call out a member government was after the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi as he closed in on Benghazi. Qaddafi was a special case, having attempted to assassinate heads of other Arab governments. And the Arab League was following a U.N. lead; in taking action on Syria, the Arab League has led where Russia and China prevent condemnation at the United Nations.
These actions constitute an admirable strategy of escalating and increasingly public pressure by regional governments. The vote in the twenty-two member Arab League was 18 condemnations of Syria (only Yemen and Lebanon voted to shield Syria; Iraq abstained). Technically, League rules require unanimity. Yet, as NATO did during the Kosovo war, the Arab League found a way to express its will rather than let itself be hamstrung by technicalities.
The shame for Americans is that the Arab League, so long a regressive force in the politics of the region, has a better Syria policy than does the Obama administration. 3,500 Syrians have been killed by their government this year; during that time, our government has adjusted its position from considering Bashar al-Assad a reformer -- Secretary Hillary Clinton's memorable phrase -- to saying "he cannot deny his people's legitimate demands indefinitely."
The "Obama Doctrine," as the White House has termed its choices on Libya, gives to Russia and China a veto -- literally -- on U.S. support for freedom movements and human rights activists. This is disgraceful. Without a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the Obama administration will not consider significant support to the Syrians engaged in a fight to protect themselves from a despot.
Clinton outlined the rationale for treating the Syrian case different from the Obama Doctrine: "our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans' lives - including our fight against al Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy." One might ask the Secretary of State which of these interests would be in conflict with working to rein in the barbarism of an enemy of the United States who fosters terrorism and has killed 3,500 Syrians this year alone. Adding insult to injury, Clinton gave this explanation in a speech on promoting democracy.
Where the Arab League has been negotiating with Bashir al-Assad to curb his predations against the people of Syria, the Obama Administration fecklessly repeats that Assad must step down. And this from a President that insisted he would negotiate with anyone.
After a brave start by Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria, the State Department has recalled him because Syria is dangerous. Less so to an U.S. ambassador than to the people he was bearing witness for, though, and who now have no potent symbol of America's support for their cause.
Withdrawing our ambassador is, in fact, the sadly appropriate symbol of Obama administration policy toward Syria. They pretend engagement but are unwilling to run risks in support of freedom. Instead they pontificate piously from a safe distance while others undertake the difficult, honorable work of bringing despots to their knees.
How fortunate are the people of Syria that they have the governments of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League to stand up for freedom and universal human rights; what a pity the Obama administration will not.
President Obama's statement supporting the action of the Arab League says it all: "the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable."
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The Nov. 23 deadline for a "Supercommittee" budget agreement is fast approaching, and no such agreement is as yet in sight. The Pentagon appears to be panicking over the prospect of sequestration, and with it a reduction of some $600 billion in defense-related spending over the next decade. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's warnings have become ever more dire. He has said that sequestration will "invite aggression from U.S. adversaries", that it will result in a "hollow force" of "ships without sailors" and "brigades without bullets."
The Secretary should know better. Not because sequestration, if implemented, would not be a disaster for DoD, but because the absence of an agreement, which would trigger a sequester, does not mean that sequestration will ever come to pass. It is important to note that the sequester would only come into force for the Fiscal Year 2013 budget; in other words, nearly a year must still pass before any cuts are mandated. And the Congress thus has nearly a year to legislate the sequester into the dustbin of history.
It has happened exactly that way before, as Mr. Panetta knows only too well. He was a veteran of the House Budget Committee in 1988 when the Congress reached a budget deficit agreement that wiped out a $20 billion sequestration that was supposed to have been "automatically" triggered by the 1985 Balanced Budget Emergency Deficit Control Act, popularly known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. And he was chairman of the House Budget Committee in 1990, when he played a major role in the enactment of Congressional legislation that again circumvented the 1985 Act by lowering sequestration levels from the "automatic" $16 billion that the Act would have mandated to just over $4.5 billion in budget reductions. Again in 1991, with Mr. Panetta still serving as House Budget Committee chairman, a smaller sequester of some $190 million was rescinded in subsequent legislation that year when the purported savings were found to be the result of a miscalculation.
It is arguable that the long term health of America's defense posture would be better served if the Supercommittee fails to produce an agreement than if it does. It will be much harder for the Congress to rescind a budget deal to which all sides agreed, than to rescind a sequester that was the product of an absence of agreement. Even under the best of circumstances, it is unlikely that Defense could avoid cuts of $200-300 billion in a deal that totals $1.2 trillion; and those cuts will be difficult, if not impossible to restore. On the other hand, the Congress can be expected to rescind sequestration precisely because of the warnings that the Pentagon's top leaders have issued. And once the Congress returns to square one, the prospects for protecting the Defense budget will radically improve.
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Over several different posts, I have been exploring the eerie echoes between Obama supporters' critique of the entry into Iraq and the way Obama has chosen to exit it. Up until now, I have focused on the policymaking process rather than the policy itself. In the final analysis, however, it is the policy that will matter most and so it is worth investigating whether the same overall pattern that is so marked on the politics applies to the substance as well. Here are three echoes that may prove to be consequential.
The first is the concern that we entered Iraq with too few troops to do the mission and now we will be exiting Iraq leaving behind too few troops to do the mission. For -- make no mistake of it -- while President Obama claims that the Iraq war will have ended, the Iraq mission has not. The State Department has committed to its largest, most ambitious, and most challenging set of operations it has ever attempted without the cover of a sizable U.S. military presence. The security and logistics vacuum left by the departing U.S. uniformed troops will be replaced, at some lower level of functionality, by U.S.-contracted private security forces. Many experts inside thought some residual force would be needed and I do not know many people who have high confidence that the State Department is up to the task that it has left itself.
Shouldn't critics who thought the entry to Iraq involved overly risky operational choices about the resources needed for the subsequent phase of the mission be equally concerned about the resources left for the next phase now?
The second is the concern that shifting focus so rapidly from the Afghanistan theater in 2002 to Iraq relaxed the pressure on the core al Qaeda network and its Taliban sponsor. By "taking our eye off the ball," we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to reconstitute itself. Indeed, this was quintessence of the Obama war critique of 2008: he claimed it was time to focus on the "real" threat in Afghanistan and stop diverting resources to the "secondary" theater of Iraq.
A recent New York Times article underscores the extent to which this same phenomenon is happening, but in reverse. Bush's surge strategy of 2007 put the Iraqi-based al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), on the defensive. Progress on both the security and political fronts allowed many observers inside and outside government to speculate that AQI might even be defeated. Now, according to the NYT, some in the U.S military fear that the failure to secure an arrangement for a more robust military mission in Iraq after 2011 has thrown a life-line to AQI. The description of the debate inside sounds remarkably like debates about the beginnings of the Iraq war, with a White House pushing to move on while others in the Administration are pushing to finish the job first:
The Qaeda affiliate's nascent resurgence has helped fuel a debate between some Pentagon officials on one side, who are seeking a way to permit small numbers of American military trainers and Special Operations forces to operate in Iraq, and some White House officials on the other, who are eager to close the final chapter on a divisive eight-year war that cost the lives of more than 4,400 troops.
Shouldn't critics who believed that in entering Iraq the Bush administration took its eye off of the ball and thereby allowed the enemy to reconstitute itself worry that in exiting Iraq the Obama administration is doing the very same thing?
The third parallel concerns Iran. As measured by our national interest, one of the gravest charges leveled against the Bush Administration was the claim that Iran benefited the most from the toppling of Hussein. Under Saddam, Iraq was Iran's most formidable foe -- they fought a bloody war throughout the 1980s, after all -- and Iraq helped check Iran's regional aspirations. Saddam was replaced first with chaos, which Iran was able to exploit, and later with a new government controlled by political factions with deep ties to Iran. Bush's National Security Strategy claimed, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." But, the charge goes, invading Iraq made that challenge much greater than it otherwise would have been.
Critics are making exactly that charge about Obama's exit plan today, and quoting Iranian leaders to substantiate it. By failing to negotiate a longer-term strategic presence inside Iraq, President Obama may have tilted the U.S.-Iran balance of power even more decisively in favor of Iran. The United States is now scrambling, to recover from this set-back, but the challenge is daunting.
Shouldn't critics who believed the entry into Iraq hurt U.S. interests by empowering Iran also believe that the exit from Iraq has further empowered Iran and thus further hurt U.S. interests?
Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. The most compelling piece with a cautiously optimistic take that I have read is the one by Brett McGurk, one of the key negotiators in the latest phase of the U.S.-Iraq saga. He makes two hard-headed pragmatic points. First, in the end this was Iraq's choice to make and the Iraqi people did not want U.S. forces to stay with the immunity that U.S. lawyers insisted we had to have. Second, this is not the end of the relationship and there are many ways in which the U.S.-Iraqi partnership can blossom in a mutually productive fashion.
Because of his analysis, I am not willing to declare mission failure yet. But it sure looks like we are embarking on a needlessly risky path.
It is a cliché that history doesn't repeat itself but it may rhyme. Here is another over-used aphorism: just because it is a cliché doesn't mean it can't be true.
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In an earlier post, I raised the possibility that Obama may not live up to his campaign promise to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered it. I am hardly alone in wondering about this, but I haven't seen many attempts to document the ways that the exit is resembling the entry.
A few caveats are worth mentioning up front. The exit is still a work in progress and so there is plenty of time for things to go better (or worse) than might be forecasted now. Any judgment I or anyone else makes on the subject is provisional at best. Moreover, most of the critiques of the entry into Iraq owe more to partisan (or academic) mythology than to actual fact. But they have wide currency -- indeed, in some quarters, they are accepted as self-evident truths -- and so it is worth investigating the extent to which they might apply to the exit.
One of the earliest entry critiques was the charge that President George W. Bush hurried up the confrontation with Iraq in 2002 so as to distract from economic scandals and thus score an electoral advantage in the midterm elections. This allegation was made at the time by two people who later became high-level White House officials in the current administration. First, current WH spokesman Jay Carney, then a reporter for Time, raised the possibility that Karl Rove was orchestrating the Iraq timetable for political advantage. The second j'accuse was even more famous, Illinois State Senator Obama's speech explaining why he opposed the Iraq war. Prominent in his speech was this remarkable accusation:
What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Roves to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income -- to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.
At a time when the economy is suffering from some of the worst years since the Great Depression, the echo is unmistakable, and many critics believe that the Iraq decision was dictated by the 2012 election calendar. President Obama would have a hard time getting reelected based on the awful domestic conditions, but a campaign based on "ending the wars" might resonate with voters. The administration even has a couple of Enrons of their own to fuel the wackier versions of a conspiracy theory.
If you find it plausible that Bush let the difficult economic circumstances and the 2002 electoral calendar shape his approach to entering Iraq, shouldn't you find it more plausible that Obama has let his far more daunting economic troubles and the higher stakes 2012 electoral calendar shape his Iraq exit?
Then there is the charge that President Bush failed to command the process and instead out-sourced his Iraq policy to his Vice-President who spoke triumphantly about the mission but ham-handedly interfered with the delicate diplomacy running up to the confrontation. Well, President Obama adopted an even more hands-off approach to Iraq and formally tapped Vice-President Biden to be in charge of Iraq policy. Biden certainly has been the most triumphalistic) Administration figure about Iraq. And, sure enough, critics have charged that Biden fumbled the account. One of those critics is me, for I am on record worrying that Biden may have stepped on the delicate diplomatic negotiations for a more enduring U.S. military presence back in August.
Shouldn't critics who say that the failure of the UN process in the run-up to the 2003 invasion "proves" that Cheney was really the one calling the shots, and misfiring while doing so, likewise believe that the failure of the renegotiation process in the run-up to the exit "proves" that Biden misfired, too?
Finally, there is the charge that President Bush put in place the wrong team to handle his Iraq policy and these early failures doomed the effort. Even Secretary Rumsfeld concedes in his memoir that picking Lt.Gen Ricardo Sanchez to head up the military side was a bad choice and Rumsfeld's critique of the civilian head, Ambassador Bremer, is scathing. The team struggled to work together and to understand the situation in Iraq. The crucial early period was squandered, sowing the seeds that reaped the bitter fruit of the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. By all accounts, the Bush administration finally got the right personnel in place when the President tapped General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to implement the new surge strategy and their ability to achieve unity of effort contributed considerably to the surge's success.
The Obama echo is striking. Midway through his first term, Obama may have finally assembled a solid team with General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey. But he started out with a choice that left many people, including myself, scratching our heads: picking Chris Hill to be the Ambassador. Ambassador Hill certainly had a distinguished career, but he had no direct experience with Iraq and so was starting from square one. Sure enough, within months credible reports were circulating about the poor civil-military coordination on the ground. Perhaps the nadir was the description from one of his former subordinates of Ambassador Hill's alleged wasteful distraction to grow a lush lawn on the embassy compound. Perhaps the complaints were petty, but the more fundamental charge that the Obama team squandered valuable time that undermined future success rings nonetheless.
Shouldn't critics who traced the difficulties of the entry to the inability of the Bush team to work together effectively find similar connections between the difficulty of the exit and the troubles inside the Obama team?
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
In a recent post, I flagged an inconvenient fact that is rarely touted in White House press releases: the extent to which President Obama's greatest foreign policy successes have come when he followed in his predecessor's footsteps while his most frustrating foreign policy set-backs have come when he charted a whole new path.
is nothing particularly novel about a White House giving itself credit for
inventing wheels (the Bush administration had the same reflex), though the
Obama team has been especially loathe to note any parallels with its predecessor
... except in one particular area. In public and private settings, Obama
supporters have taken pains to remind people that it was President Bush who
negotiated and signed the 2008
Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) Strategic Framework Agreement that obligates
U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Indeed, some have claimed that
this is an inconvenient fact of its own, at least for Republican critics who
want to charge that Obama is being reckless in his Iraq policy.
The implicit message is obvious: "we can't be criticized for ending the war in this way because, after all, we are just following the treaty obligations that Bush agreed to. If they were good enough for Bush, they are good enough for us."
That's not quite fair to the Bush policy, however. The Bush team viewed the 2008 SFA, and in particular the 2011 sunset, as a least-worst deal that they could strike with Maliki in advance of Iraqi elections. It was widely understood - and this understanding was directly encouraged by Iraqi interlocutors - that the SFA would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections, when the new Iraqi government would have a bit more freedom to take necessary but unpopular decisions like allowing a follow-on stabilization force. Bush officials disagreed amongst themselves as to how forthcoming the Iraqis would be in a follow-on deal, but most agreed that it was imperative that a serious attempt be made to renegotiate the SFA at the earliest possible moment.
You don't have to take my word for it. If the plan all along had been simply to implement the 2008 SFA, why did President Obama send a team to Iraq to negotiate a new agreement? Why did the military plan on leaving a residual force? Indeed, as Tom Ricks quotes a colleague as asking, if that was really the plan then why the heck didn't the military plan on leaving at the end of 2011?
In other words, it sure looks like Obama supporters are trying to hide behind the Bush policy, trying to share credit (blame?) for a policy that might be problematic and in need of a little bolstering.
I find it curious that this would be one of the few places where the current team hugs the previous one, and it reminded me of a similar moment in the Bush era. Back in the day, a standard talking point was that it was silly to claim that Bush "lied" about Iraqi WMD because his description of the Iraqi threat was consonant with Clinton's. Moreover, President Bush secured a strong bipartisan Congressional vote in support of confronting Iraq. After reading the same intelligence Bush read, a large number of Democratic leaders voted to endorse the very description of the Iraqi threat that they later pretended was a Bush fabrication. This bit of spin had the virtue of being true, but that didn't mean that every time it was deployed that Democrat leaders merrily conceded the point.
One of those leaders was Senator Clinton who struggled throughout the 2008 primary campaign to explain her 2002 vote. It is not an exaggeration to say that her inability to satisfy Democratic primary voters on this matter explains why President Obama is her boss. Yet her own effort at spin was not without merit. She said that she viewed the 2002 vote as an authorization to confront Iraq with coercive diplomacy -- threatening Iraq with dire consequences unless it revived the dormant inspections regime -- not an authorization to go to war and impose regime change. In other words, she saw this bill as one step in the process, not a blank check -- the next word, not the last word, on the subject.
Do you see the interesting parallel between her frustration with how her vote got used by defenders of the Bush policy and the current frustration of Bush-era policymakers with the way the Iraq SFA is used by defenders of the Obama policy? Obama supporters are now doing the exact same maneuver, mimicking the style as much as the substance of an administration they have hitherto denounced as a matter of course.
As I hope to outline in future posts, I think this pattern holds more widely than the current team would want to admit. In structuring their policy to leave Iraq, there is an uncanny echo to many of the most trenchant critiques that were leveled against how we entered Iraq.
President Obama's best campaign line about Iraq was that he promised to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered. Far from fulfilling that promise, to a remarkable degree, I think we may be on track to leave Iraq rather in the fashion that critics claim we entered it.
Update: The agreement Bush negotiated in 2008 was a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), not a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) as I erroneously called it above. What remained to be negotiated after 2008 was a follow-on Strategic Framework Agreement that would include a Status of Forces Agreement that would permit U.S. military units to remain in Iraq after 2011. Despite lengthy deliberations, the U.S. and Iraqi negotiators were unable to agree on the terms and that is what precipitated President Obama's recent announcement.
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As President Obama prepares to meet other G-20 leaders in Cannes later this week, he previewed his pitch with an op-ed in the Financial Times. It read a bit like a half-time locker room pep talk to a team that had gotten knocked around on the field.
"C'mon guys! We saved the world once, we can do it again! Heck, I've been through much worse than this and I did great. Here's the game plan..."
Perhaps it is inevitable that such pep talks exaggerate past accomplishments and take on a tone of forced cheerfulness (particularly when the coach is entering his contract year). The danger, though, is that this approach can undermine credibility and invite scorn (David Nakamura in the Washington Post today describes the potential for such a reaction).
Unfortunately, the world appears distinctly unsaved at the moment.
The president concludes with a call for renewed efforts to achieve balanced, sustainable growth. Last week's developments in Europe are doubly troubling in this regard. While previous Treasury efforts under G-20 auspices to push for redressing global imbalances have been laudable, they largely came to naught. China and Germany resisted proposals for how to identify problematic imbalances. Now that Europe is seeking China's funds for its bailout, the odds of it joining in any concerted effort to press China on rebalancing (e.g. via currency appreciation) seem remote.
The most glaring difference of approach lies in the area of spurring economic growth. The president repeats his enthusiasm for his American Jobs Act, which attempts to boost demand through another round of stimulus. Europeans have taken an approach more akin to that of Congressional Republicans: focus first on fixing structural problems.
There are a couple reasons one might opt for a structural reform focus over a stimulus approach. A skepticism about the efficacy of stimulus and a concern about the impact of untended growing structural problems can argue for the primacy of reform (see Ed Lazear's excellent Wall Street Journal piece along these lines). Or one can note that the coffers are beyond empty and decide that stimulus is no longer affordable.
In either case, the President is likely to meet the same sort of skepticism in France that he has at home. It's not clear that a pep talk will do much good.
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I would like to join, however belatedly, the lively debate about how to assess President Obama's foreign policy and whether this will be a campaign asset or liability. Some of FP's own worthies have contributed as well (see Drezner's take here and here and Walt's take here). Perhaps the most provocative assertion is Thomas Friedman's claim that "Barack Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush's foreign policy than Bush was, but he is less adept at implementing his own."
I am persuaded by the larger claim that Obama has had more genuine successes in foreign-policy than in domestic policy and so when it comes to the 2012 election, his campaign boasts will resonate more in the former arena than in the latter. By "genuine success" I mean when a president accomplishes something that he sets out to do and that something is actually beneficial to the country. Obama has had many policy achievements in domestic policy (in the sense of getting a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass things he wanted them to pass) but they have turned out not to have the beneficial effect promised (cf. "jobs saved or created"), or at least not yet, and so do not (yet) count as "genuine successes." By contrast, there are some undeniable successes in the foreign policy arena, such as ramping up the drone strike program he inherited from the Bush administration and thereby decimating the al Qaeda leadership. There have been many foreign policy failures, too, but his batting average is better in foreign policy than it has been in domestic policy.
What explains the overall pattern? Friedman points to the correct answer: where Obama has continued along policy lines laid out by Bush, he has achieved success, but where he has sought to make dramatic changes, he has failed. The bigger the change, the bigger the failure. Not surprisingly, Friedman presents this as a critique of Bush ("Obama and his national security team have been so much smarter, tougher and cost-efficient in keeping the country safe than the "adults" they replaced. It isn't even close, which is why the G.O.P.'s elders have such a hard time admitting it."). Friedman's sneer about the "adults" is unmistakable and it causes him to miss the obvious: where Obama has embraced that "Bush adult" worldview, it has gone well for him and for America. Where he has not, it has not. Indeed, where he has listened to Friedman and other bien pensant types, it has gone very poorly indeed (cf. Israel-Palestine peace process). And where he attempted a major shift in American grand strategy (elevating climate change to be a national security threat co-equal with WMD proliferation and terrorism) he has made almost no progress whatsoever.
President Obama campaigned on a scorched earth critique of the foreign policy he inherited from President Bush. He promised to undo all of it. Some of those promises (withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq in 16 months) barely survived the first few days, while others (unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad or closing Gitmo) were only jettisoned after months of failed efforts. The correlation is almost perfect: the longer Obama hewed to his campaign critique, the less well it has gone in foreign-policy. And, by the way, the supposedly hyper-partisan Republican opposition actually has chalked up a record that compares very favorably with the recent past: where Obama has pursued a genuinely bipartisan policy, he has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
Of course, Obama deserves credit for jettisoning foolish campaign promises. And in some cases he and his team have been able to build on the policies he inherited with effective innovations. Nor would it be fair to conclude that every point of overlap with the Bush administration is worth applauding (I will have more to say on this latter point with respect to his recent Iraq decision in a future post). Yet on balance the conclusion for fair-minded observers is obvious: perhaps it is worth reconsidering the policies that have not worked so as to borrow a few more from the stockpile that has produced the best results.
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Ramesh Ponnuru makes an interesting argument that President Obama is not as good at politics as he believes in part because "Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don't agree with him."
Ponnuru goes on to observe that most of Obama's base believes that the president has sincerely compromised, or at least sincerely offered to compromise -- and in response Republicans have cynically pocketed every compromise and demanded more. Thoughtful Obama supporters have said essentially that to me numerous times over the last year. When I reply that thoughtful Republicans believe the opposite -- that Obama has cynically exploited them at every turn - the Obamaites shake their head in disbelief. By their words and body language, they are telling me that they simply cannot understand how Republicans could believe that Obama has failed to take Republican concerns adequately to heart.
As one might imagine, when I talk to my Republican friends, they express a similar disbelief: How can people not see that Obama has cynically politicked for partisan gain on issue after issue?
So what's going on here? I think there are two related things. First, contrary to the views of purists in either wing (Tea Partiers on the right and Wall Street Occupiers on the left), our system suffers from a paucity of cross-party friendships. There is too little coziness among intellectual combatants, not too much.
I work in one of the most monolithically partisan professions in America (the academy) yet I had the opportunity to serve in both Democrat (the Clinton) and Republican (the Bush) White Houses. As a result, I have close friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I've had to cooperate regularly with partisans from almost every spot on the American political spectrum, from those far to the left of the Democratic Party to those to the right of the Republican Party. I can also think of people I respect at every spot on the spectrum. That's not true of everyone I've met, of course, but I have learned important things about politics and policy from many them. I even regularly break bread with people whose life work seeks to undo things that I have tried to build -- which helps increase both mutual understanding and my heartburn.
The result of this is sometimes to moderate my own views, which is what purists fear. But it's just as often to sharpen the content while softening the edges. That is, having friends on the opposite sides of issues does not mean I have to change my mind about certain policy convictions. But it does make it harder to demonize them.
That, I believe, is essential for fruitful democratic politics -- and that is what's largely missing today. It's often said, but it happens to be true: When I talk to long-time Members of Congress, they sometimes wax nostalgic about a time when the Members did not rush back home to raise money in their district but hung around Washington to socialize with their fellow political leaders, including those from across the aisle. There were plenty of partisan fights and deep ideological divides in those days, but they were laid on top of an underlying foundation of personal connections and personal trust that was more substantial than it is today.
Second, a consequence of living in such a bipartisan world is that many (in my case most) policy discussions happen with people who fundamentally disagree with you. If you are going to make any intellectual headway in those discussions, you have to be able to understand their position before you can hope to change their mind. This is what is supposed to be (but rarely is) the hallmark of scholarly persuasion: describing the other side's position fairly enough that an objective observer cannot detect what your position is. None of us, myself included, live up to that ideal -- but it is possible to get a good deal closer to it than what we see today.
For professional politicians, one worthwhile goal may be to describe the policy arguments of your opponents in a manner that they would recognize the arguments as (more or less) their own. This is a rare thing to witness; the best example in the Bush administration can be found in President Bush's 2001 speech on stem cell research. It is, I would argue, the closest thing we've seen in recent times to a model of responsible and civil debate, whatever you think of the merits of his decision.
So I would ask: When was the last time President Obama described the views of his opponents in such a fashion? You'll be hard pressed to think of a single example. And until he can do this more consistently, his capacity to persuade the undecided, let alone those who disagree with him, will be quite limited. And if he cannot effectively persuade people who aren't already Obama cheerleaders, it's hard to see how he can lead effectively.
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Iran's alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was brazen, sloppy, but, regrettably, entirely plausible. While its tactics vary, the Iranian regime has engaged in direct terrorist attacks in the past, and recent events in the Middle East and changes to Iran's own military command and control structure have raised the likelihood of such attacks. The Obama Administration will be careful to avoid a war of escalation with the regime, but should resist the temptation to confine its response to sanctions.
On its face, the details of the Iranian plot seem amateurish and provoke deep skepticism. An Iranian-American who claims his cousin is a "big general" in Iran makes contact with what he thinks is a Mexican drug gang to blow up a Washington restaurant in a frantic effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, heedless of the innocents who will surely perish or the risk of US retaliation. This hardly seems to fit the modus operandi of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force has recently tended to operate below the radar, through trusted proxies such as Hezbollah, and while its activities are global, it concentrates its most nefarious activities in Iran's immediate environs, most notably Iraq.
Nevertheless, this conventional wisdom glosses over a significant variability in the IRGC's tactics. In Iraq, Quds Force commanders have been caught red-handed aiding militants. This includes Mohsen Chizari, the Quds Force operations chief who was caught and released by US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad in 2006 and was more recently designated by recent US sanctions for aiding the Assad regime's crackdown. Further in the past, the IRGC did the dirty work itself in bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. One of the Iranians wanted for that attack is Iran's current defense minister, and another ran unsuccessfully against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2009.
Recent developments may have spurred the IRGC to return to such tactics. While Iran initially seemed buoyed by the uprisings in the Arab world, which it touted as anti-American, Islamic revolutions, the regime was stung by events in Bahrain. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, successfully intervened in Bahrain to shore up the Khalifa monarchy against a largely Shiite uprising, while Iran -- which sees itself as defender of Shiite communities worldwide and occasionally asserts an old Persian territorial claim to Bahrain -- stood by impotently. This humiliation may have convinced the regime of the need to act. And the Saudi ambassador may have been seen in Tehran as a fitting target, as he is a close confidant of King Abdullah and a key conduit between Saudi Arabia and the United States, two powers whose hands the paranoid Iranian regime sees in all of its troubles.
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The bungled handling of the requirements of the Child Soldier Prevention Act last week is a clear and disturbing sign that the U.S. policy apparatus around global children's issues remains seriously broken. Back in 2009, I urged Secretary Clinton to fix these problems by appointing a high-level Ambassador for Children. To her credit she has appointed Ambassador Susan Jacobs as her Special Advisor for Children's Issues. This was an important step forward, but not enough. Ambassador Jacobs sits in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, limiting her remit to children who are either adopted internationally or abducted across borders. These issues, especially adoption, desperately needed more attention and I wish the Ambassador well in her efforts. The sad recent death of Steve Jobs, adopted as an infant, was a reminder of the positive outcomes adoption can have for children. While important for thousands of needy children and American families, adoption issues are a small part of the equation for adequately protecting the world's children.
No high level attention exists for the millions of other vulnerable children -- street children, child trafficking victims, unaccompanied minor refugees and the most neglected of all, children affected by war (including both forced conscription and gender based violence). Several bureaus and offices at State and USAID have some responsibility for each of these groups of children, but with no high level official responsible for tracking both policy and foreign assistance directed to all of them, they continue to fall through the cracks, all while disjointed policy decisions persist. This is the second year in a row that the Obama Administration granted waivers to every country identified in its own Trafficking in Persons Report (2011) as using child soldiers and under sanction threat. Josh Rogin reported on the debacle both years. I have no inside knowledge of the process either year, but to someone involved in this type of policy debate in the past it looks like the decision memo for the Secretary was cleared at low levels. The regional bureaus' standard desire for waivers won over efforts by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons to use the diplomatic pressure Congress had given them with the CSPA. The result was the administration again playing catch up with an angry NGO community and Members of Congress who are fighting back.
National security waivers, like those included in the CSPA, are important for the Secretary's discretion to weigh counter-veiling U.S. interests in each country impacted by legislation. Some of the waivers given this year may even have been justified. Yemen, for example, makes sense for a waiver based on important counter-terror cooperation. In the justification memo for the waivers, the arguments for the importance of our counter-terror efforts in Yemen are clear. Unfortunately, there is not a single mention of anything we are doing to address the issue of child soldiers in Yemen, probably because we are doing nothing. Youth can become the fiercest and most undisciplined soldiers and also the most susceptible to recruitment into terror networks. Linkages between child soldiers and counter-terrorism are clear to someone looking for them and seeking to find creative solutions to both threats.
The second CSPA mishandling reveals that no one is ‘minding the store' when it comes to global rights-based child protection issues. There are special challenges to dealing with child rights and interests. Someone who understands those special security issues and vulnerabilities needs to be specifically tasked with monitoring and advocating for the full range of children vulnerable to abuse and neglect. There are several options. The Secretary could choose to create a separate office, like the Office of Global Women's Issues, responsible for child protection issues. Concerns about a proliferation of such offices within the State Department makes this a big ask. Another option would be to handle children's issues much like disability issues. In 2004, an Advisory Committee on Disability Policy was formed with participation from external experts and jointly chaired by State and USAID. This led to the appointment of the new Special Advisor on International Disability Rights who sits in DRL with the mandate to rally attention and cooperation around disability. Something similar for child protection would help avoid mistakes like the handling of the CSPA. It also would provide a natural ally and advocate within the Department for efforts such as the Child Soldier Initiative led by retired Lt. General Romeo Dallaire of Rwanda fame, or organizations focused on advocacy for children affected by armed conflict such as Invisible Children or the Network for Young People Affected by War.
Everyone, in theory, supports greater child protection. Specific challenges, however, are easy to forget and ignore. We do so to the detriment of U.S. interests and the future of our world. Inspired by my own view of these foreign policy disconnects, I have launched a new platform for cooperation and support called Each Inc. to help address the dire need for more attention to child protection globally. The private sector is waking up to the issues and Congress clearly wants to do more. Secretary Clinton is the perfect leader to implement the important changes required to avoid a third strike on the CSPA next year and better protect the world's most vulnerable children. I hope she does.
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The New York Times has expressed some surprise that President Obama has thus far reaped remarkably little political advantage from the more hawkish elements of his terrorism policies. While the public gives President Obama generally high approval for his handling of terrorism, Obama's overall approval rating has sunk dramatically. The Times concludes that it must be because economic issues have eclipsed security concerns in the minds of voters.
Doubtless that is true, but I think the Times story misses an important point: Obama's overall approval rating might be even lower were it not for the high marks the public still gives him on terrorism policy. In other words, the Times story reads like the reporter believes the puzzle needing explaining is why, given all of the terrorism successes, Obama's ratings are not higher? Perhaps the puzzle needing explaining is the opposite: why, given Obama's domestic record, is his approval rating still hovering as high as the low 40's?
More generally, however, there is another puzzle worth exploring: why have several years of fairly hawkish counterterrorism policy not improved the Democratic Party's overall brand on national security? According to Gallup, Americans still see Republicans as markedly better than Democrats at "protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats." This has long been a central part of the Republican brand, though the public's frustration with the Iraq war allowed Democrats to enjoy a temporary advantage during the last year or two of the Bush tenure.
After Obama got elected, the Republican advantage returned and has remained steady ever since. Frankly, I am surprised that Obama's genuine successes, particularly the bin Laden strike, seem not to have translated into more tangible improvements in the Democratic Party brand on this issue.
Several things, alternatively or collectively, may be at work. First, it is possible that the Democrat brand would be even worse without the hawkish Obama policy to point to; one clue in favor of this theory is that Democrats are not lagging Republicans as badly as they did in the early years after 9/11. Second, it is possible that Obama's hawkish actions alienate as many doves as they woo hawks, leaving him no better off in the polls; a clue in favor of this theory is that the percentage of respondents reporting "no difference/no opinion," has inched up in the Gallup poll from a low of 9 percent in 2008 to 13 percent whereas the percentage endorsing Republicans has stayed the same at 49 percent and the percentage favoring Democrats dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent. Perhaps some fraction of the public was hoping Obama would be more dovish and now is equally dismayed by Republican and Democratic hawks. Third, it is possible that the Democratic brand is undermined by party doves who publicly complain about Obama's policies, albeit not as loudly as they complained when Bush pursued the same policies. And fourth, perhaps the public doubts the sincerity of Democratic hawkishness, viewing it as political posturing rather than a sincere expression of the party's commitment to national security.
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I have a few additional thoughts beyond the ones I posted earlier on the implications of the historic drone strike that killed al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen who had linked up with Al Qaeda:
* Shadow Government's house historian, Will Inboden, has chastised me for making this point before, but I am slow to learn from history (and historians) so I will make it again anyway: I think Obama's embrace of drone strikes and most of the rest of the Bush Administration Global War on Terror institutional edifice further solidifies the Bush-Obama/Truman-Eisenhower parallel. (The observant reader will note that I made this point exactly one year ago and am now making it again. Coincidence? Or is it because this is the week that my American Grand Strategy seminar studies the Truman-Eisenhower transition?) Obama, like Ike, campaigned on the premise that his predecessor had thoroughly botched the most important grand strategy challenges of the day and that he (Obama/Ike) would dramatically alter course if elected. However sincere that campaign critique may have been, once elected the new Administration ended up embracing most of the very same controversial elements -- in this case, Obama's embrace of secret legal memos to authorize unilateral uses of force outside of a formal UN process. Of course, containment policy remained a subject of bitter partisan debate after the Eisenhower Administration, but the parameters of that debate were narrowed considerably by the simple fact that Eisenhower embraced more than he replaced of the strategy he inherited from his predecessor. Obama has done the same and I expect a similar effect on the parameters of future debates over the war on terror.
* While the continuity is mostly to be praised, not all of it is beyond critique. My former colleague John Bellinger has argued that Obama may be following Bush too closely in one respect: relying on secret legal reasoning rather than going to Congress and the international community to shore up the political foundations undergirding the most controversial legal aspects of the war. Circumstances eventually forced Bush to secure more explicit Congressional authorization for controversial features of his detainee policy, but Bellinger argues it would have been preferable to lock in Congressional and international buy-in earlier. The Obama Administration is following the Bush precedent and, ultimately, may be forced to deal with Congress and the international community as Bush was. Bellinger argues that Obama would be better served by initiating the legal conversation now, rather than delaying the inevitable. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman proposes an intriguing first step: declassify the legal memo that authorized the strike that killed al-Awlaki. My guess is that this would trigger more debate than consensus, for, as another former Bush official, Jack Goldsmith, has argued, many of the opponents of drone strikes have no interest in establishing a legal framework that would permit the strikes. The opponents want to stop the strikes, period. But Goldsmith also rightly points out that that debate is inevitable so perhaps Bellinger and Harmon are on to something.
* Speaking of legal memos, I think this strike may have killed the movement to prosecute Bush-era officials involved in detainee policy. An important part of Obama's political base has never been satisfied with the previous investigations that exonerated Bush officials, and has long called for prosecuting those who acted under the legal protection of official Justice Department memos and, indeed, has called for going after the lawyers who wrote those very memos. The Obama Administration has stopped short of launching the full witch-hunt the left is demanding, and it is hard to see how they could initiate it now. Any action against Bush officials who wrote the legal memos or who acted consistent with those memos would seem to open up a precedent that exposed all of the Obama team to the same risk once Obama's successor is in office. Perhaps there is a crafty legal strategy that would snare all Bush "witches" whilst allowing all the Obama ones to evade the net. But my guess is that the Obama team will not want to put that risky strategy to the test.
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Like father, like son.
Two Syrian dictators, both named al-Assad, brutally attacked their own people. Both started their campaigns of violence in the central Syrian city of Hama. Both caused Syrian deaths. Both followed protests calling for reform and opportunity.
That's where the similarities end. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad's military killed at least 10,000 Syrians, according to conservative estimates. Neither Syria's neighbors, the United Nations, nor the world's democracies protested, barely uttering a sound in reaction to the state-sponsored violence. With its borders tightly controlled, foreign media denied access and Syrian state media complicit in the cover-up, the world was in the dark.
Fast forward almost 30 years. Bashar al-Assad, doing what dictators do, responded to calls for political freedoms with the indiscriminate force of his military. The United Nations estimates as many as 2,700 civilian deaths, although the violence continues. But, unlike his father, the younger Assad earned wide-spread condemnation from world leaders.
The French foreign minister denounced the "extreme violence." European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek bluntly demanded "no more killing, no more torture, no more arbitrary arrests." In the U.S., President Obama condemned the "outrageous use of violence," and Secretary of State Clinton urged a ban on Syrian oil and gas.
To be sure, numerous factors contribute to the difference in international reaction, but one of the most critical is social media. Unlike their counterparts 30 years ago, today's Syrian reformers have new media technologies that enable them to organize and tell the outside world.
The world learned of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities not from international media but first-hand accounts relayed in real time. The first glimpse was through a camera phone photo that rapidly spread on the Internet last March followed by amateur video on Facebook and YouTube.
For Assad and his kindred autocrats, social media threatens their iron-clad control over information, ideas and opinion. Accustomed to disseminating what they want, when they want through state organs, social media equalizes the power to inform, persuade and mobilize. It's power to the people in a modern setting.
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Is the Obama administration's relationship with Israel close or cold? According to Eli Lake, writing in the most recent issue of Newsweek, it is both. Lake, in reporting the apparent delivery of "bunker-buster" bombs by the US to Israel, provides additional substance to an argument often made by defenders of the administration's approach to Israel: that despite any strains in the political relationship over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel military and security ties have never been stronger.
That the military-to-military relationship is strong is not in dispute -- it has been growing broader and deeper for many years, and the Obama Administration has maintained this trajectory. That the strength of this relationship attests to the good health of the U.S.-Israel alliance, however, is questionable.
The ties between the US and Israel are based on many things, not least a deep historical and cultural affinity. However, those ties are also based on shared strategic interests. The United States provides military assistance to Israel not out of charity, but because it is in our interest to do so (indeed, this is the rationale behind most foreign assistance). Israel is a powerful, competent, and cooperative partner in a region of the world that is vital to American security and prosperity. Our assistance not only protects Israel, but also provides for our common defense against threats such as Iran's nuclear and missile program and transnational terrorist groups. These threats and Israel's cooperation in dealing with them are not merely hypothetical, as demonstrated by the Israeli strike on Syria's clandestine nuclear program in 2007. We seek to safeguard Israel's security in order to advance our own.
Providing for Israel's security, however, involves more than good military-to-military ties. It also requires a good political relationship, for two reasons. First, the threats faced by the United States and Israel (and our other allies) in the Middle East have both political and military dimensions, and often the former are more important than the latter. Frequent, close, and candid political contacts are vital in any alliance for dealing with potential threats (and capitalizing on opportunities) before they metastasize into matters that must be dealt with by generals. Second, many of the steps the United States would like Israel to take (or, in some cases, refrain from taking) would be eased by the assurance of strong U.S. backing for Israel, whether at the United Nations or in regional and global capitals. As is the case throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, our political and security relations with Israel are inextricable.
Many observers have suggested that our military support for Israel should be traded for Israeli concessions in the peace process (indeed, this was the implicit bargain offered by the United States to Israel in November 2010 -- military hardware in exchange for an extension of the settlement freeze). This sort of zero-sum thinking has a simplistic appeal, but does not stand up to the rigors of the real world. A more patient and nuanced approach views our security relationship with Israel -- and indeed our regional security efforts -- and advancing the peace process as mutually reinforcing. The reasons are simple: first, an Israel both consumed with external threats and worried about the reliability of U.S. backing is one which will hunker down, not take risks for peace; second, to the extent Israel and its neighbors are focused on similar threats, such as Iran and terrorism, our efforts to counter those threats can serve as a rare point of cooperation, even if implicit, among them and improve the regional political atmosphere.
The United States should not be uncritical of Israel, nor should we expect that we will not have differences, including publicly, with Israeli leaders. The reality of any alliance is that however extensively overlapping our interests, they are not identical. But we should treat those differences -- as we do with other close allies -- as obstacles to be overcome as we pursue a close and cooperative military and political relationship. We should not allow them to define the relationship, much less highlight them in the vain hope of winning the esteem of Israel's foes.
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Two separate stories throw in sharp relief the art form known as "first-draft-of-history" journalism. Two of the most commercially successful practitioners of this art form are in the news in ways that point to the limits of the art form.
In the bigger story, the Obama administration is fighting back against a damaging account of policy dysfunction, as recounted in Ron Suskind's latest book, Confidence Men. Suskind previously was a darling of Democrats for his earlier work attacking the Bush White House. For nearly a decade, Suskind was quoted as an authoritative source, especially for juicy anecdotes that seemed to legitimize caricatures of a megalomaniac Bush administration. Now it is Obama's turn, and the sauce for the goose seems to taste more bitter than it did for the gander.
Supporters of Obama are hard-pressed to distinguish between the Bush and Obama era books, especially when Suskind makes clear in the titles that he sees them as paired chapters in a longer narrative about American politics: notice how the tagline of the subtitle of the Obama book, "...the Education of a President" echoes the Bush book "...the Education of Paul O'Neill." And the administration's attempts to discredit Suskind have an added obstacle to overcome: Obama gave Suskind extensive authorized access to White House players, including a long on-the-record interview with President Obama himself. Despite all of this, the White House push-back has been especially vigorous, with several of the people who supplied the most damning quotes denying on-the-record that they said what Suskind claims they said.
For my part, I have some sympathy for the White House line in this dispute. While I have quoted Suskind's earlier Bush reporting myself from time to time, I have always done so with more than a grain of salt. One of my hobbies during my days in the Bush White House was trying to track down the facticity of the more prominent critiques of the Bush administration, the sort of critiques that were accepted uncritically as gospel truth by my academic colleagues. Some of the critiques had merit -- Vice President Cheney's influence really was hard to determine because he kept his counsel in large group meetings and no one had read-outs from his private meetings with the president -- but for many more I could find no strong factual basis. In particular, I could not verify some of the more sensationalized claims by Suskind. I came away from that exercise with a healthy dose of skepticism that I wished other consumers of his work shared.
Perhaps now they will. Consider one of the juicier Suskind quotes, Anita Dunn's claim that "This place would be in court for a hostile workplace ... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women." Here is what Anita Dunn told Politico about that quote: "This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn't true." In other words, what Politico calls a "flat denial" coupled with a claim that Suskind fabricated a quote.
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A number of experts share my concern that the Obama Administration is taking undue risks with its Iraq policy. In a compelling analysis, Meghan O'Sullivan lays out the potential upside of a more prudent Iraq policy. And in an equally compelling analysis, Kenneth Pollack lays out the potential downside of the path that the Obama Administration appears to have chosen. Together, they make a powerful argument for reconsidering the current trajectory and for making a mid-course correction.
I worked closely with O'Sullivan on Iraq policy in Bush's second term, and I found her to be one of the most candid and insightful internal critics of our policies. She was an early advocate of the shift to the surge strategy and she was especially good at understanding the interplay of U.S. policy and internal Iraqi politics.
Pollack was one of the more important outside voices on Bush's Iraq policy. He was an early supporter of efforts to confront the Hussein regime, but he also was an early critic of missteps. By 2006 his critique was especially trenchant. Then in late July 2007, he co-authored (with Michael O'Hanlon) one of the most influential op-eds in the entire Iraq saga. At that time, Republican backers of Bush's efforts in Iraq were losing heart and Democratic opponents of the surge were close to realizing their goal of stopping the new strategy. The Bush White House was reduced to pleading for a few weeks delay so Congress could hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker directly in September, but the mood in Congress was unwilling even to do that. In the midst of the political storm, Pollack and O'Hanlon wrote that the new surge strategy was working and that political opponents at home should give it more time. Since Bush opponents had regularly used Pollack and O'Hanlon's earlier critiques as a club with which to bash the Administration, their surprising notes of optimism gave their op-ed outsized influence.
I hope the Obama Administration is listening to O'Sullivan, Pollack, and others today. If Obama policymakers have a good counter-argument, I would like to see it developed in a thoughtful way -- addressing these real critiques, rather than strawman arguments. The Obama team has the benefit of inside information that even the most well-informed outsiders might lack, so it is possible the Administration understands something that these recent pieces are missing. But it is also possible that the Administration has locked onto a policy that is wrong-headed and the President is in a state of denial over the likely consequences. Only a careful and candid engagement of the arguments can resolve the matter. Time is running out for that engagement.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.