Like my colleague Peter Feaver, I found Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes' interview with FP's Josh Rogin troubling. I share Peter's concern that the Obama Administration is early to the party of claiming credit and is disrespectful to the commitments and sacrifices our allies have made in other wars. But even beyond the unseemliness of claiming credit where others have fought and died, the Obama Administration's strategy of regime change neither encourages regime change nor addresses the hard cases where American national interests are threatened.
It is absolutely true that if local forces rebel and receive sufficient external support, they can change their countries, and that change has the greatest domestic legitimacy and can be achieved at a very low price to the United States. But it also means that we will not actually change regimes; we will advocate insurgencies against governments and assist at the margins. That is a legitimate strategy. It is not, however, one in which we should be claiming credit for the outcome. We have been marginal players in Libya, and our efforts do not merit the accolades the Administration is giving itself.
President Barack Obama's model of regime change is letting others do the work while we take credit for what they achieve. It's a cost-effective way to shape the international order, provided that local forces and other countries are willing to undertake the hard work. But do we think the experience Britain and France have had with the United States in Libya operations is likely to inspire them to the forefront of other regime changes? Do we think rebel forces in Syria or North Korea believe this model of regime change assists their cause? It is a strategy that depends fundamentally on others to create change, and accepts that we will not force a change of government -- no matter how evil or threatening to our interests that government is -- unless the conditions of domestic insurgency and multinational effort are in place.
Rhodes' approach remains innocent of consideration that it solves the easy problems, not the hard ones. Would Afghanistan have overthrown the Taliban or Iraqis overthrown Saddam Hussein on that model? Would the "growing international chorus of condemnation" that Secretary Clinton applauds for getting us "where we need to be" on Syria coalesce to undertake missions that demanding? In fact, we know the answer: it is not changing the regime in Syria, because that's too hard.
Which is to say that the Obama Administration's regime change strategy is actually not comparable to the Bush Administration's, because it isn't dealing with the hard cases. Before they can claim the laurel of a superior approach, the Obama Administration ought to have to answer how they would have dealt with Saddam Hussein remaining in violation of 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, whose behavior toward U.N. weapons inspectors strongly suggested progress on nuclear weapons, who not only had chemical weapons and had used them on an enemy in war but had also used them on its own population, and all in the frightening aftermath of attacks on the United States. Nor is it clear from Ben Rhodes' self-congratulatory complacency how they would have dealt with the government of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there wasn't a rebel force or the capacity in other countries to undertake the necessary military operations.
The Obama Administration's regime change strategy suggests highly unsatisfactory outcomes for cases in which the United States has actual national security interests in the conflict.
Josh Rogin has a fascinating interview with White House national security communicator Ben Rhodes elsewhere on this site. To my eyes, it reads like the Obama Administration is continuing its unseemly end-zone dance of celebration over the toppling of Qaddafi. I understand their desire to get maximum credit while avoiding a "mission accomplished" photo-op that will come back to haunt them, and so far sympathetic reporters are obliging by reporting the braggadocio without editorializing about it much. But this interview dances close to the line of generating some "audio ops" that they may regret.
First, I am not sure that Rhodes has threaded the needle in terms of both taking credit for the things the administration did, without which this regime change would not have happened, and convincingly eschewing responsibility for whatever bad things happen from this point out. Rhodes tries to persuade the interviewer that there are only upsides to Obama's approach when in reality there are pros and cons. One of the cons is that the administration bears more responsibility for what happens next than it is willing to admit, while having less leverage over what happens next than it is willing to admit. In the long run, it may be the case that the pros will outweigh the cons in Libya, but there is a substantial amount of territory to cover between now and then and it is premature to declare this the model for all future operations. (By the way, I wish Rogin had asked Rhodes the obvious follow-up question: does this mean that the Obama Administration endorses the Doug Feith plan of light-footprint regime change in Iraq using Iraqi expats and rejects the conventional critique which holds that the Iraq operation unraveled because there were insufficient troops in the coalition invasion force and they did not establish sufficient order in the aftermath?)
Second, Rhodes continues a longstanding Democrat slur against the several dozen allies who fought, bled, and died at the American side in Afghanistan and Iraq:
Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the U.S. wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions.
If I were a parent or loved one of any of the hundreds of allied soldiers who died -- according to iCasualties.org, some 179 UK troops alone in Iraq and 379 UK troops in Afghanistan -- the crack about "meaningful international contributions" would greatly anger me. In any case, it seems in exceptionally bad taste. I have never understood why Bush critics have gotten away with denigrating the contributions of allies in those two wars. Now that the critics are in office and directly responsible for maintaining good relations with our allies, I wish they would find more opportunities to praise the sacrifices that the allies made and make fewer derogatory comments about those coalition efforts.
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When the story of the Arab Spring is written in Arabic, it is unlikely to reflect well on the United States. In his speech about the Middle East on May 19, U.S. President Barack Obama attempted, and rightly so, to place his administration squarely on the side of pro-democracy activists. As seen from the region, however, U.S. actions are hard to square with the message of May 19; instead, the hallmarks of U.S. policy have been hedging and hesitation.
However vociferously we might protest, people in the Middle East are apt to ascribe motives to U.S. policy which differ sharply from those we profess. Seeking to understand our readiness to intervene in Libya and reluctance to do so in Syria, many in the region will assume that the difference is driven by designs on the former's oil resources. Eyeing the withdrawal of U.S. support in February of longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, some accuse us of naively paving the way for an Islamist takeover, others of privately seeking renewed military rule under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. When people in the region hear us speak of supporting democracy, they look askance upon the tense relationship we have with democratic Turkey versus the coziness of U.S.-Saudi relations.
It is right that U.S. officials push back on cynical readings of U.S. actions in the region; while the United States bases its policies on national interests like any other country, we -- regardless of the administration -- more often than not try genuinely to do so with transparency and with respect for our values. It is also right that U.S. officials make the case that each of the turbulent situations we face in the Middle East is different from the others, and demands therefore a different response.
That said, the line between nuance and vacillation is a fine one, and this is nowhere clearer than in Syria. The Obama Administration has not, despite repeated urging, called for Syrian President Assad to step down. The reason seems clear -- they worry that if they issue such a call and Assad does not, in fact, leave, it will be a further blow to U.S. power and prestige in the region. Every day that Assad remains in power, he would do so in open defiance of the United States.
This reasoning is logical, but flawed. The fact is that the concatenated statements of U.S. officials amount, in essence, to a call for Assad to step down. The statements made thus far -- whether that Assad has lost legitimacy, that Syria would be better off without him, or that the U.S. has no stake in his continued rule -- certainly give this impression. They are reinforced by the sanctions recently imposed by the Administration, which among other things target Assad personally. More than a distinct policy line, the statements and sanctions appear to constitute a tortured effort to indicate that Assad should go without ever actually saying so.
The problem with this "wink and nod" approach to calling for Assad's departure is that it leaves sufficient ambiguity to hamper American efforts. It feeds the Syrian regime's efforts to convince domestic constituencies who may be on the fence that things will one day return to business as usual. It results in a lack of clarity down Washington's bureaucratic chain -- which is a very long chain indeed -- as to what precisely the U.S. policy is in Syria, leading U.S. diplomatic and military officials on the ground around the world without precise guidance. And, perhaps most damagingly, it feeds into a narrative that the U.S. response to the Arab uprisings has been to hedge our bets and decide whom to support only when the ultimate outcome is already clear. At the end of the day, our failure to speak clearly provides Assad room for maneuver, able to claim on one hand that he is defying Washington, while on the other suggesting to foes in Syria and the region that Washington despite its rhetoric will once again need to deal with him.
Just as American words must be clear, they must be clearly supported by our actions. For this reason, the White House should now withdraw Amb. Robert Ford from Damascus. as a sign of its break with the Assad regime. Amb. Ford is a talented and, as he demonstrated in his visit to Hama, courageous. diplomat who has acquitted himself well in an extraordinarily difficult assignment. Though it seems unlikely that the Syrian regime would allow him to repeat his visit to Hama or other besieged cities, it is possible that if he were to remain in Damascus he could continue to play a useful role by speaking to the opposition and calling attention to their struggle.
Any such benefit, however, must be weighed against the cost of his remaining and the benefits of withdrawing him. The Obama Administration sent an ambassador to Syria (after the long absence of an American envoy there) with the express intention of engaging with the Assad regime. Nothing would more clearly signal a change in the engagement policy than withdrawing that ambassador, just as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others have done. The continued presence of a U.S. ambassador in Damascus, however, feeds suspicion that Washington remains open to engaging Assad, and gives cover to other countries who wish to continue doing so. Better than leaving Amb. Ford in place would be recalling him and, as the U.S. ambassador to Libya has been doing, tasking him to work with the Syrian opposition globally to marshal U.S. and international support for them. This would be better, too, than simply allowing his confirmation to die in the Senate, which would further fuel the sense that Washington is split on the issue of how to handle Syria.
Affecting the outcome in Syria will require a mix of international isolation, economic pressure, and the exacerbation of internal fissures. Within each pillar there are a number of steps -- the withdrawal of Western ambassadors, the formation of an international "contact group" to coordinate policy, the imposition of energy and other economic sanctions, for example -- which can be taken to add to the strong measures which the Obama Administration has already put in place. But the United States must start by ensuring that our own policy -- toward Syria and toward democracy in the Arab world broadly -- is unmistakable.
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I've just returned from a week of fishing at a remote lake in Canada, blissfully disconnected from just about every other concern in life except for what the fish were biting on. (For any fellow anglers among our readers, the answers are: not much action from the elusive muskie, but lots of action on Cisco Kids for northern pike including a 20-pounder I landed, Yamamoto Senko worms did well for smallmouth bass, and the reliable jig and minnow produced a limit every day of walleye). Our meals were the opposite of the Singaporean haute cuisine that Peter Feaver indulged in during his own recent trip, but for my money it's hard to beat the traditional "shore lunch" we enjoyed of fresh-caught fried walleye, fried potatoes, and fried onions, all cooked over an open fire on a deserted island.
After that northern idyll, my return this week to the United States was jarred by a litany of grim headlines: plummeting stock markets, an unprecedented credit-rating downgrade, yet another round of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe that further imperil the Eurozone, and violent rioting throughout the United Kingdom. Herewith a few thoughts.
The credit rating downgrade puts a painfully vivid exclamation point on my observation a couple of weeks ago about the Obama administration presiding over an America in decline. Like "leading from behind," there's just no way to put a positive spin on the word "downgrade." Yet the downgrade is but the latest symptom -- along with unemployment, growing debt and deficits, and declining markets -- of a more fundamental problem: President Obama has consistently failed to articulate a persuasive account of what drives economic growth. Even more than different priorities over issues like tax rates and loopholes, spending cuts, and entitlement reform, this failure is emblematic of the economy's persistent weakness throughout his presidency. As Jeb Bush and Kevin Warsh lay out in this compelling WSJ op-ed, the Obama administration appears completely devoid of any strategy for economic growth. More pointedly, President Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation for the essential role of business in capital formation and wealth creation. He seems to see the business community as an unfamiliar entity whose primary purpose is to generate revenues for the government, rather than an engine of job creation and improving living standards for American citizens. This is why so many commercial leaders -- from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business owners -- fundamentally mistrust this administration. After all, why trust a White House that fails to appreciate your indispensable role in economic growth, and repeatedly threatens you with higher taxes and increased regulations?
Yet at least Americans are not violently rioting in the streets and looting small and large businesses alike, which has sadly been the case in the United Kingdom. Back during his campaign, David Cameron often lamented what he described as Britain's "broken society" of fractured families, endemic welfare dependency, growing violent crime, and a burgeoning cultural coarseness and dissolution of order and moral standards. It was a grim diagnosis that generated agreement among the likes of Daily Mail readers but snide dismissal as Eton moralizing from other quarters. I observed much of this decline firsthand during my recent years of living in London, where traditional British order and decorum persisted in some pockets but was too often eclipsed by endemic social breakdown and national decline. The riots now display this to the world. On one level they are simply opportunistic hooliganism amplified by social media. But on a deeper level they are a toxic display of the nihilism and pathologies of the Broken Society. Scotland Yard, already reeling from its unseemly role in the recent phone-hacking scandal, has performed ambivalently in this much bigger test that cuts to the core of its legitimacy as the protector of order and safety. Meanwhile the Cameron government, which has always been perched awkwardly between its emphasis of a "new brand" of compassionate Toryism and its traditional role as the law and order party, now faces its own crisis of governance and identity. As the perpetually insightful Tim Montgomerie observes, after some shaky first steps the prime minister seems to have reasserted authority yet now faces a series of new battles that will do much to define his premiership.
The floodgates of Arab diplomatic restraint on Syria have finally been breached. In the past few days, both the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League issued their first official statements on the situation, expressing alarm at the Syrian government's excessive use of force and calling for an immediate end to violence. Even more important, the Gulf's most influential leader, Saudi Arabia's plainspoken King Abdullah, followed up with his own personal blast at the Assad regime, declaring that "What is happening in Syria is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia" and calling for a stop to "the killing machine." For good measure, the King recalled his ambassador from Damascus, a step immediately echoed by Kuwait and Bahrain. (Fellow GCC member, Qatar, actually closed its embassy last month).
True, none of the various statements called on Assad to step down. All urged the regime to implement meaningful reforms immediately. But don't be fooled. For the extraordinarily cautious Abdullah to move out against Assad so aggressively -- after almost five months of sitting idly on the sidelines -- is a sure sign that he's betting the Syrian tyrant's days are numbered.
The final straw for the Saudis appeared to be Assad's Ramadan Rampage, during which Syrian troops have laid waste to the cities of Hama and Deir az-Zour. Up to 300 civilians may have been slaughtered, making it by far the deadliest week of the five month old uprising, where the death toll now stands in excess of 2,000 souls. And no doubt most distressing of all for the Saudi monarch is the fact that the vast majority of the victims are fellow Sunnis.
Weeks ago, a senior Saudi official told me that, from the beginning of the Syrian upheaval, the King has believed that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests, particularly vis a vis the Iranian threat. "The King knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria."
When pressed on why, then, the Saudis' response to the crisis had been so passive, my interlocutor essentially pinned the blame on uncertainty over U.S. policy. Risk-averse under the best of circumstances, the Saudis, he said, were especially loathe to take on the Iranian-Syrian axis on such an existential issue absent assurances of America's determination to see Assad gone. At least at that point in early July, the Saudis still claimed to "have no idea what outcome Obama really wants in Syria and what his strategy is to achieve it."
As I posted earlier, I have been in Singapore for a series of lectures and meetings with strategic studies specialists inside and outside of government, courtesy of the wonderful people at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This was not my first visit to Southeast Asia, but it was my first (and hopefully not last) visit to Singapore.
I usually gain more from these exchanges than I give out, and that was the case this time. For folks who like to talk strategy -- and who like to sample extraordinary cuisines while doing so -- there is no place better than Singapore. Singapore is a tiny country, essentially a city-state, that punches well above its weight in international affairs both because of its record of economic success and because it takes seriously the need to think and act strategically. And, Singaporeans love to dine.
American visitors like myself get asked lots of tough questions and, since my visit coincided with the gruesome spectacle of the debt crisis, my answers often left me (and perhaps my audiences) second-guessing American power and purpose.
Still I had some takeaways:
Geostrategic tragedies happen when leaders hesitate to act and cling to beliefs in the face of all evidence. Prior to World War II, the British were confident that Singapore was an impregnable fortress, a "Gilbratar of the East." If the Japanese were foolhardy enough to attack it, the big guns on Singapore's hills would destroy the naval armada before it could reach the shore. And so they might have, if the Japanese had attacked from the sea. Instead, the Japanese launched an attack on the northern part of the Malaya peninsula and fought a bloody advance through the jungle in order to attack Singapore from Johore to the north, not, as the British expected, from the sea to the south. This strategic disaster unfolded over two months, so there was plenty of time for the British to adjust their defensive plans. But they didn't. Of course, the British also missed an opportunity perhaps to block the Japanese attack from the outset, if only the Brits had executed their planned preemptive raids to seize more advantageous terrain. But they didn't. And slowly, inexorably, the Japanese advanced until they trapped a very sizable British force in a tiny perimeter with limited water supplies. I kept asking myself as I visited those sites: are U.S. strategists clinging to mistaken beliefs that will come back to haunt us? Have we, through hesitation and uncertainty, ceded the initiative to forces that are not as complacent as we are?
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
But I just read something that makes me wonder whether the real news from the pep rally got lost by the distraction of the rhetorical fireworks. According to Joshua Green at the Atlantic, Vice President Biden effectively told Rep. Barney Frank not to put much stock in the media coverage about negotiations between Iraq and the United States over a longer-term American presence in Iraq. Here is how Frank relayed the conversation to the reporter:
One other big story from [the caucus meeting] today, Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So Jack Lew says, "Well, we're winding them down." I said, "What do you mean, you're winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he's begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay." At which point Biden asserted himself and said -- there's clearly been a dispute between them within the administration -- "Wait a minute, I'm in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can't possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year." That was very good news for me. That's a big deal. I said, "Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?" He said, "We are getting out. Tomorrow, it's over."
By late Tuesday, the Iraqis did sort of meet the deadline, so Biden's claim that "it's over" may have been premature. Hence, this report today in the Post: "U.S. officials on Wednesday welcomed Iraq's decision to negotiate with Washington on keeping some U.S. troops in the country into next year, seeing it as a move toward ending the months-long political stalemate that has complicated U.S. plans for a December withdrawal."
I find today's story far more comforting than the earlier account of the Biden-Frank exchange. The Post is describing an administration that is still committed to negotiating a relationship with Iraq that offers hope of preserving the fragile and hard-won strategic gains of the surge. The Biden-Frank exchange describes an administration that can only look at Iraq through the lens of an OMB balance sheet -- an administration that thinks "it's over." Perhaps Biden was simply indulging in more hyperbole of the "Republicans-are-terrorists" sort that the Democrats told themselves to soothe their feelings over the bruising debt fight. Or perhaps there was a garble between the reporter, Frank, and Biden. But someone with better access to the White House than I have should press the players in this story for clarification. And perhaps President Obama could identify who in the administration can speak authoritatively on Iraq and what they can authoritatively say about it.
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I have been in Singapore for the past several weeks serving as the S. Rajaratnam. Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (my FP colleague, Steve Walt, was the very first to get this honor back in 2000, and he blogs regularly about his return visits). Traveling abroad is a great opportunity to look at American foreign policy and politics with fresh eyes. And this time, with the debt ceiling debate receiving prominent attention in every corner of the globe, the effect was especially vivid. I hope to post further reflections provoked by my sojourn in Singapore, but will begin with an observation narrowly focused on the debt ceiling crisis.
Viewed from a long way away, I think David Sanger has it about right: the United States avoided the worst possible self-inflicted wound of default, but the extraordinarily divisive debate and the manifest failure of President Obama to lead in a responsible way likely did long-lasting damage to his and the country's global stature.
The Obama team operated in rapid response campaign mode, giving higher priority to demonizing Republicans than in honestly negotiating with them. In terms of media gimmicks, this approached scored some tactical successes for Obama, even from afar. For instance, many of my interlocutors over here bought into the White House narrative that a few score Tea Partiers, who were not even the majority of House Republicans (themselves only controlling one half of Congress, itself only one of the two relevant branches of government in the dispute), were so strong that Democrats who controlled the White House and the Senate had no choice but to do their bidding. This distorted view served the short-term interests of a president who wanted to avoid responsibility for leading, but likely did damage to his long-term standing as a global leader. (Ross Douthat argues persuasively that the same diminishment will happen with the president's domestic standing).
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The debt ceiling bill making its way through Congress will cut broad defense spending by $350 billion across ten years. The broad definition encompasses homeland security, veterans affairs, and nuclear programs, in addition to straight DOD spending. Those accounts totalled $881 billion in fiscal year 2012. Defense Department spending on its own was roughly $670 billion (that includes both the baseline budget and war operations). Even if DOD can offload some of the cuts onto other national security departments, it is likely to face a reduction of roughly four percent in its total spending.
Scoring of the spending cuts counts as savings a significant amount not spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. This financial windfall is the result of the president's policies to curtail our military operations in the wars -- going to zero military personnel in Iraq by the end of 2011, and refusing commanders in Afghanistan the troops they asked for to achieve the president's objectives. With these figures folded in, DOD will probably be faced with a real reduction in spending of between two and three percent -- in a budget that has more than doubled in the past decade. DOD will need to husband its resources carefully, but the roof won't fall in.
In fact, the deal Republicans in Congress were able to make reduces DOD less than the president proposed in his April budget speech. The president's proposal would have made no dent in the deficit, yet still would have cut defense by more than the legislation in its first phase.
But it is the second phase of debt reduction that has the potential to be extraordinarily damaging to defense. If the bipartisan commission cannot reach agreement, it will trigger automatic across the board cuts of $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013. It would appear likely the bipartisan commission will, in fact, deadlock, in which case a 50-50 domestic and defense split would require DOD to cut spending an additional $600 billion. It would mean a 14 percent cut overall to defense spending. This DOD could not do without a major reconfiguration of forces and capabilities, and a major reduction in our actual fighting power.
And the structure of the bargain gives Democrats more in defense cuts (and therefore protection of domestic programs) if they refuse to compromise on the second tranche of cuts. As President Obama himself said, "The nice thing about the defense budget is it's so big, it's so huge, that, you know, a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget … it's so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that."
The date of the automatic spending cuts is crucial, however: a new president will have the latitude to submit a budget that makes executive choices about spending rather than accepting a system-wide legislated reduction. President Obama has led from behind in the budget crisis; the president in 2013 could make more responsible choices.
What role will national security issues play in the 2012 presidential campaign? Probably a small one, at most. All current signs point to both the primary and general elections turning on the economy -- especially jobs, the deficit and debt, and ObamaCare. Yet even if foreign policy is stuck at the back of the campaign bus, it won't be entirely absent. One of the leadership intangibles that voters will be assessing includes who they trust as president to have his or her "finger on the button," i.e., to fulfill the roles of commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. Moreover, a foreign policy crisis -- such as an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, a terrorist attack, or any other unforeseen headline event -- could thrust national security back into the forefront of campaign debate.
As the GOP primary field takes shape, the candidates are spending most of their time figuring out how to distinguish themselves from each other. But it is not too early to begin thinking about how they should be distinguishing themselves from President Obama. Herewith a few foreign policy themes that GOP presidential candidates should consider highlighting as challenges to the Obama administration:
Diminished American power. America's economic woes are also a foreign policy concern. Historically, our nation's global strength has come from our economic prosperity, our values, and our military. The Obama administration's economic record of high unemployment, low growth, and crippling debt hurts most at home but also weakens our standing abroad. Yet in foreign policy terms, the White House seems to be acquiescent in this diminishing of American power. In the now infamous New Yorker article on the Obama administration's foreign policy, author Ryan Lizza portrays the White House holding the strategic assumption that American decline is a current reality and an inevitable future. The administration's embrace of this risks making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. During his final weeks as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates raised his own pointed concerns about American decline:
I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
The Obama administration has presided over declining American power in specific ways such as Pentagon budget cuts, a burgeoning national debt, and new lows in American soft power in key regions such as the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, as Ryan Streeter laments over at the indispensable ConservativeHomeUSA, under Obama the United States seems to be losing its character as an aspirational nation and global model.
Declining American leadership. Rarely in the annals of American diplomacy has an unattributed quote from a "senior White House official" become an instant headline, persisted as an unflattering tagline for the Obama Doctrine, and offered campaign fodder for every possible GOP candidate. But that's exactly what "leading from behind" has become, following its appearance in the aforementioned New Yorker article. No doubt the official who uttered it at the time thought that he/she was coming up with a clever formulation to satisfy multiple constituencies while displaying the administration's strategic acumen. When it reality what it did is distill and confirm the worst suspicions of many observers of this administration's foreign policy: the White House is uncomfortable displaying American leadership in the world. This is manifest in ways including France and Britain's leadership of the Libya campaign and continued frustration over American passivity, in the White House's reluctance to provide visible support for dissidents in Iran and Syria, and in the worries from our Asian partner nations such as India and Japan about the strength of America's commitments. Yet a world without American leadership will be a less secure, less prosperous, less peaceful, and less free world.
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President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the defense budget as a major contributor to however many trillions in program cuts that a debt ceiling deal will require. It was only months ago that he announced that he would seek $400 billion in cuts over twelve years. It now appears that his target is, at a minimum, twice that amount, and it could reach a trillion -- and that over a decade.
The military simply cannot sustain cuts of that magnitude and preserve a strategy that, in its fundamentals, has not changed since the end of the Second World War. That strategy called for U.S. forces to deploy "forward", whether in Europe, the Middle East or Asia, so as to fight far away from the United States' shores. With cuts the size of those being discussed, the United States will no longer be able to maintain its presence overseas, other than in a "virtual" sense, and, as one wag has put it, "virtual presence is actual absence."
It is difficult to see how cuts approaching $100 billion in each of the next ten years will not eviscerate the U.S. defense posture. Defense "entitlements" -- military pay and retirement, as well as military health care -- absorb a substantial portion of the budget and seem virtually immune to reductions. It has taken years to move Congress just to contemplate enacting a minor increase in co-pays for the Tricare health program, while any change to the military retirement system, which penalizes anyone who serves less than twenty years but over-rewards those who serve longer, has been strictly verboten. Civilian personnel are immune to reductions -- cuts in any office simply have led civilians to migrate to other offices. Operations and maintenance, which account for about a third of all defense spending, include payments to a huge cadre of "staff augmentation" contractors whose number the department has never been able to calculate.
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Now that the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, debt reduction negotiations are getting serious. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission had recommended nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts across a decade. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his own plan that would entail similar cuts to defense in the context of an even larger $9 trillion debt reduction. President Obama, while saying that Bowles-Simpson went too far, committed himself to an arbitrary $400 billion cut to defense across 12 years, the only concrete cuts to spending that he identified in his April 13th speech. The deal taking shape among the Gang of Six of budget leaders in the Senate will result in an $800 billion cut to defense across a decade. The Project for Government Oversight, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Stimson Center, and Center for American Progress all also have offered plans for cuts.
Defense spending will be further cut; that seems inevitable in the current, beneficial, climate of reducing government spending. Moreover, to take our military leadership at their word, debt reduction is our country's gravest national security threat, a case Admiral Mullen has repeatedly made. The 2010 Joint Forces Command planning guidance, called the Joint Operations Environment, likewise warned that our debt is not only a strategic liability, but unless brought under control will crowd out all discretionary spending -- including defense -- as debt service payments dominate.
Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.
The question is how much, and what, to cut. Here we ought to be intensely skeptical of debt hawks telling the Department of Defense what to cut. The Simpson Bowles Commission is not ideally suited to make the determination of whether manned aviation is a continuing requirement for warfighting. The major challenge facing the Pentagon is to design a robust defense program that can both win our current wars, prepare for future wars of different types than we are currently fighting, and engaging in activities that shape the nature of the security environment and affect the choices of potential enemies.
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On Friday the Obama administration at last announced that the United States will now recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. This was the right thing to do. It helps make available an estimated $30 billion in frozen assets for the Libyan rebels, and will help bolster international support for the TNC and further isolate the outlaw Qaddafi. Many questions remain on implementation, as Josh Rogin notes, but even these implementation issues illustrate how diplomatic recognition bears important substance as well as symbolism.
While recognition was a welcome move, it was also much belated. The United States could have done it as long as four months ago when France first led the way, when recognition arguably would have had more impact in decisively shifting momentum against Qaddafi. Instead of leading the multinational coalition, the United States is once again following (insert the obligatory "leading from behind" crack here). Now, as this Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the United States is the 27th nation to recognize the Libyan rebels, in the footsteps of countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Australia, and Spain. Even Luxembourg did it ahead of us.
Wise and effective statecraft depends much on developing the right policies. But statecraft also depends on a less appreciated factor, and that is timing. It is not always enough to do the right thing, but to do the right thing at the right time. In other words, in foreign policy it is not just what you do, but when you do it.
Here a continuing puzzle of this Administration is its sense of timing. Previously as a political candidate, Obama displayed an appreciation for timing that was both acute and artful. He discerned the political gestalt, and capitalized on it in a way that catapulted an otherwise previously obscure law professor and state legislator first into the U.S. Senate and then almost immediately into the White House.
Yet somewhere along the way, in the transition from campaigning to governing, the Obama White House forgot to sync its clock. This was manifest in domestic and economic policy with the mistaken investment of political capital in the health care bill rather than a jobs agenda. On foreign policy, the administration's deficiencies have been most pronounced as miscast timing. In fact, as in the case of Libya, the Administration often arrives at a sound policy -- yet only when it is too late to be a game-changer. So also with Iran, when the White House sat passively on the sidelines during the 2009 Green Movement protests, only to belatedly offer public presidential support for the Iranian reformers two years later and after the regime had squelched the leading dissidents. Or Syria, where the administration stuck dogmatically to its public posture of hope that Assad would reform, while his henchman locked up, tortured, and killed the opposition.
Poor timing is not just a matter of misreading history and arriving late, but it can also mean mistaken sequencing and taking certain steps too soon. For example, many of the Administration's much-hyped "outreach" efforts in its first year to regimes like Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Burma, were flawed diplomatic gestures in part because they came before the White House had first taken needful steps such as reassuring U.S. allies, and asserting American strength and resolve towards the regimes in question. Taking those steps first would have generated more respect for the White House's gestures and created more fruitful conditions for eventual diplomatic outreach. Or consider the administration's clumsy treatment of Israel. Whatever one may think of the White House's various pressure gambits with the Israeli government -- such as publicly demanding a settlement freeze, or unilaterally calling for the 1967 borders framework as a precondition for negotiations -- a big reason why these steps failed (besides their dubious merit) is because they came before the White House had established a framework of trust with the Israeli leadership and made clear its firm commitment to Israel's security. Not to mention the lack of a Palestinian leadership able and willing to deliver as a negotiating partner. Timing problems can also come from listening to the wrong clock, as seems to be the case with the administration's recent decision-making on Afghanistan, shaped more by the 2012 electoral timetable rather than the military's assessment of the security clock.
None of this is easy. Reading time and the course of history is notoriously elusive, but it is essential to the best statecraft. Bismarck famously observed, "a statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." As the White House wrestles with a full agenda of vexing challenges, perhaps it should start listening a little harder for divine footsteps.
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Did the Obama administration replicate the Vietnam-era mistake of Johnson and McNamara: making it seem like the military endorsed an option that they actually opposed? I raised that question in an earlier post and hoped that the answer was no. After discussing the matter extensively with people who have thought about civil-military relations even more than I have, I am now inclined to say that the answer is probably no. I reach this conclusion, however, by giving the administration what they chose not to give their senior commander: the benefit of the doubt.
If my new thinking on this matter is correct, this little drama is a classic inside-the-Beltway story, and I hope the reader will indulge a long post.
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Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah -- which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the Lebanon of not-so-distant memory -- pluralist, free-wheeling, open to the West and the values of liberalism -- is being snuffed out by U.S. enemies. And by all appearances, no one can really be bothered, including, sadly enough, the Obama administration.
Six months ago, the pro-Western Saad Hariri (Rafiq's son) walked into an Oval Office meeting with President Obama as Lebanon's prime minister. He walked out a mere caretaker. Syria and Hezbollah chose precisely that moment to collapse his government. The immediate cause was Hariri's refusal to comply with the demand that he terminate his government's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) -- whose first indictments, handed down today, finger Hezbollah for carrying out the horrific bombing that killed his legendary father.
But the gambit to take down Saad was also widely understood to have a more strategic purpose, a humiliating slap at Obama and the United States. The message could not have been clearer: Such will be the fate of the United States' friends who dare defy the ascendant Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Obama, and Washington, can do nothing to protect you.
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Today marks Robert Gates' last day as secretary of defense. On a day that will feature its share of testimonials from others, let me offer my own. My view is no doubt colored by the fact that I served him for more than two years, but, then again, the experience of witnessing his leadership and decision-making up close and often behind closed doors clarified more than it distorted.
Gates came to the Pentagon with a mandate to focus on Iraq. Many at the time, aware of his involvement in the Iraq Study Group, feared that he had been hired to liquidate the United States' investment in Iraq. We soon realized that Gates did indeed want to end the war in Iraq, but in victory rather than defeat. Turning the war around is likely to be seen as the signal achievement of his tenure as secretary of defense. If victory in Iraq is to be squandered, it will be left to his successors to do so.
Gates also deserves great credit for enforcing high standards of accountability within the Defense Department, rewarding those whose performance warranted it, and removing those whose actions demanded it. He also strengthened civilian leadership of the department, often in ways that were subtle and out of the limelight. In 2008, for example, he signed the National Defense Strategy over the objections of the civilian and military leaders of the services. Gates believed the Defense Department needed to make tradeoffs and accept additional risk; the service chiefs and secretaries were unwilling to do so. Similarly, Gates took an important step to build up much-needed expertise for national security by inaugurating the Minerva Initiative, which provides grants to universities to build much-needed intellectual capital in the social sciences to help national defense. It is an initiative that deserves to be supported and expanded.
In other areas, his legacy is at best uncertain. How he will be judged on Afghanistan is very much bound up with the outcome of the war. However, to the extent that the Obama administration has made poor choices in Afghanistan, history will likely judge that things would have been worse without Gates' advocacy and advice. The same is true on the areas of missile defense and nuclear arms control: Things likely would have been worse without Gates' moderating influence.
Gates leaves other tasks incomplete. For years, but particularly over the last year and a half, he has spoken at length about the need to reform the Defense Department's institutions and structure, but much action needs to accompany those words. Leon Panetta would be well advised to follow through with the transformation agenda.
It is hazardous to predict the verdict of history. In time, the cheers of adulation fade, and the jeers give way to empathy, understanding, and sometimes respect. It is a safe bet, however, that Robert Gates will be judged among the nation's best secretaries of defense. The nation owes him a debt of gratitude, for it is better off for his service.
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Stephen Hayes over at the Weekly Standard presents a very intriguing angle to the civil-military story behind President Obama's Afghanistan decision. He is emphasizing the wrong part, however.
At issue is the extent to which the senior commanders endorsed the option that President Obama selected: truncating the surge and rushing the withdrawal in a fashion that interrupts the 2012 fighting season (but dove-tails with the 2012 presidential campaign season). As Hayes demonstrates, the White House sought to depict the president's decision as one well within a range of options developed by the military. According to Petraeus' successor, Lieutenant General John Allen, however, the option Obama picked was not on the menu. Obama's plan -- presumably the arbitrary summer 2012 deadline and perhaps also the numbers involved -- was apparently devised elsewhere, perhaps by White House advisors.
Hayes emphasizes that President Obama over-ruled Petraeus's advice, which is true but, as I have argued, he was well within his rights as commander-in-chief. On this, I point to no less an authority than General Petraeus himself. From a civil-military point of view, it is important to know whether or not the military refused to even present this as an option: it would have been inappropriate if they had tried to tie the hands of the president in that fashion. But if they did in fact present a range of options that included ones they thought too risky, and then President Obama chose yet another still-riskier option, that would not constitute a civil-military foul by either side. It is worth knowing whether the military endorsed the option, but that should not be viewed as the dispositive factor.
To me, the most important part of the Hayes story is that, if accurate and complete, it means the White House did not tell the truth about the military advice it received. Rather than admit that the president listened carefully to his generals and then chose something that they did not recommend, someone at the White House tried to pretend that the president simply chose among a range of options endorsed by the military. This is a subtle difference, but in civil-military terms it is a profound one. Civilians do not owe the military prerogatives over policy choices; they do owe the military a decision-making process in which the military voice can be heard and in which military views will be faithfully described to those authorized to hold the president accountable on these decisions, namely us.
If the president wants to elicit from the military an option and an endorsement of an option that the military does not initially prefer, as President Bush did with his Iraq surge, then he must engage in the lengthy back-and-forth that President Bush engaged in, cajoling the military into something resembling a consensus. The president does not have to do that -- he can simply decide, as President Obama did -- but he owes the military (and the voter) to tell the truth about what he did.
Ironically, if this story is true, the White House has just replicated the Johnson-McNamara error that was at the heart of H.R. McMaster's influential Dereliction of Duty account of the Vietnam War. Although many read McMaster's book as accusing the senior generals of dereliction for going along with Johnson's decision to escalate the war more gradually than they thought prudent, in fact McMaster's primary point was that the generals were derelict in going along with Johnson and McNamara's willful misrepresentation to Congress and the American people about the content of the military advice. What McMaster wanted the generals to do was simply tell Congress what their advice had been, correcting the record that Johnson and McNamara had muddied by pretending that their Vietnam decisions were consonant with military counsel.
To their credit, today's senior military leadership have not been derelict. They have saluted and obeyed their commander-in-chief. And they have not shrunk from telling the truth about their military views to Congress, even if it contradicts White House spin. Based on what is in the public record thus far, I cannot give so positive an evaluation to the civilian participants.
The president has a right to be wrong, but he does not have a right to lie about it. As Tom Ricks has argued, the Obama Administration already faces some serious civil-military challenges in the post Gates-Petraeus-Lute era (Lieutenant General Doug Lute has been a key civil-military interface in his role as White House coordinator on Aghanistan-Pakistan issues). Those challenges could quickly become insurmountable if they compound risky strategy choices with serious misrepresentations of the military position.
I hope those with better access to the president than I have will impress upon him the importance of clarifying this matter as quickly as possible. Perhaps the current story has a garble, and the anonymous White House official was misunderstood. I hope so, because otherwise I fear a civil-military rot will set in that could be quite corrosive to national security.
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President Obama's decision on the Afghan withdrawal was classic Obama. He split the difference between two coherent positions -- 1) withdraw as little as possible to maximize the chance of success versus 2) withdraw as much as possible to maximize political gain -- and came up with a middle-of-the-road muddle. It's clear that Obama and his advisors approach these decisions as politicians, not strategists.
But even then, the decision didn't make a whole lot of sense. The biggest political risk Obama faces is losing Afghanistan just in time for next year's election: I see no good reason not to keep as many forces in country as possible, just for self-interested political reasons, let alone what's best for U.S. security. Peter Feaver and Max Boot, among others, have had insightful analyses of the decision and its tangled rationales.
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The president of the United States makes almost unprecedented assertions of executive authority and launches a controversial war of choice* in the Middle East, targeting for regime change a dictator accused of committing atrocities against his own citizens, producing weapons of mass destruction, and sponsoring international terrorism. Amid the White House's promises of a quick victory, a compliant Congress initially goes along with the war, but months later disgruntlement sets in and Capitol Hill begins to raise concerns.
The preceding paragraph might sound like the standard left-wing critique of the Bush administration's Iraq War, of the type that was often written during the Bush years by any number of commentators. But observant readers no doubt realize that here it instead describes the Obama administration's ongoing war -- and yes, it is a war -- in Libya. These are strange times we are in. From the administration's strained interpretation of "hostilities" to contend that the War Powers Act does not apply, to last Friday's conflicting and conflicted votes in the House of Representatives, in which a bill to defund the war failed but a separate bill denying authorization of the war passed, few of our customary political categories apply. (For some expert yet accessible discussions of the legal issues involved, check out the indispensable Lawfare blog coedited by my Strauss Center colleague Bobby Chesney).
The administration sought to spin the House vote as a win because the measure to cut off war funding did not succeed. But as Josh Rogin notes, a majority of the House in fact opposes funding the war. And the power of the purse, as Peter Feaver has pointed out, is the indisputable tool granted by the constitution to Congress to express its will on matters of war-making -- and to bear the political consequences.
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President Obama's Afghanistan decision sounded the death-knell to two storylines. They are dead, at least for now, but not, I suspect, gone forever.
The first storyline is one I had peddled myself: the curious disappearance of the vice president from the major foreign policy action of 2011. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the war (excuse me, the minor overseas contingency operation that doesn't rise to the level of armed hostilities) in Libya, or the tough-but-right call to take out bin Laden with SEALs rather than with airstrikes -- in all of those dramas, Biden played no more than a bit part.
Well, whether that storyline ever had much validity before, it sure does not now. Biden is back. In on the record briefings, White House officials are touting Biden's role in Obama's decision to overrule his generals and shift backwards to a light-footprint-focus-on-terrorism posture. (By the way, this "new" posture bears more than a passing resemblance to the one Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld put in place from 2002-2006 -- the one that candidate Obama decried as inadequate.)
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President Obama is apparently going to announce the extent and pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week. His decision, in December 2009, to begin the withdrawal in July 2011 was never a good idea because it gave the Taliban the incentive to simply wait us out and accelerate the U.S. public's war fatigue. The best Obama can do now is mitigate the damage by highlighting our hard-won progress of the last two years and telling the American people that stability in Afghanistan is both important and possible, that it will take patience, and that our withdrawal will be measured, slow, and not come at the risk of defeat.
We'll see how Obama measures up to this. Meanwhile, an equally interesting question is, how do the Republican presidential candidates measure up? With the exception of Mitt Romney, not very well.
Leading neoconservative Republicans criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for his statement on Afghanistan during the Republican presidential debate last week. But I think his comment was actually one of the better statements on Afghanistan, compared with the others we've heard recently. Here's what he actually said: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the [Afghan] military in a way that they're able to defend themselves ... I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis [sic] can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
In other words, we should 1) heed the military's professional judgment, 2) withdraw based on conditions on the ground, and 3) resist withdrawing just to save a buck, and 4) demand more accountability from the Afghans. That's actually pretty good.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich did not directly address the issue of how many troops should be withdrawn, but he did say regarding foreign policy that "the price tag is always a factor." That's true in a trite and uninteresting sense: You don't want to bankrupt yourself unless your very survival is at stake. But Afghanistan is not bankrupting the U.S. Treasury. Much has been made about the price tag of the Afghanistan war, but the reality is that $100 billion per year is peanuts compared with what Iraq cost at its height and less than peanuts compared with the trillions we spend on entitlements and the broader defense budget. Gingrich seemed to imply that we can't afford the Afghanistan war: No one has yet explained how we can afford the consequences of rapid withdrawal.
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According to press reports, President Obama will soon clarify one of the lingering mysteries about his Afghanistan policy: what he meant by the July 2011 deadline he imposed on the "West Point surge" he announced in December 2009. If the advance leaks are any indication, Obama is under some pressure to replace one form of strategic confusion with another.
The arbitrary timeline generated considerable confusion after the West Point speech, with senior administration officials contradicting each other in background interviews and occasionally even on the record. Since the West Point surge was itself a product of a compromise -- it split the difference between advisors who wanted to jettison Obama's campaign critique of Bush-era Afghan policy so as to shift back to a Rumsfeldian light-footprint posture and those advisors who advocated nearly the opposite approach of replicating Bush's Iraq surge in Afghanistan -- the timeline had the awkward feel of a hybrid policy based on contradictory premises. One premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not taking U.S. support for granted. The other premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not hedging against U.S. abandonment. The West Point surge adopted the kinetics implied by the second premise, but undercut the policy with the rhetorical posture implied by the first premise.
The resulting internal strategic incoherence yielded a heavy dollop of public strategic confusion. Many observers recognized this was a mistake. Occasionally an insider would concede as much in private but publicly the administration stoutly defended the contradiction.
The contradiction has now played itself out and it is time for Obama to reveal his thinking. In an eerie parallel with the earlier debate, some advisors want him to rush the end of the Afghan surge and declare that all surge troops will be out within a year. Other advisors want him to announce a token withdrawal -- sort of a down payment on further reductions -- but keep most of the combat power in place through several more Afghan fighting seasons. The compromise position appears to be announcing an arbitrary deadline for the withdrawal of all surge troops -- well, not that arbitrary since it will happen to coincide with the presidential elections -- but delegating to the military the pace and timing of the withdrawals.
The Obama war pattern has been to split such differences and to adopt a policy that has more kinetic punch than the doves want but to frame (and in some cases, to undercut) that kinetic punch with dovish concessions. The betting money is that he will do the same thing this time. The result is a policy that neither fully satisfies nor fully enrages either side. There is enough hawkish punch to achieve some battlefield results (or, in the case of Iraq, to forestall a battlefield collapse) but not enough to maximize the chances for success.
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President Obama has before him an opportunity to promote U.S. values and a more comprehensive policy toward Russia because of the political and economic needs of Vladimir Putin and his "court." The right action now will promote U.S. interests, arguably the interests of the Russian people, and make it possible for the United States to have a better relationship with what we hope will be a more democratic Russian government in the not too distant future.
Russia's Prime Minister and de facto power center, Putin, currently finds his position not as stable as he'd like it to be. Poll numbers for his party remain low, cynicism remains high, all around him many of the world's autocrats and corrupt regimes are collapsing or wobbling, and the Russian economy and standard of living is stagnating even in a time of high oil prices.
This perhaps explains Russia's renewed effort to gain entrance into the WTO. This is good news in and of itself as free trade is a boon to all countries, but the U.S. policy should not be simply to say "amen" and push for Russia's accession with no other considerations. Russia's desire to join the WTO is just one of several levers that the president can use as part of a strategy to support Russia's becoming a more democratic country and the delegitimization of those trying to return it to tsarism.
The strategy the president should pursue could be comprised of three parts. First, a "reset" on U.S. policy toward Russia in terms of how we react to the government's treatment of dissidents and democratic activists. This effort is actually already in motion in that the president plans to nominate Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to the Russian Federation. Dr. McFaul is a well-known and respected expert on Russia; but more importantly, he is an expert on democratic development and a firm supporter of same. His nomination alone sends a strong signal that the Obama administration is serious about its concerns regarding Russian politics. McFaul should go to Moscow with the full backing of the president to be an influential voice for democratic governance; he should be instructed to meet with dissidents and democratic activists. The timing is excellent: some of the best known democratic leaders in Russia have formed a new party and petitioned the government to allow it to participate officially. The U.S. position should be clear that such a party should be welcomed. Perhaps Putin will grasp that doing this makes Russia look good for WTO purposes if he needs a reason beyond just doing the right thing.
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In Paul Miller's excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of culture and historical memory that also shapes the European mindset on defense.
Last week when Secretary Gates gave his Brussels speech, I happened to be on vacation with my wife in southern France. We spent a few days touring the French countryside and its many villages. As enchanting as each village was, with their timeless stone houses, quiet streams, and idyllic vineyards, every last town center also featured a monument to death, in the form of an obelisk listing the names of the men of the village who had died in World War I. These monuments, each one bearing witness to scores of names, serve for the French as inescapable reminders of the carnage and costs of war. In France's case, this meant the deaths of 1.3 million of its soldiers in the Great War alone. Even as the World War I generation has now passed from the scene, such obelisks, and their comparable memorials in other European countries, continue to shape Europe's collective memory - a memory further seared by the Great War's even bloodier sequel.
This traumatic twentieth century history forms much of the prevailing twenty-first century European worldview on security issues. The German Marshall Fund's invaluable annual survey, Transatlantic Trends, offers one of the most vivid illustrations of these transatlantic differences. According to the most recent 2010 edition of the survey, "when asked whether they agree that war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agreed. Although both numbers are up slightly from last year, these numbers have largely remained the same over the past several years and represent a significant and lasting divide in American and European public opinion....The differences are even more pronounced when considering 49% of Americans and only 8% of EU respondents agree strongly."
For Europeans, despite the European Union's prevailing economic woes, the EU's great political achievement has been forging the bonds and identity that make another continent-wide war almost unthinkable. And as Paul points out, NATO's formation after World War II may have been prompted most immediately by the Soviet threat, but it also played an important role in the Franco-German reconciliation and the foundations for European peace.
While American policy-makers should be mindful of how this historical sensibility influences European choices, this is not to excuse those choices. In Europe's case, the fact that history helps shape a culture does not mean that history should determine a culture. As a matter of policy, Secretary Gates' sharp critique is correct, both in its substance and tone. European nations do need to increase their defense budgets and their political will to use force for alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or future conflicts. Just as Europe has largely been able to escape its past of catastrophically destructive continent-wide wars, Europe also needs to escape its more recent past of anemic commitments to security.
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One of the more curious aspects of President Obama's May 19 Middle East speech was his decision to devote so much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president's main theme, of course, was supposed to be the Middle East upheavals of 2011 and the United States' support for those seeking liberty after decades of tyranny. Indeed, in his speech, the president properly highlighted one of the region's great unspoken truths: that for years on end, autocrats of every stripe have cynically manipulated the conflict with Israel to divert their people's grievances outward. When provided half a chance to give voice to what's really on their minds, the Arab masses since last December have repeatedly demonstrated that their thoughts turn not so much to far away Palestine, but to their own mistreatment and degradation at the hands of corrupt, unaccountable despots. Contrary to the myth indulged by generations of Western diplomats, the real driving force of Middle East politics has proven not to be Israel's dispute with the Palestinians, but a freedom deficit that has left hundreds of millions of Arabs living lives of quiet desperation under the thumb of their own oppressive dictators.
Was this really the time, then, for the president to re-focus global attention on the imperative of resolving the Palestinian issue? To commit, in effect, the very transgression that he had just minutes before rightly criticized Arab leaders for, i.e., diverting attention from what really ails the Middle East -- the absence of humane, representative governance that has as its first priority addressing the legitimate needs of its own citizenry -- to the intensely emotional, but profoundly intractable issue of Palestine?
For all the president's laudable comments on the region's "winds of change," what should have been the primary message of his speech was quite predictably overwhelmed by the deluge of attention given to his revived foray into peacemaking. "Obama Seeks End to the Stalemate on Mideast Talks," trumpeted the New York Times. "Obama urges Israel to make push for peace," proclaimed the Washington Post. Talk about stepping on your own headline. A vital region of the world is convulsed by a process of historic transformation that carries both great promise as well as great danger for U.S. interests. Yet in the wake of a major presidential address on the issue, all we are left talking about is a new U.S. position to help solve a six decade-old conflict whose prospects for near-term resolution are effectively nil?
Of course, quite apart from serving as a major distraction from the most pressing threats and opportunities that currently confront the United States in the Middle East, the president's peace process play made little sense even on its own terms. Thanks in large part to the ham-handed diplomacy of Obama's first two years in office, peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are (as noted above) largely frozen. There was no real prospect that anything the president said in his May 19 speech was likely to launch the process on a more virtuous path.
Quite the contrary. Coming on the eve of a visit by Israel's prime minister, without any advance warning or coordination between the two allies, the president's "1967 lines" gambit guaranteed yet another embarrassing contretemps and breach of trust with the United States' closest and most powerful Middle Eastern friend. Making matters worse was that the substantive tilt in favor of the Palestinian position came in the context of a brazen drive by the Palestinian Authority to defy U.S. interests -- first by foregoing direct negotiations with Israel in favor of a dangerous course of unilateralism at the United Nations; and second, by striking a unity deal with an unreconstructed Hamas. On top of it all came the unfortunate spectacle of Prime Minister Netanyahu having to dress down the President of the United States in the Oval Office, and Obama's efforts to "clarify" what his peace initiative really meant just days later in front of a pro-Israel audience. The cumulative effect was to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes of Obama that have unfortunately metastasized across the Middle East: a weak, unreliable, and incompetent leader whose first instinct is invariably to punish traditional American allies while rewarding those bent on undermining U.S. interests.
And all for what? To convince Europe to help derail the bid for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in September? Well, maybe. But, again, one has to ask: Why not do some advance coordination with Israel on what it would take to achieve this legitimate (and shared) strategic purpose? More importantly, why make the shift on "1967 lines" and endure all the subsequent costs without first securing guarantees that the Europeans will in fact deliver? Here, once more, the president simply plays to the most harmful caricature of himself, as a leader who actually believes that his august pronouncements are somehow a substitute for serious policy; a worrisome mix of arrogance and naiveté who is left playing the sucker that friends can never rely on to protect their backs and enemies increasingly believe can be challenged at little or no cost.
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This recent Politico story raises again what remains an ongoing puzzle of President Obama's administration: Why has Obama thus far failed to form substantial friendships with other world leaders? Now well into the third year of his presidency, Obama's lack of personal connections with his global counterparts stands in sharp contrast to just about all of his modern-day predecessors. President George W. Bush enjoyed strong friendships with multiple leaders, particularly Britain's Tony Blair, Australia's John Howard, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi. President Clinton's tight bonds with many leaders included Blair and Boris Yeltsin. President George H.W. Bush's global friendships were legion, including John Major and Helmut Kohl, as were Reagan's alliances with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and even Pope John Paul II. Even President Carter, who had fewer friendships on the global stage, depended on his personal bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to complete the Camp David peace accords.
The question of relational bonds is not a trivial matter of procuring gossipy material for a future presidential memoir or expanding the tight circle of golf buddies. It is a core component of statecraft. An effective foreign policy includes at least four elements: a strategy and policy priorities, the resources (economic, diplomatic, military) to carry out the strategy, the system to implement the strategy, and the personal relationships with other leaders that facilitate development and advancement of the strategy and policies at both ends. This last element is the one that you won't learn about in international relations textbooks or graduate seminars, but as just about any experienced policy-maker will say, it is essential to the craft of foreign policy.
Close personal ties can often be forged in the crucible of a crisis as leaders work together to address a common problem. But the most enduring relationships are often ones that a president establishes proactively, before a crisis hits. Former Secretary of State George Shultz famously described this as the "gardening" process, in which a president or cabinet official proactively cultivates friendships with other leaders for their own sakes, with the understanding that such links might be extraordinarily useful when a crisis hits, as they almost invariably do.
The decisions foreign leaders make about whether to support a U.S. initiative or not take into account numerous factors, including their national interests and domestic politics. But a significant factor is often that leader's personal relationship with the U.S. president -- does he or she respect, trust, understand, and like the president? Will he leverage his personal and political capital on behalf of the president? Does he feel like his advice will be taken into account by the president?
Admittedly, President Obama has been dealt a somewhat weak hand among his foreign counterparts. Traditional U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan and Australia have been struggling with weak governments and frequent leadership changes, while our European allies such as France and Germany are led by the erratic Nicolas Sarkozy and the vacillating Angela Merkel - although, as my German Marshall Fund colleague Stephen Szabo has written, the White House was wise to roll out the red carpet for Merkel not as a reward for past reliability but as an inducement for future steadfastness. But there are still candidates aplenty, such as Indian Prime Minister and fellow intellectual Manmohan Singh, or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or especially Britain's David Cameron, whom, as I have written previously, would seem to be a natural Obama friend -- and after their ping-pong match the other week, may well be on the way to becoming one.
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Fellow FP blogger David Rothkopf criticizes outgoing Defense Secretary Bob gates for daring to notice progress in Afghanistan. Rothkopf doubts that reconciliation with the Taliban is truly possible or that political progress "would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups." He argues that the 2014 deadline has eroded our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban and undermined our influence in post-war Afghanistan. Most incredibly, he believes that "ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful" that any further effort is futile.
Rothkopf is right about the 2014 deadline and wrong about everything else. Take his assertion that a political deal with the Taliban has no prospect of improving stability in Afghanistan or denying safe haven to al-Qaeda. This seems to me a completely unfounded assertion. Post-war Afghanistan is not going to be a particularly pleasant place to live, but a post-war Afghanistan created by a negotiated settlement with most insurgents on terms favorable to us will almost certainly be a more pleasant, and safer, place than Afghanistan circa 2001 and one in which we will retain the ability to protect our interests in South Asia.
Rothkopf elides the difference between a sup-optimal outcome and complete failure. It is as if our failure to achieve perfection means that we should give up completely. Since we admittedly bungled the job for the first five or six years, paid an irreparable opportunity cost, and can no longer hope to achieve in Afghanistan what we could have if we had put out a good faith effort from the very beginning, we should, according to Rothkopf, call it quits.
This is nonsense. Rothkopf is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perfection is out of our grasp, but we can still achieve better-than-awful. We won't get an A, but we might pull out a C, which is better than the F we'll get if we pull out too quickly. Notably Rothkopf does not describe what is likely to happen following a rapid American withdrawal (civil war, instability in Pakistan), the costs associated with those consequences, or how we should deal with that scenario. He can't, because all of those considerations prove that Rothkopf's prescription is worse than the disease.
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A recent Washington Post poll shows that President Obama probably has the political breathing room he would need to choose from a wider array of options on Afghanistan than the conventional wisdom believes. While support for the war is eroding, it has not eroded to the point where domestic political considerations need trump a careful consideration of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Put another way: if a measured withdrawal would increase prospects for a successful outcome in Afghanistan than would a rapid retreat from the theater, then there may be enough political space in American domestic politics to permit such an approach.
This only sharpens the very difficult choice confronting Obama. Fred and Kimberly Kagan argue that conditions on the ground dictate delaying the withdrawal, or at least opting for a slower, more modest withdrawal than the anti-war faction has demanded. If the Kagans are right -- and I would note that Stephen Biddle has offered a similar compelling take -- then a hasty withdrawal is precisely the wrong thing to do at this point. Some of Obama's advisors are arguing for an accelerated withdrawal, while others are arguing for a more measured transition that would focus on the 2014 strategic horizon.
In sum, expert opinion is divided with forceful arguments on either side. And, not coincidentally, political support is weak. Weak, but perhaps not completely beyond the reach of a determined mobilization effort -- or so the recent poll might suggest. That such a window still exists is a remarkable fact, given how little President Obama has done to shore up political support for the war he called a "necessary" war a few years ago. It means that President Obama does face political pressure to end the war in Afghanistan, but that that pressure need not be considered irresistible. A determined commander-in-chief could still pursue a costlier strategy, provided that he persuaded the American public that this offered the best chance of leading to a more successful outcome.
But first, one person needs to be persuaded: himself. The most important Afghanistan debate today is not the one in Congress or in opinion polls. It is the one inside President Obama's head and heart. Even insiders very close to the action do not feel confident about predicting the outcome of that debate.
From my distant perch in the bleachers, I have even less confidence in forecasting the Obama debate. I will, however, predict that he will give us a clearer window into his thinking through some sort of Big Speech on Afghanistan within the month. I do not see how he can avoid doing so on the margins of deciding/announcing how many U.S. troops will exit Afghanistan starting July.
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A few weeks ago, President Obama's military venture in Libya crossed the 60-day threshold stipulated in the War Powers Act. Nothing much happened.
If my counting is correct, this weekend the war will cross another somewhat more artificial threshold: the 78-day mark that the Kosovo War lasted in 1999 before Serbian leader Milosevic capitulated to the NATO bombing campaign. The Kosovo threshold is not totally irrelevant. After all, the Libyan operation is more like the Kosovo one than any other military venture you could name. Yet, my best guess is that crossing this threshold will not be any more consequential than crossing the War Powers Act threshold was.
These milestones are the work of pundits, not strategists, and their impact on the public is less than pundits claim.
(To be fair, the 60-day clock stipulated by the War Powers Act is also the work of legislators and so should, in theory, carry much more weight. As we are seeing, however, it does not appear to. This is because the War Powers Act is based on a profoundly false premise: that Congress can coerce the President into doing its bidding even when Congress is unwilling to wield the extraordinarily powerful levers the Constitution already grants it. Congress hoped that the War Powers Act would enable Congress to constrain the Executive branch's ability to engage in military operations without requiring that Congress engage in the politically risky business of actually voting against those military operations, for instance voting to forbid the expenditure of funds. It hasn't worked that way. Congress can indeed constrain the Executive branch, but only if Congress is willing at the same time to put its own political necks on the line. If they are unwilling to do so, the War Powers Act will not provide substitutionary constraint.)
The Kosovo mark is a handy hook for raising awkward questions, such as: Even the Kosovo war, as dodgy an affair as that was, managed to achieve its political objectives by this point, so why are we still stuck in Libya with no end in sight?
Such questions serve the purpose of refocusing the public's attention, however briefly, away from gripping tales of errant tweets and back onto strategic matters. But just as the public shrugged off the artificial milestones of body counts in Iraq that were heralded in the media -- the moment when the Iraq casualties exceeded Desert Storm casualties, the moment when Iraq casualties crossed the 1000 threshold, etc. -- the public is not likely to reflexively rule that time has been called on this particular adventure just because it is lasting longer than another war it loosely resembles.
And yet the gradual cumulation of these thresholds, and the awkward questions they raise, could have an effect. Obama and Qaddafi are racing different clocks. My best guess is that Obama has more time on his than Qaddafi has on his, but it may be a closer race than either realizes.
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President Obama delivered an excellent speech today. The outstanding question is whether his administration's deeds will follow his eloquent words. Still, as overdue as it was, he at last placed the United States firmly on the side of freedom in the Middle East. Even as the "Arab Spring" has shown signs of faltering in recent weeks, President Obama's remarks today have the potential to provide new support and momentum for the reformers of the region who are facing the challenges of disorderly transition in Egypt, setbacks in Bahrain, an impasse in Yemen, and sadistic violence in Syria.
Make no mistake about just how dramatic today's speech is. In his remarks today, President Obama also found his "inner George W. Bush" -- and effectively departed from the first 2 ½ years of his own administration's foreign policy. Though not mentioned by name in the speech, the strategic logic of the Bush Doctrine loomed large. It was Bush who in a November 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy declared:
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results.
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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.