In some respects, there was little that was new in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's Jan. 6 press conference on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. This past summer he had spoken of efficiencies, reductions to the contractor force, and reductions in the number of flag and general officers and savings in the department's expenditures on information technology. In addition, he promised that he would address the need to curb the runaway growth of the defense health program in the FY 12 budget. It was clear that to do so, he would have to increase fees and co-pays, which had not been touched for over a decade.
Moreover, everyone expected the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program to be seriously cut back, if not terminated. Similarly, given its greater complexity than the Air Force's conventional F-35, whose initial operational capability had been pushed back about two years, it was expected that the same fate would befall the Marines' short take-off/vertical landing version of that aircraft. Indeed, Secretary Gates has made it clear that the system is on two-year "probation"; its fate is very much in doubt.
What, then, was the real news emerging from the secretary's press conference? To begin with, the secretary's announcement that he was terminating the Army's SLAMRAAM surface-to -air missile programs and its non-line-of-sight launch system, demonstrated yet again that the Army has a serious problem managing high technology programs. These terminations follow in the wake of Donald Rumsfeld's termination of the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery system, which themselves followed the cancellation of other helicopter systems, as well as another surface to air missile system, the vintage 1980s Sergeant York. The Army acquisition system clearly needs a major overhaul; something is fundamentally wrong with the way the Service plans for, budgets, and develops its new weapons systems.
Yet overshadowing the Army's failures is a more fundamental issue that could have serious ramifications for service morale. It is that a significant part of the efficiencies that the services had identified during their summer and fall budget exercises are not to be retained by those who identified them. This, in fact, had been the services' expectation. Indeed, Gates had made it very clear that he hoped to forestall cuts by the Office of Management and Budget by having the services identify efficiency-driven savings that could then be retained, thereby reducing downward pressures on the DoD budget top-line.
The services took the secretary at his word, and produced those efficiencies at an unprecedented scale: $150 billion for fiscal years 2012-2016. Yet the Office of Management and Budget, which had remained silent when Gates outlined his budget strategy in August 2010, forced him to offer up $78 billion in budget cuts. Of this sum, reductions in information technology expenditures, the closing of the Joint Forces Command, the changes in the European command, cuts in the contractor force, the downsizing of intelligence organizations, and the $4 billion in savings from the JSF program all will come, in whole or in part, from the services' budgets. By forcing the secretary's hand to approve these reductions, OMB broke faith with the military and it did so at a time when troops are still heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worse still some of the future savings in the FY 2012 multi-year budget plan are predicated on troop reductions in those two theaters. What if circumstances dictate that such reductions cannot take place? Will the cuts still be implemented? And if they are, as might be expected, will weapons programs be slashed and or delayed even more?
The defense secretary clearly made a valiant effort to protect the Pentagon's budget; the services did their share as well. It is truly unfortunate that the White House chose to pocket the billions of dollars of those savings rather than return them to DoD. Its behavior bodes ill for Gates's successor who, in addition to having to fill the current secretary's giant shoes, will have the onerous task of assuring the military that the White House can be trusted on budget matters.
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Yesterday Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced cuts in the U.S. defense program amounting to $78 billion over the next five years. Whereas both he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, had advised the White House that 2-3 percent growth in defense spending was required, the Obama administration will apparently give the Defense Department less than a 1 percent increase over what it requested for 2011.
Gates's decisions amounted to a mixed bag. On the positive side, Gates cancelled the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Army's next-generation short-range surface-to-air missile system and put the Marines' variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on "two-year probation" due to cost overruns and delays. All are sensible moves. Gates also announced an increase in health care premiums for working-age military retirees. This is a good first step, but only a first step, in reining in ballooning defense personnel costs.
Although Gates decided to terminate several programs of marginal utility, he didn't go far enough in using the resulting savings to beef up the capabilities the United States requires to protect American interests in coming years. As the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel argued last year, the United States may actually need to increase defense expenditures in order to counter anti-access challenges, such as those posed by China, and acquire new equipment to replace systems that were last modernized during the Reagan administration thirty years ago. Although Gates yesterday finally announced support for the Air Force's next-generation bomber and allocated additional funding to the Navy's unmanned combat strike system, much more needs to be done to maintain stability in the Western Pacific in the face of China's military modernization. The Defense Department should, for example:
Efficiency in defense is a laudatory goal. However, it should always take second place to the imperative of protecting U.S. interests in an increasingly challenging security environment.
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Politico is reporting that Derek Chollet, presently deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, is moving over to the White House to head up the National Security Council's strategic planning shop (my old post). He replaces Ambassador Mary Yates, who has held that job since early in President Obama's tenure.
Chollet is a strong choice. By virtue of his State gig, he has good experience inside, and as co-author of an important study of post-Cold War American Grand Strategy he has done serious thinking at the broad level one would expect of a strategic planner. Perhaps just as importantly, he has strong ties up and out -- up with his direct boss Tom Donilon, the national security advisor, and due to his campaign experience out, beyond the NSC into the rest of the White House and throughout the administration and into the think-tank world.
The NSC strategic planning shop can play a constructive role as an internal "second-guesser," helping line officers think through policy areas where the current strategy is perhaps stuck or reaching the point of diminishing returns. He can also help the administration look across stove-pipes to find opportunities for a strategic investment of presidential time, energy, and capital. As one of my colleagues put it: The administration's line officers are busy shooting at the enemy crawling through the wire so a strategic planning office, if sufficiently integrated into NSC operations, can help the organization look out beyond the wire so as to attack problems gathering in the distance.
Chollet is arriving at a critical juncture for the administration. The new balance of power with Congress points to likely stalemate on domestic policy. At the same time, most of the foreign policy initiatives launched by the administration have played out, while other problems (think Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and so on) are facing their own moments of truth. The NSC strategic planning shop will have its hands full, but I am hopeful that it can rise to the occasion.
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President Obama had a good year in Asia in 2010. It featured a more realistic China policy, a breakthrough visit to India, the shelving of an irritating base dispute with Japan, a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that is creating results, intensification of a successful drone campaign against terrorists in Pakistan, and closer cooperation with key Southeast Asian nations. But challenges loom: China's growing assertiveness, mercantilistic trade policy, and development of anti-access capabilities that erode U.S. deterrence commitments in Asia; North Korean belligerence; Burmese repression and proliferation; and the continuing weakness of the Afghan and Pakistani states. How can President Obama counteract these trends in the new year while building on previous successes?
1.Implement a long-range strategy to sustain U.S. primacy in Asia in the face of China's challenge.
This means diversifying U.S. military-access and basing rights beyond Japan and Korea, deepening missile defense collaboration with these and other countries (including Taiwan), building up naval power in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and investing in next-generation technologies to counteract asymmetric Chinese weapons systems. With sustained commitment and smart investments, the United States is well-positioned to sustain its military edge in Asia, in part because nearly all regional powers find it reassuring and want to enable rather than constrain it. The harder work may be at home: decisively investing in the domestic reforms that liberate the United States to shape a new century, rather than wallowing in growing indebtedness and domestic discord.
2. Invest in the rise of key countervailing Asian powers that can contribute public goods of stability and security.
This includes prodding Japan, with its enormous but latent military and technological capabilities, to act on its new defense guidelines to become a "normal country" that is a net security provider in Asia; investing further in India's ascent to the top tier of global powers and partners; and working with Indonesia and Vietnam to develop the means to contribute to regional stability while maintaining their independence vis-à-vis their giant neighbor. It also means incorporating Russia into the Asian strategic equation in ways that reinforce common interests in sustaining the balance of power.
3. Unite the democracies.
Concern about China is accelerating the development of an array of minilateral groupings among regional democracies. These include U.S.-Japan-Australia, U.S.-Japan-Korea, and U.S.-Japan-India trilaterals as well as new security pacts between Japan and India, Japan and Australia, Australia and India, and India and South Korea. In the meantime, all these countries are working to forge closer strategic ties with Indonesia, a next-generation BRIC. An infrastructure of democratic security cooperation could help deter proliferation from problem states like North Korea and Burma, incentivize China's peaceful rise, and secure increasingly contested maritime commons.
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The conventional wisdom about the pre-holiday lame duck Senate debate of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is that Republican leaders lost control of a bitterly divided caucus, handing President Obama a much-needed foreign-policy victory.
The reality, however, is closer to the view put forth by Senator Bob Corker, who, during the final floor debate prior to ratification, termed New START the "Nuclear Modernization and Missile Defense Act of 2010."
Although many key Republicans, including Sens. Jon Kyl, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and minority leader Mitch McConnell, ended up voting against ratification, the work they did behind the scenes in the months and weeks prior to the vote vastly improved the U.S. strategic situation post-ratification.
New START itself is a rather minor arms control agreement, with only minimal cuts to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Therefore much of the debate about the treaty was about ancillary issues the Russians attempted to bring into the treaty or about strategic issues not addressed by the treaty.
In two of these areas, Sen. Kyl and his colleagues did yeoman's work by prodding the administration to improve nuclear and missile defense policy. Through months of negotiations, he extracted a commitment from the Obama administration to provide $84.1 billion of funding over the next ten years to ensure that the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is modernized. And during the final days of the Senate debate, Sen. Kyl, joined by Sen. McCain and others, obtained assurances from Obama regarding his long-term commitment to develop effective missile defenses.
Neither item may seem like a concession, given that both actions are fully in line with positions taken by previous administrations of both political parties.
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The Obama administration had a relatively good year in Asia (relative, that is, to its disastrous first year), but it still must follow up and break bad habits, as my colleague and former State Department official Randy Schriver likes to say. They stood up to China's bullying in the South China Sea, declaring that freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes are American "core interests." They finally signed the most significant free trade agreement since NAFTA, with South Korea. When President Obama went to India he removed barriers to high-technology exports and pressed for more business-to-business ties. In Indonesia, he signed a number of agreements that should help both trade and defense relations. The administration accepted an invitation to the East Asia Summit, which is very important to Southeast Asians and will make it easier to forge lasting bonds in the region.
Now for the critique. The administration seems ready to go wobbly on North Korea, and in the process China. It has shifted from supporting whatever tough measures President Lee Myung-bak wanted to take to nudging him back to the failed six-party talks and congratulating China for its diplomacy in getting North Korea to signal agreement to talk. This is the worst of the bad habits in Asia we must break. The North did not just test a missile this time; they twice killed South Koreans in cold blood last year. No president can allow his people to be killed without responding. We seem not to understand that. The first task for the U.S. and South Korea is to re-establish deterrence, which could well mean proportionate retaliation against the North.
Instead, we are falling back on the same old failed patterns. The North commits an act of aggression and eventually China urges their ally back to the table. Washington then falls over itself complimenting China for its diplomatic skill. This will not get the North to denuclearize or stop its aggression. And it is dangerous. North Korea can continue to commit acts of war with impunity while China simply looks the other way. It will only lead to more attacks on South Korea and is more likely to lead to conflict -- South Korea will eventually have to strike back. Instead, we should thank China very much for its efforts, cut Beijing out of any future talks we wish to have with North Korea, re-establish deterrence, and implement a number of coercive measures against the North to rebuild our negotiating leverage. Not only would direct talks backed up by coercion put us in a more powerful position with North Korea, if carefully orchestrated with our allies, but China might fear being excluded from future arrangements on the peninsula and pressure its friends in Pyongyang to abide by international rules.
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As the end of the year approaches, along with it comes the ritual end of year evaluations as well as New Year's resolutions. In that spirit, several Shadow Government contributors here offer our thoughts on the Obama administration's foreign policies -- specifically:
1. Advice for the administration in the new year,
2. Suggestions on what policies are working and should be continued, and
3. Suggestions on what policies aren't working and should be consigned to the archives.
Advice: Seize the initiative. This is not about a specific policy but an overall posture. Two years since President Obama's election, the question of an "Obama Doctrine" remains elusive, as the administration's national security policy has mostly been reactive, focused on managing current challenges and crises. This inbox by itself is a substantial challenge to be sure, and one which the administration is handling with varying degrees of success (e.g. decently well with Iran and North Korea, with mixed results with Afghanistan and Iraq, and less well with Pakistan and Israel/Palestinian issues). Missing thus far, however, has been an overarching strategic framework. Hence my advice that the White House seize the initiative for its next two years, and develop a strategic doctrine or at least proactively take advantage of creating some new foreign policy opportunities. Implications for seizing the initiative include:
What might seizing the initiative look like in practice? For specific policy ideas, perhaps a new alliance of democracies in Asia, or a new global free trade initiative, or reinvigorated transatlantic partnerships, or a new strategic outreach in a neglected region such as Latin America or Africa (including an American partnership with the likely new state in southern Sudan, as Andrew Natsios has suggested), or establishing a robust strategic framework for winning the war of ideas against jihadist ideology.
Continue: Rediscovery of the freedom agenda. After its initial woeful neglect of democracy and human rights promotion, earlier this year the Obama administration rediscovered -- rhetorically at least -- the importance of supporting freedom around the world. The White House should build on this, particularly with specific policies and with new resources. As events in just the past few weeks have shown, in places like Belarus, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, and China, the demands of citizens for their liberty remain embattled and in need of America support.
Drop: The "reset" with Russia. Now that New START has passed the Senate, and thus completes the centerpiece of the administration's "reset" policy, it is time for a new, realistic look at Russia -- which necessarily means a delete of the reset framework. The original reset framework assumed that U.S.-Russia relations could be put on a sustained positive trajectory based on shared interests and reciprocal good will. But as Bob Kagan wrote earlier this week, "relations with Moscow are about to grow more challenging," as serious issues including Russia's ongoing occupation of Georgia, growing corruption and internal repression, and cynical ambivalence on Iran remain. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's reported description of Russia got it right: "An oligarchy run by the security services." Taking a fresh look at the United States' Russia policy should include strengthening U.S. support for beleaguered Russian reformers, reaffirming U.S. commitments to our allies and partners in Russia's border regions, and jettisoning unrealistic assumptions about shared interests. Ironically, such a reduction in expectations might well enable better cooperation in the areas where our interests do align.
Advice: Be as committed to seeing Iraq and Afghanistan through to success as the President was in pursuing health care "reform." President Obama secured his place in history with the passage of Obamacare. Whether it comes to be seen as a positive legacy like Social Security, or as an overreach and folly like Prohibition, it will always be seen as historic and as the president's own. This was a policy war of choice, not of necessity. There were needful aspects of health care reform, but most of them fell out of the bill or got swamped by far more expensive and consequential optional items. Elections have consequences, and in this case it empowered Obama to doggedly pursue what he considered to be the right thing -- and he showed he was willing to pay a huge electoral price, if necessary.
It is time for him to engage in a policy war of necessity, building a political coalition in support of prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His policy moves in the next two years will likely prove decisive in determining whether U.S. forces leave in success or defeat. Until now, President Obama has not made war leadership a central priority of his administration, and he has devoted very little effort at all to the crucial task of mobilizing political/public support. It is time, past time, to devote the political capital to this effort.
Continue: President Obama and his team proved quite adept in passing New START. To be sure the treaty itself was only of secondary importance for national security. Indeed, the side deals on force modernization and missile defense wrung out of the administration by skeptical senators will likely prove far more consequential in the long run than the modest treaty provisions. Yet the orchestration of lobbying, arm-twisting, bipartisan outreaching, principled deal-making, and even somewhat hyperbolic policy-shilling -- all of that amounted to an impressive effort culminating in what surely is the administration's greatest national security accomplishment to date. If the administration devotes a similar effort to forging bipartisan support for the various wars under its command (see point above), it will be an even more impressive national security accomplishment.
Drop: The silly campaign boasting that "America is back" in Asia. The boast was always a bit absurd but it quickly became an embarrassment when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to skip regional meetings and postpone long-planned trips to attend to domestic political priorities. The boast also reflected a needless defensiveness on the administration's part. The United States has pursued a common bipartisan grand strategy in Asia for over a decade now, with President George W. Bush building on President Bill Clinton's initial efforts regarding China, India, and Japan, and now President Obama building on Bush's initiatives. Rather than pretend to be offering a bold departure, why not make a virtue out of the truth and note that there are some areas where mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans can agree, and one of them is Asia? Both sides recognize that the United States is an Asia-Pacific power and the world will be a better place if the United States remains vitally engaged in this region. No need to pretend that the United States ever left, because it didn't and it won't.
Advice: From a trade perspective, it is remarkable to think how little has been accomplished in the first two years of the Obama presidency. When he took office, President Obama inherited an agenda that included stalled global trade talks (the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations), three already-negotiated free trade agreements (South Korea, Colombia, and Panama), and a troubled trade relationship with China. Across all of these items, the only achievement approaching progress was the revision to the Korean free trade agreement, and that came at the very end of 2010. The revision left Ford and the United Auto Workers happier, but came at the expense of other sectors, such as pork producers.
Better late than never, but there were costs to the lost time. Free trade agreements that promised U.S. producers at least a period of privileged access to a trading partner's market are now just offering the prospect of equal access, since our jilted partners went and negotiated agreements with other countries while the United States dallied. Frustration was already high with the lagging global trade talks; it has since mounted. What's more, the repeated empty promises of the G-20 nations to conclude the Doha round undermined that group's credibility.
The ineffectiveness of the G-20 was also revealed in the sad Seoul summit, in which China and Germany objected to any global rebalancing plan that pushed past platitudes. The Obama administration -- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in particular -- deserves credit for putting forth a credible approach; it just didn't seem to gain traction. As with trade liberalization, the administration might have been more credible had it led by example. In trade, it called for a new WTO agreement while condoning "Buy America" protectionism and showing that it would not spend the political capital to push through existing agreements. In international finance, it called for global rebalancing while dramatically increasing spending, creating a significant new entitlement program through its health care plans, and relegating any plans for fiscal restraint to a separate deficit commission (as opposed to using its own Office of Management and Budget).
So what happens when you defer serious action on the international economic front for a couple of years? Institutions (in this case the WTO) deteriorate, problems (resurgent global imbalances) fester and grow, and resolutions to address these issues soon may be undercut by new crises that demand attention.
Looking ahead to the rest of Obama's term, my top candidate for major distracting crisis to come is the bubbling debt trouble in Europe. The leaders of the Euro nations have been working furiously to address problems as they pop up in Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal, with Spain and Belgium starting to simmer. But all of their remedies have done little more than buy time and, in some cases, allow the problems to grow. There are fundamental inconsistencies ripping the euro apart. When that happens, it will not simply be a matter of having to deal with currency exchange at the borders; it will likely involve a significant banking crisis. Those, it turns out, can be nasty.
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We had a running joke in the intelligence community that started way back in 2003 or so and went on for years that the headline for anything we wrote on Afghanistan was some variant of the same thing: "Progress Made, Challenges Remain." Last week President Obama essentially repeated the headline when he announced the results of his review of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said in a press conference that "this continues to be a very difficult endeavor," but that "we are on track to achieve our goals" in Afghanistan. The administration's review, including the unclassified white paper, was a predictable, uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road reflection of establishment wisdom.
The headline isn't wrong, and the president's policy has much to commend it. We are making progress. He was right to deploy more troops last year (though he did not deploy enough to maximize our chance of success), and rightly has called for more time. I disagree in principle with a deadline for withdrawal, but if there has to be a deadline, 2014 is far better than July 2011. The president rightly claimed that "for the first time in years, we've put in place the strategy and the resources that our efforts in Afghanistan demand." (Though, as usual, Obama does not give his predecessor the credit he deserves for beginning the shift in strategy and resources in late 2006).
But I also agree with my colleague, Peter Fever, that the president has done a poor job selling his policy. The administration's strategic messaging on the war is a half-baked compromise between touting a success and ignoring a war their political base dislikes. As a result, the administration is content to pop up once a year, groundhog-like, utter establishment platitudes like "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" about Afghanistan, and go back into hiding until the next event forces them to acknowledge we're still there. If I were a newspaper editor, I'd send the headline back for rewrites. "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" does not capture the new dynamic that is emerging in Afghanistan and between the Afghans and the international community. And it does not serve Americans struggling to understand the purpose and direction of the war.
Here is a new headline: "Victory in Sight: Why We Need More Time, Money, and Civilians." As I argue in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, the war in Afghanistan has actually gone better than critics and the media portray it. The economy has grown beyond all expectations. The process of political reconstruction has succeeded better than in many post-conflict states over the past two decades. And the quadrupling of military forces since early 2009 will almost certainly have a demonstrable effect on the battlefield.
The missing ingredient is more civilian aid. Secretary Clinton touted that the U.S. mission in Kabul now comprises some 1,100 diplomats and civilian experts, which roughly doubles or triples the presence we had prior to 2009. Add together all the soldiers serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and you have several thousand more. This is still not enough. At its peak, the Allies deployed something like 63,000 people who were directly engaged with rebuilding the government and economy of West Germany after World War II. I know the cases are hardly comparable for a thousand reasons -- but most points of difference say that rebuilding Afghanistan is harder than West Germany, and so it likely needs more help, not less. All the biggest remaining challenges in Afghanistan that we have not moved to address in the last year or so -- corruption, institutional weakness, poor governance -- are civilian, not military in nature. More civilians would be the gamechanger that could change Afghanistan from a half-baked muddle-through to an outright success.
Afghanistan is winnable. We're almost there. The president's policy has many decent elements to it. But it is being sold under a stale, worn, and out-of-date headline and a poor strategic communications strategy. And it does not recognize the depth of Afghanistan's need for civilian assistance. Change that, and we will be able to look back with pride on what the United States and our allies helped achieve in Afghanistan.
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On Dec. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the State Department's first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) at an internal town hall meeting -- a year behind schedule. No surprise, it turns out to be more of a public relations document than a disciplined strategic review. Yet if it doesn't score a bull-eye, the QDDR at least hits an outer ring by describing an ambitious and needed reform agenda.
Quadrennial reviews -- used by the Department of Defense since 1993 and also adopted by the Intelligence Community and Department of Homeland Security -- are supposed to evaluate an institution's fitness for accomplishing expected missions and responding to crises. As guides for decision-makers, they should assess the continuing applicability of the agency's charter, the global operating environment, institutional strengths and weaknesses, and options prioritized by resources available.
I may have missed something in my speed read through the QDDR's 242 pages. But it seemed less an analytical assessment than a justification for steps the secretary had already taken. State's desire to coordinate a growing menagerie of interagency actors in its embassies got coverage, but its evolving relationship with them was brief. The operating environment lacked details on forecast challenges and regional goals. Moreover, the authors pulled punches on institutional strengths and weaknesses, shed little light on budgetary realities, and established no discernible priorities among a long list of to-do's.
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On Thursday, President Obama will do something unusual. He will talk to Americans about one of the wars he is leading, in this case Afghanistan. He will give remarks announcing the results of his latest Afghan strategy review which, by my count is the fourth such review in his two year tenure, almost as many reviews second-guessing the policy as major speeches explaining it.
He will announce that his strategy doesn't require radical change because it is making progress. He will also surely declare that we are on track to begin the troop withdrawal timeline scheduled for next summer. And then, if the past is any guide, he will stop talking about the war.
Candidate Obama rose to prominence in part because of how he talked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a paradox. Despite having the least national security qualifications, he enjoyed the best national security platform for a Democrat: Unlike his chief rivals, he had opposed the Iraq war from the outset and he outbid them elsewhere by promising the most hawkish policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the broader war in terror.
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When Napoleon marched his army into Berlin in 1806, he took his generals to the tomb of Frederick the Great, saying "hats off, gentlemen; if he were alive we wouldn't be here." The same could be said of the Obama administration's policy on Afghanistan: without Defense Sec. Robert Gates, we would not be here.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration concluded its Afghanistan policy review, formally committing to prosecute the war until Afghan security forces are competent to undertake the work done by U.S. and allied forces. Control of operations will gradually transition to Afghan security forces as military commanders determine them capable of managing the fight. The year 2014 is aspired to by the Afghan and force providing governments as the date at which such transition would be complete, although the commander in Afghanistan is hesitant to pledge unequivocally that can be met.
This beneficial outcome is diametrically opposed to the president's intention when a year ago he announced the surge of effort in Afghanistan. Having been cornered by his own rhetoric about the good war in Afghanistan recklessly under-resourced by the previous administration, the president accepted the need to increase forces. But in the very same breath as he gaveth, he tooketh away: "as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."
Secretary Gates has a fine Florentine touch for orchestrating outcomes, as is evident by his slight of hand in convincing the public that defense spending is being reduced. But trapping the Obama administration into a sensible alignment of objectives and resources for winning the war in Afghanistan is his coup de grâce. His work repairing the administration's strategy merits studying.
The first element was preventing the administration from adopting a narrower set of objectives in Afghanistan. Both during the initial administration review announced March 25th and the exhaustively drawn out second review, there was significant support by the political faction of the administration to reduce the standard to something that could be met without distracting from the president's domestic agenda. Gates made common cause with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and standing together they were too formidable for Vice President Joe Biden and others to assail. In his West Point speech announcing the conclusions of the second review, the president emphasized that "our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
Having established the goal, Gates put his men in place. Though General McKiernan had drawn attention to the under-resourcing of effort in Afghanistan, he was judged by both Gates and Admiral Mullen to be insufficiently creative to succeed designing and commanding operations for this complex war. They replaced him with a counterinsurgency expert, General Stanley McChrystal, and put Gates's military assistant, General Rodriguez, in the mix, as well, to ensure close webbing of the Pentagon and the war effort.
Third, Gates tasked the commander with undertaking an independent assessment of what would be required to achieve the administration's objectives. The McChrystal review accepted the premise of the White House's policy and made an intellectually unassailable argument for what would be needed in a concept of operations and resourcing to achieve it, with options directly tied to varying levels of risk. Once the McChrystal standard had been set, it was untouchable by the politicos. There was no way to reject the resources the commander said he needed, given the president's criticism of the previous administration.
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to President Obama for his
statement applauding Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. His measured words of
praise provide a stark contrast with the shrill and defensive reaction to the
Nobel Ceremony from the Beijing regime, which seems to be going out
of its way to prove why Liu was the right choice for winning this year's
prize. Obama's rare self-deprecation -- praising Liu as more worthy of the
prize than he was -- was especially gracious and welcome.
When Obama speaks out in defense of the values on which our country stands, he can be very compelling. Even a politically weakened president still commands a powerful bully pulpit. I hope and expect the president will make good use of it in the coming year. His response to the Nobel Ceremony is a good start.
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Congratulations to President Obama and his team for successfully concluding negotiations on the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS) on Friday. Republicans should applaud and support the president when he pursues such a market-friendly policy. So should Democrats, of course, but the early indications are that the agreement will face critics on the left. More on that anon. Herewith eight questions and answers about what just happened.
1) What changed in the agreement?
The original KORUS was signed in the summer of 2007, more than three years ago. Up until late last week, Obama and other critics had derided that accord as unsatisfactory. So what changed?
The headline revisions were in the auto sector. Ford, in particular, was upset about the obstacles it faced trying to sell into the Korean market while Korean producers like Hyundai enjoyed lucrative access to the U.S. market. In the revised agreement, Korea promises changes to emissions and safety restrictions that Ford argued were discriminatory. Tariff schedules were also reworked to slow market access for car producers on each side (i.e., less rapid liberalization).
Korea, in turn, will phase out its tariffs on U.S. pork exports more slowly than previously planned, will get more favorable visa treatment for workers coming to the United States, and will slow down changes to its patent system that U.S. pharmaceutical makers wanted.
2) Is it better than the first version of KORUS in 2007?
One agreement is indisputably better than another if it makes some groups better off and leaves no one worse off (that's "Pareto efficiency" for those who enjoy slinging econ jargon). This revision is not that. Ford is happier while pickup buyers and pork exporters are not. Weighing one group's interests against another's is a political calculation. The answer depends on who your friends are.
3) Was it
worth the wait?
No. The bulk of the benefits of this agreement could have been had years ago and U.S. trade policy has been held hostage ever since.
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President Obama appeared yesterday with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and received his endorsement of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. In today's Washington Post, Powell joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger in presenting "The Republican case for ratifying New START."
With former Republican officials coming out in favor of the treaty's ratification and amidst reports that some Senate Republicans may be willing to trade New START for an extension of the Bush tax cuts, New START ratification now seems to be mostly a matter of timing.
That said, the debate over New START has been an interesting one on both the left and the right. Many conservatives rightly highlighted a number of substantive concerns about the treaty in the months after Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed it in April, but some took their opposition further. Former Massachusetts governor and potential presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed calling the treaty, "Obama's worst foreign policy mistake," and in June, a group of conservative leaders wrote in a "memo for the movement" that New START "will make America less safe."
The reality, as I lay out in more detail in a piece on ForeignPolicy.com, is that New START is a rather meaningless treaty. The treaty would reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by only a modest amount and leave us at levels that most experts agree are sufficient to maintain our global nuclear deterrent. Most of the concerns expressed by New START critics are due to the bungled manner in which the Obama administration announced its new phased adaptive approach for missile defense last year, as well as the savvy rhetorical games played by the Russians in a signing statement they released on missile defense. Fortunately, the resolution of ratification approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and subsequent administration statements address most of these concerns about missile defense and other contentious issues. Once New START reaches the Senate floor, critics will also have the opportunity to further modify the resolution of ratification to address any outstanding questions.
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To further Peter's thoughts in his recent post, I agree that the Obama administration is right to reject China's call for more talks with North Korea, and to refuse any further negotiations with the DPRK until Kim Jong Il's regime changes its behavior. Yet one can't escape the irony that the Obama administration is following the same policy of refusing to negotiate that brought much self-righteous criticism from many commentators against former President George W. Bush. And as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made the centerpiece of his foreign policy a pledge to do just the opposite, specifically offering to talk without preconditions to hostile regimes.
Let me be clear -- I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.
It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other's positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side. Think of the debates in the 1980s over whether the odious apartheid regime in South Africa should be "isolated" or "engaged," and many critics rightfully pointed out that engagement would give the government a degree of legitimacy that it craved but did not deserve.
A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven't been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid. If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.
In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il's $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea's behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea's (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime's leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China's cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.
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As NATO leaders prepare for their summit in Lisbon this week, attention has focused on the war in Afghanistan, approval of a new Strategic Concept (NATO's roadmap for the future), and the challenge of sustaining the alliance's military capabilities in an era of fiscal crisis. Missing from the agenda is the future of the U.S. military presence in Europe, the cornerstone of the transatlantic security relationship.
On Feb. 1, the Obama administration rolled out its Quadrennial Defense Review, a planning document that articulated the principles that would guide the administration's decision-making regarding the stationing of U.S. forces beyond its borders. It stated that "pending the review of NATO's Strategic Concept and an accompanying U.S. assessment of our European defense posture network," new plans regarding Europe would be approved. For an administration that prides itself on consultation, it has been surprising how little discussion there has been of this strategically important issue of growing concern among NATO Allies.
These pending decisions follow the Bush administration's 2004 Global Defense Posture Review. The latter initiated a reduction of U.S. forces stationed in Europe from about 100,000 personnel down to approximately 60,000. The decision was interpreted by many in Europe as a disturbing sign of declining U.S. commitment to Europe.
Moreover, the Commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Joint Staff later concluded that the plan would leave EUCOM unable to fully execute its missions, including those supporting NATO's crucial Article 5 security commitment. On November 21, 2007, in response to these concerns Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suspended implementation of the posture review decisions regarding Europe pending the 2010 QDR. This decision essentially froze U.S. forces dedicated to the continent at some 80,000 personnel.
In March of this year, Admiral James Stavridis, the current EUCOM Commander, testified in Congress that should the United States withdraw additional brigade combat teams, his command would have to "[assume] risk in its capability to conduct steady-state security cooperation, shaping, and contingency missions. Deterrence and reassurance are at increased risk."
With the summit now imminent, a number of allies are expressing unease, even though some are unwilling to press Obama as they cut their own defense budgets and lest their concerns undercut the meeting's precooked message of alliance unity and revitalization. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, naturally concerned about the viability of NATO's security guarantee, stated that it is important for U.S. forces stationed in Europe to remain at their current levels. German delegations from the communities that host U.S. bases have travelled to Washington urging that they not be subject to further reductions or, even worse, closure.
Obama's impending decisions on this matter come in an increasingly challenging domestic fiscal context, one that has led many in his party to press aggressively for significant defense cuts. On October 13th, 57 members of the House of Representatives wrote the President urging a hard look at the basing of U.S. forces overseas. The 2010 Congressional election yielded a Congress whose clear focus on job creation and deficit elimination could well reinforce skepticism on both sides of the aisle toward permanent deployments in Europe. The roll out of the deficit commission report and its recommendations, including reduced spending, will surely further catalyze calls for cut backs in forward presence.
Heeding those calls would be a mistake. Moving military forces based overseas to facilities at home involves high near term costs, including building of new infrastructure. The long term savings are marginal at best. Second, once basing privileges in another country have been terminated, it is never easy to regain them.
Most importantly, the United States would deny itself a critical force multiplier. U.S. troops based in Europe provide the most effective way to develop and sustain allied forces that are truly interoperable and ready to fight side by side with us. This is a critical and challenging necessity. U.S. military units that visit Europe once or twice year can in no way match the levels of joint training and exercises currently available to those stationed in Europe.
Accordingly, at Lisbon, Obama should announce a decision to keep U.S. forces stationed in Europe at their current levels. That would be a strategically serious and politically needed demonstration of U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
Evasion regarding this matter, so vital to the future of the NATO alliance would contradict both Obama's repeated rejection of unilateralism and his commitment to genuine consultations. Europeans, too, would be remiss if they fail to speak up. Collective silence at Lisbon regarding a matter so central to American-European security interdependence will only give further validation to those who assert that US military presence in Europe is an anachronism.
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President Obama's foreign policy spinmeisters have received assistance from an unlikely corner. Ashley Tellis, one of our most knowledgeable South Asia experts, pushes back against critics who have pooh-poohed what the president accomplished in his recent trip to India. The article posted elsewhere on the FP site, calls the trip the exact opposite of a failure, a "ringing success."
Since I also privately received pushback from another knowledgeable India hand for my own characterization of the India visit as "solid but not stellar," the Tellis article caused me to rethink my judgment. Rethink, but not revise. Not yet anyway.
Tellis begins by arguing that the Obama administration undersold the trip by focusing its talking points around jobs when the larger optics of the trip were equally important. I agree that the larger optics and public diplomacy of the trip belong on the positive side of the ledger. President Obama effectively deployed his global popularity and garnered favorable coverage from a notoriously anti-American media. I also agree that the trade deals were positive and that it was especially noteworthy that the deals included military equipment. This was a good step forward in the strategic relationship. One might even call it solid.
But beyond the trade deals, the list of tangible accomplishments on the trip that Tellis offers is rather thin. In fact, if one were to draw up a list of "things we offered to India," that list would look a lot like Tellis's list of "things we accomplished on the trip." The only deliverable from India was a commitment to upgrade its export control system -- a worthy and long-overdue step. Again, this is on the positive side of the ledger, but it falls somewhere short of a triumph in my book. Maybe closer to solid.
Importantly (well, importantly for me, anyway), Tellis does not address the question at the heart of my equivocal reaction to the trip: what did we get from India in exchange for the United Nations Security Council offer? Or rather, his answer appears to be that the intrinsic benefits of welcoming India into the ruling councils are reward enough, and I just don't find that convincing.
Tellis claims "intensifying security cooperation" with India will "redound to the benefit of the United States in Afghanistan." I certainly hope so, but I remain unconvinced especially since Tellis also touts as progress "that Obama has rejected the Pakistani claim that India's involvement in Afghanistan undermines the United States-led international mission and threatens Pakistan." We can all agree that Pakistani concerns are grounded more in their own paranoia than in Indian behavior, but that doesn't make the paranoia any less real and or any less consequential for our effort in Afghanistan. I am not sure how ignoring the paranoia and perhaps even stoking it by failing to get even token concessions from the Indians redounds to our benefit and increases our prospects for success there.
But I am sure that if anyone could convince me, it would be Tellis and the other unexpected administration defenders, so I will reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks as I learn more from the area experts.
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NATO's 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system -- the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey's about to spoil the party.
The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this weekend's NATO summit, which will otherwise be consumed with attempts to wring commitments to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 and the approval of a new strategic concept (a topic which none but the most tenacious NATOphile has any interest in). Without missile defense, the news will be about President Barack Obama hiding behind NATO to walk away from his July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal commitment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already set two conditions that must be met for Turkey to host essential missile defense radar components: any system must cover all of Turkish territory (a demanding operational standard), and all references to Iran as the threat must be eliminated (what should be an easy hurdle for the alliance, given its history of "dual track" decisions of deploying nuclear forces while negotiating their removal). But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has upped the ante, stating that Turkey should have command of the system. Turkey commanding NATO's missile defenses is surely a deal breaker, not least because of questions about the political reliability of their government. There are alternatives to sitting the radar in Turkey, but there will be a messy dispute and another international disappointment for the Obama administration if a different site must now be chosen. It sounds as though what the Turks are actually asking for is a visible role in a defense system that will be based on their territory. Surely an alliance with NATO's celebrated history of chimera can find a way to accommodate Erdogan's sensitivities.
The new demand will no doubt aggravate an Obama administration -- which was looking forward to a celebratory NATO summit -- already short-tempered by the frustrations of dealing with Turkey. Administration officials have apparently mythologized a pre-democratic Turkey, when its military ran the country and was compliant to U.S. wishes. It is one more verse in the hymn about the unbearable difficulty of problems they inherited. This narrative not only neglects that Turkey has always been a difficult ally (ask anyone involved in the 1992 NATO exercise accident, or Iraq in 2003, it also neglects that the Obama administration volunteered for the job.
Math class is hard and it always has been. While the Turks are behaving badly, we are giving them no positive agenda to work with us on. The Obama administration needs to think anew about how to make this ambitious and difficult Turkish government successful in foreign policy. Give them constructive roles that capitalize on their desire to be seen as the Brazil of the Middle East, find terms on which we can support them, and showcase their successes. In other words, polish up on alliance relations.
This post has been updated.
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The president's Asia trip is getting mixed reviews, wildly mixed reviews.
Team Obama thought the trip was a huge success. Tom Donilon, the new National Security Advisor, in a fit of extraordinary (jet-lagged?) exuberance told reporters in Yokohama: "I think when historians look back on the trip to India and Indonesia. It will be one of those seminal moments, one of those iconic moments in the relationship between countries when historians look back on it."
Outside observers were less charitable. Some dismissed it as "a trip about nothing." Even charter members of the Obama choir fretted about the optics of the President scurrying out of town so soon after the electoral "shellacking."
The truth is somewhere in the middle. The president made some modest headway, with a solid but not stellar visit to India and a fine visit to Indonesia. It was hardly "iconic," but the visit to Indonesia may have been "seminal." The Obama administration believes they have a real opportunity in Indonesia thanks to the president's personal connection to the country. If they were able to build the foundation of a strategic partnership with Indonesia as Presidents Clinton and Bush were able to do with India, that would indeed be an accomplishment. But they have a long way to go and they clearly had no significant deliverables for this visit.
The rest of the trip went considerably less well. I was inclined to give Team Obama a pass over the failure to close the deal on the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) because I remember how frustrating the Bush Team found negotiating with our allies in Seoul could be. Then I read Phil Levy's blistering analysis and had second thoughts. He makes a convincing case that this was diplomatic malpractice, from the arrogant dismissal of the deal they inherited, to the boastful claim that the deal would be struck on this trip, to the endgame when the staff sent President Obama out to face the cameras with nothing to show for two years of haggling.
Levy leaves unasked the obvious follow-up question that most interests me about this episode: How could the staff leave the president exposed on this fiasco? There may have been errors at the middle-staff level, but my own read is that the point people who owned the issue -- Treasury Under Secretary Lael Brainard and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs (and economic summit "sherpa") Michael Froman -- were not to blame. In fact, were they to blame that would surprise me because they are some of the strongest players on Obama's team. On an issue such as this one, the hardest deals to cut are the ones within one's own team, in particular the deals between the foreign policy and the domestic politics folks. There are only a handful of people who have the heft to force such deals: a strong National Security Advisor, a strong National Economic Council Director, a bold senior political advisor, and the chief of staff, in other words Tom Donilon, Larry Summers, David Axelrod, and Pete Rouse. If those four were not able to forge a deal they could live with that the Koreans would accept -- and manifestly they were not -- then there is only one person who could have, President Obama himself.
Yes, the Koreans deserve some blame for driving such a hard bargain, but they were just exploiting the mistakes of the administration: the mistake of setting the deadline, which weakened our bargaining position; the mistake of not getting the deal done before Air Force One left Washington; and the mistake of not securing (or merely taking) more bargaining space from domestic coalitions. Once the jet lag wears off, I hope the Obama Team will sort this one out.
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I am not as sure as my Shadow Government colleague Paul Miller is that the Obama administration's decision to publicly endorse India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council was so laudable.
The problem is not in offering the quid. As I argued earlier, this is actually a clever concession to give to India. The problem is in the quo. What did we get for this?
Surely, the administration did not give our support in exchange for the modest trade deals President Obama signed? We have some very serious "asks" of the Indians on urgent national security matters: helping ease Pakistan's paranoia in Afghanistan and helping ratchet up pressure on Iran. Did the administration get anything from India on those issues? If we did not get any firm commitments in advance, is the hope that making this preemptive gift will win us subsequent favor?
Until I hear satisfactory answers to these questions, I am going to remain skeptical about this deal. I am glad the trip made the administration focus on the importance of the Indian file. But we still have not seen as much progress as needed in forging a real, action-oriented, results-oriented strategic relationship.
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The biggest disappointment of President Barack Obama's Asia trip was his failure to strike an agreement on the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement in Seoul. His biggest success was his embrace of a transformative partnership with India. The president can now claim ownership of a relationship that has been on the rocks since he took office, and he deserves considerable credit for arguing that India's rise and success as a future democratic superpower is a core interest of the United States.
The president's vision of a far-reaching partnership with India -- to manage global diplomatic and security challenges, tie the two countries together in a mutually beneficial economic embrace, and promote freedom and rule of law in Asia and beyond -- was bracing. Obama's warm reception by the Indian parliament, commentariat, and public bodes well for future ties between the world's oldest and the world's largest democracies.
In New Delhi, Obama made a strong case for strengthening Indo-U.S. ties -- and to create an "indispensable" partnership that would help define the course of the 21st century:
Now, India is not the only emerging power in the world. But the relationship between our countries is unique. For we are two strong democracies whose constitutions begin with the same revolutionary words -- the same revolutionary words -- "We the people." We are two great republics dedicated to the liberty and justice and equality of all people. And we are two free market economies where people have the freedom to pursue ideas and innovation that can change the world. And that's why I believe that India and America are indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time… The United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it, and we have worked to help make it a reality… [P]romoting shared prosperity, preserving peace and security, strengthening democratic governance and human rights -- these are the responsibilities of leadership. And as global partners, this is the leadership that the United States and India can offer in the 21st century.
Obama's expressed ambitions for Indo-U.S. ties came just in time to check a growing chorus in Washington of pessimism toward the relationship. Most prominent among the skeptics is George Perkovich, the esteemed vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whose foundational book on India's development of nuclear weapons was an inspiration for this author, and many others, to embrace the study of India. Dr. Perkovich was an India expert long before it was popular, so his arguments carry great weight. That is why his recent Carnegie report arguing that India cannot be the partner the United States wants it to be -- and that ambitions of the kind Obama expressed for the relationship are actually harmful to it -- deserves attention.
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President Obama’s failure to conclude the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is a disaster. It reveals a stunning level of ineptitude and seriously undermines America’s leadership in the global economy. The implications extend far beyond selling Buicks in Busan.
Unlike some of the trade agreements the United States has pursued in the last decade, this one is with an economically significant partner. KORUS could bring billions of dollars of new trade opportunities and the Obama administration had cited it as one part of its National Export Initiative, a plan to double U.S. exports in five years.
But there are really two distinct issues in contemplating the significance of the failed talks: the economic merits and questions of diplomatic competence. The latter is really the story of the day.
The economic merits and demerits have been in full public view since the agreement was originally concluded in the spring of 2007. The agreement offered substantial market opening, but left some questions regarding access to the South Korean market, especially for U.S. autos and beef. Those products face barriers other than simple border tariffs. Such non-tariff barriers are harder to negotiate away, though the KORUS agreement certainly tried. There was substantial political opposition to the agreement within both countries, though the Koreans managed to overcome theirs. Influential voices such as Ford Motor Co. and organized labor in the United States criticized the agreement as inadequate.
The well-established opposition just brings us to the stunning, perhaps unprecedented diplomatic incompetence just displayed by the White House. The concerns and obstacles that impede a new KORUS agreement were fully apparent in June when Obama announced he would have an agreement in time for the Seoul G-20 meetings (now underway). The announcement was remarkable at the time because so much of the U.S. president’s statements on trade have been vague, aspirational, and timeless. This was a promise to have a specific agreement concluded by a specific date.
Reflecting on the health care battle, Obama recently told 60 Minutes, "When you're campaigning, I think you're liberated to say things without thinking about, ‘OK, how am I going to actually practically implement this.'" That may be true, but the rules change once a president takes office. Most White Houses are exceedingly careful about making such public commitments. If the president’s credibility is to be put on the line, there is an absolute imperative to deliver. This is at least as true in international diplomacy as in domestic affairs. The debacle in Seoul is a slap in the face of a critical U.S. ally in a critical region, and it will cast doubt on U.S. trade promises in other negotiations elsewhere. But if an American president loses his credibility, the damage spreads beyond the narrow confines of economic deals and Northeast Asia.
Of course, Obama did not admit defeat. He spoke of the setback as a mere postponement. "We don’t want months to pass before we get this done. We want this to be done in a matter of weeks." If the agreement really is just a few weeks' work away, the administration ought to be deeply embarrassed. After the president made his June commitment, no formal talks were held with the Koreans until the end of September. Even then, the Koreans complained that the U.S. negotiators were not being sufficiently specific in their proposals. If the problems really are just technical ones, the Obama team has played the role of the student who procrastinates on a term paper, counting on the ability to have a really productive all-nighter. Such a work program evokes little sympathy when it doesn’t succeed.
More likely, though, the obstacles are not technical but political. The lineup of advocates and opponents for KORUS poses difficult choices for the White House. Traditionally, governments around the world make such tough trade choices when they are right up against a deadline. But if the deal could not be concluded under the pressure of a high-profile bilateral meeting between presidents in Seoul, is it really plausible that it will be wrapped up because negotiators want to be home for Thanksgiving?
The breakdown could not have come at a worse time. The United States has been working to assert its relevance in Asia. Concerns about protectionist pressures amidst economic troubles raise the stakes in bolstering the global trading system. Beyond economic questions, countries around the world are wondering about the strength of a president who just suffered a major political setback.
Though he may not have foreseen all of the difficulties he would be facing at this juncture, last summer Obama named the time and place of his global credibility test. And he just failed it.
Photo by South Korean Presidential House via Getty Images
The to-ing and fro-ing between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government continues unabated, with each new verbal clash further dimming any chances for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. On Friday the Israeli government moved another step closer to lifting its construction freeze by publishing in the Israeli press its plans to build 1,345 new housing units in mostly Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Two days later Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Vice President Joe Biden in New Orleans, where the impasse between Jerusalem and Washington remained as firm as ever.
Two days after that, President Obama, responding to a question at his Jakarta news conference about Israeli construction, first stated that he had not received "a full briefing on Israel's intentions," but then went on to say that such activity was "unhelpful." Naturally, the world press focused on the latter part of Obama's remarks, with breathless headlines proclaiming, in tabloid fashion, "Obama Rips Israel." Not to be outdone, Netanyahu responded to Obama's remarks by pointing out that Jerusalem was "not a settlement," and that the new housing units would not affect the outcome of peace talks. In effect the Israeli Prime Minister dismissed the entire flap as much ado about nothing (his actual term was "overblown"). At which point the State Department issued its own retort, arguing that there was indeed a linkage between construction and the peace process.
President Obama has clearly determined that construction in East Jerusalem is a "red line" that the Israeli government should not cross. The problem is that "East Jerusalem" does not merely consist of Arab neighborhoods in the Old City or even outside its walls. Many districts of what is East Jerusalem have been home to tens of thousands of Israelis for years, even decades. Construction in these neighborhoods never was an obstacle to peace talks until the Obama administration put the Palestinians in an impossible position by insisting that construction should stop.
Given Washington's position, the Palestinian Authority has had no alternative but to focus on the construction issue. It clearly cannot not take a softer line on construction than Obama has done. Meanwhile, Israelis of all political stripes, including many who otherwise have no truck with Netanyahu, are puzzled and angered by Washington's stance. Many suspect that he is simply trying to curry favor with the Muslim world at Israel's expense. His performance at the Jakarta press conference does nothing to allay that suspicion. After all, having said he needed to study the issue, he need not have gone any further. But he did, and Netanyahu responded in turn and in kind.
Why does the president continue to harp on settlements in East Jerusalem, as opposed to expansion of West Bank settlements that would be dismantled under the terms of any peace agreement between the parties? Obama may feel that he has crossed a Rubicon and must push forward. Or he may feel that he must put Netanyahu in his place; there is no love lost between the two men, and the Israeli reportedly feels that the recent Congressional elections have strengthened his position. Obama may want to show the Israeli that his grasp of the balance of power in Washington is not as strong as he thinks it is. (Which of the two men is right is another matter, and in any event will not be determined for some time.)
There is, however, another possibility: the president may simply not realize that while Israel might give up parts of Jerusalem, as both Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were willing to do, even they were not ready to cede major Jewish neighborhoods in what every prime minister since 1967, of whatever party, considers to be Israel's capital.
Whatever the reason, Obama's behavior in Indonesia, and his constant harping on the construction issue, has complicated his avowed search for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will not give in to his demands, and the Palestinians will not proceed unless the Israelis do so. The peace process is stalemated, and it is up to the president, who has, perhaps unwittingly, brought on this latest dead end on the long-standing saga of Israeli-Palestinian misery, to come up with a way that lets both sides move forward, even if it means that he personally has to take several steps back in order to do so.
With former President George W. Bush's memoir being released today, Steve Walt yesterday launched a preemptive strike against the Bush record. In this article, my fellow Foreign Policy blogger attempts to blame Bush for just about everything that went wrong in the last decade, while crediting Bush with nothing that went right. One suspects that Walt might even hold Bush responsible for the Texas Rangers' recent loss in the World Series -- according to Walt, as owner of the Rangers, Bush "wasn't particularly good at that job either."
Walt offers up a 14-point indictment against Bush (perhaps it's a sign of how animated some Bush opponents get that even the realists start imitating Woodrow Wilson, at least when it comes to writing 14-point documents). The more spurious accusations merit responses -- and the omissions bear noting as well:
And what of Walt's omissions? Well, any fair assessment of President Bush's record also needs to take into account his robust support for free trade (including the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and increasing the number of bilateral FTAs from three to 14); his multilateral efforts to combat WMD proliferation through the Proliferation Security Initiative; his landmark development policies such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the $15 billion committed to HIV/AIDS relief, and indispensable support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and especially Bush's successful management of great power relations such that the United States pulled off two delicate trifectas of solid relations with Asian powers Japan, China, and India, and (by his second term) with European power centers France, Germany, and Britain.
Perhaps most telling is a fact that Walt concedes, and laments: the significant number of Bush administration policies and strategies that the Obama administration has adopted. If this continues to be the case, then critics of the Bush administration record will have to shift their critique to U.S. foreign policy in general.
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I'd like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don't know what the administration's rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist case for expanding the Security Council to include not just India, but also Japan, Germany, and Brazil.
International institutions like the United Nations are mostly useless. At their best, they oversell their relevance. They do not exert much independent influence on world events distinct from the states that comprise their membership. What needs doing gets done by states, not by institutions. At their worst, institutions waste time and money on ill-advised causes. But institutions do serve a purpose. They provide regularity to the interaction between states. They enshrine norms and patterns of behavior. They provide a reliable talk-shop. They make it easier to conduct multilateral talks and negotiations. They (sometimes) provide a credible, neutral, third-party voice. They can become useful stores of expertise and data on highly specialized issues.
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Yesterday's election was notable for many reasons -- rejection of President Barack Obama's agenda, the largest opposition pick up in 80 years, the perks of incumbency outweighed by anti-establishment sentiment among voters. Also notable is that although the country is fighting two wars and foiled a terrorist plot just days before the election, national security had almost no place in the contest. To the extent national security was even mentioned, it was in terms of our strategic vulnerability due to massive debt.
But now that the dust is settling on the dimensions of Republican victory, what is it likely to mean for the wars we are fighting? The president has picked up support for winning the wars, although the president himself is hesitant to use the word. Republicans elected yesterday will be concerned about the cost of the wars, but they are basically Jacksonians. They will provide the votes for the president to persevere, and to reverse his damaging timeline for drawing down forces in Afghanistan.
Walter Russell Mead perfectly captured the principled, strong armed, anti-establishment populism of this line of thinking in U.S. foreign policy. His article on the Jacksonian Tradition in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of The National Interest should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand where the 112th Congress is likely headed. The president himself might also want to read former President George W. Bush's soon-to-be-released memoir, in which he considers a premature drawdown of troops in Iraq to have been one of his biggest mistakes.
Where the election will complicate President Obama's war policies is that moderate Democrats were turned out of the House in large numbers; the president has a Democratic caucus in the House significantly more liberal than the Democratic Party. This could limit the president's ability to let slide his end game for Afghanistan, especially if he is forced to trim his sails on other liberal shibboleths.
But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.
Working across the aisle on the wars may help build confidence between the White House and Republicans, providing a basis for compromise on other pressing issues, like debt reduction and entitlement reform. Americans like divided government. We are a people made great by distrust of our own government, a fact the Washington establishment often forgets.
Perhaps the lesson Democrats ought most to take from yesterday's drubbing (and Republicans from the unsuccessful bids by some of our most divisive candidates) is Thomas Jefferson's caution that great innovations should not be forced by slim majorities. A desire for consensus is fundamental to our political culture, probably the result of our great diversity. As a European once pointed out to me, "you Americans prize individuality, but you all dress alike."
Congressional Republicans are off to a good start with House Speaker John Boehner's poignant decline to grandstand, instead taking the message that voters want Washington to get to work. And much work needs to be done to bring President Obama's national security policies into better alignment with our interests.
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While U.S. voters were not particularly interested in foreign policy (certainly not Asia policy) during this election, Asia is always interested in U.S. voters. The economic growth of countries such as China and India, and the technological and innovative dynamism of much of the rest of Asia, are significantly impacting the structure of the U.S. economy. Newly elected Republicans have a chance to help the United States continue to benefit from Asia's growing prosperity.
Though the election was not about foreign policy, it is worth noting that former Vice President Dick Cheney's early 2009 critique of Obama's counter-terrorism policies first exposed the chinks in the administration's armor, demonstrating signs of life for a Republican Party declared dead and providing moral support to others in his party who soon voiced their own powerful critiques. Still, this election was about economics and the size and structure of government, not foreign policy. So, I am about to practice economics and politics without a license.
While voters still do not seem to trust the GOP, the party can regain their trust by reclaiming the mantle of economic leadership. Newly-elected Republicans can insist upon free market, pro-free trade policies that can push the president to create a friendlier climate for foreign investment in the United States as well as to ratify a free trade deal with South Korea and pry open other Asian markets for U.S. investment and exports.
By committing to fiscal responsibility, Republicans can provide a more credible case for the global rebalancing that economists agree needs to happen. A collective economic rebalancing, rather than a trade war or legislating punitive tariffs, is the answer to our current economic troubles with China. And a broader commitment to U.S. leadership in trade liberalization throughout Asia will contribute to setting the United States back on the road to economic growth and low unemployment.
But the United States is on the horns of a dilemma in Asia, one that new Republican leaders must resolve. Our huge debt and uncertain fiscal position calls into question our ability to sustain a robust diplomatic and military presence in the region; if fiscal austerity includes cuts to the defense budget, Asians will continue to conclude that we are not going to be present in Asia for the long haul. In the context of Asia policy, then, the key challenge for Republican leaders both in Congress and aspiring to the presidency is to strike the right balance between pursuing long-term measures to restore fiscal health without making short-term cuts on defense spending that create deep regional unease.
The first chance for Republicans to reconcile long and short term goals with respect to Asia is during Obama's trip to the region. They should pledge to work with him if he agrees to ratify the FTA with Korea, hold his feet to the fire if he panders to special interests on the issue of outsourcing to India (or what I like to call trading based on comparative advantage), and pledge to support him if he commits to keeping our alliances strong by making the military investments we need to keep the region stable.
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It's a bright morning for those of us who favor free trade. Just as fantasy football team owners may follow NFL games with their own peculiar rooting interests, trade aficionados watched certain of yesterday's election races with particular attention.
Depending on which fantasy trade lineup you used, the results fell just short of a clean sweep for trade. The New York Times fantasy team listed Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) as trade skeptics and they all won. Arguably, though, there was a lot more going on in those races. The story was different for Times House players, however. Democrat Rep. Zack Space in Ohio tried to deploy the China card, and lost. In Colorado, Republican challenger Ryan Frazier tried to link incumbent Democrat Rep. Ed Perlmutter to shipping jobs to China and failed to oust him, despite the broader trend of the election.
The results are even starker if you follow a Foreign Policy scorecard from late September. Max Strasser identified five races in the Midwest in which the trade critic played the "red-menace card" and linked his opponent to China trade. That particular Democrat fantasy team: Ohio Lt. Governor Lee Fisher (running for the Senate); Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (running to keep his job), U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (running for the Senate in Pennsylvania); Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero (Michigan gubernatorial candidate); and Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (running for the President Obama's old Senate seat). They were swept last night. 0 for 5.
In many of these races, one could quibble about how important the trade issue really was to the outcome. If there were a single race, though, in which trade emerged as the central issue, it was the race for the Senate in Ohio. Rob Portman, former U.S. Trade Representative, was blasted for his role in pursuing trade agreements and supporting open markets. Or, rather, I should say, 'Senator-elect' Portman was blasted; he won with over 57 percent of the vote, compared to Lee Fisher's 39.
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The midterm election results were a strong rebuke of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's stewardship of political power, but they turned almost entirely on domestic issues, not foreign policy. Therefore, the foreign-policy implications of the election are likely to be indirect rather than direct.
Even when foreign-policy issues are an important factor in a midterm election -- think the public dissatisfaction with the Iraq War that helped fuel Democratic gains in 2006 -- it does not necessarily translate into a predictable change on those issues. The new Democratic-controlled Congress believed they had a mandate to force a rapid retreat from Iraq in 2007 and they tried very hard to impose that policy on the Bush administration. Former President George W. Bush interpreted the 2006 election as a partial rebuke of his Iraq policy, but opted for the opposite response, the surge, and very narrowly kept the surge alive long enough to show results on the ground. Democrats came very close to thwarting the surge in the summer of 2007, but they failed in their effort. Implication: A highly resolved president can prevail on a foreign-policy issue even against a highly motivated oppositional Congress.
The next Congress may well be oppositional, but it will not be singularly motivated on a foreign-policy issue. For starters, there is no clear foreign-policy mandate coming out of the election. So far as I can determine, exit polls asked about only two foreign-policy issues: Afghanistan and the recent attempted terrorist attack. Interestingly, of those voters who ranked these issues at the very top of their list of concerns, Democrats won: 57 percent-41 percent in favor of Democrats on Afghanistan and 55 percent -43 percent on the recent terrorist attempt. But only small portions of the electorate considered these their top issues: 8 percent on Afghanistan and 9 percent on terrorism.
But elections have consequences, and even though the consequences will be more dramatic on domestic policy issues, there will nevertheless be discernible implications for foreign policy. Here are three quick ones:
Bottom line: While foreign policy was not a front-burner issue in the run-up to the midterm elections, it could well re-emerge as a front-burner and contentious issue in very short order.
Within a week of suffering the biggest midterm drubbing in generations, President Barack Obama will depart on a trip to India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. How the president handles this trip will speak volumes about how he sees his agenda for the next two years and how much of an international president he really is.
The first test will be whether he takes the trip at all. Democratic Party strategists and other influential pundits have already begun questioning why he would go abroad and let Republicans seize the narrative at the most crucial point in his presidency. On CNN, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, David Gergen, warned the White House against making the same mistake Clinton made when he went abroad in the wake of Republican midterm victories in November 1994. Will they cancel? The president has already put off previously scheduled trips to India and Indonesia because of domestic political developments. On the other hand, the White House likes to claim this is the first "Pacific president," because Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii (though other presidents like William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy had plenty of experience in the Pacific as well, of course), and that the United States is "back" in Asia (though commentators across the region are asking when the United States ever left). All of this spin -- the first "Pacific president" and the "we're back in Asia" mantra -- would go flying out the window if the president cancelled his trip. Clinton was right not to cancel his international travel in 1994 -- it would have made the presidency appear even weaker. That would have been disastrous politics and worse geostrategy. So odds are pretty good that the president will go on the trip (fingers crossed).
The next test will be how the president handles ten days of hounding from the press about electoral defeats while he is in Asia. And the press will hound -- no doubt about it. Maybe if North Korea fires artillery across the DMZ during the G-20 summit in Seoul or China attacks the Senkaku Islands while the president is in Japan, the press corps might be distracted from domestic U.S. politics to focus briefly on international events. Or maybe the president will dig deep into his oratorical tool box to help shift the media's focus to U.S. interests in Asia -- the continent projected to contribute 60 percent of global GDP in our lifetime. He will have real occasion to look presidential again if he avoids the trivia of fact sheets and joint statements and presents a vision for international U.S. leadership. The visit to Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim nation and one that proves Islam and democracy coexist-- could be a moment for articulating a real message about the compatibility of democratic values and Muslim faith. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama would be the place to remind Americans that over 50 percent of our trade is with this dynamic region, and that the United States can and must compete. The stops in India, Japan and Korea would be the right settings for explaining why investing in our strategic partnerships and alliances will pay dividends in terms of tackling the challenges we face internationally. The president must not re-fight the midterm, appear defensive, or make the narrative about himself (the last of these being the default narrative of the White House on foreign trips thus far). He must ignore what John McCain would call the "ground noise" and talk about the United States and Asia. The press might just listen. The region certainly will.
The third test will be on trade. If there is one area where the White House should be able to work with a more Republican Congress, it is on trade. And if there is one policy area Asia is watching to see if Washington is committed, it's trade. The president has said that he wants the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ready to present to Congress (again) by the end of the year, but the administration has done no heavy lifting to get to that point (all the action has been aimed at pressing the Koreans to make further compromises). Fair enough -- there were elections coming up, and it may have been unrealistic to expect a Democratic White House to take on its labor union base when turnout was so critical to their electoral strategy. This trip is the time to demonstrate not only the hope that KORUS will be introduced this year, but the intention to do so in partnership with Republicans willing to work for its passage. It would set a tone that Asia would welcome and that Americans desiring more bipartisanship in Washington would be thankful for.
The president's Asia trip should not be seen by the White House as an unfortunate distraction, but instead as a real test of presidential leadership -- one that will help the president and the country if he approaches it the right way.
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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.