Analysts here in New Delhi, as everywhere, are consumed by the unfolding developments in the Middle East. There is confusion over what might happen next, and how developments will affect U.S. standing in the region. Many have concluded that Iran, simply by standing pat, has emerged the winner yet again.
They take seriously the notion of a "Shia arc", first identified by Jordan's King Abdullah over a decade ago. They fear that even if the Saudis bail out Bahrain's chestnuts, the Shi'a on both sides of the causeway that links the two states will feel emboldened and empowered, and will provide Tehran still new opportunities to make mischief. They worry that Syria is the one presidential dynasty that looks secure, while Hezbollah's ascendancy in Lebanon adds to Iran's increasing footprint in the Mediterranean -- most recently underscored by the first deployment of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal since 1979. India retains decent ties with Iran -- the cultural and economic relationship goes back centuries, if not millennia--and there can be little doubt that what Indian analysts are asserting in New Delhi is what Iranian policy makers are concluding in Tehran. With the United States seen as poised to depart Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby both expanding and deepening the Shia arc, it is no wonder that the ayatollahs seem to be sitting pretty.
The Obama administration has done little to convey a different impression to the mullahs, much less to make them recalculate their strategic position in the region. The administration has not exactly been assertive in the face of the upheavals that are shaking the region. Its policies seem more the product of bureaucratic consensus, invariably conservative and risk-averse, than of real leadership, which calls for bold decision making. While it may perhaps be possible -- if one is exceedingly generous -- to excuse Washington for its inconsistent responses to the jasmine revolutions in Tunisia in Egypt, there is no excuse for the inaction that has marked its response to Qaddafi's brutality. It seems as if unless the United States can deploy troops on the ground to the Middle East, there is not much else it can do to influence events in the region.
As one senior U.S. diplomat recently put it to me, "we are increasingly being perceived in the region as the Soviets once were -- all we have to offer are military solutions, nothing more." There appears to be no creativeness coming out of the Obama administration, only words. Yet as he fires on his own people, it is highly doubtful that Qaddafi worries terribly much about whether the United States, or for that matter, the European Union or the U.N. Security Council, "condemns" his actions or merely "deplores" them. Moreover, imposing sanctions will have little effect on the mad dictator, especially in the short term, when it is short term results that are urgently required.
In fact, the administration seems hamstrung even when it comes to military action. When Qaddafi's stooges bombed a nightclub in Germany, the Reagan administration did not hesitate to launch an air strike in the Gulf of Sidra, targeting Qaddafi's home in the process. Today, claiming that it might endanger Americans seeking to escape Libya, Washington hesitates to mount a no-fly zone that would both prevent Qaddafi's ability to call on his air force and encourage further defections from all branches of his military. And it is not as if the U.S. Navy and Air Force's resources are consumed by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem isn't a shortage of aircraft; it is a lack of U.S. will.
So Qaddafi continues to kill his people, and the ayatollahs sit back, and watch, and wait. And, apart from issuing "strong statements," the Obama administration continues to do nothing to persuade them that they are wrong. No wonder Iran believes that time in the region is on its side.
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The Qaddafi regime's use of deadly force against protesting Libyan citizens has been properly met by condemnations from responsible governments around the globe. And then you have the outliers.
It may surprise some that this includes several governments in the Western Hemisphere, led by Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, the one-time petty dictator who posed as a born-again democrat to capture his country's presidency in 2006 (only to revert to his autocratic ways).
To great fanfare, Ortega pronounced, "I have been speaking with Qaddafi on the telephone ... he is again fighting a great battle, how many battles has Qaddafi had to fight. In these circumstances they are looking for a way to have a dialogue, but defend the unity of the nation, so the country does not disintegrate, so there will not be anarchy in the country."
It bears noting that the last time Daniel Ortega was heard from on a global scale was in 2008. Nicaragua was the only country to recognize the independence of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia following the brutal Russian invasion.
Also displaying solidarity with the murderous Qaddafi regime is Ortega's guiding light, Fidel Castro, who gamely tried to change the subject by telling the world that, "The government of the United States is not concerned at all about peace in Libya and it will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, perhaps in a question of hours or very short days."
The support for Qaddafi, as detestable as it is, is not hard to understand. After all, both Ortega and Castro, along with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, are all past recipients of the Muammar Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize, bestowed by the Libyan dictator himself.
For his part, the loquacious Chavez has been unusually silent on the Libyan situation. That is quite different from September 2009, when Chavez hosted Qaddafi in Caracas, exclaiming, "What Simon Bolivar is to the Venezuelan people, Qaddafi is to the Libyan people." He also awarded him Venezuela's highest civilian decoration, saying, "We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer."
Chavez critics are currently giving him his comeuppance, "Our garrulous president is keeping a thunderous silence," wrote Teodoro Petkoff in the newspaper Tal Cual. "Now that the democratic rebellion has reached Libya, Chavez is looking the other way and even abandoning his disgraced ‘brother.'"
Compare all this with the reactions of serious governments in the region, such as Peru, Colombia, and Chile, who have all forcefully condemned the attacks of protesters, with Peru breaking relations with Libya all together.
All this crystallizes the situation for the United States in Latin America today: between serious governments with whom we can do business and the irresponsible outliers with whom we share hardly any common interests. It is a distinction the Obama administration doesn't always seem to appreciate. At a House Western Hemisphere subcommittee hearing last week, Rep. David Rivera (R-FL) chided Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela on this score, saying that our hemispheric policy seems to be all about trying to make up with our enemies and ignoring our friends. Let's hope the disparate reactions to the carnage in Libya will serve as a wake-up call to realign our priorities in the Western Hemisphere.
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Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.
I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:
Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House's stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president's mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy ... and soon.
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In recent weeks, civil unrest in much of the Middle East has reminded many Americans of the very uncertain world in which we live. Repressive regimes that appear stable one day can just as quickly be overthrown the next, altering the strategic landscape and impacting U.S. interests.
This is an important lesson for the members of the 112th Congress as they debate ways to reduce the United States' spiraling deficit. As the search for savings has begun, some members have gone after areas of the federal budget that have nothing to do with our fiscal woes to pay down the debt.
In recent months, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates faced pressure from the White House to find more savings in the defense budget despite being the one cabinet secretary who has already carried out multiple rounds of cost cutting. Republicans in Congress weren't much kinder. The House approved an FY11 continuing resolution late last week providing $15.9 billion less for the core defense budget than President Obama requested. The House's FY11 continuing resolution would also cut the FY11 international affairs budget by nearly 20 percent from FY10 levels. The debate shifts to the Senate when Congress returns from recess next week.
This pressure to cut international affairs and defense is coming not just from Congress, but also from several blue-ribbon commissions that recently produced deficit reduction recommendations.
As Secretary Gates observed after deficit commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson proposed $100 billion of cuts to the defense budget, these recommendations represent "math not strategy." Several task forces have combined a dire assessment of the impact of the financial crisis with questionable proposals about bringing troops home from overseas, closing embassies and consulates, and canceling weapons programs. The long-term implications of these proposals represent nothing less than a rethinking of the U.S. role in the world even though the commissions were ill-equipped to analyze the implications of their proposed cuts.
Defense and international affairs have ended up on the chopping block despite the fact that the 2010 midterms were not a referendum on U.S. foreign policy. In fact, even in the midst of two wars and continuing terrorist threats to the homeland, congressional campaigns were marked by very little discussion of national security. In a late October 2010 poll done by the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of respondents said that the war in Afghanistan was the first or second issue most important to their vote, and only 9 percent cited terrorism.
As recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have shown, the United States will continue to face strategic challenges in the coming decades that will require significant diplomatic and military expenditures. For most Americans, the need to adequately fund the military, the country's most-respected institution, is clear. For conservatives looking to downsize government, the case for a robust international affairs budget may be less apparent.
In the post-9/11 era, funding via the U.S. State Department and affiliated agencies increasingly goes toward civilian missions in war zones. These programs are essential to our long-term success in front-line states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. These targeted funds go toward U.S. efforts to support democracy and human rights abroad and help train and equip allied militaries around the world. Such security assistance is pivotal amid the increased threats of rogue states and terrorist organizations and allows an already overstretched U.S. military to focus on more immediate threats.
U.S. aid programs provide the United States with tools to counter emerging threats from weak and failing states. Often thought of solely as evidence of American goodwill and values, these programs are in fact key components in the battle against extremism, battling the conditions that often fuel anti-U.S. sentiment.
As President George W. Bush recently wrote in his memoirs, "After the attacks [of 9/11], it became clear to me that this was more than a mission of conscience. Our national security was tied directly to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists."
It is also important to remember that America only spends roughly 1.4 percent of the federal budget on international affairs. In polls, Americans routinely overestimate the amount spent on such programs, perhaps contributing to the temptation of lawmakers to look to such programs first when drawing up constrained budgets.
Like any part of the government, there are certainly wasteful programs and inefficiencies that should be targeted and eliminated, but the deficit is not going to be paid off by savings generated from gutting the international affairs budget.
Although the amount spent on defense is significantly larger, it too is not the source of our current fiscal predicament. Oddly, given the now frequent proposals in Washington to cut international affairs and defense, it is not apparent that the American public supports this agenda.
It was, in fact, outrage over the Obama administration's runaway domestic and entitlement spending that drove many voters to the polls last November. It is thus these areas of the federal budget that lawmakers should focus their attention on first. Targeting our military and diplomatic capabilities will only serve to put the country at greater risk.
The 112th Congress faces some tough choices about how to improve America's fiscal situation without sacrificing our standing in the world. Unfortunately, thus far, many have skirted over the strategic debate and jumped directly to the budget cutting. The United States' current economic woes are concerning, but abdicating the global responsibilities of the United States is not the solution.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.
So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.
I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.
The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.
The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.
As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.
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Secretary of Defense Gates is right. It would be a tragic irony if, having come this far in Iraq, the United States faltered and failed to fund adequately the next phase of the mission. Even with adequate funding, the mission will be hard enough.
Congress is right to take a hard look at the Iraq situation. The security needs in Iraq exceed anything the U.S. State Department ever has dealt with in the past. The current plan, which will shift the burden almost entirely from the Department of Defense to State, is distinctly inferior to the original plan, which envisioned a renegotiation of the Status of Forces agreement to allow a modest U.S. military presence as a stabilizing factor. The administration fumbled the original plan and while Gates hints at the possibility of reviving it at the eleventh hour, it may be too late. The current plan relying on the U.S. State Department to do more than it ever has done before is a barely satisfactory Plan B. But it is manifestly superior to Plan C, which involves walking away from Iraq entirely and hoping for the best. I believe once Congress has looked at and thought about the situation carefully, it must conclude that funding the State Department plan is the only responsible course of action available at this point.
I understand the frustration of people who believe the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, but I do not understand their desire to compound what they believe to be one error with strategic blunders of comparable proportions: abandoning Iraq or failing to provide the resources necessary to keep Iraq on a successful trajectory.
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When drama fills the headlines, reason deserts the pundits. Here are just a few thoughts:
1. Egypt says nothing about Obama. The United States had no control over events in Egypt. It is silly to proclaim that events in Egypt proved Obama either feckless or brilliant in his foreign policy. All he could do is watch, make carefully-moderated public statements, and place a few private phone calls. Making that a test of his foreign policy acumen is like judging the Super Bowl by the coin toss. Obama's foreign policy mettle is tested on issues in which he actually has a role to play, like the war in Afghanistan.
2. If Obama gets any credit, so does Bush. Obama rightly sided (albeit cautiously) with the protesters. His pro-democracy rhetoric would have been stupendously hypocritical and opportunistic if George W. Bush hadn't given Obama legs to stand on. Bush reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by publicly criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their political oppression. Obama sounded more plausible as a result when he threw Mubarak under the bus and reached out a hand to the protesters.
3. Despite the basic goodness of people rallying against autocracy and corruption, their movement won't seamlessly usher in a golden age of good governance. Recent pro-democracy movements across the developing world are largely discouraging about the long-term effects of such popular outbursts.
4. Be careful what you ask for. Every day I expected The Onion to run the headline, "Egyptians Demand Military Rule," because that, for now, is exactly what they have got. Democracy is possible, contrary to cultural determinists who think Arabs are barred by the laws of history from self-government -- but neither is it inevitable, or even particularly easy. The eventual emergence of good government and democratic elections would be a better test of Obama's handling of Egypt than parsing his utterances of the last month.
5. No one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood will react, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Elections have a track record of blunting the hard edge of some revolutionary, illiberal movements (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and empowering others (the Nazis). The Brotherhood's greater freedom of action in the post-Mubarak Egypt is something to watch closely. The Brotherhood's choices in the coming months and years will be more important to Egypt and the Middle East than the toppling of one autocrat. They may be a bellwether for political Islamist movements across the world.
6. James Clapper should resign.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
Last October, Ambassador Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush Administration, exposed Hugo Chávez's efforts to aid and abet Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program, including its efforts to obtain strategic minerals such as uranium and to evade international sanctions.
Documentary evidence now suggests that Hugo Chavez's junior partner in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, is apparently forging his own dangerous alliance with the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, raising troubling questions about whether Iran continues to expand its global efforts to obtain uranium and other strategic minerals that are critical to Teheran's rogue nuclear program.
According to sensitive official documents provided to me by knowledgeable sources in Ecuador and other countries and published here for the first time, Iran and Ecuador have concluded a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador that appears to lay the groundwork for future extractive activities. The deal, which was apparently finalized in December 2009, "expresses the interest of the President of the Republic [of Ecuador] and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology."
The deal calls for the establishment of a jointly run Chemical-Geotechnical-Metallurgical Research Center in Ecuador [Laboratorio Químico-Geotécnico-Metalurgico] and "to jointly implement a comprehensive study and topographic and cartographic analysis of [Ecuadorean territory]."
What is most concerning about developing Ecuadorean-Iranian ties in the mining sector is that, like Venezuela, Ecuador is known to possess deposits of uranium. In August 2009, Russia and Ecuador signed a nuclear agreement that included joint geological research and development of uranium fields, as well as building nuclear power plants and research reactors. In March 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency also unveiled plans to help Ecuador explore for uranium and study the possibility of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
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Peter Feaver is right that many voices got things wrong on Egypt at multiple points over the last couple of weeks -- especially (now former) President Mubarak himself. But this doesn't mean that everyone has been wrong. As Jackson Diehl and others have pointed out, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt has for the past year warned repeatedly, in public and in private, and with specific policy prescriptions, of the fragility of Mubarak's rule. Moreover the Working Group stressed the urgent need for the United States to wean ourselves from exclusive reliance on Mubarak and instead extend diplomatic and material support to democracy reformers in Egypt. As I have noted before, the White House should have seen this coming.
The United States has lost significant ground in Egypt over the past few weeks, by repeatedly failing to get out in front with a clear, united, and public message of support for democracy and against Mubarak's continued misrule. This amounts to a missed opportunity by President Obama to assure the Tahrir Square protestors of U.S. support, and of the entire administration to extend crucial economic and diplomatic support for Egyptian democracy activists over the last two years. As Jake Tapper and Glenn Kessler documented, the Obama Administration's record on this count is a failure, most crucially in its drastic budget cuts and abdication of the Bush administration's policy of providing support directly to democratic opposition groups.
In the midst of today's exuberance over Mubarak's departure, as the White House wrestled with what to say and do next, it should realize that just as important as specific statements and policies will be demonstrating to the people of Egypt, that the United States will partner with them in creating a better future for themselves. President Obama's eloquent statement today struck all the right notes, but he has offered the right words on behalf of democracy before -- it is the deeds that have been wanting.
Specifically, this means holding the Egyptian military accountable for ruling temporarily while staying committed to a specific timetable for nationwide elections, and offering full-fledged diplomatic and economic support for Egypt's beleaguered political parties in preparation for the elections. It will also mean renewed efforts on behalf of legal protections for civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion -- which also serve as institutional bulwarks against the undemocratic inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood. A new poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy offers encouraging findings that only 15 percent of Egyptians approve of the Brotherhood, and only 12 percent want sharia law. Egyptian soil is fertile for the growth of democracy.
What might this mean in history? It is impossible to say. But as I note today over at ConservativeHomeUSA, Feb. 11 also marks the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which unleashed many of the maladies that afflict the Middle East today. It is a telling contrast between the two revolutions that Iran today arrested more opposition leaders and blocked media reporting on Egyptians dancing to their freedom in the streets. We can hope that Egypt's revolution will give a new meaning to Feb. 11. Yet hope is not a policy, as the saying goes, and so the administration should be working now to craft a bold policy that bolsters democracy in Egypt, and helps the Egyptian people turn Feb. 11 into a notable date on the calendar of liberty.
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In an incredible 36 hours of developments, Hosni Mubarak managed to wrong-foot just about everyone, ultimately himself. First he was resigning, then he wasn't, then he did. It appears, after all, that there was a coup.
But as the events unfolded, almost everyone, including bloggers like me, managed to get it wrong:
The Intelligence community. The beleaguered IC was already reeling from White House criticism about failing to predict events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. (This criticism is a bit unfair since I bet there were some warnings -- given the volume of intelligence products and the way they are written, virtually everything has been predicted as "possible." Moreover, it is clear that those with vastly better intelligence and sources on Egypt than anything the IC ever could hope to amass, the Mubarak regime itself, were also surprised by the flow of events.) Then came the gaffe by Director of National Intelligence Clapper about the "largely secular" Muslim Brotherhood, a statement his staff was obliged to walk back later in the day. And the topper was CIA Director Panetta's admission that his forward-leaning prediction yesterday about Mubarak's departure was based not on intelligence analysis but on television reports. This is an almost textbook case of the CNN effect.
The White House. President Obama and his team clearly expected Mubarak to step down yesterday and gave every appearance of being flummoxed when he didn't. Now that he has, perhaps they will generate a ticktock account that shows a steely command marked by grace under pressure. Some of their most ardent supporters, however, already have spoiled that narrative -- witness Steve Clemons, "The mystique of America's superpower status has been shattered." His critique is surely exaggerated; has any other external power been more relevant to the crisis than the United States? Whoever is number two is a very, very distant number two. But the mystique of smart diplomacy might have taken a hit, and there are serious questions to be asked about the utility of Obama's soft power.
Bloggers and all the other rapid-response pundits. Including, of course, me. Blogging is to crises what radio play-by-play is to basketball. It is always a step or two behind, usually relating the obvious and (hopefully) never driving the outcome. It rather reminds me of the old joke from the national security policymaking world that many memos deserve to be classified, "Burn Before Reading."
Of course, in the end, the person most wrong-footed is Mubarak himself. He lost the chance to leave graciously. He is leaving, but it has much more the feel of the Oscar winner still talking into the microphone despite the orchestra drowning him out today than it would have even yesterday.
Of greater importance is the possibility that he wrong-footed his own successors. As I noted yesterday, the departure of Mubarak is actually the easiest part of mollifying the protesters. Their deeper demands for democratic reform, good governance, and greater economic opportunity for all are far more difficult to engineer. If the regime has this much trouble managing the easy part, what does this say about their prospects for managing the harder parts?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The past two
months have witnessed a series of revelations regarding China's growing
military power. In December 2010, Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific
Command, declared that the aircraft carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic
missile had achieved initial operating capability. Last month, photographs and
video of the J-20 fifth-generation stealth aircraft, a plane considerably more
advanced than observers expected of China, appeared on the internet.
On Monday, Ross Babbage, the founder of Australia's respected think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, issued a monograph, Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030 that examined the changing military balance in the Western Pacific and its implications for Australia. It is a report that demands the attention of policy makers in Washington.
Babbage argued that China's aggressive military modernization is rapidly undermining the pillars that have supported American presence in the Western Pacific for more than half a century. As he puts it, "China is for the first time close to achieving a military capability to deny United States and allied forces access to much of the Western Pacific rim." He catalogues China's anti-access efforts, which include cruise and ballistic missiles that can attack ships and fixed targets; a massive investment in cyber-warfare capabilities, with reports of tens of thousands of Chinese cyber intrusions daily; new classes of both nuclear and conventionally powered submarines; a substantial increase in the Chinese nuclear stockpile; a huge investment in space warfare; and a massive increase in fighter bomber and other airborne strike capabilities.
Babbage argued that Australia will need to take drastic action in order to protect its interests in a region increasingly dominated by China. These include acquiring a fleet of 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (the report hinted at leasing or purchasing Virginia-class SSNs from the United States), developing conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, increasing Australia's investment in cyber warfare, and hosting American forces on Australian soil.
LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images
What seemed at first to be the beginning of an orderly transition in Egypt is starting to look more like a war of attrition.
As the worst outcomes in Egypt -- the violent suppression of demonstrations or anarchy -- seemed to recede as possibilities and a broadly inclusive negotiation between the main opposition camps and the government commenced, the relief from Washington was palpable. After all, the concessions offered by the Egyptian government -- the release of political detainees, a commitment to allow freedom of the press and refrain from blocking the Internet or mobile telephones, and the formation of committees to propose constitutional reforms aimed at allowing greater participation in the September presidential elections - would have seemed remarkable and most welcome just weeks ago. Furthermore, the government was taking actions which seemed to signal a break with the past -- in particular, the resignation of the deeply entrenched leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party.
But upon further inspection, the situation seems considerably less rosy. The opposition fundamentally mistrusts the government, suspecting that Vice President Omar Suleiman will renege on his pledges as soon as demonstrators leave Tahrir Square. They continue to demand not only the immediate resignation of Mubarak, but also perhaps of Suleiman and the entire parliament, as well as the suspension of the Constitution. Suleiman does little to allay such worries with his dismissive statements about the protestors, Mohammad ElBaradei, and democracy in general. So the throngs in Tahrir Square continue to swell, and Suleiman issues veiled threats against them.
Further complicating the picture is the likelihood that both sides are disunited. The opposition has coalesced around several broad goals, but secular groups are unnerved by the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, and youth leaders who initiated the protests last month are wary of establishment business and political figures who now purport to speak for them. On the other side, the government is turning on its own, pursuing former cabinet ministers on corruption charges, and who precisely is in charge of the pro-Mubarak thugs who stormed Tahrir Square last week, or for that matter the military, is unclear. The Egyptian population appears solidly on the side of the demonstrators, but worried about the economic standstill and absence of tourists who by some accounts contribute ten percent of Egypt's GDP and one out of eight jobs there.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images.
According to reports, Congresswoman Jane Harman is resigning from her seat in the House of Representatives.
As I indicated earlier, the "thoughtful on national security" wing of the Democratic caucus suffered heavy losses in the midterm election. I worried that with a smaller group of moderate Democrats with which to partner, bipartisanship on national security policy would be that much harder to forge.
It just got a little harder with the departure of Jane Harman. Apparently, her new post will be head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where she will retain her prominent voice on national policy. But she will be speaking from the outside rather than from the inside.
The reports do not say why she is leaving, but it is no secret that she was on the outs with former Speaker now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It is possible that that situation was bearable while Democrats held the majority and became unbearable in the new era. Whatever the reason, it is a loss for the Democratic Party and, I believe, for the country more generally. I wish her every success in her new venture, and I also hope that new voices emerge in the Democratic caucus with her foreign policy sensibility. I just wish I was as confident of the latter as I am of the former.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
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It is right and natural that we devote a great deal of time deliberating about the foreign policy and other implications of the events unfolding in Egypt. For Egypt, these events constitute a national crisis; for the United States, a foreign-policy crisis. But for many individuals, these events also represent a personal crisis. These include first and foremost Egyptians themselves, of course, who amid jubilation and trepidation about the future of their country must also grapple with rapidly rising food prices, various shortages, looting, and a complete standstill in tourist spending. But the crisis has also affected Americans who live and work in Egypt or tourists who have found themselves unexpectedly stranded there.
While we debate the intentions of President Mubarak, the attitude of the military, and the likely place of various groups and figures in a successor government, many in Cairo worry about
sounds of gunfire outside their windows and reports of looters in their neighborhoods. Their friends and relatives inside and outside Egypt struggle to get information on their safety and whereabouts, frustrated by the interruption of email, mobile phones, and other means of communication.
Looking after the welfare of Americans abroad -- particularly during a crisis -- is one of the core missions of the State Department and a foremost responsibility of U.S. diplomats stationed overseas. U.S. diplomats are rarely noticed, much less celebrated, but their service and sacrifices deserve the American people's recognition.
When a crisis such as this erupts, the local U.S. Embassy will scramble to understand and report to Washington on events and offer its advice on U.S. policy. But it will also initiate a massive effort to account for and care for American citizens, both those who wish to leave and those who remain behind. Right now at the Cairo airport, our Foreign Service officers and other U.S. personnel are putting in days-long shifts to assist Americans who want to leave Egypt. The same officers who are responding to Washington's demands for analysis of opposition figures and the latest reports on protests in Tahrir Square are also comforting weary travelers, serving them food and water, and packing them on to evacuation flights.
Among those the officers have seen off are their own families, whom the State Department yesterday ordered to depart Egypt. The farewells are hasty -- families must leave quickly once the order is given -- and sometimes do not take place at all if the employee is needed elsewhere. The families do not know when they will be able to return, if at all, and must make accommodations for housing and schools on the fly. When their families are long gone, the officers stay on to perform vital work to advance U.S. national security.
The experience of the officers in Cairo is hardly unique -- many diplomats are stationed at embassies and consulates overseas where conditions do not permit their families to
accompany them. Alongside other civilians and of course members of the military, they make daily sacrifices to serve their country. Few Americans are actually aware of what they do, and fewer still will ever have need to call upon their help. But they are there when Americans require, and for Americans stranded in Egypt, that is a deep relief.
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For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.
The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.
The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.
For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.
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Less than a week after a State of the Union address that relegated foreign policy to an almost parenthetical concern, the turmoil in Egypt serves reminder yet again how global events can surprise and demand a presidency's attention nonetheless.
I am sympathetic to the Obama administration's challenges in staying abreast of developments this past week, and calibrating their public and private diplomacy effectively. The balance has been difficult, between hedging that Mubarak might hang on to power while supporting the demands of the protestors for freedom and reform, all the while trying to minimize violence, and prevent outright chaos and state collapse.
Where I am not sympathetic to the administration is on two counts: their failure to anticipate this and prepare contingency plans, and their neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review. The Mubarak regime's brittleness and Egypt's stagnation have long been apparent to many observers. As just one example among many prognostications, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt co-chaired by Michelle Dunne and Bob Kagan has for the past year been sounding alarms and urging a revision of U.S. policy.
Even a non-Egypt specialist like me has raised multiple concerns about the regime's stability and encouraged the United States to support more vigorously the democratic reformers. For example in March 2009 I warned "on a recent visit, I did not meet a single Egyptian who had any positive words for Mubarak. My queries elicited either frustrated complaints or the furtive silence that comes from decades of living in a tightly-controlled society... Egypt embodies all the maladies of the non-Gulf Arab world: widespread unemployment and even more underemployment, few channels for popular expression, and a resilient and growing Islamist movement ... serious destabilization in Egypt is a real possibility. Which should caution the Obama team against relying too heavily on this traditional U.S. ally and regional leader for any important policy." (See also here, and here.)
In kayaking, you can choose one of two types of stability, but you cannot have both. A flat-bottomed kayak has high "initial stability" -- it appears to ride smoothly in the water, with little rocking back and forth. But it has low "final stability" -- in rough seas, it tends to quickly and catastrophically capsize. An angled-bottom kayak is just the opposite. With low initial stability, it takes more effort to guide and is prone to constant shifts from side to side. But these kayaks are faster and more efficient, and their high final stability means that they remain upright in stormy seas, and can recover even when turned nearly upside down.
Things are not so different with democracies and dictatorships. Democracy is messy -- look at the United States, where in the last five years alone we have experienced swings from right to left and back again, and where political discourse can often be raucous. Dictatorships, on the other hand, often possess a superficial stability -- until they reach the tipping point, which often comes more quickly than expected. Such was the case in Tunisia, which seemed an oasis of calm until a small spark quickly grew to consume the longstanding rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Dictatorships lack the self-righting mechanisms and institutions which provide democracies with their deep stability. Free expression, free assembly, multiple and accountable political parties, free and fair elections, and independent courts -- all of these form the vital structure of a democracy and provide an outlet for people's grievances. In a dictatorship, people are denied these outlets and anger simmers beneath the surface, occasionally bursting through society's calm veneer in violent fashion.
These two broad categories -- democracies and dictatorships -- are of course an oversimplification. In reality there is a full spectrum of political and civil liberties along which countries fall. Egypt is not Tunisia. But it is perhaps not so far off. Freedom House gave Tunisia its worst score for political rights, and Egypt scored just one point better. In the civil rights category, the countries received the same score. In understanding the contrasting U.S. and international response to unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps the most relevant difference between the two is not culture or politics, but the strategic importance of each to the United States.
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In an alternate universe, today's Washington Post would have a screaming, 4-column front-page headline:
U.S. must reduce deficit, IMF warns
Responding to the imaginary lead story, a contrite President Obama, fresh from ignoring his own deficit-cutting panel's recommendations in this week's State of the Union address, would appear before the media with International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn at his side, looking on sternly. The president, with a glance back at Strauss-Kahn, would step up to the podium and sheepishly retract his newly-announced grab bag of spending plans. "Never mind. Back to the drawing board."
When pressed by reporters ("Really?"), the president would reply, "The IMF has spoken. What can we do?"
It is in this alternate universe that the hopes of G-20 enthusiasts reside. Despite the best efforts of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in Seoul last fall, the G-20 rejected plans for automatic criteria that might have pushed unbalanced economies into rehab. Instead, the countries settled for a world in which the IMF would play the leading role, naming and shaming countries with excessive borrowing or lending.
Back in our universe, the president continues with his plans for green energy 'investments' and promises to get serious about the deficit at some unspecified future date. The IMF did, in fact, issue its name-and-shame warning and the Washington Post did, in fact, run the story -- on p. A16, just 15 pages after its lead story about how the Office of Personnel Management released federal workers too late for Wednesday's snow storm.
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Foreign aid is once again under fire. Every so often a few politicians -- usually Republicans -- get up in arms about our government's gift of large amounts of money to other countries. Equally often, media stories appear detailing how ineffective aid supposedly is. The picture emerges that foreign aid is unnecessary, ineffective, and wasteful.
For example, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) released a proposal last week to cut the budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by $1.39 billion as part of a broader package of deficit-reduction proposals. (Hat tip to our friends at The Cable for their post on the subject.) There were similar rumblings after the Republican takeover in 1994. Republicans seem to have an inborn suspicion -- usually dormant, but one that fitfully flares up once per decade -- that aid is just a handout from rich countries to poor ones to help the former ease their consciences.
Or take the lengthy Wall Street Journal story last week that declares, "A massive U.S. aid program that has made Pakistan the world's second-largest recipient of American economic and development assistance is facing serious challenges, people involved in the effort say. The ambitious civilian-aid program is intended in part to bolster support for the U.S. in the volatile and strategically vital nation. But a host of problems on the ground are hampering the initiative." Despite billions of aid, the United States remains unpopular in Pakistan; thus, the article implies, aid is ineffective.
These criticisms of foreign aid rest on faulty notions of what aid is and what it is supposed to accomplish. There are two views of aid reflected here, neither of which are helpful.
I propose a third view of foreign aid.
The advantage of this view is that it is realistic. The United States can actually do this. The U.S. is not trying to change people's heart or minds, contrary to the bribery view. It is only trying to change their capacity. Additionally, this view helps the U.S. prioritize which countries should get aid, and what kind, contrary to the charity view. Giving billions to Tuvalu would be a commendable act of charity for the Salvation Army, but it would be folly for USAID because Tuvalu is not a strategic priority for the United States.
(I am not arguing that we should never be charitable. Rather, every possible foreign aid program is an act of charity. Charity by itself cannot help us decide which charitable programs to undertake. The United States either has to flip a coin to allocate our charity randomly, or consult our own interests to allocate it strategically.)
The Marshall Plan is a good model. The United States gave something like $25 billion (in today's dollars) per year to Western Europe after World War II. It was undoubtedly an act of charity. The money helped the Europeans rebuild their economies and saved tens of millions of people from poverty or even starvation. But it was also a strategic investment. Policymakers at the time worried about a return of the Great Depression following demobilization and the Marshall Plan helped Europe become a strong trading partner for the United States. Most importantly, U.S. officials feared the rise of Soviet power and hoped the Plan would bolster European governments' stability and prevent the spread of communism.
This view of foreign aid would help protect it from the kind of cuts the congressional Republicans are proposing. Aid is hard power. It is a weapon the United States uses to strengthen allies and, thus, ourselves. But this view would also help save it from the kind of limitless, grandiose visions Democrats sometimes seem to have for it. This is the sort of view that I hoped Secretary of State Clinton would incorporate in the recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. But despite the document's many strengths it did not seem to offer a framework for prioritizing among the Unites States' many foreign aid opportunities.
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I agree with my colleague Peter Feaver that the president's State of the Union address focused predominantly on domestic policy. This is unsurprising, however, given the economic and other domestic challenges faced by the United States and President Obama's preoccupation with those challenges since assuming office.
Nevertheless, I believe that the 2011 State of the Union address demonstrated an evolution in the Obama administration's foreign policy focus. The president's first State of the Union address in 2009 dealt briefly with Iraq (reaffirming the U.S. intention to depart), Afghanistan and Pakistan (announcing a review of strategy to "defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism"), and the Guantanamo Bay detention center (promising to close it). He also announced a "new era of engagement," stressing the United States' need for help in addressing the world's problems and the world's need for U.S. leadership. All in all, about 400 words were devoted to foreign policy.
The 2010 State of the Union address reprised the 2009 themes (save Gitmo), while including a fuller discussion of nuclear nonproliferation and brief references to Iran and North Korea. The discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan was also meatier. While in 2009 the president said only that he would "announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends [the] war," in 2010 he spoke of "partner[ing] with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity." While in 2009 his discussion of Afghanistan was limited to mentioning the strategy review and the need to defeat al Qaeda and deny it safehavens, in 2010 he repeated those themes, but also spoke of training Afghan forces, encouraging good governance, combating corruption, and other elements of U.S. policy. And his discussion of "engagement" shifted subtly to focus more on U.S. leadership.
In 2011, these shifts continued, though the foreign policy portion of this year's State of the Union is startlingly similar -- in themes, structure, and length -- to that in 2010 speech. The 2011 version evinces a greater willingness to speak frankly about our foes: the Taliban are mentioned for the first time, and the president referred to the "Iranian Government" rather than the "Islamic Republic of Iran," the latter a phrase which in previous remarks was intended to convey respectfulness and signal our pacific intent. Other areas of the world get their first mention -- India and Brazil, for example. The president reaffirmed his support for the "democratic aspirations of all people," continuing a theme from his most recent U.N. General Assembly speech and Secretary Clinton's speech earlier this month at the Forum for the Future. Unlike in those instances, however, this time the president lent specific support to democracy activists in Tunisia. And crucially, the president strongly asserted his belief in U.S. virtues, values, and leadership, which underpin our global influence and ambitions.
So yes, the speech is short on discussion of foreign policy, contains plenty of gloss (like all State of the Union speeches), omits important issues (like long-term strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Egypt and Lebanon, both gripped by crises), and falls short on defense spending. But it suggests a continued movement away from feel-good foreign-policy slogans (such as 2009's "new era of engagement") and criticism of the previous administration, toward a greater willingness to take sides, focus on vital interests rather than trendy issues, and delve into the complexities and nitty-gritty of policy.
To be sure, there is a long way to go. President Obama has yet to articulate a bold foreign policy vision, and instead continues to take an issue-by-issue approach bound together by unobjectionable, but relatively insubstantial references to "engagement." Campaign rhetoric aside, the United States has been engaged multilaterally in international affairs since at least World War II, and will be for the foreseeable future. It may be that the president believes that restoring the United States' competitive edge -- through economic growth, education, investment in R&D and infrastructure, etc. -- is itself something of a foreign-policy strategy in a globalized world. But while such measures are necessary for maintaining and enhancing U.S. prosperity and leading international role, they do not address how we utilize that role. That is the question that in my view remains unanswered, and which we see the U.S. currently shying away from in places like Egypt. It is unquestionably good that we reaffirm U.S. leadership and influence, but it is not sufficient. Eventually the president must lay out to what end and on whose behalf we will exercise our leadership and wield our influence.
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The State of the Union speech was almost completely about domestic policy. By my count, roughly 1/7th of the address (about 1000 words in a 7000 word speech) was devoted to foreign policy and national security, the bailiwick of this blog. Perhaps this proportion reflects the mood of the country, or the medium of the platform, or the mode of this administration. However, it is a noteworthy proportion for a president who mentioned national security in his inaugural address before raising any domestic policy issue -- and did so rather dramatically with the words, "Our nation is at war.…"
Last night, President Obama did mention the war, or rather the wars. He described the Iraq war as "coming to an end" and, while he did claim that our troops were leaving "with their heads held high," that was about as far as he was willing to go in terms of claiming success or failure. It was a far cry from the triumphalist rhetoric of Vice President Biden, by comparison. Obama mentioned a "lasting partnership with the Iraqi people," but he placed that squarely with "our civilians," thus avoiding mention of the critical role the U.S. military will play over the next decade in helping train and maintain Iraqi security forces.
Obama's mention of the broader war on terror was brief but otherwise Bushian, combining the kinetic ("we have taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies") with the police work ("Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals…") with the war of ideas ("…the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our family.") Left unaddressed is the ongoing controversy over the Obama administration's embrace of the lion's share of the Bush war on terror policies circa 2007.
There were a few optimistic notes about Afghanistan and Pakistan that were doubtless discordant in the ears of the growing number of Americans, especially within the chattering class and most especially among the president's political base, who believe that the mission there is doomed. The confusion over the long-range strategy for Afghanistan was left unaddressed -- the briefest possible mention to the infamous July 2011 deadline and no mention whatsoever of U.S. commitments during the critical period from July 2011 to 2014. I suspect that one year from now domestic politics will demand that the 2012 State of the Union address spend a bit more time elaborating on all of this.
The rest of the foreign-policy references were noteworthy for their focus on the past rather than the present or future. For the most part, they were a series of pats on the back for things done -- New START passed, new Iranian sanctions imposed, new NATO strategic document unveiled, and so on -- rather than a bold vision for how to address the challenges that remain.
President Obama did address the foreign-policy topic of the hour, the popular unrest in the Arab world, but with only the blandest of references to Tunisia and no mention whatsoever of the far more ominous rumblings in Egypt and Lebanon. My objection is not with what the president said ("The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people") but with what the president did not say, as in "What this means for Egypt is.…," or "So in Lebanon we must.…" Undoubtedly, the president's advisors decided that given the delicacy of rapidly fluid environment, the less said the better.
From my parochial point of view, the president's best national security-related reference was his call to open up all U.S. campuses to military recruiters and to ROTC. This is an issue that has true bipartisan support and is long overdue. It is also an issue on which President Obama has unique influence, given that the target audience -- university administrators -- is likely one of the more ardent factions in the president's political base.
Otherwise, the speech offered little grist for a foreign-policy mill. It was not much of a harbinger of how the president and his team will handle the myriad foreign-policy challenges they face. Yet I am confident that President Obama will spend far more than 1/7th of the remainder of his current term on foreign policy, so Shadow Government folks will have plenty to address in the coming months even if there was not much for us last night.
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The State of the Union address offers any president the temptation to revel in the pageantry and splendor of the office. He can sound resonant themes and expound on U.S. values. He can embellish these motifs with the recognition of carefully-placed guests in the balcony.
President Obama is at his best when delivering high-altitude orations about national aspirations. This can be terrifically effective in a campaign or in a moment of national mourning. It can also be a necessary prelude to effective action, a way of rallying the public to support difficult choices.
The problem is that on the key issues of trade and the deficit President Obama's prelude to action has now lasted more than half his term. On each, he has earnestly stressed the national need for action. Yet on trade, he has only moved the country to where it was in mid-2007. On the deficit, he has moved the country backwards.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, the president said, "Here's the truth about today's economy: If we're serious about fighting for American jobs and American businesses, one of the most important things we can do is open up more markets to American goods around the world."
This has the standard mercantilist twist of the president's trade advocacy, but it's a worthy theme. How does it translate into action?
Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
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All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are not brought to fruition. This year's address will be no different, and for those concerned about national security, what the president says, and what he does not say, will be of the utmost importance.
As senior DoD leaders are already pointing out, the upcoming fiscal year, FY 2012, marks an inflection point in defense spending. There have four such points since World War II: those after that war, Korea and Vietnam, marked the end of major conflict. The fourth, like the one anticipated for the next fiscal year, was the product of domestic economic pressures and growing deficits. How far the defense budget ultimately declines will very much depend on not only the budget levels predicted for FY 12, but for the following five years as well. The president should be cautious about specific budget targets beyond the upcoming fiscal year; a signal of further anticipated declines could send misleading signals to the United States' adversaries about the degree of her determination to confront them at any future time.
The president should, on the other hand, throw his weight behind key DoD initiatives, notably Tricare reform. Secretary of Defense Gates has made the strongest case for increasing Tricare charges; the president should back him up, and do so forcefully.
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The president delivering the State of the Union address in person is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, even populists like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt fulfilled this Constitutional requirement by sending an address to be read to the Congress, which is curious, since the State of the Union is the president's most important speech, both substantively and symbolically. It gives him the opportunity to set a governing agenda, a chance to grab the commanding heights at the beginning of a legislative year. With all of the Congress, president's cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, and Joint Chiefs of Staff arrayed, it theatrically reinforces that our executive is the primus inter pares of our political system.
This year's State of the Union message will be especially important for President Obama, since a new Congress has just taken office after an election widely considered a referendum on the first half of the president's term in office, and the opposition has an activist agenda that, if adroitly implemented, would effectively sideline the president for the coming two years.
The main theme of the president's address should be economic: outlining job creation and debt reduction strategies. He needs to steal these issues from the Republicans who carried the election. While it is factually incorrect to characterize the economic crisis that began in 2008 as "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," that mantra is a political winner for the president. It buys him more latitude if he can frame the issue as staving off disaster, and he needs to effectively challenge the Republican narrative that his policies have deepened the recession. Other successes will not supersede a failure in reducing unemployment. The president needs to carry the argument that he is dedicated to job creation, a perception that has been undercut by his extended attention to other issues like health care reform, and on which the 2012 presidential election will likely hinge.
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Two apparently unrelated snapshots have got me thinking about the hoary topic of the gap between academic political science and the nitty-gritty world of foreign policymaking.
Snapshot 1: The story about the haggling between Chinese and U.S. aides over protocol niceties for the state visit of Chinese leader Hu. The report vividly conveys the back-and-forth that is the daily grind of diplomacy in the trenches. I could well recall how doggedly the Chinese aides pursued a diplomatic nicety here or a protocol advantage there, all the while blocking the efforts of U.S. aides to add elements that would highlight U.S. priorities. And I cringed once again at the account of the gaffes that accompanied the welcome ceremony of Hu's visit back in 2006.
Snapshot 2: My program here just hosted Farah Pandith, who is special representative to Muslim communities in the State Department, a relatively new post that was set up to help implement the vision President Obama outlined in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Ms. Pandith is a rarity -- she has served as a political appointee in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations -- and she delighted the students with a vivid account of her engagement with Muslims around the world on behalf of Obama and Secretary Clinton. She focuses on the under-30 generation and, naturally, this led my students to ask about recent dramatic events in Tunisia and Lebanon in which the younger generation seems to be playing a particularly influential role. However, Ms. Pandith deftly shifted from expansive to circumspect to avoid saying anything that might roil the diplomatic waters at this delicate time; "I would refer you to the remarks made by Assistant Secretary Feltman," was about all she would say. And rightly so, because in her position a stray remark might wreck carefully calibrated (at least, I hope they are carefully calibrated) strategies being pursued at the top level.
Both these snapshots are good teaching moments, precisely because they are at such variance with the daily fare of a typical political science course, including my courses. Very few theories of U.S. foreign policy cover adequately the nuances of summit protocol staff negotiations, and it is hard to capture such detail in class discussion anyway. Yet, I indulge the conceit that I am training the next generation of staffers who will do it. Likewise, my students hear me speculate widely and wildly about every current event, precisely because in my current position and in my classroom there is very little harm done -- nothing protects the country from my errors quite so much as towering irrelevance. Yet, if I were in Ms. Pandith's shoes, I would have to adopt as circumspect a posture. The challenge is for trained-in-the-general and free-to-be-irresponsible academics to cultivate an appreciation for nuance and an attention to circumspection in one's students.
The best way to do that, I guess, is to keep introducing my students to practitioners and to remind them that, as good as political science can be, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in [my] philosophy."
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Next week Chinese President Hu Jintao will travel to the United States for his eighth meeting with President Obama, his first state visit with an U.S. president, and his valedictory call on the American people before he retires as part of the Chinese leadership transition in 2012. There will be no breakthroughs, transformations, or stirring visions for the future of U.S.-China relations, but the trip is badly needed in terms of relationship management. It will also serve as a good opportunity for a stock-taking of U.S.-China relations.
The Good News
1. Obama Gets It
The Obama administration came into office intending to continue the broad Bush policy of engaging China based on strong alliance relationships in Asia, particularly with Japan. The Obama team hoped to build on that basic approach by establishing a more enduring formula for mutual strategic reassurance with Beijing. To set the right tone early on, the White House delayed sensitive arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama in advance of the president's first trip to China in November 2009 and then sought language in a joint statement in Beijing that would signal U.S. understanding of China's "core interests" with respect to Tibet, Taiwan, and other issues. Set against the backdrop of the financial crisis and increasing confidence in China, these gestures backfired and the administration soon found itself responding to a series of assertive Chinese moves at the Copenhagen climate summit, in the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, and in the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyutai Islands. To its credit, the Obama administration adjusted and spent much of 2010 reminding Beijing of the depths of U.S. strategic power and influence in Asia, as countries from India to Vietnam and Japan sought closer security ties with Washington to re-establish a stable strategic equilibrium vis-à-vis Beijing. The top national security team -- Donilon, Gates, and Clinton -- have now replaced the administration's earlier dreamy visions of transformational U.S.-China cooperation on global issues with a much more hardheaded appreciation of the underlying power realities of dealing with Beijing.
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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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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.