The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
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In 2007, I published a review essay in Foreign Affairs explaining how then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was compensating for Japan's relative economic decline by reducing anachronistic constraints on the Japanese self-defense forces and aligning more closely with other maritime democracies, beginning with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Unfortunately for Japan -- and the shelf life of my piece -- Abe abruptly resigned a few months later after a sudden wave of missteps, political bad luck, and failing health. Over the next five years Japan suffered through multiple leadership transitions, with two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers and three Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prime ministers all stumbling at the starting line because they were unable to make any headway with Japan's stagnant economy. Abe, meanwhile, kept a low profile.
But as China upped the pressure on Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands, the LDP turned to the hawkish former prime minister last year to help them retake the government and restore Japan's self-confidence. Learning from his past errors, Abe has focused his early months on jump-starting the economy through "Abenomics" -- a combination of quantitative easing, stimulus spending, and promises of structural reform to increase productivity. Thus far it has worked: The markets and business confidence are up and Abe is the first prime minister in memory to see his personal support rate actually rise in office (now at 75% in some polls). In an energetic speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, he declared to the audience that "Japan is back."
Abe's return seemed initially to confuse the Obama administration. His values-based, balance of power approach resonated much more with George W. Bush's second inaugural than the minimalist and risk-averse foreign policy vision President Obama has put forth for his second term. The administration also appeared spooked by Abe's intemperate campaign comments about the need to revisit Japan's previous official apologies to China and Korea. Numerous stories emerged before his visit to Washington citing unnamed senior U.S. officials promising to publicly shame Japan if the Abe administration went too far with historical revisionism. The pattern looked eerily reminiscent of what happened between the Obama administration and Bibi Netanyahu in the first term. For its part, the Japanese side was equally uncertain about seeming wobbliness in U.S. declaratory policy on the Senkaku issue since Hillary Clinton's departure and by John Kerry's promise in his confirmation hearings to "grow the rebalance towards Beijing" (it did not help that Chinese official editorials praised Kerry for having the wisdom not to "meddle" in Far Eastern affairs the way his predecessor had).
In the end, though, the Abe-Obama summit on Feb. 22 was a success for both sides. Since coming to office, Abe has moderated his stance on history issues and was firm but gracious towards China and especially South Korea in his CSIS speech. In the Oval Office press availability, President Obama reaffirmed that Japan is the "central foundation" of U.S. security policy toward the Pacific (though he sounded like he was searching for a teleprompter when he said it). The two leaders echoed each other on the need for a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution to deal with North Korea's recent nuclear test and there was little outward sign of frustration over the usual irritants on Okinawa base realignment. Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye. In a skillfully worded joint statement on Japan's possible participation in TPP, the U.S. side reaffirmed its position that all sectors had to be on the table and Abe restated the LDP campaign pledge that Japan would not commit to opening all sectors. That little piece of kabuki now allows Abe to state that he will seek to protect the rice market in negotiations and the administration to claim that all sectors will indeed be subject to negotiation. The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks, slowing down mainly to accommodate the administration's need to line up support on its side (though Abe will have his own challenges within the LDP, to be sure). While the U.S. press was generally confused by the language on TPP, Congressional opponents of free trade knew what the joint statement meant right away, expressing their alarm within hours of the bilateral summit.
Abe has a lot to deliver still, and he knows it. "Abenomics" will run out of steam without real deregulation and reform (hence the Japanese business community and bureaucracy's enthusiasm for TPP as an action-forcing agreement). He also has to win the Upper House election scheduled for July, since failure to control both houses of the Diet has done in every prime minister since Koizumi. But Abe has begun to build up a head of steam. I have sat across the table from the last six Japanese prime ministers, and I always watch the faces of the political aides and senior bureaucrats behind them. I haven't seen such confident expressions since Koizumi was in the job.
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2012 will end with Japan and Korea both choosing new governments as the leadership on Asia policy changes at the State Department. All three transitions could have an impact on the president's vaunted pivot to Asia.
In Japan the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just walloped the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) at the polls. On the one hand, this is nothing new. The last three Japanese elections (2005, 2009 and 2012) ended with lopsided victories as the frustrated Japanese electorate searched for leadership to get them out of their current doldrums. With the election of Shinzo Abe, however, the Western media and the left have hit general quarters. Time Magazine predicts dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia; the folks at Foreign Policy have featured analysis warning Japan could go nuclear; and within some quarters of the administration there is nervous chatter about whether Tokyo might provoke China too much.
Abe is a nationalist, to be sure, and he has said less than helpful things this election cycle about elevating attention to Japan's territorial dispute with Korea and revisiting a 1993 apology for treatment of the euphemistically-called "comfort women" who were sent to the rear areas of Japanese combat units during the war. On the whole, however, Abe is a good nationalist -- which is to say that he wants to project a Japan that is far more resolute than the flip-flopping of the past three years under the DPJ. At a time when Beijing thinks it is winning in its campaign to coerce maritime states on territorial issues, Abe has promised to increase spending on the Japanese navy and coast guard, to relax constraints on defense cooperation with the United States, and to strengthen security ties with the Philippines, Australia, India and others in Beijing's crosshairs. The United States should embrace this agenda. The problem is that any continuation of the nationalist rhetoric of the election campaign would drive a wedge between Japan and Korea, putting the United States and Japan in a weaker position to deal with a dangerous North Korea and an overbearing China. The administration should quietly explain the problem to the incoming team in Tokyo in exactly those strategic and national interest terms. In his last go as Prime Minister, Abe moved from nationalist to pragmatic statesman, improving ties with both China and Korea. As it became clear that LDP would win a landslide this time, he also began tempering his comments and stressing that he would rebuild the U.S.-Japan alliance and place importance on relations with China and Korea. His top advisors say privately not to worry. National security is all about worrying, though, so the administration will need the skill to construct a trusted private dialogue on the sensitive issues with Tokyo, backed by robust public support for Japan's security.
Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday. Right now the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has a lead in most polls, but just inside the margin of error. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, appears to have slight momentum on his side (Korean law limits polling in the final days of the election). Both are trying to appeal to the center without abandoning their bases. Park is the former daughter of strongman Park Chung Hee, while Moon was chief-of-staff and heir apparent to the former president, Roh Moo-hyun. Park's supporters are generally tougher on North Korea, more pro-U.S., and older. Moon's supporters are generally softer on North Korea and younger, but not gripped by the same anti-Americanism that helped Roh get elected in 2002. The younger voters' conversion is typified by Psy, the Gangnam-style rap artist who recently apologized for his crude anti-American songs from a decade ago. Moon himself is a pragmatist who appears to have learned the political and security consequences of the Roh administration's initial anti-Americanism. The problem is that Moon has surrounded himself with hardcore leftists who still believe that the right approach to North Korea is to buy their confidence with economic aid, even after (or they would argue especially after) Pyongyang has tested long-range missiles and possibly begun preparations for a third nuclear test. Needless to say, that policy would create considerable dissonance with Washington. Even Park, whose pro-alliance credentials are solid, has hinted that she will not be quite as tough with either Pyongyang or Beijing as the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, has been.
Just as Japan and Korea enter these transitions, the Obama administration is losing its best stewards of Asia policy -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her assistant secretary for East Asia (and, truth in advertising, good friend to a number of us at Shadowgov), Kurt Campbell. There are other solid Asia hands in the administration, to be sure, but State has been particularly instrumental in managing U.S. alliances in the region. It is not hard to imagine an incoming team at State deciding that the highest priority in the second term must be modifying the harder edges of the pivot and quietly reassuring Beijing that the U.S. does not fully support Japan's new trajectory -- or worse, publicly walking away from a declaratory policy on the contested Senkaku Islands that suggests the U.S. is completely neutral (for three administration's the policy has been neutrality on the territorial claims, but clear signals that the United States would not be neutral if there were any military coercion by China). There are hints that some in the administration have already been shifting their public statements in this direction. Similarly, Korea-U.S. relations have prospered in the last four years, not because the Obama administration came in with any particular strategy for strengthening relations with Seoul, but because the President was personally captivated by President Lee Myung-bak's commitment to globalizing Korea's role and restoring trust in alliance relations with Washington. It is one thing to react to a dynamic ally, but quite another to put in the hard work of strengthening alliance ties when there are disagreements over North Korea policy or uncertainties in Seoul about how to deal with China in future.
The good news is that any new team will have to face confirmation hearings. In private calls and hearings, the Senate should be sure to take some time off from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to verify the nominees' fundamental thinking about our alliances in Asia. These alliances do not run on auto-pilot, nor are they always easy. But as Lord Carrington once said about us as allies in the face of European criticism in the 1980s, "Yes ... yes ... all your complaints are true, but they are the only Americans we have."
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The original Saturday Night Live cast used to have a skit where Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna saw sexual overtones in everything around her. Finally an exasperated Freud would explain to her, "sometimes a banana is just a banana...Anna."
The punditocracy's response to North Korea's launch of the Unha rocket on December 11 shows similar and predictable over-interpretation of Pyongyang's motives. The "Great General" Kim Jong-un is said to be using the launch to consolidate his control over the Korean People's Army. Other explanations focus on North Korean efforts to influence the South Korean or even Japanese elections, which are to be held over the next few weeks. Or is it a signal to the Obama administration as it begins a second term?
No doubt missile tests please the KPA generals and make for good propaganda in a nation of undernourished and terrified people, but that is the same reason given for all of the previous missile and nuclear tests by the North. This is, after all, a Stalinist state driven by an "Army First" policy and a perpetual state of war with the United Nations and the Republic of Korea. Explanations that the North is trying to shape the South Korean or Japanese elections also hang awkwardly in the air, since the missile test cannot possibly help the softer-line progressive candidate Moon Jae-in to overcome his conservative rival Park Geun-Hye -- let alone the hapless Democratic Party of Japan which is about to be trounced at the polls by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party led by North Kora's worst nightmare, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Psychoanalyzing North Korea's deviant behavior is convenient in one sense, however:. it allows the State Department and White House spokesmen to to dismiss the growing threat from Pyongyang as the rantings of a teenage miscreant only doing harm to itself. If North Korea is only isolating itself from the international community, as we are told after each provocation, then there is no need to take action. One analytical explanation making the rounds describes a "cycle" in which North Korea provokes with a nuclear or missile test but inevitably returns to talks. Phew !!
The problem is that the consequences of North Korean weapons testing are not cyclical -- they are linear. Each missile and nuclear test, even a failed test, represents a new milestone in Pyongyang's well-advertised march towards marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. This most recent test appears to have ended in the successful separation of multiple stage Rockets. Recently, a senior KPA general was reported to have told military officers at a speech in Pyongyang that the nation has already achieved the ability to mount small warheads on medium range missiles. Bravado or not, that is clearly the North's goal and it grows closer with this most recent test.
The administration's response should not be based on interpreting the North Korean Unha missile launch as anything other than what it was -- a deliberate weapons development program aimed at forcing concessions on the United States and our allies through coercion. That threat requires significant countermeasures both within the UN Security Council and among US allies.
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In Bangkok on November 18 President Obama explained that it was "no accident" that he chose Asia for his first overseas trip after winning re-election. Well, actually, it was. The East Asia Summit, which the president attended in Phnom Penh just before Thanksgiving, had been on the calendar for some time. That it happened to fall on a date just after the U.S. election was perhaps propitious, but it was not because of presidential design.
The president's hyperbole in Bangkok is somewhat typical of the rhetoric surrounding the "pivot" to Asia. This same hyperbole caused trouble with European and Middle East allies, who did not want to be pivoted away from, and with China, which did not understand why the president was claiming credit for a series of seemingly minor but somehow nefariously connected defense decisions like transferring a few thousand Marines from Okinawa to Darwin, Australia.
Hyperbole aside, though, the president can claim credit for something quite substantive with this trip: He has now established that future American presidents will regularly attend two annual summits in Asia each year, once for APEC and once for the ASEAN-centered East Asia Summit. Clinton, meanwhile, has become the first secretary of state to score a perfect attendance record at the ASEAN Regional Forum of foreign ministers. While these meetings can appear dreadfully boring on the surface, they are becoming intensely important behind the scenes as Beijing attempts to assert its own agenda on the region. When the United States is there, the smaller countries usually take heart. In Phnom Penh, China pressured the Cambodian hosts to cut-off discussions on the South China Sea, but with the American president watching, the Philippines and other countries continued raising their legitimate concerns about Beijing's heavy-handed approach to the region's territorial disputes. Woody Allen argued that 9/10ths of success in life is just showing up -- an appropriate maxim for U.S. diplomacy in Asia and one Obama and Clinton have followed.
The president also did fairly well in Burma and Cambodia, two countries with deeply troubling human rights records. I was worried that he would downplay these concerns and instead focus on switching two erstwhile Chinese proxies over to the U.S. camp to score PR points for the pivot. The administration had already moved too fast in lifting the import ban on Burma, which only helped the crony-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. However, a White House blog on Burma policy by NSC Senior Director Samantha Powers just before the trip laid out a more balanced approach going forward that would praise President Thein Sein for his reforms, and be clear that further U.S. support depended on the heavy lifting that still remains. The president appears to have done just that (though he somehow managed repeatedly to garble Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's name, which she took stoically as always). He also did not shrink from pressing Hun Sen to halt systematic repression and violence against civil society groups and the democratic opposition in Cambodia. These were encouraging moves, given how detached the pivot has been thus far from historic American foreign policy values.
That said, the president's trip did little to answer three big questions troubling American friends and allies in Asia. First, will the fiscal cliff undercut the economic basis of American power in the Pacific or end up in defense cuts that have an equally deleterious impact on regional security? Second, will the administration move beyond its unambitious approach to trade now that the election is over and inject some energy into the Trans-Pacific Partnership? And third, will the United States go wobbly on China after the balance-of-power conscious Hillary Clinton leaves office? It is no accident our friends are asking these questions.
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There has been a lot of commentary on the Obama administration's "pivot" (or "rebalance") to Asia here at Shadow Government. Most commentators have praised Secretary Clinton's activism towards Southeast Asia, but pointed out that the rhetoric of the pivot will look hollow without a real trade strategy and adequate resourcing for our forward military forces. This past month it looks like the wheels may have started coming off on the trade strategy axle.
In early September regional leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Vladivostok, sans Barack Obama who was unwilling to skip town in election season, and courtesy of Vladmir Putin who was unwilling to schedule the meeting at a time the U.S. President could attend. President Obama's absence was not the end of the world: Bill Clinton skipped two APEC summits and managed to compensate the next year (for the record, George W. Bush missed none...but that was before we were "back in Asia" as the current White House likes to say). The real problem at Vladivostok was the hallway banter by the other delegates about TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- that forms the core of the administration's strategy for building a regional economic architecture that includes us and strives for WTO-consistent trade liberalization and rule-making. The overall critique in Vladivostok was that the U.S. side is playing small ball on TPP, to the frustration of multiple stakeholders. The U.S. business community is worried at the lack of market access in the negotiations; the Australians and Singaporeans are hedging with Asian-only negotiations because of what they see as incrementalism by USTR; and Japanese officials are dismayed by administration signals discouraging Tokyo from expressing readiness to join TPP.
This all matters because of the other summitry gossip that is coming out of Asia. On November 18-20, the Cambodians will be hosting the East Asia Summit, which President Obama joined with great fanfare last year and which the president will be able to attend this year because it is after the U.S. elections. The main deliverable on economics at that summit will be a decision within the region to proceed with the RCEP -- an Asian "Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership" that includes the ten ASEAN states, Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- and does not include the United States. The Cambodians' current plan for the November summit is to hold an RCEP inaugural meeting while President Obama waits outside the room cooling his heels with Vladmir Putin (since Russia is also not included in the regional trade deal). Stunningly, our allies Japan, Australia ,and Korea all appear to be on board with this scenario.
At one level this resembles the silliness of a junior high school prom, but at another level it could be the moment people start writing the obituary for the "pivot." To prevent that, a returning Obama administration or a new Romney administration has to put more oomph into the current anemic U.S. trade strategy. The RCEP launch will be embarrassing, but since those talks have no prospect of hitting a WTO-compliant level of trade liberalization, the United States can retake center stage again by showing that it can form an even more impressive coalition of trade liberalizing states. This means getting Japan in to TPP; leveraging Canada and Mexico in the TPP process (which will also help us counter Brazilian efforts to separate South America from us); and beginning to move on a complementary trans-Atlantic FTA process. The "pivot" was never sustainable without like-minded allies in our hemisphere and Europe and now is the time to recognize that and develop a strategy accordingly.
The next administration will also have to demonstrate credibility by moving to secure trade promotion authority (TPA) from the Congress (just can't get around Article One Section Eight of the Constitution). Finally, the administration had better start thinking about new ways to engage on economic issues within the EAS that keep us in the regional dialogue without requiring a high-standard FTA with countries like Laos or Burma. Bob Zoellick was a master of that art at USTR when he pioneered the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative -- a flexible framework that allowed a la carte participation by countries ranging from an FTA (Singapore) to establishing very basic economic dialogues (Cambodia).
In short, for trade to continue underpinning U.S. leadership in Asia, we will have to go global, be agile within the region, and give a shot of adrenaline to USTR. Otherwise, the "pivot" will be a minor footnote in the textbooks.
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With Japan changing prime ministers more often than the Washington Redskins change quarterbacks, it is hard to get too excited about Yoshihiko Noda, who just won the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidency and will shortly be selected by the Diet as Japan's sixth prime minister in as many years.
Noda faces huge hurdles: the Japanese economy has been languishing for most of two decades; two years into office, and the DPJ still has not been able to demonstrate the ability to execute on policy; the government is checkmated by opposition control of the Upper House of the Diet; and the Japanese voters have become even more cynical and negative about their ruling class than Americans have. Most political analysts figure things will be like this until a general election (required by 2013) shakes things up.
But I have a little spring in my step now that Noda will be in charge. For one thing, he is a genuine national security conservative in the tradition of Shinzo Abe or his better known friend, former DPJ foreign minister Seiji Maehara (who lost in the DPJ election to Noda). Noda's father was a military man (Ground Self Defense Forces), which gives him a rare appreciation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and defense issues. Chinese and Korean newspapers are apprehensive because he has challenged the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, as did Abe and others on the right in Japan. But I'm not too worried. Noda is known as a careful pragmatist and will reach out to China and Korea the way Abe did when he became prime minister (the Japanese version of Nixon-goes-to-China).
Moreover, Noda is an outspoken free-trader and supporter of Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and he is a fiscal conservative, advocating a prudent increase in the consumption tax as part of overall tax reform. And most encouraging, Noda won the DPJ election because he refused to kowtow to DPJ strongman Ichiro Ozawa, who continues to run interference against the internationalists even after being ejected from the party leadership in the wake of corruption charges.
The DPJ's first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, was a dreamy populist who ruined almost everything he touched. His successor, the hapless Naoto Kan, moved away from the DPJ's original populist manifesto, but never did so with real conviction or understanding of the policy issues. Noda is a serious policy thinker who has consistently advocated the positions Japan now needs to move forward. The Japanese political system is still a terrible mess, but at least the quality of leadership is improving.
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In Today's Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria has made another spirited defense of the Obama administration's reactive, lead-from-behind approach to foreign policy. Zakaria asserts in his column that every U.S. foreign policy doctrine other than the Monroe Doctrine was formulated in the simpler bipolar context of the Cold War. Trying to construct a modern doctrine to capture the complexities of current developments like the Arab spring would be pure folly, he concludes, much better therefore for Obama to stick with his prudent strategy of restraint.
Zakaria's intellectualization of a foreign policy driven by domestic priorities ("now is the time to focus on nation-building here at home," as the President declared in a June 25 speech) has two major flaws.
The first is historical. The Monroe Doctrine was not the exception that proves the rule. There was also the Tyler Doctrine which asserted U.S. strategic pre-eminence over Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific; John Hay's Open Door, which historians consider a book-end to the Monroe Doctrine; Henry Stimson's Non-recognition Doctrine, etc.,etc.
The second flaw in Zakaria's argument is more fundamental, though. There is a difference between doctrine and strategy. Doctrines articulate aspirations for strategy and are therefore arguably expendable. Strategy is not. Small powers can go without grand strategies. Great powers cannot. Either the United States seeks to shape the direction of key regions like the Middle East and Asia, or it perpetually reacts to the initiative of revisionist powers and forces within those regions until friends and allies lose confidence and American preeminence is undermined.
If there is a doctrine we don't need right now, it is the faux realism and abdication of international leadership represented in "strategic restraint."
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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.