Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president.
Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."
Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want.
In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."
Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?
The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.
To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.
I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.
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Having been quite critical in these pages last week about the Republican candidate's exclusion of the war from his speech accepting his party's nomination for president, it seems only fair to praise him for the magnificent speech he gave on the anniversary of September 11th. Governor Romney's speech was warm, personal, and unifying -- a beautiful combination on a day of painful remembrance for our country.
Most importantly, Romney sounded like a strong and compassionate Commander in Chief, expressing his appreciation for the first responders on 9/11 and the military that has fought our wars since. It was a nice touch that he gave the address to the National Guard, the arm of our military responsible both for defending the nation and assisting civil government in dealing with national disasters. In the past ten years of war, Guard units have become part of the regular rotation of forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have shattered the stereotype of weekend warriors not being the peer of their active duty counterparts. It also showed a real elegance of orchestration that the campaign tied in Romney's visit last week with hurricane victims in New Orleans and the important work our Guard does when help needs to be mobilized.
Romney alluded lightly to the significant differences the candidates have on the war in Afghanistan. He said "...nearly 70,000 American troops still remain in Afghanistan. Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission..." In four sentences he summed up the president's mistaken focus on ending rather than winning the war, and under-resourcing the war. And he did so without a sharp edge inappropriate to the occasion.
Romney's own words reflect a commitment to allowing conditions and commanders' recommendations to drive the timeline of our transition to Afghan responsibility for the war. To providing the resources and leadership our military efforts need in order to achieve our war aims. The most important of those resources is political attention, something President Obama has consistently shrifted short the wars conducted while he has been Commander in Chief.
When the Obama administration was winding down the war in Iraq, officials claimed our timeline was a function of conditions on the ground. It was flat out untrue. On Afghanistan, they aren't even attempting to pretend the readiness of Afghan security forces, regional political developments, and the ability of the Afghan government to continue the war effort have any affect on their exit timeline. Romney's commitment to the 2014 withdrawal date show both an appreciation for the coalition agreement but also leaves room for adjustment should General Allen believe more time is need.
Romney was rightly critical of the Veteran's Administration backlog of claims, the delays in providing mental health care, and the crisis of suicides among veterans. These are all serious problems that deserve focused managerial attention. I do believe, however, that the current Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, Eric Shinseki, both shares these concerns and is doing an admirable job addressing them. Much of the backlog and delay is the result of increased claims filed and demand for services, not mismanagement by the VA. If I were influential with the Romney campaign, I'd advise them to carry Shinseki over into the Romney administration to continue the direction he has begun.
The nicest part of the speech was Romney's description of calling families after visiting Massachusetts Guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was really touching, the kind of tribute military people themselves actually appreciate. And it's a more difficult balance to strike than many people understand. Romney explained he thanked them for their sacrifice, and they responded by telling him it isn't a sacrifice, it's a privilege to defend our country. That perfectly captures the feel of the culture of our military. In a time when those of us not bearing the burden of fighting the country's wars are the 99 percent, military families appreciate we are polite enough to thank them for their service, but they also often feel that convention distances them from us, especially since it is so rarely coupled with effort to understand or help bear those burdens. Most Americans never catch that subtlety, but Governor Romney did. And he tried to bridge that gap, as a Commander in Chief should. President Obama often talks of veterans as though they are all disabled; Governor Romney today talked about our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in a way that celebrated their strength, their patriotism, and their honor, and held them up as an example for us all.
Full Disclosure: I am in a small way advising the campaign on European issues. I'm very much at the margin of the effort, in no way influential in policy formation. I don't speak for the campaign or the candidate, whom I've never even met.
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President Obama said last night that "the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place." That is risibly inaccurate on national security issues -- this administration has done the exact opposite: It has taken the easy path that leads to a worse place. In particular, President Obama:
The most important national security problem facing our nation -- the crushing load of debt that will crowd out discretionary spending by our government -- was addressed in the context of cutting military spending. The president who has doubled our national debt in three years now claims "I will use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways, because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it's time to do some nation building right here at home." That is, defense is the bill payer for his domestic programs. He claimed "I'm still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission," but he has taken no action at all to bring the Simpson-Bowles Commission's recommendations into effect -- they weren't in his budget, they weren't in his proposals during the debt limit negotiations last summer.
In the one area of foreign policy the president highlighted, trade policy, he shamelessly mischaracterized his record. The three agreements he has signed were negotiated by the Bush administration and stalled for three years before Obama signed them. And he still persists in characterizing trade as a zero sum activity -- we need to "export more products and outsource fewer jobs." Surely someone in the administration has read David Ricardo and can explain comparative advantage to the leader of the free world?
Governor Romney made both an ethical and a tactical error in omitting reference to the 90,000 Americans, 352,000 Afghans and 30,000 Allies fighting in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. President Obama rightly capitalized on the mistake to speak touchingly about the compact we should have with the men and women who fight our wars. It burnished his image as an effective commander in chief. What the president and his supporters seem not to understand, though, and it plays to Romney's advantage, is that there is an actual difference between ending wars and winning them. The president keeps emphasizing he brought the troops home from Iraq and is bringing them home from Afghanistan, but he is silent on whether we achieved the objectives for which we fought.
The president threw in lots of cats and dogs, box checking stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, supporting Israel, reasserting our power across the Pacific. If only his policies supported those platitudes. The biggest howler in the speech, the place where the president's claims seemed at greatest variance with his record, was "from Burma to Libya to South Sudan, we have advanced the rights and dignity of all human beings, men and women; Christians and Muslims and Jews." Yet he continues to issue tepid platitudes while twenty thousand Syrians have been murdered by their government.
This is an administration that seems not to appreciate the difference between saying something and achieving it. They are hoping that killing Osama bin Laden will deflect attention from their policies that have made America more resented in crucial sections of the world than we were in the Bush administration, that view defense spending not in the context of threats and opportunities we face in the world but as a funding source for their domestic priorities, that consider trade in more mercantilist terms than do the Chinese, that end wars instead of winning them, and that shun responsibility to advance our values in the world.
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President Obama's national security team has been aggressively marketing itself as the "new realists," by which they mean to contrast themselves with the ideologues of the previous administration who, as Team Obama never tires of telling us, recklessly started a war on false pretenses -- the wrong war -- and committed to a strategy that couldn't work, while ignoring the right war in Afghanistan that would be wound down in 18 months with the application of two-thirds the resources the military asked for due to the systematic application of "smart power."
Vice President Biden has been central to making that case. Biden advocated breaking up Iraq into three sectarian cantons (this was called ethnic cleansing when it was allowed to occur in the Balkans). He was the administration's point man on negotiations with the Iraqis, which appeared to have little effect on the 18-month political stalemate between elections and forming a government that has trended authoritarian. Recall that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki issued the arrest order for his vice president immediately on return from Washington, which signaled to Iraqis the move had White House endorsement. Biden was the rain maker for negotiations over a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq which resulted in... no continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Biden also advocated a "counter terror" strategy for the war in Afghanistan, leaving Afghans to the Taliban and killing bad guys with drones and special forces, whether in Afghanistan or beyond. To President Obama's credit, he did not choose this approach; but at issue is whether Representative Paul Ryan's views on foreign policy are, as has been argued by the administration's supporters, dangerously neo-conservative, penurious to diplomacy and foreign assistance, and profligate in military spending. And whether they should be more disqualifying than Vice President Biden's manifestly bad choices.
Paul Ryan's most forceful statement of his views emphasizes the limits on our foreign policy that our national indebtedness will occasion. This is a principled position the Obama administration wholly lacks, running deficits of a trillion dollars a year. Paul Ryan's budget reduces defense spending, but unlike President Obama, he does not reduce only defense spending. The Obama administration has cut defense in order to fund other spending priorities; Paul Ryan argues for cuts to defense as a contribution to putting our country back on sound financial footing. There is a difference, and it is a difference of principle.
Representative Ryan does seem to have a predilection for basing his policy choices on "foundational principles." Just as his arguments for putting our entitlement programs on sound footing are tied to the bigger ideas of what kind of future we want our country to have, his arguments for our foreign policy are tied to what kind of world we want to live in -- the bigger ideas of advancing freedom and helping build institutions that preserve it. Colleagues on the left find this dangerous because they believe those ideas got the country in trouble the last time a President cared about advancing freedom. But the idea of advancing freedom has long been fundamental to American foreign policy, building support domestically for engagement with the world and reducing resistance internationally to what the U.S. seeks to achieve.
Idealism matters to Americans because, in truth, nearly all our wars are voluntary and our citizens are difficult to motivate to war. We are much more comfortable making the world safe for democracy, ending fascism, and advancing our values than we are risking our sons and daughters for causes that are difficult to square with the kind of society we want to live in ourselves. Americans understand we have interests that do not always coincide with our values, but it's distasteful to us when they contradict each other, makes for unsustainable policies (ask Hosni Mubarak, or the Saudi sheiks who rightly fear our commitment to them is also limited).
Predictability matters in foreign policy. It reduces the miscalculations that often cause wars, it allows other states and organizations to anticipate our choices as they make their own. Neo-realism, as practiced by the Obama administration, seeks to keep all their options open -- to intervene in Libya if it looks easy, to avoid Syria where what needs doing looks hard. But it raises the cost of achieving our interests when they are not imbued with our values: it is more difficult to get and keep the support of our American public, it reduces the willingness of others to assist our efforts, and it creates more uncertainty in our international dealings when countries cannot anticipate our positions.
The Obama administration's "new realism" results in policies without principles that guide difficult choices. They made a stirring case for intervention in Libya because of impending humanitarian catastrophe, yet do nothing while humanitarian catastrophe consumes Syria. They argued the surge not only was not working in Iraq but cannot work, then adopted the same approach (plus a wholly unrealistic timeline) for Afghanistan. They castigate the previous administration for extra-judicial activity (renditions) then adopt drone guidelines in which only a profile (not identification) is required to commit extra-judicial killings. They argue imports steal American jobs and slow-roll free trade negotiations, then rely on exports to pull our country out of its economic recession.
Without foundational principles, American foreign policy looks no better than any other country's self-interested machinations. While our country often falls short of its values, that we even attempt to apply our domestic principles to our foreign policy ennobles it. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Not evident just for us. Not evident just for Christians, or the peoples of the book, or monotheistic religions, or atheists. That's what makes America exceptional.
Representative Ryan isn't a dangerous ideologue, he's a mainstream voice arguing we ought to give our values significant weight as we decide how to behave in the world. It is a principled and cost-effective choice, nicely consistent with what one would expect from a responsible chair of the budget committee.
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Obama administration counterterrorism official John Brennan was out on the hustings yesterday trying to once again get the administration credit for what they're not doing. In this case, it was to foster the illusion that the administration is actively exploring options for intervening in Syria's civil war. "Various options that are being talked about ... are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this." This is little enough seventeen months into a popular uprising against one of the world's worst governments. Italians gave us the concept of festina lente, to hurry up slowly; the Obama administration wants to laurel itself for boldly acting cautiously.
But Brennan's comments are also illustrative for how they characterize the problem in Syria. While at pains to pretend the Obama administration is considering no-fly zones to prevent the Syrian military from killing civilians in refugee camps -- although the administration seems comfortable enough with the Syrian military killing civilians in their homes -- Brennan attested that the administration is "quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that's going to contribute to more violence." That's incredibly revealing: the administration believes that violence is the problem, not the injustice and repression the regime of Bashir al-Assad is imposing on its long-suffering population.
The Obama administration seems not to understand that violence has political causes, and that "preventing violence" only reinforces the grip of those in power. They are diagnosing symptoms, not diseases. As no less a source than Elie Wiesel said, "we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." The Obama administration applauds itself for "new pragmatism." That should be called what it is: a studied neutrality to the claims of a people against their government, an even-handedness between repressors and repressed.
Amidst Congressional calls for special prosecutors to investigate leaks of classified information, bipartisan concern about President Obama's team revealing sensitive intelligence details in order to make the president look like a stalwart commander-in-chief, and Mitt Romney giving a major speech (to the Veterans of Foreign Wars) castigating the president for condoning those leaks, the White House has once again subordinated national security to national campaigning.
In an article titled "Insight: Cautious on Syria, Obama Moves to Help Rebels," current and former Obama White House officials reveal that the White House drafted "a highly classified authorization for covert activity" allowing greater assistance to the Syrian rebels. They evidently assuage concern about revealing classified information by declining to say whether the president has actually signed the finding. So the White House wants us to believe the president is moving forward on the basis of a staff document they will not confirm he supports. Such is the politicization of these issues by the Obama White House and the Obama presidential campaign, between which there seems to be no distinction.
The story reveals that the U.S. has sent encrypted radios to the rebels, contradicts itself by confirming that the classified directive has been for some time languishing in the National Security Advisor's inbox, and also quotes an anonymous senior administration official assuring us that "no policy decision like this languishes at the White House."
The article states that "Obama made his boldest known move in the Syria crisis cautiously, underscoring his preference for diplomacy and coalition-building. Nearly a year ago, he called on Assad to step aside." Administration officials then recount the contents, and even the date, of President Obama's telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan about Syria. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes chimes in to explain how difficult and how significant a step President Obama took in removing his support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The White House account makes the Turkish president sound like an apologist for Assad, which "President (Obama) countered point by point." Either the White House believes this negative portrait of an important American ally is advantageous to both political leaders, or they are unconcerned about the effect it has on the president's counterparts. Some of those enterprising White House officials who trumpet the president's decisiveness for having a staff that drafts and leaks a classified intelligence finding ought to ask the government of Turkey how satisfied they are with the White House characterizing their head of state's views this way in public. If other world leaders believe they can have no private conversations with an American president, they are likely to only tell our president things they wouldn't mind reading in American newspapers. That cannot be advantageous to our national interests.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein asserted last week that the White House was the source of leaks of classified material. She later backtracked to say only that she shouldn't have speculated -- not to recant that she believes the White House is the source. This latest in a long line of White House releases of classified material just proved her case. Obama campaign surrogate Michele Flournoy recently tried to defend the administration's record on leaks, saying "there's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one." Evidently it's only permissible for President Obama's messaging machine to release classified information.
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That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn't be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks' current endorsement of the administration's foreign policy -- as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor -- averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept -- think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.
Brooks makes a general virtue of the president's failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn't necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn't providing the necessary resources, hasn't brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don't understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)
Brooks' encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann's "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon's "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team's "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.
President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here's the tally of their signature initiatives:
A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president's supporters. The campaign's swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president's new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.
It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don't to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.
This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president's mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president's advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.
It's official: The Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt. After a tense several months in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces attempted several times to reassert control over the levers of power, Egypt's electoral council today announced that Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, has been elected president of Egypt.
The SCAF had assured American interlocutors during the voting that they intend to swiftly hand over power to whomsoever was elected. But they also asserted a decree making themselves arbiters of the yet-to-be-written constitution and wielders of parliamentary powers until a new parliament can be elected (Egyptian courts had dismissed parliament last week, worrying many of collusion between the military and judiciary).
It is illustrative of the tumult Egypt has experienced since protests drove Hosni Mubarak from power that electing an Islamist president seems a less worrisome outcome than the election of a secular alternative that represents the corrupt "deep state" that Mubarak and his military cabal kept Egypt submerged under for 30 years.
Mubarak argued that without his strong hand, jihadist radicals would take over Egypt. American administrations of both parties agreed with him, or at least were fearful enough we did precious little to attenuate his grip. A speech on the inevitability of democracy here, some minor funding of political party organization there...but neither Republicans nor Democrats redeemed our universal values in Egypt.
Presidents of either party were unwilling to risk unwelcome change in Egypt of the kind elections brought in Palestine, where a party that brought violence into politics was voted into power. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not Hamas in Gaza. Even in Gaza, Hamas has lost significant public support because of its incapacity to govern. The desire for safe streets, good schools, and functioning sewer systems is the true universality on which democracy attenuates extremism.
Both in Gaza and in Egypt, Islamist parties are being held accountable, not just for ideology but for governance. This is the basis for the drop in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after their victory in the parliamentary elections last spring. Egyptian voters were put off by their ineffectualness, by their mendacity in committing to coalition governance then taking power on their own when it proved possible, by their claiming they would not run a presidential candidate since they controlled parliament and then entering a candidate in the presidential sweepstakes.
Voters did question their motives, take them to task for their reversals. A huge part of the appeal of Brotherhood candidates in Egypt has been their opposition during the Mubarak years. They seem to have clean hands, and that is an enormous political advantage as Egypt shakes off the tawdry hold of Mubarak's spoils system. It appears to have been enough to carry the presidential election, a stunning rebuke of the "secular" military.
There is much to be concerned about with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. They have been staunchly anti-American. They intend to reform the basis of society with Koranic law as its foundation. They are profoundly uncomfortable with Western mores, especially where the rights of women and religious minorities are concerned.
But this does not mean Egypt's Muslim Brothers will be anti-democratic. In fact, they proved the more democratic force than SCAF since Mubarak's overthrow. There is little sign yet that they will refuse to play by the rules -- SCAF was more likely to bring about "one man, one vote, one time" than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's transition is disconcertingly messy. Both the process and the victors raise a serious question about how worried Americans should be about Egyptians' commitment to democracy. But with the advocates of representative government is still where we should place our bets, and offer our assistance.
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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.