Bashir al Assad's government killed another 90 civilians on Saturday, firing artillery shells into a village and following up with gunshot-to-the-temple executions. At least 32 children under the age of 10 were among the victims. If you have the stomach to bear witness to the Syrian people's grief, most major news outlets have posted pictures.
The reaction of the Free World's leaders reads like a parody of fecklessness, but here are the actual quotes from the New York Times article:
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the "vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood."
"Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account," she said in a statement. "And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end."
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria's government of committing "new massacres" and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an "urgent" session of the United Nations Security Council "in the coming days."
The New York Times explains that the Obama administration is working with Russia to ease Assad out of power, and that "Mr. Obama, administration officials said, will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month...." But it also reveals that Obama administration National Security Advisor Tom Donilon raised the same proposals in Moscow more than three weeks ago. The massacre in Houla is what we have to show for it.
The Senate version of the foreign assistance bill is taking shape, and it is commendable for being both sound and a broadly bipartisan approach, even though it signals the death knell of the Obama administration's commitment to "smart power." The Subcommittee on Foreign Operations yesterday approved $52 billion in foreign assistance, only 2 percent less than this year's spending. That is an amazing commitment to help other countries and shape the international order, given that the United States will have to borrow $20.8 billion of that money.
Predictably, the Senate is reducing aid to Pakistan. While still providing $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, the bill would reduce that aid by 58 percent. Pakistan itself provoked the hardening opposition: Its extortionate demand for upwards of $3,000 customs charge on every truck carrying NATO supplies into Afghanistan was the driving factor in shaping Congressional attitudes. Previous to the suspension that has been in place the past six months, the cost to us was $200. The U.S. may very well end up paying in customs fees what it previously gave in foreign assistance, but perhaps not: Supply routes have been substantially diversified. We may simply end up paying Pakistan's neighbors.
The Obama administration also bears not inconsiderable responsibility for the cuts to Pakistan. Soldiers joke that we haven't fought a ten year war in Afghanistan, but ten one year wars because the approach kept shifting. The same is true with Obama administration "strategy" toward Pakistan. President Obama came into office having campaigned on conducting unilateral military attacks inside Pakistan, setting a confrontational tone; then adopted a "strategic dialogue" approach of $5 billion in annual assistance to Pakistan in order to reassure them; suspended in 2011 military aid to Pakistan; then made the aid conditional on Pakistan's full support in our war effort. Now the Obama administration cannot even get the Pakistani suspension of transit rights lifted by including Pakistani President Zardari in the NATO summit festivities. Relations with Pakistan have never been worse. Given that Pakistan is essential to achieving our war aims, this would seem to refute National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's claim that the Obama administration repaired America's relations with America's allies.
Iraq also came in for reductions in aid, a whopping 77 percent, the largest cut enacted in the bill. The Senate understandably eliminated funding for the ill-conceived and clownishly executed State Department police training program. So much for what Secretary Clinton termed "the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan." For those who wonder why enormous swathes of civilian activity have migrated into the Pentagon, State's incapacity to develop an executable program for capitalizing on the military's gains in Iraq should explain it.
And for all the administration's grandstanding at the NATO summit about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the Senate would reduce assistance there by 28 percent, equating the administration's draw-down in military forces with a draw-down in civilian activity. Needless to say, civilian spending should increase to cushion the transition as military forces withdraw. But having bungled both the largest civilian program since the Marshall Plan and the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, the Department of State and USAID are in no position to persuade the Congress. Not that they have tried, incidentally. It is incredibly disheartening to compare the silence of State/AID in defending their budget to the roar of DOD claxons the past six months in conditioning Congressional attitudes about cuts to defense spending.
In one final grace note, the Senate bill would reduce aid to Egypt by the $5 million required to buy the freedom of U.S. citizens that were to have been put on trial in Egypt for promoting democratic change. As Senator Graham put it, "we got our money back."
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Responding to six months of DOD clamor that the Budget Control Act would decimate our national defense, this week the House of Representatives moved forward with a budget that would allow the Department of Defense to escape the strictures of sequestration, giving DOD a $519 billion baseline budget and $88.5 billion operations fund. Sequestration would have imposed a roughly 12 percent cut to Defense across ten years. The same House budget imposes a 12 percent reduction this year on the State Department budget requested by the White House. Yet where is the leadership of the Department -- and the Obama administration, who championed civilian power?
Where is the full-throated objection that we will cease to be a global power if our diplomacy is gutted? Where is the president's veto threat? Where is the detailed departmental projection of what essential functions will be impossible to perform? Where is the orchestrated White House strategy of business leaders and civil society groups and average Americans who stand to be negatively affected by the cuts? State has only rolled out assistant secretaries to defend specific programs (like the $700 million in aid for democratization); a threat of this magnitude requires a high-level full-court press. All this has been done by and for Defense.
I agree with Peter that, sadly, an even wider swath of civilian activity will be shifted into the military as national security spending is reduced. However, I think his contention that the State Department and other civilian agencies cannot perform these functions merits further examination. In particular, it is not necessarily true that organizations cannot perform additional functions without additional resources or without shedding other functions. They can rethink their business model to make it more cost-effective, and they can reinvent how they perform their functions. The State Department is long overdue for a serious assessment of how it performs the crucial work of American diplomacy.
Why do we accept that money is always the answer in the State Department? It is an important input, certainly, but money is not determinative. The best funded militaries do not always win their wars. The best funded companies are not always market leaders, and they are rarely market innovators. When a sympathetic reporter suggested to Steve Jobs in the 1980s that it had lost the competition with Microsoft because Apple didn't have the resources, Jobs memorably said "innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it." The American military will likely have to shoulder an even greater proportion of what needs doing, but not because of money. More civilian functions will move into the military realm because of the people they have, how they're led, and how much they get it.
State still has an institutional culture defined by reporting -- describing what is happening rather than affecting change. It has barely changed its practices despite an explosion of information sources in the past twenty years. It continues a professional development model that invests nothing in our diplomats, producing generalist foreign service officers in an age when detailed knowledge is at a premium. Almost the entirety of its training budget goes to language, yet it typically does not produce diplomats proficient enough to debate American policies in the language of the country they are stationed. It considers "public diplomacy" somehow separate from the fundamental tasks of diplomacy. Despite a renaissance of private philanthropy and emergence of remittances, USAID still has not answered the fundamental question of what functions in foreign assistance need to be undertaken by governments. These are problems of institutional culture, not problems of funding.
But if the problem is money, why isn't the State Department fighting for it? Why isn't the leadership contesting the spending levels and priorities in advance of the bill passing? The president has often said in the context of the wars that we can't care more about building democracy than they -- the country affected -- does. The same holds true for budgeting: The Obama administration shouldn't expect us to care more about building civilian capacity than they do.
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Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has distinguished himself once again, this time claiming that the Obama administration's refusal to send the 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea shows that President Obama is tougher than President Bush. It's amazing the White House is reduced to juvenile boasts of this sort in an effort to burnish their foreign policy achievements; even more amazing is that the deputy national security advisor seems innocent of awareness that the policy he extols is both (a) a repeat of the Bush administration; and (b) a departure from candidate Obama's promises of a brighter American foreign policy.
The article sounds like an Onion parody, but is worth reading to get a full sense of just how contorted is the logic associated with President Obama's claims.
Rhodes says "what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past." Wrong. What this administration has done is to exactly repeat the cycle of hoping to lure the North Korean government into cooperative behavior and then withholding our promised assistance when the North Korean regime proceeds with its nuclear and missile programs. The North Koreans claim bad faith, just as they did when the Bush administration withheld fuel oil after an earlier test.
President Obama came to office promising a new era of American foreign policy, an era of hope and change, in which we would reach out to our enemies, practice a new kind of positive engagement to attenuate the image of America as arrogant and overpowering. But the deputy national security advisor now celebrates the Obama administration withholding humanitarian assistance to badly malnourished people because of the provocative actions of an authoritarian regime. "Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," he said, as though it were a major foreign policy achievement.
He also criticized the Bush administration for having removed North Korea from the terrorism list, and for continuing to negotiate with the North Korean government to try and walk back its nuclear program. But note that the Obama administration has not taken any action to return North Korea to the terrorism list, nor has it broken off negotiations with North Korea. Last time I checked, the Obama administration favored negotiations and had limiting nuclear proliferation as a major foreign policy objective.
Not only has the administration returned to the policy of its predecessor, it has done so while claiming that policy was unduly lenient. Savor that for a minute: the same Obama who held an outstretched hand to the evil and erratic leader of North Korea is now claiming special foreign policy prowess for adopting the policy he condemns in his predecessor.
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The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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Michele Flournoy’s extravagant campaign spin on the president’s foreign policy is politics, not policy, which inclines me against replying. But the outsize claims the campaign is attempting to peddle that America is “more secure, safer and more respected” deserve to be tested. The president's record is not nearly as good as this campaign puffery suggests, nor is it as thoroughly bad as his most boisterous critics claim, in part because the Pentagon has been effective in shaping policy on the war in Afghanistan and other key areas. Some of the credit for that is due to Michele herself, who handled her portfolio is a creditable way. But Michele Flournoy the policymaker is much more credible than Flournoy the campaign spinner.
First and foremost, it merits remembering that the counter-terrorism policies that made America safer are almost in their entirety policies that Barack Obama opposed in the Senate and campaigned against when running for president: long-term detention of terrorists, trial by military tribunal, support for the Patriot Act, Executive Authority to kill American citizens engaged in terrorism. Where he sought to change those policies, such as closing Guantanamo or prosecuting intelligence agents for torture, he was prevented by the Congress from doing so.
Second, the administration’s claim of the president’s unique courage in approving the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed is deeply unfair to President Bush. Can they really believe their predecessor, who bears the scars of having been in command during the attacks of September 11th, would not have made the same decision? It is uncharitable in the extreme, especially for a politician who claimed he would return civility to our public life.
Third, the campaign narrative on Iraq is dishonest. The president did not conduct a responsible withdrawal from Iraq; he conducted a retreat in place. By setting an arbitrary end to combat operations in August of 2010, he conveyed to Iraqis we were no longer committed to the objectives for which we were fighting the war -- as his withdrawal timelines have also done in Afghanistan. Far from “crafting a responsible plan to leave Iraq in the hands of its people,” he crafted a scenario in which Prime Minister Maliki had both the means and motive for seizing power and the non-sectarian future Iraqis had voted for fractured. The president also crafted an expensive and wholly implausible civilian mission that is already crumbling.
Fourth, the president reluctantly joined, he did not lead, the international coalition in Libya. Germany defends it’s refusal to participate in the mission on the grounds that their position was shared by the Obama administration two days before the vote. Instead of setting our allies up to be successful where they would take military action in our interest, the Obama administration only grudgingly supplied them enough help so they would not fail. That President Obama is taking such credit for Libya is resented, not respected.
Michele Flournoy makes it sound as though “fiery Republicans” are the only people who could object to her self-serving narrative of the president’s achievements. But her claims are actually testable propositions. Let’s take one of the president’s favorite metrics: American popularity in the so-called Muslim world. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, President Obama’s policies have caused our country to be more disliked in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia; and considered unreliable by Israel, and Europe. Only 8 percent of Pakistanis have confidence in President Obama to do the right thing, not surprising given the wild swings of policy toward Pakistan.
There are many more ways President Obama’s national security policies have either failed (trade policy) or are the continuation of previous administrations (the pivot to Asia, after all, mostly consists of accepting Bush administration trade agreements and multilateralism policies in Asia). And that's not even counting the colossal increase in our national debt that the president has piled up. But the most damaging effect of the president’s tenure is the divisiveness he has sowed in our body politic.
It didn’t have to be this way. A better president could have built bipartisan support for his policies. A better president could have worked with Congress to solve our country’s pressing problems. A better president could have graciously acknowledged where he built on the policies of its predecessors, reminding Americans of our broad agreement on most national security issues. Our country deserves such a president.
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It's been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Qurans provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money.
Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits. It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can't want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort.
The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us.
There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy. Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won't be good enough -- the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.
Moreover, it is difficult to see how coalition forces can continue to pressure terrorists inside Pakistan if we write off Afghanistan. From where would we collect intelligence and base the forces and weapons we use in counter-terrorist strikes? How would we convincingly portray ourselves as different from what we are fighting? This war is ultimately won by delegitimizing our enemies, and that requires persuading the broader society that we can and will protect them, can and will help them improve the governance of their society -- not just forcing compliance.
Counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and costly. It requires an extraordinary level of discipline and discriminating intelligence all the way down the line, even of the most junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Even when we prove good at it, as we did in Iraq and are in Afghanistan, progress is slow and setbacks are numerous. We make this difficult task much more difficult by too little civilian power (why is the military running the anti-corruption task force?) and imposition of politically-expedient deadlines unconnected to achievement of our objectives. But alternative strategies are also deeply problematic, with costs and vulnerabilities often underestimated.
The corruption and unreliability of President Karzai is another significant impediment to achieving our goals in Afghanistan. But agreeing to his proposal for an end to Coalition military operations would actually hand him the country. It is instructive that other Afghan leaders object strongly to the proposal; they see the progress we are making. What is working in Afghanistan is the patient construction of capable local and regional governance by Coalition forces and Afghans working together. That is a threat to Karzai's power; it is also a threat to the Taliban, which is why they embarked on a campaign of assassinating Afghan officials and seek to sow distrust between the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces.
Which is why sticking with our strategy for Afghanistan through 2014 is so important. The 2014 elections in Afghanistan have the potential to institutionalize power in a country that has known little constraint, usher forth a new generation of Afghan leaders and coincide with Afghan security forces coming on line in numbers and proficiency to take over the work we are now doing. If we walk away before then -- or settle for just securing polling places rather than affecting the political ecosystem by our involvement -- we should expect Afghanistan to return to worse than how we found it in 2001. Our enemies will be emboldened, our friends will be punished, and our credibility will be deeply suspect.
Part of the reason the American public is inclined to question the war effort is that the president has put so little effort into defending it. But when given the opportunity to walk away from it, President Obama made clear this week that he intends to continue taking the fight to the Taliban, training Afghan National Security Forces so they can do the work Coalition forces are now doing, handing over those operations to Afghans with us in a supporting role to stabilize the transition, and remaining in some numbers in Afghanistan even after 2014. In recommitting himself to the agreed NATO strategy and its timeline, the president is finally leading the war effort.
President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks.
In the course of Congressional testimony this week supporting the Obama administration's $525 billion defense spending request for FY 2013, the Pentagon leadership was dire about the consequences of any further cuts to defense. In particular, Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey are seeking to prevent the law going into effect that would require an additional $500 billion to be cut across the coming decade.
The Pentagon leadership professes itself fine with this year's cuts. Panetta has said "the United States military will remain capable across the spectrum. We will continue to conduct a complex set of missions ranging from counterterrorism, ranging from countering weapons of mass destruction, to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. We will be fully prepared to protect our interests, defend our homeland and support civil authorities." General Dempsey fully endorsed the new guidance. Yet they both insisted no further cuts were possible without grave damage to our national security.
In seeking to persuade members of Congress to repudiate the 2011 Budget Control Act that established the topline spending levels, Panetta's tactic was to shame: "We have made no plans for sequester because it's a nutty formula, and it's goofy to begin with, and it's not something, frankly, that anybody who is responsible ought to put into effect." To be clear, he is declining to comply with the law.
Dempsey's tactic was to cry wolf: he said that if the sequestration cuts went into effect, "we would not any longer be a global power." This is nonsense. The Budget Control Act necessitates a 15 percent cut to DOD spending across ten years, in a budget that has doubled in the past decade. A budget that constitutes 42 percent of the entire world's defense spending, in a world in which all but two or three of the other big spenders are friends and allies likely to support our endeavors. A budget that after sequestration takes effect will hover at 2004 spending levels -- and the year 2004 was a profligate one in defense spending.
The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups; no other country in the world sails more than one. We have three times as many modern battle tanks, four times the number of fourth-generation tactical aircraft (and are already fielding the fifth generation), more than three times as many naval cruisers and destroyers, 19 times as many tanker aircraft and 48 times as many unmanned aerial vehicles as any other country. The additional public investment since 2001 has also allowed the U.S. military to develop and use cutting-edge equipment such as drones, better body and vehicle armor and more precise bombs. We have an operational and technological edge that is literally pricing our allies out of participation, and that leaves our adversaries incapable of winning so long as we are willing to pursue our objectives.
Secretary Panetta is right that our national interest would be best served by the president submitting a budget that reforms entitlements to put our country on a sustainable spending path. The president has not done that. Secretary Panetta might perhaps take his concern about the devastating effects of sequestration to the president, who has committed to veto any relief for DOD from the Budget Control Act.
But that General Dempsey would project American power as so fragile -- at a time when our strength is being tested on several fronts -- is incredibly injudicious. If he cannot maintain America's ability to operate military forces throughout the world on an annual budget equivalent to our spending in 2004, he does not deserve to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen was right: Our military has lost the ability to budget. We have a whole generation of military leaders with no experience operating cost-effectively. This, too, is a serious deficiency in our defense.
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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.