The Obama administration is attempting to cast the Iraq war as a triumph of the president's vision for American foreign policy. As a candidate, he promised to bring this war to an end, and as president he's done so. It also conveniently fits into the Obama campaign's general narrative that President Obama inherited problems of Herculean magnitude.
But, in fact, the Iraq war was on a glide path to conclusion at the end of the Bush administration: the increased troop commitment of the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency tactics had succeeded in breaking the dynamic of insurgent success; it had concluded the Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq that the Obama administration is now taking such credit for.
What remained to be done when the Obama administration took office was implementing the agreement in ways that strengthened the practices and institutions of democracy in Iraq, incentivized non-sectarian political cooperation, continued confidence-building measures (especially along the Kurdish fault lines), reassured Iraq both of their sovereignty and our continuing involvement, and fostered support for Iraq among U.S. allies in the region.
What the Obama administration achieved instead is a faster end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, but one that undercut the political objectives it remains in American interest to attain. Iraqis may achieve those things despite our policies, but they are not achieving them because of our policies. On that President Obama deserves to be held account.
The administration claimed it was committed to a "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq. But their policies of establishing deadlines unconnected to the progress of our war aims, inattention to political developments within Iraq, and unwillingness to acknowledge he increasing repressiveness of the Maliki government have shown the administration's emphasis on withdrawal rather than responsibility.
On President Obama's watch, the Maliki government struck hundreds of opposition Parliamentary candidates off the ballot; violated the Iraqi Constitution's principle that the party gaining the most Parliamentary seats has the right to form a government; kept the country in a state of suspended animation without a government for seven months; refused a non-sectarian coalition choosing instead coalition with the virulently anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr; has not appointed either a minister of defense or a minister of the interior, preferring to hold those powers himself; declined to join in Arab League sanction of Syria's government; looked the other way as Shi-ia militia emerged that, according to GEN Austen, the commander in Iraq, parallel Hezbollah in Lebanon; and now has arrested hundreds of Sunni "coup plotters." Maliki has begun to resemble a character from the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, banal in his ruthlessness.
Maliki has even claimed that the U.S. is to blame for Iranian influence in Iraq, explaining that Iran had justification for its actions -- the "excuse was that the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil...with it ends all thinking, calculations and possibilities for interference in Iraqi affairs under any other banner." If Maliki actually believes that, it is both offensive and dangerously self-deceptive.
The Obama administration felt no need to counter the Iraqi prime minister's statement; indeed, that would make news, and the only news the Obama administration wants about Iraq is "It's Over!" The president's consistent emphasis in talking about Iraq is that finally, the last American troops are coming home.
If no troops in Iraq is the metric for success, then President Obama has led us to success in the Iraq war. But if capitalizing on the gains won by our military to nurture an Iraq that is more than a Shi-ia autocracy leaning toward Iran, President Obama has merely conceded our political aims in order to get our troops out.
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For months, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been warning in the starkest possible terms that the $600 billion in defense spending cuts will be catastrophic. He has said they will do irreversable damage to America's defenses, even invite aggression. Which makes it all the more curious that Panetta has also fully endorsed President Obama's commitment to veto any effort to prevent those cuts from occurring.
Panetta attempted to explain the contradiction by suggesting the problem isn't the cuts themselves, but the process by which they are to be determined: "When there's a mechanism like sequestration, which is this kind of blind meat-ax approach to putting that in place if you don't do the right thing, there's something wrong ... if it happens, it could do lasting damage, obviously, to defense policy in this country. And it will."
His explanation is disingenuous. The sequestration provides DOD a topline spending figure, not a blueprint by which the department brings itself into alignment with its budget. The Secretary of Defense has wide latitude to determine where to make cuts and develop a strategy to secure White House and Congressional support for his priorities. It is the Secretary of Defense's job to run a process of determining where to accept risk in the defense program. The Secretary's ability to lead that process inside the Defense Department and to effectively promote the defense program to the Congress that provides its funding hinges crucially on whether he can persuade both the military and the Congress he has rightly assessed the nature and magnitude of threats we face and the seriousness of his program for addressing them.
Panetta is badly corroding his credibility by claiming that the cuts will destroy our defenses but that he supports making the cuts. Advocating both these positions ought actually to disqualify him from continuing at the helm of the Defense Department. If Panetta oversold the threat of cutting so severely in to defense spending, he should recant his earlier positions and provide a substantive explanation why he now believes the budget strictures required by sequestration are manageable. If he continues to believe the proposed cuts endanger American security, he ought to challenge whether those cuts should be enacted.
Which is it? Either the cuts are catastrophic and must be avoided, or the president should veto any attempt by Congress to prevent them taking effect. Panetta cannot have it both ways.
UPDATE: George Little, Pentagon press secretary, responds:
"I read your blog with interest, particularly because it contains basic errors. First, the sequester mechanism does require the Department of Defense to make across-the-board cuts. You suggest that the Secretary would have wide discretion if those cuts were to kick in. He wouldn't. Second, the Department has already agreed to more than $450 billion in cuts over ten years. We can achieve those hard-but-manageable savings by prioritizing our budget decisions based on sound strategy. If we move to sequestration, which would add another $500-$600 billion in cuts to the Department, we wouldn't be able to make decisions based on sound strategy. We'd be forced by the Budget Control Act to slice the defense budget across the top. That's certainly no way to make the right choices for our national defense."
I didn't say the sequester would mean no across the board cuts, but that the Secretary would have latitude in deciding where in DOD to take those cuts. The topline is what is affected, not DOD's choice about where inside its budget to take the cuts. I also didn't say that DOD hadn't taken earlier cuts. If the Secretary can't make a sound defense strategy and accompanying program, he shouldn't support the President's refusal to veto any changes that would reduce DOD's sequester cuts.
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Signs are gathering that the European Union's most recent bail out has not stemmed the rising tide of concern in markets about Europe's fundamental financial or political solvency.
Britain's government barely prevented a rebellion by conservatives against their own Prime Minister forcing a national referendum on whether to remain in the European Union, and Britain isn't even principally exposed to the default risk because it does not participate in the common currency. Still, the Business Secretary is planning for "armageddon" of the euro's collapse.
Spain voted out its socialist government over the weekend, bringing in an opposition that ran on a "not the people who got you into this mess" platform but refused to commit itself to a program for reducing Spain's 40 percent unemployment rate for those under 25. Yields on Spanish bonds rose on the election results, suggesting a lack of confidence the new government will continue the draconian austerity measures that got its predecessor voted out.
One French commentator pointed out resentfully that once Berlusconi resigned, markets began to realize France was actually in a worse position than Italy. Even though Italian bonds are trading at 7 percent interest -- generally considered unsustainable levels -- Italy at least has a primary surplus, where France does not. France's debt may soon be downgraded, pulling it further into the contagion pool. Berlusconi's antics ensured he got attention that otherwise would have been scrutinizing France's balance sheet; technocratic Mario Monti removes that heat shield.
The European Financial Stability Fund, created to backstop governments shut out of lending markets, is nowhere near large enough to placate market concerns. Subtracting obligations to Greece, the EFSF has somewhere around $200 billion in the bank. Italy alone will need to refinance nearly $400 billion in the coming year. European countries being pulled down the drain are now sharp-edged in their calls to let Greece fail in order for the EFSF to have money to save others.
The debate has taken on a strong moral overtone, as David Gordon of the Eurasia Group has pointed out: thrifty northern Europeans believe those countries in trouble deserve it and are persuading themselves it would be wrong to shield sinners from the consequences. A Puritanical ethos has overtaken European solidarity.
Europeans may desire to shift the bail out to the IMF, but there is little prospect poorer countries will countenance using all available IMF reserves for rich Europeans during a time of global economic downturn. EU appeals to the Chinese and other potential sovereign lenders have not been successful.
The European Commission, which has been shoved to the sidelines by national governments -- itself a rather striking statement of the limits of pooled sovereignty that is the core promise of the European project -- has tried to interject itself into the debate by advocating issuance of bonds by the EFSF, something Germany has adamantly refused.
Adopting the Euro bond proposal would constitute a change to the EU treaty -- which forbade bail outs at Germany's insistence -- requiring ratification in every EU country. It would surely fail in Germany, but it would also fail in numerous other EU countries.
All of which means that worse is yet to come for Europe's financial crisis. Markets are sure to continue testing governments' credibility. Banks' exposure has not been honestly assessed or politically owned up to in the condemnatory countries like Germany. The EU stress tests were widely dismissed as politicized and Germany is hoping markets will continue as carrion on profligate spenders rather than turn their attention to profligate lenders.
American conservatives have few reasons to cheer Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, but the stress testing of American banks was serious, quiet, and gave our banking system essential time to strengthen balance sheets, which is something Americans can be thankful for this week.
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The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously -- more seriously -- than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria's dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab League held him to account, decrying his continuing aggression. At Saturday's League meeting, they formally sanctioned Syria's leader for continued violence against the Syrian people and not honoring his promises of political dialogue and release of political prisoners. They called for a meeting of Syrian dissidents and urged consensus on them to more effectively pressure Assad. The Arab League set a clock ticking for Assad to comply; if he does not within four days, further political and economic sanctions will go into effect.
The only previous time the Arab League has been willing to call out a member government was after the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi as he closed in on Benghazi. Qaddafi was a special case, having attempted to assassinate heads of other Arab governments. And the Arab League was following a U.N. lead; in taking action on Syria, the Arab League has led where Russia and China prevent condemnation at the United Nations.
These actions constitute an admirable strategy of escalating and increasingly public pressure by regional governments. The vote in the twenty-two member Arab League was 18 condemnations of Syria (only Yemen and Lebanon voted to shield Syria; Iraq abstained). Technically, League rules require unanimity. Yet, as NATO did during the Kosovo war, the Arab League found a way to express its will rather than let itself be hamstrung by technicalities.
The shame for Americans is that the Arab League, so long a regressive force in the politics of the region, has a better Syria policy than does the Obama administration. 3,500 Syrians have been killed by their government this year; during that time, our government has adjusted its position from considering Bashar al-Assad a reformer -- Secretary Hillary Clinton's memorable phrase -- to saying "he cannot deny his people's legitimate demands indefinitely."
The "Obama Doctrine," as the White House has termed its choices on Libya, gives to Russia and China a veto -- literally -- on U.S. support for freedom movements and human rights activists. This is disgraceful. Without a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the Obama administration will not consider significant support to the Syrians engaged in a fight to protect themselves from a despot.
Clinton outlined the rationale for treating the Syrian case different from the Obama Doctrine: "our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans' lives - including our fight against al Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy." One might ask the Secretary of State which of these interests would be in conflict with working to rein in the barbarism of an enemy of the United States who fosters terrorism and has killed 3,500 Syrians this year alone. Adding insult to injury, Clinton gave this explanation in a speech on promoting democracy.
Where the Arab League has been negotiating with Bashir al-Assad to curb his predations against the people of Syria, the Obama Administration fecklessly repeats that Assad must step down. And this from a President that insisted he would negotiate with anyone.
After a brave start by Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria, the State Department has recalled him because Syria is dangerous. Less so to an U.S. ambassador than to the people he was bearing witness for, though, and who now have no potent symbol of America's support for their cause.
Withdrawing our ambassador is, in fact, the sadly appropriate symbol of Obama administration policy toward Syria. They pretend engagement but are unwilling to run risks in support of freedom. Instead they pontificate piously from a safe distance while others undertake the difficult, honorable work of bringing despots to their knees.
How fortunate are the people of Syria that they have the governments of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League to stand up for freedom and universal human rights; what a pity the Obama administration will not.
President Obama's statement supporting the action of the Arab League says it all: "the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable."
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Since I have often argued in these electronic pages for reducing defense spending, I feel the need to respond to Tom Mahnken's post, and hopefully draw out the arguments for and against maintaining or increasing our current DOD accounts.
I agree with Tom that our current level of defense spending is not an undue burden on the American economy. Since the end of World War II, spending levels have been far in excess of our current roughly 4 percent of GDP without demonstrable negative economic effects.
But three other factors persuade me that reductions to defense spending should be undertaken. First, we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt. Defense is not the primary cause of that debt; obviously, our medical and retirement programs need to be reduced and brought into sustainable proportions. But defense is a significant contributor to the debt. Military strength is not the sole basis of American power -- our economy, our values, our vibrancy demand we put ourselves on sound financial footing, which requires us to address the problem of American debt addiction. I have a difficult time seeing how either the math or the politics work to bring federal spending into line with receipts if conservatives rule defense out of bounds.
Second, our near-term margin of error is actually enormously wide in defense compared to any prospective challenger. The world is much more conducive to American interests than it was when Defense spending as a proportion of GDP was much higher: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy. Coming off two intellectually and operationally demanding wars, the American military is weary but amazingly proficient and adaptive.
Moreover, our military services are better than at any time in history. They have conducted a rolling modernization, replacing equipment with much better equipment as it was exhausted in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have battle tested forces that can successfully span the spectrum from high-intensity warfare to counterinsurgency, excelling at individuals taking initiative. While others may learn from studying our operations, there's no substitute for the doing we have been doing.
Third, the American military is brilliant at effectiveness; efficiency, not so much. As Admiral Mullen confessed during the last budget cycle, money has been plentiful in DOD for so long we've forgotten how to budget and economize. We tend to overwhelm problems with resources. That's not a bad strategy, but it's a profligate strategy, and we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our strongest suit is not spending but innovation, and because of the demands of the wars, we have a military primed for tackling the problems with more innovative approaches.
Spending does not guarantee capability; in many cases, it impedes finding better solutions and creates complacency. We have more than doubled the baseline budget in the past ten years, even before adding in the operational costs of the wars. Is the world twice as dangerous as it was in 2001? I doubt it. Besides, inputs are not the right measure of outputs. I believe it's genuinely wrong to equate spending with commitment to defense. Our safety lies in our ability to find better solutions, not our ability to spend more than our adversaries.
I'd be very interested in Tom and other Shadow colleagues' thinking on the three issues of whether they consider debt a greater threat, our margin of error militarily wide, and whether they see the need for greater efficiency in our approach to defense challenges.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered yet another broadside against Pakistan yesterday, just before heading out to India for a state visit. He said "Pakistan has pursued a double game toward Afghanistan, and using terrorism as a means continues," closing out with a threat that "the government of Afghanistan has the responsibility to decisively fight against the enemies of independence and peace in Afghanistan."
Those are pretty bold words for a leader who can't govern his own country, much less win a war against Pakistan. While he's not wrong that Pakistan is interfering in Afghanistan, Karzai's attempt to shift blame across the border is just one more avoidance of responsibility for his corrupt and incapable government. Like most unsuccessful governments, Karzai's Afghanistan finds others to blame instead of working to improve what is in their power to fix. Pakistan sees a dysfunctional Afghanistan that the United States is about to walk away from, and is trying to create a buffer against its chaos seeping further into Pakistan or providing India a springboard for influence. Pakistan's strategy is not wrong in its assessment, but has chosen a means of influence that is ultimately self-defeating.
By contrast, India has been making incredibly smart choices in Afghanistan. And at no small cost: their embassy in Kabul was bombed in 2008 and 2009, killing scores. A developing country itself, India has provided $1.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan, predominantly for road building, medical treatment, training government bureaucrats, and now expanding to training of anti-terrorism police. They have worked cooperatively with the U.S. to help Afghanistan without provoking Pakistan, restraining the visibility of their efforts at our request.
Karzai lashing out at Pakistan increases the risk for India, both by connecting India more closely with a government that has not succeeded in gaining democratic legitimacy at home and by stoking Pakistan's paranoia about Indian influence. Expect the Afghan-Indian summit these next two days to have Indian Prime Minister Singh emphasizing "civilizational ties," while Karzai trumpets security cooperation.
The respective approaches of Pakistan and India in Afghanistan illustrate the potential problem of President Obama's shift to stand-off military strikes from a presence-heavy counterinsurgency. While Pakistan relies on proxy military power in the form of aiding insurgents to affect political developments in Afghanistan, the Indian government is showing a positive agenda of helping Afghans increase their capacity to deal with their problems. It's the difference between a strategy overly reliant on drone strikes and a counter-insurgency that builds support from within the society we are trying to affect. In its rush to the exits of Afghanistan, the Obama Administration might want to consider the respective attractions of the approaches undertaken by Pakistan and India in Afghanistan.
I'm deeply skeptical our government can pull off the pivot away from Pakistan that my friend and colleague Dan Twining outlines below. While I wish we could orchestrate an alignment to isolate and punish Pakistan for its invidiousness, I don't think we can realistically bring the necessary alternatives into play on anywhere near the timeline we need for the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, we need the Pakistanis more than they need us, so until we can find ways to manage by other means the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan, we're stuck with grudging partial assistance by a Pakistani government that's hedging against our abandonment.
I agree with Dan's assessment of the extent to which the Pakistani military and intelligence community is working against us, and that the civilian government in Pakistan is a generation away from having the power to control their national security apparatus. I likewise agree with Dan's evaluation of the factors the U.S. would need to bring on line to successfully sever our partnership with Islamabad: keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, denying Pakistan a sphere of influence, replacing Pakistani supply routes for ISAF, cutting off intelligence cooperation, redoubling our support for India, persuading China not to fill the void with Pakistan, and acknowledging our own complicity in the current mess. But there are severe impediments to our attaining every one of the items on that daunting list.
Continuing the fight beyond 2014. The president's already made his decision to end the surge and wind down the war. And as he's shown in Iraq, he's willing to tolerate significantly poor outcomes rather than revisit his politically-driven timelines. The behavior of the Pakistanis will more likely be used as one more justification for ending, rather than winning, the war. He will be betting that our defensive game has improved enough, and our intelligence from the region is now accurate enough, to prevent a successful attack on the American homeland. The frequency with which senior administration officials say al Qaeda is near defeat suggests they really believe it.
Prevent Islamabad's sphere of influence. Experts on South Asia were unanimous in denouncing the president's timeline for the surge on the basis that it would undercut our efforts as regional powers, and it has come to pass. Effectively preventing the spread of Pakistan's influence would require assisting the efforts of other countries equally or more opposed to the outcomes we want: Iran, Russia and China. And they, too, are playing off our timeline, so have little incentive to strike deals with us.
Establish alternative supply routes. Even with the 2009 opening of routes through Russia and Central Asia, three-quarters of all supplies still come through Pakistan; that would be impossible to replicate, exorbitantly expensive even if we could (recall Russia egging on former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev on during negotiations over Manas airbase), and an obvious choke point of diplomatic retaliation by Pakistan.
Cease CIA cooperation with ISI. If we continue to be dependent on Pakistani intelligence "for access to the region," it seems they must have more operational latitude than we do, so cutting off cooperation with the ISI would diminish our ability to collect and act on intelligence. If we haven't diversified our intel relationships, it's probably because we cannot, not because the benefits of it never occurred to the folks at Langley. Our fundamental goals may be incompatible, but if ten years into the Afghan war, we're still relying on the ISI, cutting cooperation could significantly degrade our intelligence -- even before the ISI started working harder at achieving that effect.
Doubling down with India. The India-U.S. relationship has strategic potential, but we're a long way from having the government-to-government relationship that could sustain the kind of pressure involved in countering Pakistan with India in Afghanistan, especially since that agenda is already crowded with our aspirations for India to work with us, the Australians, Japanese and others to "manage" China from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. The difficulties encountered implementing the nuclear agreement suggest we may be nearly as far in time from a reliable India-U.S. partnership as we are from a strong civilian government in Pakistan.
Convince Beijing not to take advantage. Hard to imagine that Beijing would resist filling the void a breach in our relations with Pakistan would leave and instead "pursue approaches that complement ours rather than continuing to provide unqualified support" to Islamabad. China was essential to Pakistan's nuclear program, has close links to their military (facilitated by our cessation of assistance after Pakistan's nuclear test) and needs help infiltrating its Muslim separatist groups. Moreover, their values-neutral mercantilism will appeal to the corrupt elements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan exasperated with us.
Acknowledge our complicity. In "taking a hard look at our own history in the region," Dan cautions that our own policy choices in the 1990s and beyond contributed to the problems we are now facing. There's much to that, but it will be moot in the storm of anti-Pakistani sentiment sweeping Congress after Admiral Mullen's testimony. It's the president's job to do what is in our country's interests when Congress overreacts, and to make the case for the funds necessary to conduct important policies even when they are running into the wind of Congressional opposition. If the president doesn't step up and make the case that we have no better option, Congress is likely to remove the one option of the administration's current policy.
A final thought. Americans often forget how much sympathy there is internationally for countries that feel pressured or abandoned by the Unites States. When we have a problem, we focus American effort on countries we had been comfortably ignoring until that time -- like Pakistan before and after 9/11. Isolating Pakistan once again would reinforce the impression of the U.S. as an unreliable ally to countries we are courting to manage the rise of China and other problems.
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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.