The president delivering the State of the Union address in person is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, even populists like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt fulfilled this Constitutional requirement by sending an address to be read to the Congress, which is curious, since the State of the Union is the president's most important speech, both substantively and symbolically. It gives him the opportunity to set a governing agenda, a chance to grab the commanding heights at the beginning of a legislative year. With all of the Congress, president's cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, and Joint Chiefs of Staff arrayed, it theatrically reinforces that our executive is the primus inter pares of our political system.
This year's State of the Union message will be especially important for President Obama, since a new Congress has just taken office after an election widely considered a referendum on the first half of the president's term in office, and the opposition has an activist agenda that, if adroitly implemented, would effectively sideline the president for the coming two years.
The main theme of the president's address should be economic: outlining job creation and debt reduction strategies. He needs to steal these issues from the Republicans who carried the election. While it is factually incorrect to characterize the economic crisis that began in 2008 as "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," that mantra is a political winner for the president. It buys him more latitude if he can frame the issue as staving off disaster, and he needs to effectively challenge the Republican narrative that his policies have deepened the recession. Other successes will not supersede a failure in reducing unemployment. The president needs to carry the argument that he is dedicated to job creation, a perception that has been undercut by his extended attention to other issues like health care reform, and on which the 2012 presidential election will likely hinge.
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The Washington Post is running a series of articles highlighting failed projects funded by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly $5 billion in funds has been appropriated through the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), which gives military forces in combat money to put toward humanitarian assistance and development projects that advance the war effort, to include reducing unemployment and building support for U.S. objectives. The articles highlight numerous projects that have been abandoned once under the control of the Iraqi and Afghan governments, with the implication that the programs were scandalously wasteful. And that may be right in many cases; but the Post articles also give no context for whether CERP funded projects are more or less successful than other development assistance. Here are three points they ought to have addressed but did not.
No. 1: A project that is abandoned now does not mean it wasn't beneficial.
I realize it's a difficult argument to make that wasted money is a good thing; but CERP funds aim for short term effect in a combat zone. They are not projects for the ages, they are designed to affect the here and now decisions of insurgents and the population that may permit them to operate with impunity. The Post concludes that "have created no more than a temporary illusion of progress," but temporary progress can be vital in creating or sustaining momentum in warfare. If the Iraqi government does not now make a water park (one of the projects) a priority, that does not mean it wasn't a hopeful and useful sign to Iraqis three years ago when we were trying to convey that violence was dramatically down, it was safe for Iraqis to engage in normal pursuits, and our objectives were a peaceful and prosperous Iraq.
No. 2: Development assistance is an inherently speculative undertaking.
What proportion of businesses started here in the United States fail? Add to that the complexities of societies coming out of authoritarian governance or decades of war, developing law and judicial practice while democratizing, and it's not at all surprising that a large number of projects will be abandoned or unsuccessful. If we expect a guaranteed return on investment with our development assistance, we would actually not be assisting development very much. Those projects tend toward large infrastructure guaranteed by local governments, and even those are often rife with corruption and mismanagement. Part of what development assistance does is teach the practices of capitalism, and failure is a part of capitalism, so we should not balk at failed attempts.
No. 3: The U.S. military is not particularly good at development assistance.
It's not their job. They will optimize funding to projects that advance their war fighting objectives, predominantly near-term security. To make the military good at development assistance, as Carl Schramm has advocated in his Expeditionary Economics article in Foreign Affairs, would require a major diversion of effort from fighting and winning the country's wars. We actually have a branch of the U.S. government whose job it is to provide assistance; that would be the Agency for International Development. The real disappointment of so much money being channeled through CERP is that our government proved incapable of working together to prioritize and fund both near-term and long-term assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan when they are essential to our war efforts.
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When Napoleon marched his army into Berlin in 1806, he took his generals to the tomb of Frederick the Great, saying "hats off, gentlemen; if he were alive we wouldn't be here." The same could be said of the Obama administration's policy on Afghanistan: without Defense Sec. Robert Gates, we would not be here.
Over the weekend, the Obama administration concluded its Afghanistan policy review, formally committing to prosecute the war until Afghan security forces are competent to undertake the work done by U.S. and allied forces. Control of operations will gradually transition to Afghan security forces as military commanders determine them capable of managing the fight. The year 2014 is aspired to by the Afghan and force providing governments as the date at which such transition would be complete, although the commander in Afghanistan is hesitant to pledge unequivocally that can be met.
This beneficial outcome is diametrically opposed to the president's intention when a year ago he announced the surge of effort in Afghanistan. Having been cornered by his own rhetoric about the good war in Afghanistan recklessly under-resourced by the previous administration, the president accepted the need to increase forces. But in the very same breath as he gaveth, he tooketh away: "as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."
Secretary Gates has a fine Florentine touch for orchestrating outcomes, as is evident by his slight of hand in convincing the public that defense spending is being reduced. But trapping the Obama administration into a sensible alignment of objectives and resources for winning the war in Afghanistan is his coup de grâce. His work repairing the administration's strategy merits studying.
The first element was preventing the administration from adopting a narrower set of objectives in Afghanistan. Both during the initial administration review announced March 25th and the exhaustively drawn out second review, there was significant support by the political faction of the administration to reduce the standard to something that could be met without distracting from the president's domestic agenda. Gates made common cause with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and standing together they were too formidable for Vice President Joe Biden and others to assail. In his West Point speech announcing the conclusions of the second review, the president emphasized that "our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."
Having established the goal, Gates put his men in place. Though General McKiernan had drawn attention to the under-resourcing of effort in Afghanistan, he was judged by both Gates and Admiral Mullen to be insufficiently creative to succeed designing and commanding operations for this complex war. They replaced him with a counterinsurgency expert, General Stanley McChrystal, and put Gates's military assistant, General Rodriguez, in the mix, as well, to ensure close webbing of the Pentagon and the war effort.
Third, Gates tasked the commander with undertaking an independent assessment of what would be required to achieve the administration's objectives. The McChrystal review accepted the premise of the White House's policy and made an intellectually unassailable argument for what would be needed in a concept of operations and resourcing to achieve it, with options directly tied to varying levels of risk. Once the McChrystal standard had been set, it was untouchable by the politicos. There was no way to reject the resources the commander said he needed, given the president's criticism of the previous administration.
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NATO's 28 member states are in the final stages of negotiation on a new ballistic missile defense system -- the replacement for an earlier design that the Obama administration cancelled last year in deference to Russian complaints. But Turkey's about to spoil the party.
The new system is likely to be the attention-getter at this weekend's NATO summit, which will otherwise be consumed with attempts to wring commitments to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 and the approval of a new strategic concept (a topic which none but the most tenacious NATOphile has any interest in). Without missile defense, the news will be about President Barack Obama hiding behind NATO to walk away from his July 2011 Afghanistan withdrawal commitment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had already set two conditions that must be met for Turkey to host essential missile defense radar components: any system must cover all of Turkish territory (a demanding operational standard), and all references to Iran as the threat must be eliminated (what should be an easy hurdle for the alliance, given its history of "dual track" decisions of deploying nuclear forces while negotiating their removal). But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has upped the ante, stating that Turkey should have command of the system. Turkey commanding NATO's missile defenses is surely a deal breaker, not least because of questions about the political reliability of their government. There are alternatives to sitting the radar in Turkey, but there will be a messy dispute and another international disappointment for the Obama administration if a different site must now be chosen. It sounds as though what the Turks are actually asking for is a visible role in a defense system that will be based on their territory. Surely an alliance with NATO's celebrated history of chimera can find a way to accommodate Erdogan's sensitivities.
The new demand will no doubt aggravate an Obama administration -- which was looking forward to a celebratory NATO summit -- already short-tempered by the frustrations of dealing with Turkey. Administration officials have apparently mythologized a pre-democratic Turkey, when its military ran the country and was compliant to U.S. wishes. It is one more verse in the hymn about the unbearable difficulty of problems they inherited. This narrative not only neglects that Turkey has always been a difficult ally (ask anyone involved in the 1992 NATO exercise accident, or Iraq in 2003, it also neglects that the Obama administration volunteered for the job.
Math class is hard and it always has been. While the Turks are behaving badly, we are giving them no positive agenda to work with us on. The Obama administration needs to think anew about how to make this ambitious and difficult Turkish government successful in foreign policy. Give them constructive roles that capitalize on their desire to be seen as the Brazil of the Middle East, find terms on which we can support them, and showcase their successes. In other words, polish up on alliance relations.
This post has been updated.
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Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other's happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain's application for the European Economic Community -- not just once but twice. But yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a treaty that will bind their defense establishments tightly together for the coming fifty years.
The treaty commits the countries to cooperation in nuclear stockpile stewardship, development of a 10,000 troop expeditionary force, and sharing of aircraft carriers. The agreement will see Britain's second carrier capable of landing French (as well as American) fighters, and swapping crews. They will jointly purchase transport aircraft and develop UAVs and future attack submarines.
Cameron was at pains to emphasize the agreement's strengths in terms of Britain's ability to fight unilaterally, saying it will "increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity." Sarkozy reassured that France would not balk at participating in Britain's wars -- a crucial argument after the Falklands and Iraq wars.
France and Britain have fought mostly on the same side in their wars of the past century, they've been committed to the others defense through NATO since 1949, as well as have Europe's only nuclear arsenals and its most powerful conventional militaries. They also have political cultures in which the use of military force is still generally accepted as a central element of statecraft.
It has long made sense for Britain and France to cooperate more closely on defense issues. The Blair government took a major step forward with the St Malo agreements in the late 1990s; but France remaining outside the NATO integrated military command since 1967 created both practical difficulties and suspicion in the United States about European cooperation.
France has been warming to NATO for nearly a decade, acknowledging advances other militaries were making as the result of close cooperation with U.S. military transformation. France returned to NATO military staffs last year, removing major obstacles to the kind of relationship Britain has been seeking.
Both countries showed unexpected compromise. Britain has accepted in defense the "two speed Europe" it fought so stridently against in EU councils. France was ambitious for an EU defense in ways that have not materialized; the agreement with Britain can be seen as both countries conceding the EU is incapable of providing the basis for closer practical cooperation. The United States should understand it also as a vote of no confidence that NATO can provide that basis (although the Cameron government would surely deny that, given how much rhetoric about NATO the defense review contains).
The Cameron government managed this all very shrewdly, rolling out their national security strategy, then their defense review, then their budget, and only then signing the U.K.-France treaty. Different sequencing would have increased the outcry in Britain that the budget cuts were damaging to Britain's security. Setting the context as they did, the optics are good European politics (a novelty for a Tory government), good transatlantic politics, and innovative ways to keep costs down.
When Great Britain and France were melding their militaries together to fight The Great War (as World War I was called before there was World War II), the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Foch, worriedly asked his British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, how many casualties it would take before Britain were fully committed to winning the war. Haig imperiously answered "it would take but the death of a single British soldier," to which Foch irritatedly replied, "then assign him to my staff and I'll shoot him myself the first day of the war." With the new Cameron-Sarkozy agreements, the French may finally have their casualty.
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Yesterday's election was notable for many reasons -- rejection of President Barack Obama's agenda, the largest opposition pick up in 80 years, the perks of incumbency outweighed by anti-establishment sentiment among voters. Also notable is that although the country is fighting two wars and foiled a terrorist plot just days before the election, national security had almost no place in the contest. To the extent national security was even mentioned, it was in terms of our strategic vulnerability due to massive debt.
But now that the dust is settling on the dimensions of Republican victory, what is it likely to mean for the wars we are fighting? The president has picked up support for winning the wars, although the president himself is hesitant to use the word. Republicans elected yesterday will be concerned about the cost of the wars, but they are basically Jacksonians. They will provide the votes for the president to persevere, and to reverse his damaging timeline for drawing down forces in Afghanistan.
Walter Russell Mead perfectly captured the principled, strong armed, anti-establishment populism of this line of thinking in U.S. foreign policy. His article on the Jacksonian Tradition in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of The National Interest should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand where the 112th Congress is likely headed. The president himself might also want to read former President George W. Bush's soon-to-be-released memoir, in which he considers a premature drawdown of troops in Iraq to have been one of his biggest mistakes.
Where the election will complicate President Obama's war policies is that moderate Democrats were turned out of the House in large numbers; the president has a Democratic caucus in the House significantly more liberal than the Democratic Party. This could limit the president's ability to let slide his end game for Afghanistan, especially if he is forced to trim his sails on other liberal shibboleths.
But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.
Working across the aisle on the wars may help build confidence between the White House and Republicans, providing a basis for compromise on other pressing issues, like debt reduction and entitlement reform. Americans like divided government. We are a people made great by distrust of our own government, a fact the Washington establishment often forgets.
Perhaps the lesson Democrats ought most to take from yesterday's drubbing (and Republicans from the unsuccessful bids by some of our most divisive candidates) is Thomas Jefferson's caution that great innovations should not be forced by slim majorities. A desire for consensus is fundamental to our political culture, probably the result of our great diversity. As a European once pointed out to me, "you Americans prize individuality, but you all dress alike."
Congressional Republicans are off to a good start with House Speaker John Boehner's poignant decline to grandstand, instead taking the message that voters want Washington to get to work. And much work needs to be done to bring President Obama's national security policies into better alignment with our interests.
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As part of the developed world's most dramatic effort to put its public finances on solid footing, the Conservative Liberal Democratic government in Britain announced significant reductions to its defense program yesterday. Their review is a fearless example to others, including the United States.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government put health care and (somewhat oddly) development assistance off limits, subjecting most departments to a reduction of 25 percent from their current budgets. Defense was reduced only around eight percent across four years. An equivalent reduction in U.S. defense spending would clip $56 billion dollars (the entirety of the British defense budget) in the same time frame. By contrast, Sec. Robert Gates is seeking to keep U.S. defense spending increasing by one percent per year.
And what did they cut? Most importantly, they did not reduce their commitment to the wars we are fighting, although they plan to significantly reduce their forces as their commitments wind down. They are reducing their civilian defense workforce by 25,000 and their uniformed military by 17,000. The army will take the smallest reduction, appropriately, given their tempo of operations through 2015 (the period of cuts).
The reductions will make Britain less able to fight continuously, as we and they have been doing since 2001. But they have preserved the ability to project 30,000 troops to a fight, a feat no other country except us could likely achieve. They even added funding for additional helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles important to operations in Afghanistan.
The British cut by 40 percent their tanks and artillery, betting they will be less valuable in future wars than capabilities currently employed in the war in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that's true, but it's not an unreasonable view -- in fact, it is also Secretary Gates's rubric for U.S. forces.
The cuts do mean Britain will be even less able to fight wars unless they are fighting alongside the United States, but they gave that option up in the 1998 Defense Review. The further diminution is of degree, not type. It will be most prevalent in Britain's air and maritime operations. Four frigates will be decommissioned. Both the navy and air force will be reduced by 5,000 people each.
Harrier jets, MRA4 reconnaissance aircraft, and R1 battlefield surveillance aircraft will be eliminated; C-130J airlifters will be retired a decade early. As currently envisioned, it will create a gap in carrier air through 2019. This could be attenuated by a faster shift to unmanned airframes (that is not in the spending plan) or greater cooperation with France and other power-projection countries (although it is heresy to say so on Trafalgar Day, the French could, for example, deploy fighters on British carriers and vice versa).
They have kept crucial niches of excellence valuable to remaining a first-tier military, including:
But Britain's value as a strategic ally of the United States is not just the quantity or quality of their military forces. Their value is crucially dependant on their willingness to fight. And here, Britain really is different and better than most other potential allies of the United States. Britain losing the will to fight is a subject very much worrying U.S. defense experts; these defense reductions to not call into doubt that fundamental sensibility.
Britain's reductions are substantial, and one wishes they had not been necessary. But the Cameron government deserves an awful lot of credit for facing Britain's debt crisis and making hard choices that accept risk in the near term to put their country on stronger strategic footing. The British set sensible priorities and programmed to them, making cuts that do not damage their ability to protect and advance their interests. Lots of other countries are set to make reductions in defense spending, including the United States; probably none -- including us -- will do as proficient a job as Defense Minister Liam Fox and the British defense establishment have done.
The politics of debt reduction will drive the severity of budget cuts; we Republicans should be actively building intellectual capital to make smart choices at different budget top lines. We would be much better positioned had Secretary Gates's instruction for the Quadrennial Defense Review been to design sensible defense programs at several different baseline budget levels (say, varying by $50 billion dollars a year). That would have permitted a debate -- and given the elected leadership a real choice -- over where to accept risk, which is the essential question.
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The New America Foundation convened a conference this week to showcase the work of Robert Pape, in the hopes that his policy prescriptions will be picked up as an alternative to our current strategy in Afghanistan. This would be a terrible idea.
Pape's research shows that the majority of suicide bomb attacks occur in places
occupied by U.S. military forces; from this he concludes that we should adopt a
strategy of "offshore balancing." By which he means to remove U.S.
forces and rely on military strikes into the countries, along with more
effective political and economic engagement. Neither the research nor the
prescriptions are sound bases for policy.
To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.
The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.
The policy prescriptions Pape advances are also problematic. An offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground, and yet what we have learned in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that we achieve our objectives most fully when indigenous forces are partnered with us and made able to take over the work of U.S. forces in the fight. They have greater legitimacy, local knowledge, and make the outcome most durable. That was the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, and it is the purported approach of the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Pape's policies have no way to achieve that improvement in the capacity of partner forces.
An offshore balancing approach is also inherently retaliatory and has been shown to increase the resistance of affected populations to supporting our objectives. We threaten to use force from the safe confines of distance; that use of force may have pinpoint accuracy but will often be less precise and cause more civilian casualties than forces on the ground, which will again feed into public attitudes about whether to support U.S. goals. Instead of working with the people most affected and helping build their capacity to protect themselves, offshore balancing does little to change the problem in positive ways.
Except for the "improved" political and economic activity. How that will be undertaken in a deteriorating security environment is mysterious. Moreover, if we could do any better at the provision of political and economic engagement, we'd already be doing that.
Convincing allies the U.S. will commit itself to fight unless we have troops stationed where we expect the fight to occur has always been difficult. The history of the Cold War is replete with transatlantic discussion of extended deterrence: would the United States really send the boys back over if Germany were attacked? Would the United States really use nuclear weapons when our own homeland would be at risk of retaliation? It seems unlikely those concerns would be attenuated in societies we are less politically and culturally similar to than we are to Europeans.
In short, Robert Pape's "offshore balancing" approach would reduce violence by giving our enemies what they want: our disengagement, the ability to terrorize with impunity the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places where the battle of ideas about Muslim modernity is engaged.
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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.