Once again, international events are intruding upon the administration's determination to focus on domestic policy. To no one's surprise, except perhaps, that of the White House, Iran once again has signaled that it is not interested in serious negotiations unless all sanctions, presumably to include those imposed for its support of terrorism and violations of basic human rights, are lifted forthwith. In the meantime, North Korea's secular monarch, Kim Jong Un, has sparked a new crisis on the peninsula by ratcheting up his nation's bellicosity to fever pitch. And lastly, the Syrian government appears to have at last resorted to the employment of chemical weapons against the forces of the opposition, thus crossing the "red line" that President Obama drew some time ago.
The administration's response to Iran's predictable behavior has also been predictable: regret and not much more. Its response to North Korea has been more forceful: carrier, missile defense ships and stealth bomber deployments, as well as a boosting of the missile defense budget and joint exercises with the Republic of Korea forces. But it remains unclear, to the American public, the international community, and North Korea itself, how Washington might respond if Pyongyang begins to match its words with deeds.
As for Syria, the Pentagon has deployed about 200 troops from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, a putative "vanguard" for a larger force that would enter Syria to secure that country's chemical weapons. But if, as Britain and France assert, Bashar al-Assad is already employing these weapons, it is not at all clear how an attempt to "secure" them might actually succeed. Would it be enough to send the 1st Armored Division, with its more than 300 tanks, into Syria? Would they not themselves face the likelihood of a chemical attack by Assad's forces? How would the Syrian population react to the appearance of American tanks inside their borders? Will they be welcomed as "liberators," as they were, all too briefly, in Iraq? And then what?
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that American land forces would enter Syria without the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force launching strikes to destroy Syrian air defenses and ground facilities, and to weaken its land forces. In other words, America would go to war in Syria.
Perhaps Britain and France would join the American operation, though it is unlikely they would lead it as they did in Libya. They simply do not have the resources, and perhaps the willpower to do so. So at the end of the day, the United States would have launched its third major war against a Muslim state since the beginning of the century. And, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, the lesser Libya operation, for which Washington provided more support than was originally acknowledged, the consequences of such an attack cannot be foretold, and could well be negative.
In any event, it is not at all clear that Washington will in fact invade Syria. The last thing this administration wants is to invade another Arab state. Moreover, any additional forces deployed to Jordan could well be needed not only to assist with humanitarian activities, but also to ensure the stability of that American ally. About a half million refugees have already poured across the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some, perhaps many, of them could well be affiliated with Islamist extremists who are sworn enemies of the moderate, pro-Western King Abdullah. In the meantime, however, Assad would continue to employ chemical weapons as and when he deems it is useful to do so.
How then should Washington respond to the latest developments in Syria? Some suggest imposing an aerial no-fly zone near the Turkish border, and perhaps another near the Jordanian border. Others suggest a no-fly zone under the umbrella of Turkish-based Patriot missiles (assuming the Turks agree, of course). Yet no-fly zones will have little impact on the struggle that is taking place inside Syria apart from that between the regime and the opposition. In the conflict, between, on the one hand, Islamic extremists supported by the Qataris and to a lesser extent the Saudis, and, on the other, the moderate opposition, it is the extremists that are gaining the upper hand. Should the regime fall, and the extremists come to power, they will pose a new, and more immediate threat to both Israel and Jordan. Indeed, such a regime might well choose to align itself with Iran as well; after all, Hamas has received Iranian support ever since it came to power in Gaza. Washington's first priority, therefore, should be to ensure that the extremists do not control a post-Assad government. To do so, it must arm the moderate opposition. And it must do so now; time is not on the side of the moderates; indeed, as the revolutions and civil wars of the past, from the French to the Russian revolutions have demonstrated over and over again, time is rarely, if ever, on the side of the moderates.
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President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.
Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.
Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land."
Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope."
Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.
Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.
At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.
Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories.
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Chuck Hagel may have survived his confirmation ordeal in the Senate, but his troubles may be just beginning. Sequestration is upon us, and his department will have to find a way to minimize the impact on military operations and systems acquisition of that rightly much-maligned budget cutting vehicle.
Hagel is fortunate to have Bob Hale as comptroller. Hale is a veteran budget expert who never loses his cool. But even Hale's expertise will not be enough to prevent the kind of wholesale damage to DOD's force posture, both today and in the future, that Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, outlined in detail many months ago.
Hagel must also reassure allies that the United States, and its military, are not in complete disarray. That will be hard to do as long as the sequester is in force. Nor does it help that the United States already has but one aircraft carrier deployed overseas. Not only does that signal America's inability to maintain 24-hour sea-based aircraft operations from the onset of a crisis, it also feeds the worst fears of allies and friends that the United States is slowly, but inexorably, turning inward.
If friends will be worried, as they already are, enemies will exult. The conclusion that Iranians, North Koreans, Venezuelans, and an array of Islamic terrorist groups, not least of which is Hezbollah, will reach is that Washington does not have the clout it once did and that the door to further mischief is wide open. Rivals such as China and Russia will likewise conclude that they can pursue their interests far more aggressively, without any credible American pushback. And fence-sitters like India will be even more reluctant to welcome an American embrace.
What can Hagel do to stop the rot? In the short term, he could voice his support for a Republican proposal to exempt DOD from sustaining its cuts across-the-board and empower Hale and his team of budget managers to allocate those cuts in a way least harmful to operations and acquisition. For the longer term, Hagel should articulate a clear message about not only the impact of further cuts to defense, but also his determination to ensure that long-standing barriers to efficient defense spending, such as the depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, or the Jones Act, which for decades has undermined the efficiency of the shipbuilding industry and has resulted in driving up the costs of naval construction, should finally be shoved aside.
Hagel could also call for raising the ceilings on reprogramming requests, which limit the comptroller's ability to manage DOD's cash efficiently; for funding an internal DOD audit capability to ensure that funds are not held in "reserve" by bureaucrats who then spend that money wastefully at the close of the fiscal year; and for real caps on spiraling defense health care costs.
If ever there was an opportunity to remove the barnacles that have hung onto the DOD budget for so long, it is now. An efficiently managed DOD budget would at least to some degree soften the impact on force readiness and modernization of further massive cuts that the Obama administration, driven more by ideology than economics, erroneously concludes are central to the budget deficit. It might also help mitigate the damage that has already been done to America's credibility as a reliable ally for the long term and as a force that its enemies must reckon with in the short-term as well.
Hagel has forcefully asserted that the department spends its money inefficiently. He is now secretary of defense. He can do something about it and should do so now. He has no time to spare.
As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.
It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.
Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.
Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?
Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?
The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.
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France and now Britain have recognized the Syrian opposition and are on the verge of sending "defensive" arms to the newly unified opposition. No doubt these are welcome developments from the perspective of those who wish to see Bashar al-Assad's regime finally get tossed into the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that Assad will depart anytime soon, if at all.
Moreover, it is unclear whether the Europeans are prepared even to supply anti-air and other heavier systems to the opposition unless Washington does so as well. As yet, however, there is no indication that the Obama administration is prepared to do so.
The administration's caution is understandable -- up to a point. Syrian air defenses are far more capable and sophisticated than those NATO faced in Libya. The prospect for collateral damage -- that is, civilian casualties -- is greater as well. And the last thing Washington needs is another conflict against a Muslim state. Yet without successful suppression of Syria's air defenses, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the no-fly zone that many supporters of the opposition are urgently requesting. A no-fly zone therefore does not seem likely, nor should it be.
On a separate but related track, it is noteworthy that, despite several attacks from across its border with Syria, Turkey has not tried to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which would commit member states to seek authority to go to war on behalf of a member under attack. The Turks are not sure what they want; in that regard they are no different from an Obama administration that has studiously avoided making any major commitments to the Syrian opposition.
Given the very active support he is receiving from Iran, the assistance that Hezbollah is providing, the reluctance of the great Western powers to establish a no-fly zone, the distraction that is the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, Assad may well outlast his opponents for another year, if not longer. If he is to be forced out sooner, there will have to be a major effort to arm the opposition with offensive weapons, notably anti-air systems. It appears that Britain and France might do so, but they would have to work in tandem with the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the administration worries that the transfer of these systems could result in their ultimately being used against Israel in particular. Yet the flow of these arms could be carefully monitored to prevent a repeat of the history of Stingers that originally were sent to the Afghan mujaheddin but then fell into the hands of terrorists.
The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more likely the entire Middle East will plunge into a prolonged period of instability. Now that the presidential contest is over, the administration needs to send arms to the rebels on an accelerated basis. There is simply no excuse for inaction. On the contrary, every effort must be made to get arms onto the hands of the opposition as soon as possible. If Assad survives, the real winner will be Iran, his biggest backer. That is hardly a prospect that the second Obama administration should be willing to contemplate for the near, medium or long term.
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One of the favorite canards that Obama activists and surrogates hurl at Mitt Romney is that he is surrounded by a group of wild-eyed George W. Bush neo-cons who cannot wait to bomb Iran and bring America into yet another Middle Eastern conflict, even before the war in Afghanistan has come to an end. A recent diatribe by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the November 8 edition of the staunchly left-wing New York Review of Books highlights the tone of these attacks. "Romney's bellicosity about Iran is not encouraging," he asserts. "Nor is the fact that he has turned for foreign policy advice to the architects and advocates of the Iraq War."
Appiah and his colleagues have it all wrong. None of the staunchest "architects and advocates" of the Iraq war, I repeat, none, is advising Governor Romney. Not Donald Rumsfeld. Not Dick Cheney. Not Paul Wolfowitz. Not Doug Feith. And none of their camp followers. None.
Admittedly, Romney has a few neo-cons advising him. But there are less than a handful of those -- Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, possibly Eliot Cohen, though he denies that he is a neo-con. Then there is John Bolton, whom Appiah singles out in his article. But apart from Bolton, none of these men was serving in the Bush administration when the decision was made to attack Iraq. Moreover, they are far outnumbered by so-called "realists" and other non-neo-cons who are advising the governor -- Ambassador Rich Williamson, Senator Jim Talent, Secretary John Lehman, former World Bank Chief Bob Zoellick, former Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriasnky, former Assistant Secretaries of State Kim Holmes and Chris Burnham, former Director of Policy Planning and State Mitchell Reiss, former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. Nor is it fair to term Eric Edelman a "neo-con" because he worked for Dick Cheney. Edelman is a career diplomat, a highly successful ambassador, and like the best of that group, he was a nonpareil advisor to whatever administration he served. And that is how it should be.
In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong in Governor Romney's having some neo-cons on his advisory team. Having everyone of the same mindset leads to mistakes of the first order. On the other hand, by allowing for the airing of different, indeed contradictory points of view, Romney is simply demonstrating that he is indeed a judicious leader, who is prepared to make choices rather than have them made for him. In his pathbreaking book, "Presidential Power," Richard Neustadt pointed out that FDR -- that liberal hero -- thrived on differences within his administration before making up his own mind. No one doubts that FDR was a great president; if Romney's decision-making process emulates FDR's, that is not a bad thing at all, the New York Review of Books notwithstanding.
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The events in Benghazi created a major opportunity for President Obama to speak out about an important problem that afflicts a significant segment of the Muslim world: an inability to recognize that it is not just its religion that deserves to be respected. Muslims were rightly outraged by the disgusting film that denigrated their religion. Those who produced it -- evidently someone using a pseudonym -- and those who support it -- are beyond the pale of decency, much less religious behavior.
But the same respect is due to other religions as well. The Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- applies to the treatment of a religion other than one's own.
Sadly, this has far too infrequently been the case in the Muslim world. When mobs attack Christians, as they have done in Libya, and extremists kill Westerners in the name of their religion, too many Muslim religious and secular leaders stay silent. When individual imams teach that Jews are no better than monkeys, too many of their colleagues have nothing to say. When Hindu and Buddhist shrines are desecrated by Muslim extremists, in too many corners of the Muslim world the silence is deafening.
Muslims certainly do not have a monopoly on extremism, nor on the violence and damage that such extremism all too often generates. But unlike the case with respect to their counterpart religions, too many of their leaders, both religious and secular -- and many of their secular leaders, notably those from the Muslim Brotherhood, have close ties to religious leaders -- do not cry out in protest against such behavior.
The president had an opportunity, and still has the opportunity, to call upon Muslim leaders to teach those who heed their words that they accord to others the same respect for the heritage and practices of other religions that they rightly expect for their own. He has yet to do so. Nor, so far as I have been able to determine, has any senior member of his administration. It is not enough to speak of "respect for other religions." That is far too bland a formula for what is a problem that plagues Muslim leaders to a greater extent than those of other religions.
Teachable moments do not often present themselves, and the president and administration's failure to make the most of the moment at hand is unfortunate at best, tragic at worst.
The world's largest democracy is now suffering from the world's largest blackout. No one who knows India should be surprised. The country has long been choked by a bureaucracy that is still living in Jawarharlal Nehru's socialist neverland of the 1950s. Overstaffed and under-motivated, India's giant bureaucracy has rightly earned a reputation for being a mass producer of red-tape and little else. And it is complemented by a complex political system comprised of national and regional parties that has made it as difficult to pass legislation quickly through the parliament as to have it executed once passed.
As a result, India, despite its decade-and-a-half of impressive growth, remains stymied when addressing essentials for long term prosperity. These include, but are certainly not limited to: updating the electricity grid that has in the past few days left twenty states and 700 million people without power; upgrading a road network that is choked with too few driving lanes and too many vehicles ranging from camel carts to overstuffed buses; and fighting an illiteracy rate that still hovers around the 25 per cent mark.
And then there is the corruption. India seems to be plagued by corruption on a scale to match its size. In 2010 India ranked 87th on the world corruption index. Yet instead of cleaning up corruption, the government seems to have made it worse: India dropped to 95th on the 2011 index.
Billions have been lost in a multiplicity of scams that have kept India's office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) working non-stop. Prominent among these have been the so-called IGI Airport scandal in 2012 that, according to a CAG report in May, lost the government some $29 billion by leasing land to a private company at a bargain rate; various other recent land scams that total in the tens of billions; and the 2010 "2G spectrum" scam involving radio frequency allocation that cost the government anywhere from $5 to $32 billion and resulted in the arrest of A. Raja, then-Indian Minister of Telecommunications.
It should therefore come as no surprise that foreign investment in India has slowed to a crawl. Yet it could not come at a worse time for India. The country has been hit hard by the impact of the Euro crisis on its exports and has watched the rupee sink to its lowest level ever against the dollar.
Moreover, it is sad indeed that many businessmen and investors prefer to deal with authoritarian China than with democratic India. At least in China, they say, things get done, however brutal the government might have to be to get them done.
It was not all that long ago that econometricians were predicting that India's gross domestic product could overtake that of China by the mid-to-late 2040s. Those predictions presumed a level of steady growth built on the efforts and successes of India's rising and expanding middle class. But that growth will be impossible to sustain if India's executive and legislative branches do not change the bad habits that are the legacy of the immediate post-colonial era. Unless change takes place, India will remain a nation with two systems -- a booming private sector and a hidebound public sector, with serious consequences for the country's long term prospects.
There is little that outsiders can do to help India reform itself. Foreign meddling is especially unwelcome in New Delhi. Nevertheless, friends of India should not shy away from prodding their interlocutors, whether in the private or public sectors, to clean up the mess that stands in the way of a true long term Indian economic boom. For at the end of the day, a buoyant Indian economy not only would be good for India, but for her friends and partners throughout the world, not least of which is the United States.
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.