All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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If readers of ForeignPolicy.com have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that's because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy's ranks I've enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.
Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr's Influence on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama's own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.
The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr's own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor.
The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr's thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.
But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr's body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama's foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.
First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama's foreign policy:
1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama's foreign policy -- an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration's confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr's thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America's most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation ... is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."
2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."
Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama's foreign policy:
3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life's intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America's mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr's sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.
This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration's drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration's ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.
4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama's thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr's mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.
Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama's pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration's tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama's most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.
Saturday's New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama's most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration's presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak's exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes' policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House's negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration's posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House's denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon's deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss's policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation's paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House's failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes' public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.
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In the prevailing debates about American foreign policy, it seems that some of the emerging fault lines fall across each political party more than between them. Tom Wright argued this point persuasively here the other week when he identified the competing camps of "restrainers" and "shapers" among the Democrats contending for control of the Obama Administration's foreign policy. A similar dynamic is in play among Republicans as emerging Senate leaders such as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio seek to point the party either in the foreign policy tradition of Robert Taft's restrained unilateralism or of Ronald Reagan's assertive internationalism.
Against this backdrop, I wanted to follow up on Dan Twining's thoughtful post on the release today of the "Setting Priorities for American Leadership" report by the Project for a United and Strong America. [In full disclosure, along with Dan and several other Shadow Government contributors, I also served on the task force that helped produce the document]. Notably, the report was crafted by a bipartisan collection of foreign policy experts with experience in the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations and offers a blueprint for a national security strategy for the United States. During this season of acute partisan division, I think the fact that such a bipartisan group could come together in agreement is notable in its own right, and I hope it is at least a modest indicator of the possibilities of bipartisan consensus on American national security priorities and policies.
Of course many articulate critics of American foreign policy from both the left and the right lament this very notion of "bipartisan consensus." In their minds, American national security policy has been captured and institutionalized by a Beltway monopoly in both parties that overpays for the defense budget, overcommits American resources abroad, overstretches our military, and overpromises what American foreign policy can actually deliver - regardless of which party controls the White House. In a time of almost unprecedented fiscal constraints and national exhaustion from multiple prolonged wars, such a critique is understandable and must be considered. But it also has its own internal contradictions and inadequacies and in my mind is ultimately insufficient as a guide to what America's role in the world should be. I hope the Obama administration will resist the seductions of adopting a more passive international role, though recent signs are not encouraging. Hence I'm happy to endorse the effort by the Project for a United and Strong America to reassert the need for American global leadership even amidst austerity -- not because it is easy or without its downsides, but because it is a better course than all of the other alternatives. I hope Shadow Government readers will also find the report an edifying read.
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I have been ruminating on the closing lines in Peter Feaver's post below, suggesting that "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda." I worry that Peter is correct.
The similarities are striking. A president dogmatically focused on his domestic agenda who willfully disregards systemic and appalling bloodshed in a faraway land. A president haunted by the disappointments of recent U.S. interventions (in Clinton's case, Somalia; in Obama's case, Iraq and Afghanistan) who misapplies the "lessons" of this history into paralysis and inaction. A situation where the costs of action initially appear daunting -- until they are weighed against the costs of inaction, which turn out to be even more damaging.
In several ways, however, Obama's passivity on Syria is even worse than Clinton's passivity on Rwanda. First, the Assad regime in Syria also embodies a number of strategic equities that Rwanda did not, including possessing a large stock of chemical weapons, being the main regional ally for Iran, being a state sponsor of terrorism, and now being a breeding ground for jihadists, many of whom harbor hostile intentions toward the United States. Bringing this regime to an end is a fundamental American interest and should be seen as such even by those not moved to moral outrage at the over 70,000 Syrians (and perhaps many more) murdered by their own government. Second, the Rwandan genocide took place over three months -- time enough for the U.S. to have acted, to be sure, but still a relatively narrow window. But the bloodshed in Syria has been occurring for almost two years now. Third, many foreign policy experts in the Democratic party (including many currently serving in the Obama Administration) realize that the president's policy is a failure -- and those not in government are saying so publicly. Or in the case of courageous voices like Anne Marie Slaughter have been saying so for a long time now.
Yet at this point all we get are carefully crafted leaks from the administration on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with skeptical Syrian rebel leaders that consideration is being given to supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, such as body armor. This would have been helpful two years ago when the first peaceful protests began. But it is pathetically insufficient in the face of Assad's Scud missile attacks on civilian populations.
As I and many others have pointed out before, one perverse irony of the Obama administration's neglect of Syria is that now, two years into the war, the costs of action are much higher and the options much fewer. Many of the downside risks that purportedly deterred greater American support for the rebels 18 months ago -- such as sectarian strife, radicalization, regional instability, and resentment towards the United States -- have now come to pass anyway, in part because of American inaction. Yet this does not mean that even at this point nothing can or should be done.
In the crucible of policymaking, officials should ask themselves more often how they will look back on the decisions they made while in power. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in Rwanda. As Obama and the senior members of his national security team consider the memoirs they will inevitably write and the speeches they will invariably give after leaving office, they might reflect now on what they will later say about their greatest regrets. At or near the top of that list will likely be "Syria." So why not do something about it now, before Syria becomes permanently mentioned in historical ignominy alongside Rwanda?
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Many policy disputes are at their core disputes about history. This is certainly the case with Senator Rand Paul's much-noticed foreign policy speech last week. The speech represents Paul's entry into the ongoing "whither GOP foreign policy" debate, which he will likely continue in his Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, alongside Senator Marco Rubio's official Republican response.
At the outset of his remarks Senator Paul oddly claims the mantle of being a "realist." This seems to have triggered some affection from other professing realists, which is curious since one looks in vain through Paul's speech for much realist content. "Realism" is of course given to multiple meanings -- among others, there exists realist theory as an analysis of the international system based on states as actors competing for power. Then there is policy realism as a pragmatic tactic for unconditional discussions with regimes such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea, along with the belief that achieving an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement is the strategy key to stabilizing the Middle East. And there is also the odd "realism" of Chuck Hagel which seems to be an ideological aversion to any type of diplomatic or economic sanctions.
Yet none of these realisms is evident in Paul's speech. The realism that concerns itself with great power relations? Great powers like China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom are not even mentioned. The realism that supports tactical outreach to rogue regimes? Paul offers no specific initiatives beyond hinting that he does not support attacking Iran.
To be sure, the speech has some strong and welcome points, especially its calls for broad debate on foreign policy, for Congressional responsibility, and for restoring America's fiscal health. But when it comes to foreign policy specifics, the speech reads like an odd combination of a crude "clash of civilizations" analysis and "Come Home, America" policy prescriptions.
Paul makes much of following the historical model of George Kennan and the doctrine of containment in the Cold War, now to be applied to "radical Islam." But while this might sound nice in a speech, it is not persuasive on substance. Kennan developed containment as a response to Soviet communism, which was an ideological system embedded in a nation-state with defined geographic borders, established political leadership, and a self-contained economic system. In short, there were clear boundaries to containment and a clear goal of preventing the geographic expansion of Soviet communism while increasing pressure on its internal contradictions until the eventual collapse of the Soviet state. Whereas "radical Islam" in Paul's speech has none of those characteristics -- it extends beyond any single nation-state, is borderless and global, does not have a discrete political leadership, and does not have an identifiable economic system. As a strategic matter, what does it mean to "contain" something like that? Paul's speech does not give a good answer - perhaps because there is no good answer. (Fred Kagan points out several other problems with Paul's use of Kennan here.)
Here Paul's prescription for what to do in response to radical Islam veers between platitudes and incoherence. He implies that American interventions abroad create more jihadists. But he glosses over the fact that in Syria, where the United States has maintained a posture of passivity and restraint, thousands of new jihadists are being radicalized. He characterizes radical Islam as a global ideological threat. Yet he offers no analysis of what its means and ends are, and no coherent strategy to respond to that threat. And he glosses over the contradiction of claiming that radical Islam has been around for several hundred years but that it can be defeated through containment.
Senator Paul credits his reading of John Gaddis's magisterial biography of George Kennan with inspiring the ideas in his speech. Gaddis (who in full disclosure was my dissertation advisor) has also written the classic history of containment as a strategic doctrine, and in the conclusion he addresses whether containment can be applied to different conflicts today: "Containment cannot be expected to succeed, therefore, in circumstances that differ significantly from those that gave rise to it, sustained it, and within which it eventually prevailed."
Politically, Paul seeks to wrap himself in the mantle of President Reagan, but the Reagan he invokes is a figure more of his own imagining rather than the Reagan of history. (The other half of the Brothers Kagan, Bob, provides ample evidence on this point here). I would add that much of Reagan's foreign policy career was defined against the realists of the day, whether Reagan's early opposition to détente, his escalated ideological campaign against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s that disrupted the international equilibrium, or his dual push for SDI and nuclear abolition which also disrupted the stable balance of power. Not to mention that unlike Senator Paul, Reagan was all too willing to push forcefully for human rights and democracy in unfree countries, especially communist ones, as part of his comprehensive strategy to bring down the Soviet Union.
Paul's facile reading of history curiously ignores the obvious forbear he should have appealed to -- Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. The onetime Senate majority leader and three-time candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Taft articulately represented the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party at mid-century. He vocally opposed American aid to Britain and involvement in either the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, right up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Then, in the early Cold War years, although a fierce anticommunist, Taft feared that in its Cold War mobilization the United States risked becoming a garrison state. He vehemently opposed the creation of NATO, was ambivalent about American intervention in the Korean War, and only grudgingly voted for the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.
Taft lost the GOP nomination battle to Eisenhower in 1952, and with it Taft's foreign policy camp waned as the Republican Party predominantly embraced hawkish internationalism. Personally, I hold Taft's character, intellect, and patriotism in great esteem. In hindsight, his warnings about the unsustainability of the domestic welfare state and its corrosive effects on free enterprise are principled and prescient. But in the light of that same hindsight, his foreign policy prescriptions, particularly in response to the threats of fascism and communism, appear more wrong than right. This is a history that Paul might want to consider before trying to take the Republican Party and the United States down a similar foreign policy path.
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Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.
Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient. While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.
Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."
Sounds like good advice, right? Sure -- but only up to a limited point.
Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.
More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.
Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.
To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.
Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."
Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.
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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.