I've just returned from a week of fishing at a remote lake in Canada, blissfully disconnected from just about every other concern in life except for what the fish were biting on. (For any fellow anglers among our readers, the answers are: not much action from the elusive muskie, but lots of action on Cisco Kids for northern pike including a 20-pounder I landed, Yamamoto Senko worms did well for smallmouth bass, and the reliable jig and minnow produced a limit every day of walleye). Our meals were the opposite of the Singaporean haute cuisine that Peter Feaver indulged in during his own recent trip, but for my money it's hard to beat the traditional "shore lunch" we enjoyed of fresh-caught fried walleye, fried potatoes, and fried onions, all cooked over an open fire on a deserted island.
After that northern idyll, my return this week to the United States was jarred by a litany of grim headlines: plummeting stock markets, an unprecedented credit-rating downgrade, yet another round of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe that further imperil the Eurozone, and violent rioting throughout the United Kingdom. Herewith a few thoughts.
The credit rating downgrade puts a painfully vivid exclamation point on my observation a couple of weeks ago about the Obama administration presiding over an America in decline. Like "leading from behind," there's just no way to put a positive spin on the word "downgrade." Yet the downgrade is but the latest symptom -- along with unemployment, growing debt and deficits, and declining markets -- of a more fundamental problem: President Obama has consistently failed to articulate a persuasive account of what drives economic growth. Even more than different priorities over issues like tax rates and loopholes, spending cuts, and entitlement reform, this failure is emblematic of the economy's persistent weakness throughout his presidency. As Jeb Bush and Kevin Warsh lay out in this compelling WSJ op-ed, the Obama administration appears completely devoid of any strategy for economic growth. More pointedly, President Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation for the essential role of business in capital formation and wealth creation. He seems to see the business community as an unfamiliar entity whose primary purpose is to generate revenues for the government, rather than an engine of job creation and improving living standards for American citizens. This is why so many commercial leaders -- from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business owners -- fundamentally mistrust this administration. After all, why trust a White House that fails to appreciate your indispensable role in economic growth, and repeatedly threatens you with higher taxes and increased regulations?
Yet at least Americans are not violently rioting in the streets and looting small and large businesses alike, which has sadly been the case in the United Kingdom. Back during his campaign, David Cameron often lamented what he described as Britain's "broken society" of fractured families, endemic welfare dependency, growing violent crime, and a burgeoning cultural coarseness and dissolution of order and moral standards. It was a grim diagnosis that generated agreement among the likes of Daily Mail readers but snide dismissal as Eton moralizing from other quarters. I observed much of this decline firsthand during my recent years of living in London, where traditional British order and decorum persisted in some pockets but was too often eclipsed by endemic social breakdown and national decline. The riots now display this to the world. On one level they are simply opportunistic hooliganism amplified by social media. But on a deeper level they are a toxic display of the nihilism and pathologies of the Broken Society. Scotland Yard, already reeling from its unseemly role in the recent phone-hacking scandal, has performed ambivalently in this much bigger test that cuts to the core of its legitimacy as the protector of order and safety. Meanwhile the Cameron government, which has always been perched awkwardly between its emphasis of a "new brand" of compassionate Toryism and its traditional role as the law and order party, now faces its own crisis of governance and identity. As the perpetually insightful Tim Montgomerie observes, after some shaky first steps the prime minister seems to have reasserted authority yet now faces a series of new battles that will do much to define his premiership.
What role will national security issues play in the 2012 presidential campaign? Probably a small one, at most. All current signs point to both the primary and general elections turning on the economy -- especially jobs, the deficit and debt, and ObamaCare. Yet even if foreign policy is stuck at the back of the campaign bus, it won't be entirely absent. One of the leadership intangibles that voters will be assessing includes who they trust as president to have his or her "finger on the button," i.e., to fulfill the roles of commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. Moreover, a foreign policy crisis -- such as an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, a terrorist attack, or any other unforeseen headline event -- could thrust national security back into the forefront of campaign debate.
As the GOP primary field takes shape, the candidates are spending most of their time figuring out how to distinguish themselves from each other. But it is not too early to begin thinking about how they should be distinguishing themselves from President Obama. Herewith a few foreign policy themes that GOP presidential candidates should consider highlighting as challenges to the Obama administration:
Diminished American power. America's economic woes are also a foreign policy concern. Historically, our nation's global strength has come from our economic prosperity, our values, and our military. The Obama administration's economic record of high unemployment, low growth, and crippling debt hurts most at home but also weakens our standing abroad. Yet in foreign policy terms, the White House seems to be acquiescent in this diminishing of American power. In the now infamous New Yorker article on the Obama administration's foreign policy, author Ryan Lizza portrays the White House holding the strategic assumption that American decline is a current reality and an inevitable future. The administration's embrace of this risks making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. During his final weeks as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates raised his own pointed concerns about American decline:
I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
The Obama administration has presided over declining American power in specific ways such as Pentagon budget cuts, a burgeoning national debt, and new lows in American soft power in key regions such as the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, as Ryan Streeter laments over at the indispensable ConservativeHomeUSA, under Obama the United States seems to be losing its character as an aspirational nation and global model.
Declining American leadership. Rarely in the annals of American diplomacy has an unattributed quote from a "senior White House official" become an instant headline, persisted as an unflattering tagline for the Obama Doctrine, and offered campaign fodder for every possible GOP candidate. But that's exactly what "leading from behind" has become, following its appearance in the aforementioned New Yorker article. No doubt the official who uttered it at the time thought that he/she was coming up with a clever formulation to satisfy multiple constituencies while displaying the administration's strategic acumen. When it reality what it did is distill and confirm the worst suspicions of many observers of this administration's foreign policy: the White House is uncomfortable displaying American leadership in the world. This is manifest in ways including France and Britain's leadership of the Libya campaign and continued frustration over American passivity, in the White House's reluctance to provide visible support for dissidents in Iran and Syria, and in the worries from our Asian partner nations such as India and Japan about the strength of America's commitments. Yet a world without American leadership will be a less secure, less prosperous, less peaceful, and less free world.
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On Friday the Obama administration at last announced that the United States will now recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. This was the right thing to do. It helps make available an estimated $30 billion in frozen assets for the Libyan rebels, and will help bolster international support for the TNC and further isolate the outlaw Qaddafi. Many questions remain on implementation, as Josh Rogin notes, but even these implementation issues illustrate how diplomatic recognition bears important substance as well as symbolism.
While recognition was a welcome move, it was also much belated. The United States could have done it as long as four months ago when France first led the way, when recognition arguably would have had more impact in decisively shifting momentum against Qaddafi. Instead of leading the multinational coalition, the United States is once again following (insert the obligatory "leading from behind" crack here). Now, as this Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the United States is the 27th nation to recognize the Libyan rebels, in the footsteps of countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Australia, and Spain. Even Luxembourg did it ahead of us.
Wise and effective statecraft depends much on developing the right policies. But statecraft also depends on a less appreciated factor, and that is timing. It is not always enough to do the right thing, but to do the right thing at the right time. In other words, in foreign policy it is not just what you do, but when you do it.
Here a continuing puzzle of this Administration is its sense of timing. Previously as a political candidate, Obama displayed an appreciation for timing that was both acute and artful. He discerned the political gestalt, and capitalized on it in a way that catapulted an otherwise previously obscure law professor and state legislator first into the U.S. Senate and then almost immediately into the White House.
Yet somewhere along the way, in the transition from campaigning to governing, the Obama White House forgot to sync its clock. This was manifest in domestic and economic policy with the mistaken investment of political capital in the health care bill rather than a jobs agenda. On foreign policy, the administration's deficiencies have been most pronounced as miscast timing. In fact, as in the case of Libya, the Administration often arrives at a sound policy -- yet only when it is too late to be a game-changer. So also with Iran, when the White House sat passively on the sidelines during the 2009 Green Movement protests, only to belatedly offer public presidential support for the Iranian reformers two years later and after the regime had squelched the leading dissidents. Or Syria, where the administration stuck dogmatically to its public posture of hope that Assad would reform, while his henchman locked up, tortured, and killed the opposition.
Poor timing is not just a matter of misreading history and arriving late, but it can also mean mistaken sequencing and taking certain steps too soon. For example, many of the Administration's much-hyped "outreach" efforts in its first year to regimes like Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Burma, were flawed diplomatic gestures in part because they came before the White House had first taken needful steps such as reassuring U.S. allies, and asserting American strength and resolve towards the regimes in question. Taking those steps first would have generated more respect for the White House's gestures and created more fruitful conditions for eventual diplomatic outreach. Or consider the administration's clumsy treatment of Israel. Whatever one may think of the White House's various pressure gambits with the Israeli government -- such as publicly demanding a settlement freeze, or unilaterally calling for the 1967 borders framework as a precondition for negotiations -- a big reason why these steps failed (besides their dubious merit) is because they came before the White House had established a framework of trust with the Israeli leadership and made clear its firm commitment to Israel's security. Not to mention the lack of a Palestinian leadership able and willing to deliver as a negotiating partner. Timing problems can also come from listening to the wrong clock, as seems to be the case with the administration's recent decision-making on Afghanistan, shaped more by the 2012 electoral timetable rather than the military's assessment of the security clock.
None of this is easy. Reading time and the course of history is notoriously elusive, but it is essential to the best statecraft. Bismarck famously observed, "a statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." As the White House wrestles with a full agenda of vexing challenges, perhaps it should start listening a little harder for divine footsteps.
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Two recent items highlight the connection between religious freedom and broader political trends in China. First, our former NSC colleague Elliott Abrams points out over at his blog Pressure Points that the Dalai Lama is visiting Washington this week and next week. But the Tibetan Buddhist leader doesn't, as of yet, have any official meetings scheduled with his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate President Obama, or any senior Administration officials for that matter. This is unfortunate. Hearkening back to his days in the Reagan Administration heading the State Department's Human Rights Bureau, Elliott describes the history of the Dalai Lama's visits to Washington, Beijing's predictable bleats of protest, and how the State Department's skittishness eventually turned to acquiescence in American officials meeting with the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, Beijing came to an understanding (possibly even reluctant respect?) that U.S. leaders would hold these meetings and would not allow China to dictate the American president's appointment schedule -- even while the U.S. continued to cooperate with China on other strategic equities.
Thus President George W. Bush in particular set the precedent of meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House without derailing US-China relations. (The Bush-Dalai Lama friendship has continued post-presidency, and the Dalai Lama recently donated an historic early draft of the 1963 Tibetan Constitution to the Bush Institute in Dallas). The Bush precedent was not limited to the Dalai Lama. Bush also met on different occasions in the White House with other prominent Chinese religious dissidents including Uighur Muslim leader Rebiya Kadeer, Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, and several Protestant legal activists and house church pastors. Given this precedent, one would have hoped that by this point the Obama Administration would have overcome its missteps from its first year and its neglect of the Dalai Lama. Perhaps the White House might yet find time this coming week for a meeting?
Meanwhile, the second item comes from the eminent sociologist Peter Berger over at his blog "Religion and Other Curiosities." Berger provides some fascinating context for political and religious trends in China - context which highlights just how important it is that the Obama Administration support religious freedom in China. Observing a series of developments including the removal of the 31-foot tall Confucius statue from Tiananmen Square, the ascendance of a new cohort of Communist Party leaders, the scattered resurgence of accolades for Mao, and the escalating crackdown on Christians in China (both Catholics loyal to the Vatican and independent Protestants), Berger notes that Beijing appears to be retreating from its previous flirtation with a Weberian appreciation of religion's social and economic utility, and instead embracing a renewed Maoist suspicion of religion. This is because, in Berger's words, "modern authoritarian rulers have understood instinctively that uncontrolled religion can be a threat" and "religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state." After all, "violations of religious freedom frequently foreshadow other measures of tyranny. Thus Chinese Christians today may resemble canaries in a coalmine, their fate sending out an alarm." Limits, it appears, that the Chinese Communist Party fears and eschews.
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The president of the United States makes almost unprecedented assertions of executive authority and launches a controversial war of choice* in the Middle East, targeting for regime change a dictator accused of committing atrocities against his own citizens, producing weapons of mass destruction, and sponsoring international terrorism. Amid the White House's promises of a quick victory, a compliant Congress initially goes along with the war, but months later disgruntlement sets in and Capitol Hill begins to raise concerns.
The preceding paragraph might sound like the standard left-wing critique of the Bush administration's Iraq War, of the type that was often written during the Bush years by any number of commentators. But observant readers no doubt realize that here it instead describes the Obama administration's ongoing war -- and yes, it is a war -- in Libya. These are strange times we are in. From the administration's strained interpretation of "hostilities" to contend that the War Powers Act does not apply, to last Friday's conflicting and conflicted votes in the House of Representatives, in which a bill to defund the war failed but a separate bill denying authorization of the war passed, few of our customary political categories apply. (For some expert yet accessible discussions of the legal issues involved, check out the indispensable Lawfare blog coedited by my Strauss Center colleague Bobby Chesney).
The administration sought to spin the House vote as a win because the measure to cut off war funding did not succeed. But as Josh Rogin notes, a majority of the House in fact opposes funding the war. And the power of the purse, as Peter Feaver has pointed out, is the indisputable tool granted by the constitution to Congress to express its will on matters of war-making -- and to bear the political consequences.
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In Paul Miller's excellent post below, he makes a persuasive case that much of the European reluctance to make the necessary resource commitments to NATO stems from a decades-long "rational choice" to free ride under the American security umbrella. I think Paul is largely correct, but would add that there is an additional dimension of culture and historical memory that also shapes the European mindset on defense.
Last week when Secretary Gates gave his Brussels speech, I happened to be on vacation with my wife in southern France. We spent a few days touring the French countryside and its many villages. As enchanting as each village was, with their timeless stone houses, quiet streams, and idyllic vineyards, every last town center also featured a monument to death, in the form of an obelisk listing the names of the men of the village who had died in World War I. These monuments, each one bearing witness to scores of names, serve for the French as inescapable reminders of the carnage and costs of war. In France's case, this meant the deaths of 1.3 million of its soldiers in the Great War alone. Even as the World War I generation has now passed from the scene, such obelisks, and their comparable memorials in other European countries, continue to shape Europe's collective memory - a memory further seared by the Great War's even bloodier sequel.
This traumatic twentieth century history forms much of the prevailing twenty-first century European worldview on security issues. The German Marshall Fund's invaluable annual survey, Transatlantic Trends, offers one of the most vivid illustrations of these transatlantic differences. According to the most recent 2010 edition of the survey, "when asked whether they agree that war is necessary to obtain justice under some circumstances, three-quarters of Americans (77%) and only one-quarter of EU respondents (27%) agreed. Although both numbers are up slightly from last year, these numbers have largely remained the same over the past several years and represent a significant and lasting divide in American and European public opinion....The differences are even more pronounced when considering 49% of Americans and only 8% of EU respondents agree strongly."
For Europeans, despite the European Union's prevailing economic woes, the EU's great political achievement has been forging the bonds and identity that make another continent-wide war almost unthinkable. And as Paul points out, NATO's formation after World War II may have been prompted most immediately by the Soviet threat, but it also played an important role in the Franco-German reconciliation and the foundations for European peace.
While American policy-makers should be mindful of how this historical sensibility influences European choices, this is not to excuse those choices. In Europe's case, the fact that history helps shape a culture does not mean that history should determine a culture. As a matter of policy, Secretary Gates' sharp critique is correct, both in its substance and tone. European nations do need to increase their defense budgets and their political will to use force for alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or future conflicts. Just as Europe has largely been able to escape its past of catastrophically destructive continent-wide wars, Europe also needs to escape its more recent past of anemic commitments to security.
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This recent Politico story raises again what remains an ongoing puzzle of President Obama's administration: Why has Obama thus far failed to form substantial friendships with other world leaders? Now well into the third year of his presidency, Obama's lack of personal connections with his global counterparts stands in sharp contrast to just about all of his modern-day predecessors. President George W. Bush enjoyed strong friendships with multiple leaders, particularly Britain's Tony Blair, Australia's John Howard, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi. President Clinton's tight bonds with many leaders included Blair and Boris Yeltsin. President George H.W. Bush's global friendships were legion, including John Major and Helmut Kohl, as were Reagan's alliances with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and even Pope John Paul II. Even President Carter, who had fewer friendships on the global stage, depended on his personal bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to complete the Camp David peace accords.
The question of relational bonds is not a trivial matter of procuring gossipy material for a future presidential memoir or expanding the tight circle of golf buddies. It is a core component of statecraft. An effective foreign policy includes at least four elements: a strategy and policy priorities, the resources (economic, diplomatic, military) to carry out the strategy, the system to implement the strategy, and the personal relationships with other leaders that facilitate development and advancement of the strategy and policies at both ends. This last element is the one that you won't learn about in international relations textbooks or graduate seminars, but as just about any experienced policy-maker will say, it is essential to the craft of foreign policy.
Close personal ties can often be forged in the crucible of a crisis as leaders work together to address a common problem. But the most enduring relationships are often ones that a president establishes proactively, before a crisis hits. Former Secretary of State George Shultz famously described this as the "gardening" process, in which a president or cabinet official proactively cultivates friendships with other leaders for their own sakes, with the understanding that such links might be extraordinarily useful when a crisis hits, as they almost invariably do.
The decisions foreign leaders make about whether to support a U.S. initiative or not take into account numerous factors, including their national interests and domestic politics. But a significant factor is often that leader's personal relationship with the U.S. president -- does he or she respect, trust, understand, and like the president? Will he leverage his personal and political capital on behalf of the president? Does he feel like his advice will be taken into account by the president?
Admittedly, President Obama has been dealt a somewhat weak hand among his foreign counterparts. Traditional U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan and Australia have been struggling with weak governments and frequent leadership changes, while our European allies such as France and Germany are led by the erratic Nicolas Sarkozy and the vacillating Angela Merkel - although, as my German Marshall Fund colleague Stephen Szabo has written, the White House was wise to roll out the red carpet for Merkel not as a reward for past reliability but as an inducement for future steadfastness. But there are still candidates aplenty, such as Indian Prime Minister and fellow intellectual Manmohan Singh, or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or especially Britain's David Cameron, whom, as I have written previously, would seem to be a natural Obama friend -- and after their ping-pong match the other week, may well be on the way to becoming one.
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A news item from this weekend is that President Obama intends to nominate NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul to be the next ambassador to Russia. This is an inspired choice. McFaul will bring a compelling set of attributes to the position, including a deep knowledge of Russia, a close relationship with President Obama, experience in high levels of government and national security policy, and a longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights promotion. That last quality will be of particular importance, as Russia's grim and deteriorating record on democracy will be in the international spotlight with its presidential transition in 2012. "Transition" is a more accurate word than "election," as the question of Russia's next president will not be settled by Russian voters at the ballot box but rather by the opaque intra-Kremlin maneuverings between current President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As Paul Bonicelli has pointed out, as a former and potentially future president, Putin's intentions and actions are more "neo-Czarist" than democratic, and his relationship with Medvedev will likely grow more and more strained.
In appointing McFaul, President Obama is also departing from recent precedent in bypassing the career Foreign Service for the position. Over the past three decades, all but one residents of Spaso House have been career foreign service officers. But the exception was a notable one: President Bush 41's bipartisan appointment of Democratic elder statesman Bob Strauss (namesake of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, where I'm honored to work), who ably represented the U.S. in Moscow during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transition of the national identity back to "Russia."
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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.