Shakespeare's Hamlet features a self-absorbed protagonist who confuses oratory for action and hesitates to shoulder his responsibility. Despite the obvious similarities to the protagonist of the Obama administration, the president and his campaign have engaged in a fresh, unexpected casting of the current performance: one in which the president is not Hamlet, but Ophelia. An administration that set a new and debased standard for politicizing national security is protesting against the politicizing of national security.
The White House is clearly feeling heat over their handling of the attack on our consulate in Libya. When challenged about it in the second debate, President Obama scolded Governor Romney that "you don't turn national security into a political issue." This was clearly a rehearsed rather than a spontaneous response, since Vice President Biden reiterated the charge yesterday, saying "it became so clear to the American people how Governor Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy." This would be the same Joe Biden that during his debate blamed both the intelligence community and the State Department of not doing their jobs in order to shield the White House from blame.
I share Peggy Noonan's view that the Romney campaign was too quick to criticize the administration when the attack in Libya occurred; it did feel like a moment for grieving the dead Americans, and it would have been graceful (and politically expedient, given the efforts to paint Romney as unfeeling) to have held off a day or two before prosecuting the administration's national security failings.
But the Romney campaign is not wrong to press the issue now. The White House made a choice to connect what occurred in Libya with protests elsewhere in the Middle East rather than connect it to increasing jihadist activity in Libya. The argument that al Qaeda is on the ropes and the tide of war is receding is much less persuasive when al Qaeda affiliates are attacking American consulates and killing American diplomats in friendly countries. Osama bin Laden being dead may turn out to be less significant than the White House has been claiming. The Obama administration persisted in attributing the attack in Benghazi to an anti-Muslim video long after evidence had called that explanation into doubt, which increases suspicion they made a politically expedient choice.
Moreover, this is the same administration that sent its national security advisor to Afghanistan to tell the commanders not to ask for more Marines. It is the same administration that set a politically-driven timeline for withdrawing surge forces from Afghanistan. It is the same administration that complained to journalists that the military was trying to "box the president in" during the Afghanistan review -- a very serious charge against the professionalism of our military. It is the same administration that excoriated its predecessor for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan while it declined to provide the military either the troops or the time they said would be needed to win the war. It is the same administration that claims this president is uniquely courageous to have approved the raid on Osama bin Laden. It is the same administration that leaked highly classified information to try and portray the president as a decisive commander in chief. It is the same administration that is using the Joint Chiefs of Staff as political pawns by insisting they want no more money or weapons -- and banking on their professionalism not to call their commander in chief a liar. It is the same administration that has threatened to veto any reduction in the sequestration defense cuts -- cuts that Secretary Panetta and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said will be devastating to our military power.
President Obama's sanctimonious protestations that his opponent is politicizing national security is a marvelous acting job -- that he can even get the words out with a straight face is a tribute to either thespian excellence or self-delusion. It's almost funny to watch the political actor that has done the most to politicize national security solemnly intoning against doing so. But Hamlet is a tragedy, not a comedy; and the president attempting to deflect criticism of his choices about the attacks in Libya by cloaking himself in righteousness is way beyond the pale.
A new report that I have co-authored with James Golby and Kyle Dropp was released yesterday by the Center for a New American Security. The study, titled Military Campaigns: Veterans' Endorsements and Presidential Elections, can be found here. The New York Times also reports on the study.
We tested whether telling voters that "most members of the military and veterans" support one candidate or the other had an impact on voter's preferences for President Obama or Governor Romney. We found that in the aggregate, such endorsements did not seem to move vote choice by a statistically significant amount, but that they did have a statistically significant effect on voters who claimed to be independents and especially on independents who claimed not to follow foreign policy very closely.
President Obama received a statistically significant bump in support from those voters who were told of an endorsement, whereas Governor Romney did not. We believe that is because a military/veteran endorsement of Obama would be surprising, given public perceptions of the military as a conservative organization and the historical advantage Republicans have had on national security.
We go on to argue, however, that such endorsements are not good for civil-military relations because they involve the military in partisan politics. Of course, retired military may exercise their first amendment rights just as any other citizen could. But we argue:
"Retired senior officers may think they are drawing fine distinctions between the formal institution of active-duty military and their own views as retired citizens. But the truth is that no one, especially not the campaign team, is very interested in their views as private citizens. Rather, it is their symbolic role -- their role as spokespeople for the military -- that gives their endorsements significance."
We worry that the cycle of high-profile endorsements could in the long run help erode public trust in the military as a non-partisan institution and we find some suggestive evidence that such worries are reasonable.
The reactions to our report have been interesting. One person wrote complaining that our descriptive background section focused on the high-profile endorsements, such as Admiral John Nathman's cameo at the 2012 Democratic National Convention or General Tommy Franks' cameo at the 2004 Republican National Convention, but then our survey prompt was more general: "most members of the military and veterans."
We followed this research design for several reasons. First, as we explain in our study, campaigns prize high-profile endorsements because they symbolize something larger than simply a single citizen. That is why they tend to cluster them and announce them as a group (think Admiral Crowe standing in front of all those retired generals and admirals endorsing Clinton in 1992). The individual endorsements are meant to symbolize the endorsement of the larger institution. Our survey prompt captures that idea.
Second, as a practical matter, we had to design and conduct the survey during a campaign season but in advance of when the campaigns had publicized the lists of their endorsements. It would have contaminated the study to create false names or false endorsements.
One person also wondered why we didn't ask the question directly: "If a candidate is endorsed by a retired general, would you be more or less likely to vote for that candidate solely because that?" However, the whole point of survey experiments is to capture latent effects whether or not the respondent is aware of them. Social scientists have developed these tools because asking direct questions distorts or obscures the underlying phenomena they are seeking to study.
Another person wrote to complain that we had misidentified Jason Dempsey, author of Our Army, as an "Obama supporter." It was a minor point, but I am inclined to think the critic was right. Jason wrote a piece for Huffington Post analyzing a different poll and concluded that younger military personnel were not as Republican leaning as older cohorts. Several Obama supporters pointed us to that article (and others like it) as we were doing our research and argued to us that Obama had a decisive advantage among younger military and veterans, but we did not find similar results in our own survey, which is why we wrote what we did. However, since Dempsey has gone to some pains not to be identified with one candidate or another - and, indeed, has written persuasively of the danger of the military developing a partisan identity -- we should not have referenced him as an Obama supporter even though Obama supporters relied on his analysis to make their case to us.
We are grateful so many people are taking the study seriously and look forward to a lively debate. And, as is always the case in academic research of this sort, we end with a call for more funding for more research to follow all of the interesting lines of inquiry that commenters raise!
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Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?
Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).
We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.
By contrast, Joe Biden said:
But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.
Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.
Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.
With two months to go before the election, it's never too early to start one of Washington's favorite post-election parlor-games: assembling a dream cabinet. Who should be the next Secretary of State? Defense? National Security Advisor?
The answer is, of course, David Petraeus. Given my earlier advocacy for Petraeus as vice president, readers will be unsurprised by my suggestion that the president simply call up the good general and ask him what job he wants. Unfortunately, reproductive human cloning is neither legal nor fast enough to grow enough Petraeus' to fill the cabinet, so we will have to find a few others to fill some of the top roles.
These views are, of course, my own (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek at that). The Cable had an interesting article on the potential Romney cabinet last month based on "interviews" with "sources." Unlike the folks at The Cable, I was trained as an analyst at the CIA. This article is based on nothing but speculation and Google. Here is just a short list of folks whom we might see in Senate confirmation hearings next spring. These are not my endorsements so much as my guesses as to whom might get the pick.
National Security Advisor Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, is listed as one of the Romney team's advisors. He probably knows the defense and intelligence worlds better than most people alive, and would be a strong pick for National Security Advisor. Barring that, he would also make a good Director of National Intelligence. Also, he knows lots of things that he could tell us, but then he'd have to kill us. Con: His four stars were in the air force (go Army!). Plus, he's tied closely to the alleged wiretapping program at the NSA, making him a lightning rod for partisan attack, something a new administration may want to avoid.
Secretary of State John Negroponte. With five separate stints as an ambassador (to Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, Iraq, and the U.N.), as Deputy Secretary of State, and as first Director of National Intelligence, Negroponte has the kind of resume that you get when you've spent five decades in the federal bureaucracy. His wide experience makes him a candidate to head the State Department. Plus, he had the good sense to drop out of Harvard Law. Con: He spent five decades in the federal bureaucracy. Also, a new birther movement will spring up around the fact that he was born in London, making his loyalties suspect.
Secretary of Treasury Bob Zoellick. Another Romney advisor and former Deputy Secretary of State, Zoellick also served as U.S. Trade Representative, Undersecretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, in several positions at the Treasury Department, and most recently as President of the World Bank. His selection as Secretary of State would be a sop to those fuzzy-headed softies who think economics are a legitimate concern for international diplomacy, rather than guns, power, and honor, as all real IR scholars know. Or he might be shunted off to head the Treasury Department, where the pointy heads belong. Con: the mustache. Zoellick is obviously a highly-trained covert operative hiding behind the mustached guise of an academic. The problem: It's too obvious. He needs better cover; perhaps a full beard.
Secretary of Defense John McCain. The Chuck Norris of Senators. Member of the Armed Services Committee, Vietnam veteran and POW. McCain was prescient on Iraq, calling for a surge long before anyone else. He has been a champion of American power and democracy abroad and, more recently, a principled opponent of "enhanced interrogation." He's the original Maverick and would make a heluva Secretary of Defense. Con: He's the original Maverick. He's conservative by disposition, not ideology, and therefore is sometimes inconsistent.
Secretary of Defense John Warner (in case the first one doesn't work out). Three-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner is far more interesting than his Senate title suggests. He is a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, a former Marine, and former Secretary of the Navy. Warner is one of the senior statesmen of the Republican Party and was a true eminence grise on foreign policy and is well-qualified to head the Pentagon. Plus, he was Elizabeth Taylor's sixth husband, which has to be worth something. Con: Before his distinguished service in the Korean War as a Marine, he served in World War II in the Navy (go Army). More to the point, he left the Senate in 2009 and may be uninterested in returning to public life. After two wars and decades in the Senate, how much more can your country ask of you?
These are only a few of the many stellar lights of the Republican foreign policy establishment waiting to go nova the moment Romney clinches victory. Who are your picks?
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President Obama said last night that "the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place." That is risibly inaccurate on national security issues -- this administration has done the exact opposite: It has taken the easy path that leads to a worse place. In particular, President Obama:
The most important national security problem facing our nation -- the crushing load of debt that will crowd out discretionary spending by our government -- was addressed in the context of cutting military spending. The president who has doubled our national debt in three years now claims "I will use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways, because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it's time to do some nation building right here at home." That is, defense is the bill payer for his domestic programs. He claimed "I'm still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission," but he has taken no action at all to bring the Simpson-Bowles Commission's recommendations into effect -- they weren't in his budget, they weren't in his proposals during the debt limit negotiations last summer.
In the one area of foreign policy the president highlighted, trade policy, he shamelessly mischaracterized his record. The three agreements he has signed were negotiated by the Bush administration and stalled for three years before Obama signed them. And he still persists in characterizing trade as a zero sum activity -- we need to "export more products and outsource fewer jobs." Surely someone in the administration has read David Ricardo and can explain comparative advantage to the leader of the free world?
Governor Romney made both an ethical and a tactical error in omitting reference to the 90,000 Americans, 352,000 Afghans and 30,000 Allies fighting in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech. President Obama rightly capitalized on the mistake to speak touchingly about the compact we should have with the men and women who fight our wars. It burnished his image as an effective commander in chief. What the president and his supporters seem not to understand, though, and it plays to Romney's advantage, is that there is an actual difference between ending wars and winning them. The president keeps emphasizing he brought the troops home from Iraq and is bringing them home from Afghanistan, but he is silent on whether we achieved the objectives for which we fought.
The president threw in lots of cats and dogs, box checking stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, supporting Israel, reasserting our power across the Pacific. If only his policies supported those platitudes. The biggest howler in the speech, the place where the president's claims seemed at greatest variance with his record, was "from Burma to Libya to South Sudan, we have advanced the rights and dignity of all human beings, men and women; Christians and Muslims and Jews." Yet he continues to issue tepid platitudes while twenty thousand Syrians have been murdered by their government.
This is an administration that seems not to appreciate the difference between saying something and achieving it. They are hoping that killing Osama bin Laden will deflect attention from their policies that have made America more resented in crucial sections of the world than we were in the Bush administration, that view defense spending not in the context of threats and opportunities we face in the world but as a funding source for their domestic priorities, that consider trade in more mercantilist terms than do the Chinese, that end wars instead of winning them, and that shun responsibility to advance our values in the world.
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No surprise that as a former George W. Bush appointee, I support the 2012 Republican Platform. But it is a surprise (at least to me) that there is actually a good bit to be excited about. After all, platforms are not often the stuff of "wow" moments. There are usually few surprises or wholly new ideas expressed every four years. Sometimes this is because the party's nominee is pursuing a second term, and sometimes it is because there just isn't a lot of change in a party's outlook.
To be sure, much of the 2012 platform echoes the 2008 platform, but where it differs, where it expands into new ideas, it is in my view exciting and inspiring. My focus, of course, is the foreign policy plank, and in particular, the section on international assistance. This section is not simply a re-tread of previous ideas.
It begins like last time by pointing out the generosity of the American people both in their publicly funded aid as well as aid from private sources. But it goes into greater detail to note the various ways that Americans are generous in their private giving of their time and talent and treasure -- and this aid comprises far more than what comes out of the USG's foreign aid budget. I just wish the point had been made in this section about the valuable role of the U.S. military in not only securing the delivery of aid but sometimes in the actual dispensing of it. Not to mention the benefits that accrue to a world where a superpower helps to keep or restore the peace, and keeps shipping lanes open without which there can be no free trade. To put a fine point on it for the sake of our heroic military (who will not brag on themselves), we were treated to this picture recently of Army Sgt. John Gebhardt comforting an Afghan child. Do yourself a favor and read the short item on this.
Next, the plank takes a swipe at the outdated way in which most donors have dispensed aid over the years: by providing aid to governments whether as budget support or toward programs that are treating symptoms and not the causes of poverty, disorder and tyranny. In the latter case, we must remember that money is fungible, so just because a program is good does not mean it is wise. Our focus should be on the causes of what we want to rid the nations of who ask for our assistance. The U.S. has done better than most at targeting aid toward people and worthy programs that attack those root causes, but there is still much more to do in terms of reform, and this plank deals with that as well.
I appreciate that the party emphasizes that the best way to assist people overseas is not through government. Rather, the plank points to charity and the great engine of growth and prosperity that is the private sector.
Of great importance is that that party makes a very clear statement about the purpose of foreign assistance: it must serve our national interests in the form of promoting the "peaceful development of less advanced and vulnerable societies in critical parts of the world." It is that simple. U.S. taxpayer dollars are not a kitty from which politicians should feel free to do good with other people's money. Aid programs whose goals are not measureable and that do not serve national interests -- specifically defined -- are not just a waste of money but a dereliction of duty. There is no shortage of congressmen and NGOs who can easily come up with warm fuzzy reasons why we should do something, but that's not the question. Again, just because something might be good does not mean it is wise for the government to do it.
And the platform points to historical successes that can not only inspire us but guide us. Aid that has helped strengthen democracy and private enterprise in Latin America and East Asia should inspire us to put aid where it works: in places where leaders and citizens have determined to follow the path of free markets and free people.
And speaking of that approach, rather than provide a detailed list of programs (as was the case in the 2008 platform) the plank provides unequivocally the party's foundation for all USG assistance: "U.S. aid should be based on the model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, for which foreign governments must, in effect, compete for the dollars by showing respect for the rule of law, free enterprise, and measurable results. In short, aid money should follow positive outcomes, not pleas for more cash in the same corrupt official pockets."
So that is what we should do. What should we not do with international assistance? Here the plank takes a hard shot at the Obama administration's practices over the last three and a half years. The plank criticizes the administration for basing its aid policies on its own cultural agenda as it has imposed its views on abortion and the homosexual rights agenda. It has blocked the participation of faith-based groups that were so key to many of the successes of the Bush administration. The conclusion of this section points to a clear policy change: "We will reverse this tragic course, encourage more involvement by the most effective aid organizations, and trust developing peoples to build their future from the ground up."
There are a number of other sections in the foreign policy plank that express new ideas, new ways of thinking, and that call for new policies. But this plank on international assistance is truly exceptional in that it calls for a reform of our foreign assistance philosophy. It elevates free people and free markets as the starting point; it says "treat the causes, not simply the symptoms."
It is quite appropriate, therefore, that the plank on foreign policy that deals with international assistance is titled "American Exceptionalism" because this approach truly is exceptional, like the United States of America.
President Obama's national security team has been aggressively marketing itself as the "new realists," by which they mean to contrast themselves with the ideologues of the previous administration who, as Team Obama never tires of telling us, recklessly started a war on false pretenses -- the wrong war -- and committed to a strategy that couldn't work, while ignoring the right war in Afghanistan that would be wound down in 18 months with the application of two-thirds the resources the military asked for due to the systematic application of "smart power."
Vice President Biden has been central to making that case. Biden advocated breaking up Iraq into three sectarian cantons (this was called ethnic cleansing when it was allowed to occur in the Balkans). He was the administration's point man on negotiations with the Iraqis, which appeared to have little effect on the 18-month political stalemate between elections and forming a government that has trended authoritarian. Recall that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki issued the arrest order for his vice president immediately on return from Washington, which signaled to Iraqis the move had White House endorsement. Biden was the rain maker for negotiations over a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq which resulted in... no continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Biden also advocated a "counter terror" strategy for the war in Afghanistan, leaving Afghans to the Taliban and killing bad guys with drones and special forces, whether in Afghanistan or beyond. To President Obama's credit, he did not choose this approach; but at issue is whether Representative Paul Ryan's views on foreign policy are, as has been argued by the administration's supporters, dangerously neo-conservative, penurious to diplomacy and foreign assistance, and profligate in military spending. And whether they should be more disqualifying than Vice President Biden's manifestly bad choices.
Paul Ryan's most forceful statement of his views emphasizes the limits on our foreign policy that our national indebtedness will occasion. This is a principled position the Obama administration wholly lacks, running deficits of a trillion dollars a year. Paul Ryan's budget reduces defense spending, but unlike President Obama, he does not reduce only defense spending. The Obama administration has cut defense in order to fund other spending priorities; Paul Ryan argues for cuts to defense as a contribution to putting our country back on sound financial footing. There is a difference, and it is a difference of principle.
Representative Ryan does seem to have a predilection for basing his policy choices on "foundational principles." Just as his arguments for putting our entitlement programs on sound footing are tied to the bigger ideas of what kind of future we want our country to have, his arguments for our foreign policy are tied to what kind of world we want to live in -- the bigger ideas of advancing freedom and helping build institutions that preserve it. Colleagues on the left find this dangerous because they believe those ideas got the country in trouble the last time a President cared about advancing freedom. But the idea of advancing freedom has long been fundamental to American foreign policy, building support domestically for engagement with the world and reducing resistance internationally to what the U.S. seeks to achieve.
Idealism matters to Americans because, in truth, nearly all our wars are voluntary and our citizens are difficult to motivate to war. We are much more comfortable making the world safe for democracy, ending fascism, and advancing our values than we are risking our sons and daughters for causes that are difficult to square with the kind of society we want to live in ourselves. Americans understand we have interests that do not always coincide with our values, but it's distasteful to us when they contradict each other, makes for unsustainable policies (ask Hosni Mubarak, or the Saudi sheiks who rightly fear our commitment to them is also limited).
Predictability matters in foreign policy. It reduces the miscalculations that often cause wars, it allows other states and organizations to anticipate our choices as they make their own. Neo-realism, as practiced by the Obama administration, seeks to keep all their options open -- to intervene in Libya if it looks easy, to avoid Syria where what needs doing looks hard. But it raises the cost of achieving our interests when they are not imbued with our values: it is more difficult to get and keep the support of our American public, it reduces the willingness of others to assist our efforts, and it creates more uncertainty in our international dealings when countries cannot anticipate our positions.
The Obama administration's "new realism" results in policies without principles that guide difficult choices. They made a stirring case for intervention in Libya because of impending humanitarian catastrophe, yet do nothing while humanitarian catastrophe consumes Syria. They argued the surge not only was not working in Iraq but cannot work, then adopted the same approach (plus a wholly unrealistic timeline) for Afghanistan. They castigate the previous administration for extra-judicial activity (renditions) then adopt drone guidelines in which only a profile (not identification) is required to commit extra-judicial killings. They argue imports steal American jobs and slow-roll free trade negotiations, then rely on exports to pull our country out of its economic recession.
Without foundational principles, American foreign policy looks no better than any other country's self-interested machinations. While our country often falls short of its values, that we even attempt to apply our domestic principles to our foreign policy ennobles it. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Not evident just for us. Not evident just for Christians, or the peoples of the book, or monotheistic religions, or atheists. That's what makes America exceptional.
Representative Ryan isn't a dangerous ideologue, he's a mainstream voice arguing we ought to give our values significant weight as we decide how to behave in the world. It is a principled and cost-effective choice, nicely consistent with what one would expect from a responsible chair of the budget committee.
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President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.
It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.
Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?
The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn't build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.
That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn't President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?
My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter's quote, alas.
Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness -- that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.
Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike -- even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).
Part of the answer is also that Obama's Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.
Part of the answer may also be that because Obama's war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.
And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won't (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don't like.
For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.
I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.
I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.
And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.
The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself -- and it doesn't appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.
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.