The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.
If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.
I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.
On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.
But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.
Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden's mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama's decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden's guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?
The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?
On Afghanistan, Biden's comments were even more troubling. Let's set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.
Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing -- we all are hearing -- but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.
That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.
This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.
Biden knows, or should know, that from the military's perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military's plan all along.
Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact....They made the recommendation first."
Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)
It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn't ask for' that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending -- in the previous year's budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.
I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.
And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don't seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.
Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military's idea.
An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden's remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.
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Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan for the VP slot has focused most attention on fiscal issues, in particular entitlement reform, and well it should. This election will be about the bad economy, the urgent need to restore economic growth and job creation, and the coming fiscal nightmare if we don't get our house in order.
But what of foreign policy? Some commenters have addressed it, most of them critics of the GOP ticket who have said that neither Romney nor Ryan has sufficient experience to manage it. They have also insisted that what Romney and Ryan have said recently demonstrates their inadequate understanding of statecraft.
It is no surprise that the ticket's defenders take exception to these criticisms and characterizations. As one of these defenders, my view of their fitness for commander-in-chief and commander-in-chief-in-waiting is based on what I perceive to be their principled views on the role of the United States and their understanding of the realities of the international arena. They are not running for secretary of state or defense or for national security adviser, nor are they trying to win an agency post like arms control czar or head of USAID. They seek the office that sets the tone, lays out the objectives, and staffs the agencies that formulate and implement policy. So what they believe fundamentally about foreign policy is the first thing to address if we wish to understand what kind of foreign policy leaders they would be. We can think about experience separately, understanding that they can't help having no more experience presiding over the most powerful nation-state in the world than have most contenders for the office, including President Obama. As Peter Feaver points out here, let's please not absurdly hold them to a higher standard than candidate Obama was held to four years ago. Once we understand their thinking, we can speculate with some confidence on the types of appointments and policies they will pursue and the objectives they will seek to fulfill. We already know that Governor Romney is a manager and leader of considerable skill; Congressman Ryan has been a chairman of a major committee in the Congress during a crisis when his leadership skills have been tested (and he passed), which is more than the current occupant of the White House could boast in 2008.
I do not claim to have much first-hand knowledge about Romney and Ryan's views, just as I did not about President Obama's views when he was a first-term senator with no experience other than his time in the Senate. I rely primarily on three things to make my assessment of them as I did for Obama: 1) what they have said and done that shows what they believe about the United States' role in the world; 2) what they believe about the world itself; and 3) how they have operated in it, whether in the public or private sector.
Governor Romney's speeches and comments since he has been running for president for several years reveal a leader committed to the notion of American exceptionalism. He asserts regularly that the United States must lead the world if we are to enjoy peace and stability and if freedom and prosperity are to expand. His comments imply that he knows that the world is a dangerous place, and that while pursuing the ideals of cooperation and collective defense is commendable, in many cases only force wielded by a free nation or coalition thereof can secure not only our interests but those embraced by all signatories to the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights. We need not wonder what his foreign policy would be generally and so we can therefore extrapolate to the specifics of, say, arms control and the defense of the safety of our citizens and property. His appointments would comprise a coterie of officials who share his views. I imagine some combination of Reaganites and Bushites (both 41 and 43) would be called upon, and there is a lot more agreement among them on these things than disagreement. Plenty of them have the skill to man the posts in service of a President Romney's goals. To put a fine point on it, he has little experience running an energy or a farm policy, but I imagine he has some clear ideas about those things, too, and would set out goals and make appointments to attain them. That would be him exercising leadership, and for all he would draw upon his experience as a governor, a business leader and administrator of one of the world's largest global concerns, the Olympics.
Gov. Romney has also demonstrated some sound instincts. In this respect I'd like to address the recent controversy related to his recent visit to Israel. Gov. Romney said that Israel's strong economic performance relative to its Palestinian neighbors could be traced in part to cultural factors. For this he was called racist and naïve. But this is a perfectly rational comment and it underscores the main theme of my comments here about big ideas and broad principles. Romney did not say Palestinians were inferior biologically and unable to engage in commerce leading to prosperity; nor did he say they did not have ambition or a work ethic. He simply alluded to a fact that should be uncontroversial: the cultural factors animating the citizenry of the State of Israel (both Jew and Arab) are conducive to democracy and economic development. Israel's is a democratic government that protects civil rights and property rights. The same cannot be said about the Palestinian territories under both Hamas and Fatah rule. In each of those cases, whether the Arabs generally have a culture that is conducive to democracy and development -- and I believe they do -- is irrelevant when the culture of the leadership of both public and private sector elites tramples upon it. The fact is that those who have the ability to control society through state power, education, and religion use that power to retard development, enrich themselves through corruption, and do all with impunity. Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the world over practice politics as democrats and prosper; Palestinian Arabs living under the culture that Hamas, Fatah and their parasitical and corrupt clients have fostered do not. How is it racist or naïve to make this case? I think it shows that Romney gets what causes human flourishing; and getting that means he knows not only what he wants to do in terms of domestic policy but also what a fundamental pillar of his foreign policy would be. That is, the United States will be a promoter of individual liberty at home and be its champion everywhere and protector when it is in our interests.
Turning our attention to Congressman Ryan, he's had fewer chances so far to speak at length about foreign policy; his main focus as a member of Congress has been on the fiscal health of the United States. But those who know him argue that he approaches and understands foreign policy much the same way he does fiscal and domestic policy, that is, by means of principles he has imbibed from the American Founders. He starts first with, no surprise, that the United States is an exceptional nation because it is first an idea before it is a place. He has been saying this for several days now since Romney named him and it reflects what he has said as a congressman and it fits with his work at Empower America. He and Romney are perfectly compatible when it comes to what they believe about the United States and what they believe about the international arena. The only question that remains is are they intelligent enough to establish goals based on their principled beliefs and are they smart enough to choose the right people to help them devise and implement policy. I see no reason to believe that they are not, certainly no more reason than was the case with the former junior Senator from Illinois. The difference is the principles and goals, and for that, of course, I'm grateful.
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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.