There are two contradictory narratives about the last four years of Obama's stewardship of foreign policy.
One is advanced by Obama supporters, former and wannabe-future members of the administration along with sympathizers in the media and the academy. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been a foreign policy maestro, responsible for no consequential errors of commission or omission.
The other is advanced by Obama's most hardened detractors, and at times has included official statements from the Romney campaign. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster, responsible for the wholesale surrender of American interests around the globe.
The truth is somewhere in between. Obama has had some successes on the foreign policy front (chiefly when he has followed along a policy trajectory laid down by Republicans), but he has also presided over choices and actions that have hurt American interests. He has avoided the worst possible foreign policy blunders, but he has been responsible for many other decisions that were probably mistakes. He has erred on the side of taking the popular course rather than wise course, and this pattern means that his foreign policy spins today better than it will look in the years to come.
If Obama loses, there will be plenty of time for the historical record to balance itself and for the more reasonable mixed assessment to take root.
If Obama wins, however, there will be an urgent need for the Obama team to stop drinking their own bathwater and to do a sober self-assessment. The Bush administration did just that after winning reelection and the second term was, in some important respects, a distinct improvement over the first.
It is very difficult for any administration to do that, but I think the Obama team is especially challenged because they are so wedded to a distorted narrative about the first four years.
There is hope, however, in the form of insider voices calling for change. To that end, as the DC community hunkers down to endure Hurricane Sandy, my recommendation is that everyone involved with the foreign policy establishment read carefully two articles from FP.com, both by Rosa Brooks: "The Case for Intervention" and "You'll never eat lunch in this town again!"
The articles have already generated considerable controversy in certain circles, but I am surprised how little they have penetrated the mainstream media. I asked a very distinguished reporter who has specialized in reporting on the Obama national security process about them the other day and he indicated he had never read them, even though her article effectively rebuts one of his primary story-lines.
Nor do I consider Brooks' critique to be indisputable. For instance, I give Obama more credit for a strategic vision than she does and I think Obama has resisted Congressional pressure far more vigorously than she claims -- for instance, he resisted Congressional pressure to ramp up sanctions on Iran in 2009 and 2010 so as to preserve his preferred policy of offering unconditional bilateral talks.
Yet on balance her critique is persuasive, all the more so because she cannot be dismissed as a shill for Romney. Indeed, in prior and subsequent posts, she has made her loyalties to Obama unmistakable.
But when she writes about her personal experience inside the Obama national security team, and when that is supplemented with ample quotes from other insiders, her critique has a unique authority.
Brooks' two pieces combine to make up a compelling transition memo for those planning a possible Obama second term. Perhaps a Romney victory will preempt that planning. But just in case he wins a second term, we should all hope that Obama has a planning cell that gives greater credence to what the critics are saying than what the campaign is spinning.
The conventional wisdom coming out of last week's presidential town hall debate is that it is Gov. Romney, not President Obama that has a foreign policy problem going into today's third and final debate on foreign policy.
Gov. Romney supposedly got the worst of a dispute over President Obama's willingness to concede that the September 11th attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Obama campaign official Jen Psaki went so far as to call the exchange "one of the best moments in recent debate history."
Libya is important because it has revealed several uncomfortable truths about the Obama foreign policy. Despite the emerging narrative, Gov. Romney should double down on Libya and foreign policy more broadly. He's got a good case to make about the failures of President Obama's leadership when it comes to world affairs.
The real story of the two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate is the insight they have provided into the Obama worldview. What President Obama and Vice President Biden have put on display has been little more than spin and bluster, backed up by trite sound bites -- accusations that Gov. Romney wants to spend $2 trillion on the Pentagon that the generals don't want, talk of ending wars to fund projects at home and bumper sticker slogans about bin Laden being dead, as if that alone means Americans are safe.
This has been the Democratic Party's playbook for decades. As Jim Mann writes in his book The Obamians, the party elite has struggled since the Vietnam War to reconcile an antiwar progressive base with their desire for the opportunity to control the nuclear codes.
In recent years, this has resulted in the spectacle of Democrats overplaying their hand, whether it was Sen. John Kerry saluting the crowd and "reporting for duty," at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 or this year's veteran and war-themed convention of a party that doesn't know the difference between foreign and American military materiel and is presiding over $1 trillion in defense cuts and pledging to end wars to fund their domestic agenda.
Despite the spin, President Obama's record is clear.
His doubling down in Afghanistan in 2009 has been replaced by an increasingly uncertain and under resourced strategy that he has failed to explain to the American people. His trumpeting of the killing of bin Laden and the narrative that "al Qaeda is on the run" has been undermined by the very real gains that the terrorist organization is making in North Africa and other regions.
His policy of "leading from behind," which we were told by administration officials was the better, safer, and cheaper alternative to the policies of George W. Bush, deposed a dictator but has led to proliferation of weapons throughout the region and the very instability that resulted in the deaths of four American officials on September 11th. His humanitarianism supposedly on display in Libya has now been shown to be nothing more than rhetoric as tens of thousands are dead in Syria and America stands idly by as the Syrian people and our allies in the region plead for American leadership.
He has serially alienated allies and failed to speak out on behalf of those oppressed by despotic regimes, even as he engages the tyrants who threaten U.S. interests and crush dissent. As Iran gets closer to a nuclear weapons capability by the day, the gap between the United States and our ally Israel, grows and terrorist plots and attacks on U.S. personnel ordered by Tehran go unanswered.
With the polls tight and the last debate on foreign policy, this could now be the decisive issue in this election. Earlier this year, Gov. Romney consistently trailed President Obama, often by double digits, when voters were asked who they trusted more on national security. Now, with the administration's bungling response to the Libya attack, Gov. Romney, with no firsthand foreign policy experience, has narrowed the gap and in many polls, rates better than President Obama.
Gov. Romney needs to ignore the chattering classes and continue to make the case against another four years of "weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence," and ask "Is the world today a safer place in which to live?" just as Reagan did in 1980 when he smartly described Carter's foreign policy.
Squabbling over transcripts and who said what when will not win Governor Romney the presidency. Reminding Americans that they -- and the world -- deserve a president that is willing to unashamedly stand up for our values and interests overseas might.
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In his second debate with Governor Romney, President Obama tried to convey the idea that his administration had treated the raid on the Benghazi consulate as if it were terrorism from the start. This was a hard sell to anyone who listened to the administration's messaging on Libya over the past month, but many Obama supporters seem inclined to buy it.
I don't buy it, but I am proud to say that I predicted it, several weeks ago.
Here is how I sketched out the evolution of the Obama administration's actual messaging, and the rationale behind it. I think it stands up pretty well (unlike most other things you write, I hear the pseudonymous trolls telling me) some two-plus weeks later:
"Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).
Romney's initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks.
The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney's stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known -- there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism -- and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.
The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama's foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.
The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.
Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:
Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.
Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.
Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks."
Obama got to the "eventual message" in the town hall debate, and then built a firewall around it with self-righteous outrage at the suggestion he would ever play politics with national security. I think he is there to stay. Unless the moderator challenges him, I would be surprised if Obama provided a more candid response at the upcoming foreign policy debate.
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That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn't be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks' current endorsement of the administration's foreign policy -- as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor -- averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept -- think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.
Brooks makes a general virtue of the president's failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn't necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn't providing the necessary resources, hasn't brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don't understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)
Brooks' encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann's "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon's "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team's "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.
President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here's the tally of their signature initiatives:
A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president's supporters. The campaign's swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president's new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.
It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don't to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.
This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president's mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president's advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.
When it comes to partisan differences on foreign policy, one area that the conventional wisdom regards as a deep chasm is multilateralism. A crude set of stereotypes have taken hold: Republicans as reckless unilateralists, and Democrats as feckless multilateralists. But in actual practice the differences over multilateralism are often not as acute, as most policymakers from both parties would admit. On this note, our readers might be interested in the results of a recent survey that my colleagues Josh Busby (also of the University of Texas-Austin) and Jon Monten (of the University of Oklahoma) and I put together. Assessing the views of experienced policy-makers in both parties, we found that while there are genuine partisan differences on multilateralism, there is also a surprising degree of agreement and bipartisan consensus. We wrote-up an analysis of our findings at the Foreign Affairs website, and a summary of the survey results can be found here. [In the spirit of bipartisanship, alert readers will also appreciate this collegial cross-linking between Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. If this bonhomie keeps up, by week's end Peter Feaver will be writing nice things about the North Carolina basketball team].
In brief, our survey found that both parties see the value and the limitations in multilateralism. Furthermore, while both parties might often arrive at similar policy outcomes, they do so from different orientations. For example both parties believe multilateralism in practice generally increases the effectiveness of American foreign policy. Yet as we describe in the article, Republicans and Democrats use different balancing tests when considering a multilateral initiative and evaluating just how effective it might be. Republicans tend to emphasize the importance of sovereignty and freedom of action, while Democrats tend to emphasize the importance of legitimacy and interdependence. Thus Republicans weigh whether the multilateral opportunity protects American sovereignty and produces the desired policy results. They usually will agree to relinquishing a measure of sovereignty if a multilateral policy otherwise appears to be effective, but are likely to oppose a multilateral initiative that they perceive to erode sovereignty without delivering adequate policy benefits. In contrast, Democrats weigh whether the multilateral opportunity appears to address the vulnerabilities created by interdependence and is perceived as legitimate by other countries. These principles, Democrats believe, contribute to more desirable policy outcomes.
In trying to make sense of these findings, we considered various labels to summarize the dispositions of the parties (e.g. Republicans as "pragmatic multilateralists" and Democrats as "principled multilateralists," or the GOP as "a la carte multilateralists" and Dems as "prix fixe multilateralists"). Ultimately we settled on the categories "sovereignty-minded multilateralists" and "interdependence-oriented multilateralists," which hopefully make up in accuracy what they lack in pith and punch.
The survey is admittedly constrained in how much it captures party attitudes because we limited it to people who have served in meaningful policy-making positions (rather than pundits and party activists), and because the surveys depended on people believing it worthwhile to take the time to respond. So while our political scientist friends out there might find areas to quibble on methodology and selection effects, we still think that the surveys capture something meaningful. Especially because the responses reflect the beliefs of those who have actually made policy, and who may well occupy policy-making roles in the future.
The survey also helps illuminate not just where Republicans and Democrats might diverge on certain foreign policy questions, but why they do so. Understanding these reasons can be constructive on a number of fronts. It can lay a basis for bipartisan cooperation by helping each side understand the other's core concerns and priorities, and also help illuminate potential sticking points on particular issues. Understanding how Democrats and Republicans think about foreign policy can also help clarify the differences between the parties for other stakeholders, ranging from foreign governments trying to understand American foreign policy, to American voters weighing their choices this November.
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Now that Governor Romney can concentrate on the general election, he would be well-advised to consider again the ways that campaigning can complicate governing when it comes to foreign policy. In this, he has no better tutor than the last challenger to successfully win the presidency.
The political process rewards hyperbolic critique of the ruling party coupled with extravagant promises of wholesale change. If candidates governed according to the letter (or perhaps even the spirit) of their campaign rhetoric, then the problems might be acute. However, the prevailing pattern of American politics is a reversion to the mean, the persistence of pragmatic continuity in defiance of flamboyant critiques from the extreme flanks.
There is still room for mischief within the boundaries of that pattern. Sometimes the mischief is minor, as when candidate Obama promised in ever-more-rigid terms to adopt a position on the Armenian genocide that all seasoned experts knew he would abandon once in office -- as he did.
Sometimes the mischief is more consequential, as when candidate Obama promised unconditional leader-to-leader talks with Iran, which led the administration to squander two extraordinary opportunities in his first year in office -- Iran's short-lived Green Revolution response to electoral fraud in June 2009 and the revelations of the illegal uranium enrichment program at Fordow in September 2009. During this crucial period, Obama failed to intensify the coercive diplomacy that they developed later.
And sometimes the mischief is potentially quite profound, as when the Obama administration acted on their campaign belief that the way to leverage better cooperation from the Iraqi government was to underscore our determination to abandon them rather than to follow the Bush practice of hugging Maliki as closely as possible.
So far, Governor Romney has avoided these kinds of self-inflicted wounds. The closest he has come is calling Russia our "No. 1 geopolitical foe," which is a bit of hyperbole that the candidate probably wishes he had phrased differently.
His stance on the Chinese currency also might be a candidate for campaigning vs. governing scrutiny. He has promised to quickly declare it a currency manipulator. While many experts might agree that China has been manipulating its currency, successive administrations have shrunk from making that declaratory step because of concern about the significant repercussions of a trade/currency war that might ensue. Romney might be following a sophisticated strategy of jawboning, however, hoping to cajole China into taking more steps of their own to address the situation so that Romney's threatened step does not need to be taken. If China calls the bluff, however, a President Romney would have a difficult choice to make.
A successful Romney would probably walk back from reckless campaign promises when confronted with the stark responsibilities of governing. But better to avoid the recklessness in the first place.
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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.