One of the favorite canards that Obama activists and surrogates hurl at Mitt Romney is that he is surrounded by a group of wild-eyed George W. Bush neo-cons who cannot wait to bomb Iran and bring America into yet another Middle Eastern conflict, even before the war in Afghanistan has come to an end. A recent diatribe by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the November 8 edition of the staunchly left-wing New York Review of Books highlights the tone of these attacks. "Romney's bellicosity about Iran is not encouraging," he asserts. "Nor is the fact that he has turned for foreign policy advice to the architects and advocates of the Iraq War."
Appiah and his colleagues have it all wrong. None of the staunchest "architects and advocates" of the Iraq war, I repeat, none, is advising Governor Romney. Not Donald Rumsfeld. Not Dick Cheney. Not Paul Wolfowitz. Not Doug Feith. And none of their camp followers. None.
Admittedly, Romney has a few neo-cons advising him. But there are less than a handful of those -- Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, possibly Eliot Cohen, though he denies that he is a neo-con. Then there is John Bolton, whom Appiah singles out in his article. But apart from Bolton, none of these men was serving in the Bush administration when the decision was made to attack Iraq. Moreover, they are far outnumbered by so-called "realists" and other non-neo-cons who are advising the governor -- Ambassador Rich Williamson, Senator Jim Talent, Secretary John Lehman, former World Bank Chief Bob Zoellick, former Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriasnky, former Assistant Secretaries of State Kim Holmes and Chris Burnham, former Director of Policy Planning and State Mitchell Reiss, former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. Nor is it fair to term Eric Edelman a "neo-con" because he worked for Dick Cheney. Edelman is a career diplomat, a highly successful ambassador, and like the best of that group, he was a nonpareil advisor to whatever administration he served. And that is how it should be.
In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong in Governor Romney's having some neo-cons on his advisory team. Having everyone of the same mindset leads to mistakes of the first order. On the other hand, by allowing for the airing of different, indeed contradictory points of view, Romney is simply demonstrating that he is indeed a judicious leader, who is prepared to make choices rather than have them made for him. In his pathbreaking book, "Presidential Power," Richard Neustadt pointed out that FDR -- that liberal hero -- thrived on differences within his administration before making up his own mind. No one doubts that FDR was a great president; if Romney's decision-making process emulates FDR's, that is not a bad thing at all, the New York Review of Books notwithstanding.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Last night's presidential debate was largely devoted to domestic and economic policy, reflecting the primary concerns of voters during this election season. Yet one of the few times that foreign policy came up has also generated a considerable amount of post-debate commentary -- the exchange between President Obama and Governor Romney over last month's Benghazi consulate attack. The complexities of the case came out when debate moderator Candy Crowley's clumsy effort to officiate actually made things worse, and was widely seen as an unfair intervention against Romney -- as Crowley now admits.
Even more notable, today's purported effort by the New York Times at "Clearing the Record on Benghazi" seems to be an unfortunate case of either sloppiness or partisan distortion in the guise of fact-checking. Reporter Scott Shane goes to great lengths to absolve President Obama of mischaracterizing the Benghazi consulate attack on September 11. Specifically, Shane says that "Mr. Obama applied the "terror" label to the attack in his first public statement on the events in Benghazi" and "the next day, Sept. 13, in a campaign appearance in Las Vegas, he used similar language." The article then tries to excuse the fact that the Obama administration refused to characterize the Benghazi atrocities as an organized attack by a terrorist group with the head-scratching assertion that "the 'act of terror' references attracted relatively little notice at the time, and later they appeared to have been forgotten even by some administration officials."
As anyone who has worked in either government or the media knows, senior administration officials use their public words carefully, deliberately, and in a coordinated manner -- they do not simply "forget" how to describe a major event in which four American officials were killed.
The fact that President Obama used the word "terror" is beside the point, since even a spontaneous mob lynching (the White House's preferred characterization at the time) is an "act of terror." Moreover, as anyone who has read the White House transcript can immediately tell, Obama used the word "terror" in reference to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Curiously Shane's article omits this context and fails to link to the transcript.
Rather, the core question from Benghazi is whether it was a pre-meditated attack by an organized terrorist group, or spontaneous mob violence in response to the anti-Muhammed video. The available evidence overwhelmingly substantiates that it was the former, yet for over a week after the attack the Obama administration systematically insisted that it was the latter.
This line was most evident in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's talking points, delivered verbatim at the behest of the White House on multiple news shows. Those talking points were explicitly designed to do two things: 1) knock back the "this was a terrorist attack" allegation and 2) advance the White House's preferred angle that the assault on the consulate was a spontaneous mob response to the offensive video. This deliberate messaging campaign achieved both goals temporarily, until more evidence began to surface publicly about both the nature of the attack and the early reporting on it by the American intelligence community.
Only after this campaign crumbled did the Obama administration decide to pivot awkwardly to the new angle that President Obama himself pushed last night -- creating the misleading impression that the White House had never peddled the "this wasn't a pre-meditated terrorist attack" line in the first place.
Why does this even matter? Because it is not a trivial quibble over words but rather a serious debate over some of the Obama administration's core national security doctrines and claims of success. To Shane's credit, he mentions this at the end of his article. Specifically, the White House has for months been boasting that Al Qaeda is near-defeat, and has been portraying the 2011 Libya intervention as an unqualified success. These are in part political claims that feature in the Obama re-election campaign, but they are also policy commitments that guide how the administration acts -- including mid-level State Department officials who deny requests for increased security in Libya.
The fact that an Islamist terrorist group with links to al Qaeda and operating in Libya could stage such a destructive attack on American property and personnel severely undercuts both of those White House claims. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers may not be "on its heels" after all (as even the White House might now be acknowledging), and "leading from behind" coupled with anemic post-conflict stabilization efforts may not have led to a stable, peaceful Libya. At a minimum, those are legitimate topics for debate.
Like most foreign policy specialists, I have generally welcomed the way the presidential campaigns have begun to focus more on national security. Even if this election will be decided on economic matters or on base-turnout machines, it still is important for the campaigns to debate foreign policy. In that regard, Romney's speech yesterday at VMI was timely -- I would say, overdue.
Romney's speech was sound and sensible. One could quibble here or there -- a fair-minded Obama supporter can ask what more can Romney do than Obama has done to try to get the NATO allies to honor their defense budget commitments -- but as these sorts of speeches go, it was careful and precise. It didn't answer every question someone might have for the Governor, but it laid down some important markers.
In fact, it was so sensible that it made the Obama campaign's response -- or rather, "presponse," since they released it before the speech was given -- look rather nonsensical by comparison. The memo was written by two top Obama surrogates, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. I have great respect for both of them, but I having a hard time reconciling the various contradictions in their critique.
On the one hand, they try to dismiss Romney as extreme and ideological, to the right of President Bush. On the other hand, in the very next paragraph, they try to dismiss Romney as merely echoing Obama's own policies. Is Obama extreme and ideological and to the right of President Bush?
They try to dismiss Romney as vague and lacking in specifics on he would do in the next four years. But has there ever been an incumbent more reluctant to offer specifics about what he would do with a second term than President Obama? Is there anyone who can say with confidence how Obama intends to handle relations with China or with Russia going forward? Does anyone know what is the significance of Obama's promise to Medvedev to show Russia more "flexibility" after the election? Has Obama outlined a coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria? Or what he will do if the current sanctions do not convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions?
Given how dramatically the administration has retreated on Afghanistan from its "war of necessity" pose of 2009 to its "Afghan good enough" pose of today, does anyone really know what sort of commitment a second term Obama would honor in 2014 when the mission is scheduled to transition to a new phase?
These are difficult issues to debate. I had a chance to discuss them briefly with Flournoy on PBS New Hour last night and I am not sure I made my points as effectively as I should have. Of course there is some similarity between what Obama and Romney are proposing now on Syria or Iran. Obama's approach has backed us into a corner and there are only so many ways out of a corner.
Moreover, Obama's approach on both countries has evolved significantly in the direction of policies Romney has consistently supported for a long time. On Iran, the administration shifted from an unconditional bilateral talks approach of 2009 -- an approach they stuck with for far too long and which caused them to squander the opportunities of the Green Revolution and the Fordow surprise -- and only ramped up the pressure track after the Europeans and the U.S. Congress led the way. On Syria, Team Obama started off calling Assad a reformer and shifted to supporting the insurgents much later.
And on Iraq, there is no question that Flournoy worked diligently to secure a follow-on agreement and that Maliki was reluctant to compromise, as she claimed. But there is also no question that Flournoy did not get the help she needed from the White House and that all of the mistakes I listed (and more I could have but didn't) undermined the negotiations.
It is hard in a few minutes to get to the nub of these issues, but that is where the campaign debate should go.
I have great sympathy for Flournoy and Kahl. They are both smart and knowledgeable and they have served the country honorably. But in their campaign surrogate role they are operating under extreme constraints and may not be free to speak candidly about Obama's record. They know better than anyone else the long list of missed opportunities and implementation errors that has dogged President Obama's Middle East strategy since the very beginning. They were insightful in identifying similar problems in the Bush era. If they applied to Obama the kind of sharp-eyed standards they applied when they were on the opposition bench, the results would be a withering critique of the last four years.
Perhaps the Obama Team conducts that kind of sober self-assessment in off-the-record sessions. Let's hope so, because if they get the chance to govern for another four years, it would not be good for U.S. foreign policy if they governed according to the standards of their campaign memos.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Gov. Romney's speech at VMI this morning offers a few new insights into his thinking about foreign policy, such as specifics on Egypt and Syria. But the rhetoric and tone also continue to reveal a leader willing to state in bold terms the foreign policies he would pursue if elected that are unlikely to be popular in the general election nor even with some of the Republican base. Finally, he continues to show that he grasps the ugly realities we face in terms of our enemies and the circumstances they manipulate for their good and our harm, and that the United States must lead if we have any hope for success.
A few portions of the speech demonstrate these points. First, Romney repeats his assertion that no video or enraged mob explains the widespread and violent attacks on our embassies and personnel, including the murder of Amb. Stevens. Says Romney: "No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West." In the speech he also uses the term "Islamist extremists." Not shying away from this term is important for defining himself differently from the Obama administration.
He goes on, nevertheless, to find hope in this situation, by noting the many Libyans who took to the streets to denounce the terrorism and express their desire to remain close to the United States and not "go from darkness to darkness."
For Romney, such displays increase our hope that the United States can shore up our interests in this region. We should start by calling the problems what they are -- Islamist extremists who commit terrorism -- and then countering them with force and in league with allies.
He draws upon the example of Gen. George Marshall and the defeat of our enemies in Europe and the rebuilding of those societies and free and prosperous countries.
"We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today's crises from becoming tomorrow's conflicts.
Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century.
This is what makes America exceptional: It is not just the character of our country -- it is the record of our accomplishments. America has a proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership -- a history that has been written by patriots of both parties. That is America at its best."
Second, Gov. Romney offers some specific policy goals regarding several countries and issues. Some statements reflect what he has already said, but in a couple of cases, he offers new policy that is not necessarily the safe stuff that a campaign advisor likes to see. To focus on two (and not the obvious ones of Iran and Afghanistan), regarding Syria, he calls for U.S. involvement in the form of picking a side among the rebels and helping them succeed with arms:
"In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran-rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
For Egypt, he makes it clear we should use our aid to require the Brotherhood government to be open to all voices and be truly democratic, as well as to respect its treaty with Israel:
"In Egypt, I will use our influence-including clear conditions on our aid-to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid."
There are a number of other points Romney makes in this speech, which is clearly an attempt not only to lay out his views but provide a stark contrast to President Obama. Gov. Romney succeeds at drawing the contrast and in ways that show the same kind of bold and clear leadership, complete with specifics, that he offered recently in the first debate on the economy and healthcare. Thus, we've got a preview for the debate that covers foreign policy.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
After giving the Obama team a pass for the first couple weeks on the likely al Qaeda 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, the media is finally asking tough questions. And what they are finding raises troubling questions about what the Obama administration did before, during, and after the al Qaeda anniversary attacks.
Republicans risk over-reacting to this evolving storyline, particularly with the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme that is rising in certain sectors of the pundit world.
We may find evidence that Obama or his spokespeople lied -- that is, said things that they knew at the time were not true -- but I haven't seen convincing evidence of that yet. And, frankly, I would be surprised if that were the case. Most often, what partisans call "lies" are actually something far less sinister: inferential errors and wishful thinking. Since Democrats have peddled for years their own Big Myth about the Bush Administration "lying" about Iraqi WMD, the desire to pin that same tale/tail on the donkey is understandable. But Republicans should hold themselves to the higher standard they wish Democrats would meet rather than sink down to the level of their partisan attackers.
Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
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.
This is all very
understandable, and I just don't have much patience for the view that pretends
to be genuinely shocked that the Obama team has been playing politics with
national security at this stage in the campaign.
Perhaps we also shouldn't be shocked that the media let them get away with it for so long. The political game of footsie I outline above was only viable if the media played along, which they were willing to do for a while but no longer. The media was willing to play along because they are biased, even when they do not want to be. They find it easier to understand people like themselves, Democrats, and have to work harder to understand people not like themselves, Republicans. They are as prone to reading events through pre-established filters -- for instance, the filter that says Romney is gaffe-prone on national security and Obama has a strong record on terrorism -- as everyone else. And they must work in the hostile environment of the White House's "Chicago rules," which punishes reporters who challenge the administration. The better reporters overcome this, and we can see the fruits of their labors in the new scrutiny and skepticism of recent stories.
Campaigns should certainly point out and push back against biased media coverage, but campaigns should also understand that media bias is a given, rather like the Electoral College, and strategize accordingly.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
Recent days have witnessed the emergence of two divergent narratives regarding the wave of anti-American protests that have spread throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
The first, which originated from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo at the very beginning of the unrest, is centered on the spontaneous and righteous indignation of the Muslim street in the face of an amateurish film defaming their religion. Although the administration subsequently distanced itself from the embassy's statement laying blame for the violence at the feet of the filmmaker, the assertion that the ongoing unrest was the result of a trailer posted on YouTube, rather than a more fundamental outpouring of rage, remains at the core of the administration's narrative.
The second narrative, which the administration appears keen to play down, involves a deliberate attack by an Al Qaeda affiliate on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although senior administration officials, most recently United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, have termed the attack a spontaneous event, such a view is increasingly at odds with the facts. In an interview with National Public Radio (hardly at the forefront of the vast right-wing media conspiracy) Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, described the attack on the U.S. consulate as pre-planned and multi-phased.
Each narrative is problematic for the Obama administration. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is a coincidence that this wave of protests began on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. But perhaps not. Regardless of its origins, the ongoing violence is stark testimony to the failure of the outreach to the Muslim world that lay at the heart of Obama's Middle East policy.
Obama, a Christian originally of Muslim heritage who lived in Indonesia and attended a predominantly Muslim school as a child, has seen himself as uniquely qualified to use the force of his personality to transform America's relationship with the Islamic world. Speaking in Cairo in June 2009, Obama pledged to repair relations with Muslims. The logic undergirding Obama's policy was that a conciliatory approach would increase America's standing and improve its security.
Such logic appears increasingly open to question. First, data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that the United States is more unpopular now in key Muslim states than it was when Obama first took office. In 2009, for example, 74 percent of Jordanians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today it is 86 percent. In 2009, 68 percent of Pakistanis held an unfavorable view; today it is 80 percent. And in 2009, 70 percent of Egyptians held an unfavorable view of the United States; today, after Obama's Cairo speech and the overthrow of Mubarak, the number stands at 79 percent. In other words, the roots of Muslim rage lie not in who occupies the White House, but in more fundamental and less tractable causes.
Second, the logic of Obama's policy was that if Muslims liked the United States more, then Americans would be more secure. Despite Obama's admonition that U.S. leaders not "spike the football" in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration has initiated repeated bouts of chest thumping. In recent months, administration officials have repeatedly portrayed Al Qaeda and its affiliates as organizations in decline.
The situation on the ground would appear to be somewhat different. Aside from the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, the U.S. position in Afghanistan has suffered setbacks at the hands of Al Qaeda's friends, the Taliban. On Friday, U.S. forces at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan suffered an attack that killed two Marines and destroyed seven percent of the AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft in the U.S. combat inventory. Yesterday the U.S. military suspended combat patrols with Afghan forces because of a mounting wave of attacks by Afghan security forces on their American partners, undermining the thrust of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
It remains to be seen how the past week's events will affect the presidential election. At the very least, these emerging narratives call into question Barack Obama's stewardship of American foreign policy. More seriously, they could prefigure a more serious weakening of our position in the Middle East.
Charlie Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson have launched another round in our ongoing conversation about the Obama vs. Romney comparison on foreign policy. (You can read the exchange in chronological order: here, here, and here.)
After reading their latest, I think it may be time for me to declare victory. I had three principal claims in my initial response, and their piece (unintentionally) confirms all three.
First, I claimed that there were legitimate critiques of Obama's record from the Republican perspective -- i.e. not merely the critiques from the left, such as he shouldn't have kept his campaign promise to conduct a fully resourced COIN strategy in Afghanistan, or that he hasn't bragged enough about his accomplishments, or that "leading from behind" was bad spin. Obama partisans can usually be cajoled into making a critique of Obama from the left, but this hardly shows them to be fair and balanced. The test is whether they can admit a critique from the other side of the aisle, or whether their worldview denies the possibility of wisdom from the other party. I outlined just four Republican critiques, and challenged Kupchan and Jentleson to concede at least one or rebut them all. In their 2200 word response, they write about many, many things, but they avoid entirely answering the four specific critiques I raised. I know they saw the critiques, because they refer to them in passing. But Kupchan and Jentleson do not say whether they consider them valid or whether there is an Obama defense that neutralizes the critiques. My inference, based on my respect for them: If there was a strong rebuttal available, they would have provided it.
Second, I claimed that they substituted a cartoon version of Romney's foreign policy platform, trying to turn legitimate foreign policy debates into a Manichean struggle between Obama's essential goodness and, in their words, Romney's "Dangerous Mind." In their latest response, Kupchan and Jentleson go back to an older, more tired version of this Manichean worldview, this time attacking a cartoon version of Bush's foreign policy. But the cartoon fits only if one ignores inconvenient facts. Consider just two examples:
Far from relying "too heavily on power and bravado alone," it was the Bush administration that developed the G-20, the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative, the free trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the TransPacific Partnership, the strategic outreach to India, the 6-Party Talks on North Korea, the P5+1 framework on Iran, and so on -- all initiatives the Obama administration and Kupchan and Jentleson boast as proving their own smarter approach to global relations.
If we have left behind "a reasonably stable country" in Iraq that is "headed in the right direction," then surely the credit for that rests with the 2007 Bush surge, which President Obama vigorously opposed and tried to block. For my part, I think Kupchan and Jentleson paint a bit too vividly a rosy scenario for Iraq. I think the situation there is far more precarious. But if they want to declare victory in Iraq, they have to share credit with the Bush surge. And if they want to declare the Bush surge a failure, they can't claim Iraq is headed in the right direction now.
Third, I claimed that Obama's foreign policy successes came mainly in places where he followed in the tracks of his predecessor -- tracks that Romney would likely follow, as well -- whereas his foreign policy failures came mainly in places where he struck out on his own. As my analysis of the first two claims makes clear, Kupchan and Jentleson prove my point rather nicely. For the most part, they avoid talking much about the areas of genuine Obama innovations on the foreign policy front (with the exception of the Russian reset) and instead dwell mainly on approaches and initiatives that hail back to the Bush era, and they invariably describe them as glowing successes.
Given their particular areas of expertise, I would have liked to see more discussion of the situation in Syria. They mention Syria just once, when they concede that Russia has now taken an oppositional stance on Syria (sounds a bit like they are saying Russia is our foe on that geopolitical issue....maybe a geopolitical foe...perhaps the top geopolitical foe blocking U.S. action through the UN?). But surely it deserves more discussion than that. Isn't Syria a critical case for the effectiveness of any Obama doctrine on American foreign policy, one that they claim "restored confidence in American power and purpose"?
Kupchan and Jentleson are among the best foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side of the aisle and their two pieces together present a clear picture of how Democratic experts would like to frame the foreign policy debate. That frame does not fit the facts very well, but we won't know until November whether it fits the public mood well enough to scare voters away from Romney.
In the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan's selection as the Republican vice presidential nominee, there has been intense interest in his views and experience. Some of this has produced long profiles, rich in detail, that mostly save their editorializing until the very end, as with Ryan Lizza's well-timed piece in the New Yorker. Lizza focused heavily on Rep. Ryan's free market philosophy and his extensive work on fiscal reform.
Other pieces have gone after Rep. Ryan's foreign policy credentials, sometimes neglecting the importance of his grasp of economic matters. My view may be affected by my upbringing as an economist, but this seems an odd critique at a time when economic concerns and globalization are at the forefront of international discourse. From this perspective, Rep. Ryan is well equipped to lead on these issues.
While I have advised both the McCain and Romney campaigns, my only personal connection to Rep. Ryan (aside from a common Southern Wisconsin origin) came when I had the privilege to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on U.S. economic policy toward China. The questions and comments from Rep. Ryan at those hearings were at least as astute as those from any other member of Ways and Means, or any that I received at House Foreign Affairs hearings on the same topic. Rep. Ryan's intelligence, studious approach, and grasp of economic principles serve him very well in this arena.
Nor can one argue that international economic issues constitute only a trivial part of our foreign policy. One measure of the relative importance of these issues is the extent to which they preoccupy our allies. Eurozone diplomats are obsessed right now with questions of fiscal reform and growth. European Union ambassadors and visiting ministers express great interest in tighter economic integration with the United States. Japan's prime minister has risked fracturing his party to pursue membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP itself was a Bush-era initiative revived by President Obama when he headed off to Asia in November 2009 and realized it would be hard to have a fruitful discussion with Asian leaders if he had no international commercial policy.
This all suggests that Rep. Ryan is well-positioned to take on some of our most difficult and important security issues. But what has he specifically done in this area, besides asking good questions? He has prominently supported the idea of a Middle East Free Trade Agreement, another Bush-era initiative, albeit one that has yet to be revived by the current administration. This support of MEFTA inspired a particularly strained critique of Ryan's qualifications in these same (virtual) pages.
The critique argued MEFTA was based on the flawed premise that free trade agreements promote democracy and the rule of law. It claimed the persistence of autocratic regimes in the region is proof that the approach was a failure. Even if evidence suggests free trade is accompanied by democratization, the argument continued, we know that correlation does not imply causality. The critique concluded that Rep. Ryan's principled stance in favor of free trade should be interpreted as "a willful aversion to nuance... that tells us a lot about Paul Ryan." The only evidence offered of aversion to nuance is Ryan's positive take on the role of free trade in Colombia and Peru.
The lack of nuanced understanding here seems to be on the critic's part. The piece implies that only a blind faith in the power of trade flows undergirds the claims of ‘rule of law' and democratization benefits. In fact, high standards free trade agreements of the sort used by the United States and the European Union include specific provisions about legal process and transparency. They go well beyond mutual agreement to eliminate tariffs.
The particular example of Peru actually provides strong evidence in support of Rep. Ryan's claim. The argument that we must look beyond simple correlations is well taken, of course, but it has been done in the Peruvian case. Just after the trade agreement between Peru and the United States came into force, I went to Lima to interview a range of influential Peruvians, including former negotiators, academics, and business leaders. They described the agreement's rule of law benefits as one of the top reasons they sought the agreement and argued that its benefits extended well beyond expanded trade flows (Peru already had largely duty-free access to the U.S. market before the agreement ever came into force). The critique misses the extent to which FTAs with developing countries are about policy credibility and encouraging investment, rather than border barriers.
The argument that the persistence of illiberal regimes in the Middle East discredits MEFTA is particularly weak. First, Rep. Ryan and MEFTA proponents argued only that it was a "carrot" that would encourage reform. That's not the same as claiming that it is a panacea that completely transforms any country it touches. Imagine if domestic programs were considered discredited any time they failed to cure social ills completely. Second, the author counts repression of dissent in Saudi Arabia against MEFTA, though he notes that the United States does not, in fact, have an FTA with Saudi Arabia. This further demonstrates the critique's tenuous grasp of what FTAs actually do (equating them solely with ample trade flows or lower trade barriers).
Finally, the critique falls into the same trap that much of the trade and democracy literature does, treating democracy as a discrete variable, rather than a more continuous measure. The critique thus argues that Hong Kong, with abundant trade, is "far from democratic." But how far? And does anyone think Hong Kong would be allowed more democratic freedoms if it were not a major commercial hub?
Mainland China is not democratic by any stretch of the imagination, but excessively crude measures of democratic progress can indicate that no progress has been made since the Cultural Revolution. In fact, China's integration into the world economy has been accompanied by substantially greater freedoms, even if the country has a long way to go. As I argued here, there is good reason to think that the linkage is causal.
It is hardly a surprise that there should be efforts to discredit a vice presidential candidate in a highly charged political season, but on free trade and foreign policy, Paul Ryan has it right.
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won't be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party's record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion's share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" -- and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team's rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor -- it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor's watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama's Asia strategy -- the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results -- were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton's watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama's successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama's national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won't cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama jumped from issue to issue. At times, in all this leaping, he found himself on the opposite side of a stance he had taken minutes before.
Early on, he claimed success on his bailout of the auto industry (continuing a policy launched by Pres. Bush) and claimed it was a model that could be replicated:
"On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen...We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh."
Then, minutes later:
"It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."
One of the most striking themes of a generally hodgepodge speech was strong skepticism about trade. The president fully embraced the "lump of labor" fallacy, in which one imagines a fixed number of jobs in the world that are simply slung back and forth across oceans.
"Let's remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores…we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed."
The strong implication is that the rest of the world has been booming, enjoying all those factory jobs they swiped from us. It's difficult to find that in the data. But the president promised to chase down foreign wrongdoers with a new Trade Enforcement Unit.
He claimed previous efforts at trade enforcement, such as his tariffs on Chinese tire imports, had saved American jobs (1,000, in that case). This is interesting on several counts. First, he made the claim in the context of saying that "I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules." Yet the Chinese tire tariffs case never even alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Chinese. They were just selling at low prices.
Second, other observers have generally found no evidence those tariffs did anything to help American workers. The U.S. China Business Council, in a study, concluded:
"U.S. imports of the low-end tires involved in the case have actually increased substantially since the tariffs were imposed -- but have shifted from China to other countries. And, there is no objective evidence that the tariff boosted U.S. tire manufacturing jobs."
A Wall Street Journal report last week reached a similar conclusion. In order to be fair, the Journal offered the administration the chance to rebut, but reported: "Spokespeople at the ITC, the Commerce Department, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative say they have no comprehensive analysis yet of the broad effect that the tariff has had." That was last week. So how did the President determine that 1,000 jobs were saved?
The third point on this illuminating case is that -- even if his numbers were right -- the president thinks it would be a successful policy to charge tens of millions of Americans more for their tires if it protected 1,000 jobs. That's a fairly stark statement in favor of protectionism.
So much for what the president did say. What about the things he did not say? He made no mention of his vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership. Recall that two months ago, in Hawaii, this was a pillar of his administration's turn back to Asia. It is a highly ambitious undertaking and would require a huge administration effort, in close collaboration with Congress, if it were to conclude this year. The State of the Union is traditionally where an administration sets out its priorities for the year ahead. Yet not a mention.
Nor did the president say anything about the economic crisis in Europe. One hears that the White House considers it the biggest threat looming over a nascent U.S. recovery. If the president were truly trying to describe the State of the Union, Europe's predicament would seem to deserve some serious mention.
But it would fit awkwardly in a campaign speech and was thus, presumably, omitted. The topic, after all, seems to highlight the potential dangers of excessive borrowing, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels demonstrated in his response:
"In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe. But ours is a fortunate land. Because the world uses our dollar for trade, we have a short grace period to deal with our dangers. But time is running out, if we are to avoid the fate of Europe, and those once-great nations of history that fell from the position of world leadership."
That's certainly not an image the president wanted to invoke, as he moved on to a grab bag of new spending proposals and as his administration delays the release of his budget.
Thus, the state of our union: we're in campaign mode.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
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.