Vice-President Biden may have fired up his base with his sneering condescension last night, but I wonder whether he may have unintentionally fired up others as well.
Before the debate had reached the 10 minute mark, FP.com's own Josh Rogin pointed out that Biden told a whopper on Benghazi security. This is not a trivial matter, and when even mainstream reporters are saying that Biden has some "clean up of his own to do today on Libya," Biden must know he made a grave mistake.
Moreover, as this careful reconstruction makes clear, the administration faces very serious and troubling questions about the way they have misled the public on what happened in Libya.
The administration desperately needs a scapegoat to keep this scandal as far from the White House as possible. And that is why I think that, beyond Biden's fact-challenged statements, the more consequential thing he did last night was to try to make the intelligence community (IC) the scapegoat (and I am not the only one who picked up on this). Based on this interview with Obama's deputy campaign manager, the fingering of the IC appears to be a deliberate, coordinated strategy by the politicos -- and it is very risky.
First, as numerous fact-checkers have already pointed out, the administration did not merely go with whatever the IC told them. They went with whatever was the most politically useful story at the time. The Obama campaign keeps complaining about how Romney-Ryan have politicized this issue, but in fact the Obama campaign has played this as a political issue from the very start.
Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.
So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat.Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security -- and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.
The CIA was not the only national security institution Biden took aim at last night. Even more troubling was the damage he did to civil-military relations, which I will take up in a later post.
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The Obama campaign recently took umbrage with criticisms of the president's Cuba policy by Paul Ryan in a campaign swing through Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community. Ryan charged that the policy amounted to appeasement of the Castro regime, to which the campaign responded that Obama "has repeatedly renewed the trade embargo with Cuba, pressured the Castro regime to give its people more of a say in their own future, and supported democracy movements on the island."
Yet even as the campaign defended the president's policy, administration officials were furiously rewriting the rules of one of the president's signature Cuba initiatives that had gone scandalously awry.
Last year, the Obama administration significantly liberalized Bush-era restrictions on private travel to Cuba that were designed to deny hard currency transfers to the Stalinist dictatorship. The thinking behind the change was that "purposeful" or "people-to-people" travel can build relationships between Americans and Cubans and empower the latter to think and act as individuals rather than as vassals of the state.
Well, as it happens, the initiative came to serve no purpose other than to become a propaganda vehicle for the Castro regime with the complicity of fellow-traveling U.S. tour operators. Far from promoting contact with real Cubans, the trip itineraries revealed close collaboration with the Castro regime and featured interactions only with Cubans approved by the regime -- hapless minions who could only be counted on to spout the party line that all of poor, little Cuba's problems are caused by the big, mean old United States.
And where the indoctrination ended, it was rounded-out by frivolous tourist activities -- rum, salsa, Hemingway! -- that are carefully walled off from interaction with ordinary Cuban citizens.
In fact, the abuses became so flagrant that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) held up the nomination of a senior State Department official until the administration agreed to review a program that had egregiously gone off track.
Typical of the purposeless results is a recent report in which a professor at the University of Iowa gushed about an essay written by a student after meeting with "an American fugitive who had escaped the country and taken asylum in Cuba." That would likely be either Joanne Chesimard or Charlie Hill, two radicals wanted by U.S. authorities for the murders of U.S. law enforcement officials in the 1970s.
Then there is the Duke University Alumni Association promoting an "Art & Architecture Tour of Havana" next month. Not only is the trip wholly choreographed by the Castro regime, but the group is only allowed to meet with regime-approved artists. But the key line in their brochure is this: "The arts have long presented Cubans with an opportunity to cautiously express their views on society."
Such an assertion is patently false and only demonstrates the dishonest degree trip organizers will go to pretend they are serving a higher cause in traveling to Cuba -- and receive their coveted license to travel. And in it they provide the most salient lesson of all: that engagement with totalitarian regimes rarely changes them, but it does change us. It forces people to obfuscate their language, to compromise their values, and to accept unjust and immoral situations and arrangements they wouldn't tolerate anywhere else in the world.
It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will restore some sanity to its liberalized travel regime to Cuba by truly making it purposeful and people-to-people. They have an opportunity to act to demonstrate they really are working to help the Cuban people have more of a say in their own future and to support democracy movements on the island. Because the status quo is having the exact opposite effect: by further enabling the Castro brothers to suffocate the Cuban people's legitimate aspirations for freedom and a better future.
Josh Rogin's take on Gov. Mitt Romney's speech Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering left me scratching my head. Much of his piece quoted Romney's remarks to good effect by highlighting portions where Romney calls for reforms designed to treat the causes of poverty, oppression, and suffering, not just the symptoms. But in a couple of key places Rogin draws inferences the text does not support, such as the inference that a Romney administration won't be as interested in humanitarian assistance. In another place, he says that Romney believes that the corruption that results from foreign aid is because today the vast majority of foreign aid comes from private sources (investment and charitable giving) and not from governments. But Romney simply did not say any of this. Let's look at these in reverse order.
Rogin notes that Romney understands the American public's frustration with decades of aid that is ineffective and doesn't solve problems. And worse, as Romney notes, the aid gets into the hands of corrupt governments. That is, Americans believe that for too long the U.S. provided aid that didn't do what it was supposed to do: End suffering and promote prosperity. The context of the entire quotation is historical in nature, and that is important to understand in order to get Romney's next point.
Romney asserts that "Perhaps some of our disappointments are due to our failure to recognize just how much the developing world has changed. Many of our foreign aid efforts were designed at a time when government development assistance accounted for roughly 70 percent of all resources flowing to developing nations. Today, 82 percent of the resources flowing into the developing world come from the private sector. If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives."
But Rogin takes these comments -- the lament about ineffectiveness and corruption -- and interprets Romney to be saying that the failure is due to this very privatization of aid. This is odd. Romney cannot possibly believe that for two reasons. First, as an advocate of the private sector, the governor knows that corruption results from too much government control and power over people's lives, not less. More aid flowing from the private sector of the developed countries to the private sector of the less developed countries is a good thing. The only corruption I can think of that could be suggested by increased inflows of private sector money is when foreign businesses pay bribes to get an advantage, but Romney says nothing about that and Rogin does not suggest it. Besides, that would be an argument about too much power in the hands of government, the very thing Romney decries because it makes aid ineffective and breeds corruption.
Second, as I noted above, Romney is referring to Americans' frustrations in historical context, the "years of aid relief" that don't work as planned. So he states what Americans have been seeing and thinking over the years, and says they want something different. Romney thinks that something different is here and now but we haven't adapted to it yet. That is, more aid flows from and to private hands and that is a good thing, but our policy is outdated and needs to catch up to that fact and build on it. Says Romney, "If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives." The point should be clear: If we want to avoid foreign aid ineffectiveness and corruption, we need to make sure our policies promote the private sector in the developing countries. This is the point about partnerships and trade.
Another problem with Rogin's interpretation of Romney's remarks is the former's assertion several times that Romney wants to "deprioritize" or "lower the priority" of humanitarian assistance. Romney simply did not say this. Let's first note exactly what Romney said the priorities of foreign assistance should be.
"There are three, quite legitimate, objects of our foreign aid. First, to address humanitarian need. Such is the case with the PEPFAR initiative, which has given medical treatment to millions suffering from HIV and AIDS.
Second, to foster a substantial United States strategic interest, be it military, diplomatic, or economic.
And there is a third purpose, one that will receive more attention and a much higher priority in a Romney administration. And that is aid that elevates people and brings about lasting change in communities and in nations."
This is a clear and definitive statement of Romney's priorities and goals with his suggested reforms. At no point in these lines does he suggest what Rogin appears to infer, that Romney wants the U.S. to provide less humanitarian assistance. But Romney would put a higher priority on aid that works; on aid that keeps governments from getting in the way of free people and free markets; and on aid "that elevates people and brings about lasting change." It is a stretch to say this means deprioritizing humanitarian assistance unless you believe that the one and only way to deliver humanitarian assistance is by means of government, or that there are no partnerships between the public and private sectors to fulfill this foreign assistance goal.
The GOP nominee laid out one of the boldest and clearest reforms since the U.S. foreign assistance regime was inaugurated with the Marshall Plan more than half a century ago. In doing so, Romney recognizes the problem of too much government control over problems that only the private sector can solve. He celebrates work and personal achievement over never-ending government programs that treat symptoms and not causes...sort of like he does with the U.S. domestic economic problems.
Like every other foreign policy specialist I know, I have spent the last week thinking and talking (hopefully in that order) about the unfolding crisis in the Middle East. My initial thoughts hold up pretty well, I think, but some revisions and extensions are in order.
First, an additional level needs to be considered: the ceremonial. The killing of Ambassador Stevens -- the first U.S. ambassador to be killed like this since 1979, a painful echo to the troubled times of the Carter administration -- elevated the crisis from mere anti-American riots into a far more serious dimension, one that called for a different, more elevated response than the Cairo riots required. President Obama performed well at this ceremonial level, and Governor Romney did not. For the subsequent 24 hours, Obama and his administration fulfilled the role of Mourner-in-Chief and Spokesman-for-the-Country, and did so with eloquent eulogies to the slain and to their professions. The anti-Romney critics were wrong to claim that Romney's less than satisfying performance of this ceremonial role called into question his capacity to be an effective commander-in-chief, but they had a legitimate point that Romney has a way to go before he can be as effective a Consoler-in-Chief as Obama. This is a reasonable, albeit limited, critique and the Romney team should take it on board and not dismiss it just because it is usually delivered in a package wrapped with partisan sneer.
Second, if I was too kind to Romney by omitting the ceremonial level of analysis, I was probably too kind to Obama on evaluating his performance at the tactical level. The more we learn about what was happening at the tactical level, the more troubling the picture gets. We still have much to learn, and hopefully a vigorous Congressional oversight process will bring this all to light, but here are just some of the questions that need to be resolved:
And, finally, those infamous tweets merit a bit more serious attention than most of the media has given them thus far. All along, Obama partisans have sought to criticize Romney for the timing and tone of his complaint about the tweet -- the complaint came late at night while the crisis was still unfolding and Romney reiterated the complaint rather than pivot to language befitting a Mourner-in-Chief once he learned about the fatalities in Benghazi. As I said in my original take, and repeat more forcefully here, I think there are legitimate complaints to make about Romney's timing and tone. But Romney's original complaint itself also had merit, and perhaps it is time to spend a fraction of the electrons devoted to criticizing how Romney said it to exploring what Romney said. When we do, several questions arise:
Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns agree that the events of the last week raise important and perhaps awkward questions for the other side. I hope both sides will step up and answer those questions. That will only happen if we keep asking them.
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The dominant story line of the Ryan pick is probably the correct one: This focuses the national election on the Big Issue of the parties' differing philosophies on how to fix America's troubled economy. I have been struck by the zeal with which both sides have embraced the Ryan pick, each believing that it presents a golden opportunity to present the contrast between the two parties. Each team fervently believes the contrast favors their side, since each team fervently believes the American public will embrace their view, if only the view is presented clearly enough.
But does the Ryan pick have any implications for foreign policy, the bailiwick of Shadow Government? To answer that, I reviewed the most consequential Ryan speech on foreign policy, an address to the Hamilton Society (full disclosure: I am the faculty advisor to Duke's chapter of the Hamilton Society and enthusiastically support its mission to provide informed debate on foreign-policy issues to college campuses).
The speech is well-worth listening to. Early on, Ryan offers a pithy summation that "our fiscal policy is on a collision course with our foreign policy." He fully embraces the Republican critique that the crash is avoidable -- that, because our political leaders keep kicking the fiscal can down the road, "we are choosing decline." Such decline is not inevitable, nor is it desirable.
The Obama campaign is going to great lengths to paint Ryan's political views as extreme. When it comes to foreign policy, I don't think they will be able to do that. The worldview Ryan presents in the speech may bother some FP colleagues, but it is not an extreme or radical worldview. Or, to put the matter more sharply: It is definitely not an un-American view. Indeed, it is squarely within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign-policy practitioners.
It is a worldview that recognizes the benefits -- to the United States and to the world -- that has come from American global leadership.
It is a worldview that tempers American exceptionalism with a recognition of the universalism of American ideals -- that is, Ryan recognizes that America is expected to bear burdens that other states do not, and also recognizes that the American idea has an appeal that other national founding ideas do not.
With a little digging, one could find echoing quotes from almost every president since Lincoln.
It is not triumphalistic; Ryan acknowledges limits to American power (as every president has done). It recognizes the need for prudence: In a brief section on Saudi Arabia, Ryan carefully navigates the tricky shoals of how to work with a longtime partner that does not share our values.
Perhaps its greatest appeal is the way he twins pessimism and optimism. Ryan paints a very pessimistic (albeit realistic) picture of the trajectory the country is on. And Ryan paints a very optimistic (and hopefully realistic) picture of the trajectory the country could be on, if we got our fiscal house in order.
It is this optimism that may provide the greatest appeal, and the most important philosophical contribution. My friend and former colleague Ryan Streeter is one of the most articulate thinkers on the ingredients of upward mobility and improving opportunity for lower- and working-class Americans, and he has long identified Paul Ryan as the political leader who most embodies the aspirational nature of American society. Streeter quotes Paul Ryan in a recent interview laying out this vision -- including a robust social safety net that serves more as a spring upward rather than a dependency trap:
We want an upward mobility society. We don't want a safety net that turns into a hammock that lulls people into dependency in this country. We want people to get up on their feet and grab that higher rung of the economic ladder. We believe in upward mobility. We don't believe in class division. We believe in growth and prosperity, helping people when they are down on their luck get back on their feet, and pro-growth economic policies that put America in the lead, that make us competitive, that stop tearing people down in this zero-sum thinking.
That last sentence contains the most consequential implication of Romney's selection of Ryan for American foreign policy. The possibilities of upward mobility, innovation, and entrepreneurship are also the attributes that have long distinguished America's global competitiveness and leadership. Romney and Ryan both realize that the single most important quotient of American power is the prosperity and moral purpose of the American economy, to generate prosperity and to inspire those across the globe who aspire to better lives for themselves.
Of course, in a short (20 minute) speech, Ryan cannot and does not answer all questions. He will get those questions in the coming weeks. If his Hamilton speech is any guide, his answers will likely resonate well with American voters.
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President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
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Drudge is pushing poll results that show a surprising tilt in favor of Romney: a 46-44 advantage among women registered voters.
I am puzzled, however, by a different poll that shows something different but equally surprising: a tilt in favor of Obama, but this time among the "veteran vote." According to Reuters, "If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population."
Part of the explanation is the way Reuters defines "veteran vote" to include not only the veteran but also "families." Adding in the families dilutes a demographic (male) that traditionally trends Republican with demographics (youth and women) that traditionally trend Democratic.
If adding in the family explains the gap, then there is not much of a story here. But if the Obama advantage extends to veterans and the military, that would really be something.
In previous elections, military and veteran (narrowly defined) voters have tended to vote Republican by margins bigger than what is seen in the civilian population. Of course, Democrats have worked very hard to overcome that gap. In 2002, they hugged the more popular Republican commander-in-chief. In 2004, they nominated a Silver Star winner as their standard-bearer who traveled the country with some of his fellow Vietnam vets and made a "reporting for duty" salute as his grand entrance at the national convention. In 2006, they ran on a "support the troops, bring them home from the front" platform. And in 2008, facing a war-hero and POW survivor, they tried to out-bid Republicans on pay and benefits for the troops and their families.
President Obama has assiduously courted the military along these same lines, and so I would not be surprised to see him outpoll his Democratic predecessors. But given other structural considerations between the two parties, I would be surprised to see him outpoll his Republican counterpart.
For one thing, in the same Reuters poll, Republicans have a 10 point advantage over Democrats among "veterans and their families" on the question: "In your opinion, which political party better serves the needs of veterans and their families." Republicans have a 5 point advantage over Democrats among the same group on "...which political party has a better plan, policy, or approach to the war on terror," a 6 point advantage on "...a better plan, policy or approach to Iran," and, for that matter, a 6 point advantage on "...the U.S. economy." Moreover, the veterans and their families are quite hawkish -- strongly opposing cuts to defense spending, tilting slightly in favor of something approximating unilateralism, and remarkably supportive of the use of force option to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (57 percent agree strongly or somewhat and only 17 percent disagree strongly or somewhat). If Obama has the advantage, it seems to derive more from a personal appeal than any across-the-board support for his platform.
For another thing, previous surveys of active duty and former military consistently show that military personnel tend to be conservative and tend to be more Republican than comparable demographic cohorts in the civilian world. Likewise, the regular survey of the Military Times readership -- which is not a representative sample of all veterans or all military, but is a useful sample of career military -- consistently has shown deep skepticism about President Obama as a leader.
For all those reasons and more, I still expect that Romney will "win" the military and veteran vote this time around.
Having said all that, however, I am not sure it is a good thing for civil-military relations that the campaigns vie for the military and veteran vote in this fashion. I understand why they do so -- it is a way of signaling that the party/candidate can be trusted on national security, and that is a legitimate thing to want to signal. But wooing the military/veteran vote can be corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The military have a distinctive position in American society. They are trusted with exceptional coercive power and a privileged access to our country's resources, but in exchange they are expected to be entirely subordinate to civilian authority.
We expect the military to salute and obey, even if they are not successfully wooed. President Obama is their legitimate commander-in-chief and has earned their respect and obedience by virtue of his success in persuading the entire electorate to support him, regardless of how he fared with the military themselves. Undue effort at wooing can contribute to a politicization of the military, making it that much more difficult for any commander-in-chief to exercise the constitutional role.
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Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
After Republican leaders rightly criticized Senator Obama, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, for being unqualified to be commander-in-chief and leader of the free world during the 2008 campaign, it would be an irony if they selected Marco Rubio, a former state legislator with merely two years in the U.S. Senate, as vice president in the 2012 election.
Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie will almost certainly not be the vice presidential nominee for the simple reason that they don't want to be president. Both declined to run for the top job because, if rumors are to be believed, they were unwilling to undergo the rigors and personal scrutiny that a presidential campaign brings. If they were unwilling to do so for the presidency, why would they do so for the much lesser prize of the vice presidency?
Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is too valuable to the GOP in the House. As one of the more serious-minded legislators in the party, he would be wasted on the vice presidency.
Besides which, the vice presidential nominee almost never makes an actual difference in the election. The great myth is that the presidential nominee should pick a VP from a swing state in order to win more votes there. The problem is, that never happens. Perhaps once in American history has the VP delivered his state and swung an election: LBJ bringing Texas to give JFK the prize in 1960. That's it, just once.
So it comes down to this: Who is actually qualified to be president? That's the question Mitt Romney should be asking in selecting his running mate. That's the only criterion that should really matter. There are very few people in the country with a plausible claim to being qualified for the presidency. Unfortunately, Bob Gates has definitively retired, reducing the number of candidates by one.
That leaves David Petraeus. Petraeus served as commanding general of both wars the U.S. fought over the last decade, headed up central command, and is now director of the CIA. And, of course, he had the courage and professionalism to serve in a deeply unpopular war and, remarkably, come out with his reputation enhanced. Probably no person alive has a better grasp of the international situation, America's role in the world, and the limitations and capabilities of American power.
Petraeus has nearly universal name recognition and is one of the most well-respected figures in the country. A year ago only 11 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him, according to Gallup, half that of Christie. And as a non-partisan figure he has not been tarnished by the partisanship and mud-slinging of recent years. Additionally, Petraeus would bring foreign policy expertise to the ticket, balancing Romney's focus on economic issues. If Obama really intends to claim that his foreign policy accomplishments should earn voters' respect, there is no one in the country with more credibility than Petraeus to take Obama's argument apart.
He would bring gravitas and seriousness to a campaign season that, so far, has been more memorable for the parade of not serious GOP challengers who, thankfully, had the decency to drop out. His intelligence and ethic of public service would be a good match for Romney's own. I admit "Romney-Rubio" has a nice, almost poetic ring to it; it rolls off the tongue beautifully. "Romney-Petraeus" has too many syllables. It sounds like something out of a technical manual, or a nickname for a loophole in the tax code. On the other hand, they might actually govern competently, which counts for something.
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Making foreign policy in a democracy is not easy. On top of the customary challenges of devising and implementing strategy in a complex international system, there are the additional factors of public opinion and the electoral cycle. These burdens vexed George Kennan so much that he came to disdain American democracy and despair of his country even being able to conduct an effective grand strategy. Similar frustrations sometimes beset contemporary commentators such as Tom Friedman, who express envy for China's autocracy and its apparent ease of decision-making.
But as Kennan failed to appreciate, democracy as a system also brings advantages to the making of foreign policy. These include the legitimacy of public opinion, the collective wisdom that can emanate from the body politic, the moral authority of democratic consent, the collective resources offered by participatory government, and the occasional brake on folly that public accountability can impose.
It is in this context that President Obama's recent open-mic embarrassment might be considered. When President Obama's own "oops" moment happened during his meeting with Russian President Medvedev in Seoul, the White House no doubt hoped that it would be nothing more than a one-day news story. Now that a couple of weeks have passed since Obama notoriously told the Russian leadership that he would have more "flexibility" once he was less accountable to the American electorate, the issue doesn't seem to be going away. Past hot-mic slips have been evanescent stories at best, but this one is likely to enter the annals of Obama administration foreign policy infelicities in the same file as "leading from behind," returning the Churchill bust to the UK, and showing the Dalai Lama the back door. The question is why?
In part this is because the White House itself is signaling its intention to make foreign policy a central part of its re-election campaign, which thus brings greater scrutiny on President Obama's foreign policy intentions during a second term. As a campaign tactic this focus is unsurprising, given the Obama administration's weak domestic and economic policy record. (The White House seems to realize this as well, hence the Obama re-election campaign's sheepishness about featuring past priority initiatives such as Obamacare or the failed stimulus package). But there are several other reasons why the "flexibility" remark won't soon be forgotten:
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Charlie Kupchan is both a first-rate scholar and a generally insightful commentator on foreign policy. This makes his FP article yesterday ("Sorry Mitt, It Won't Be an American Century") all the more puzzling and, frankly, disappointing. Navigating the article's internal contradictions can be a head-snapping experience. Kupchan begins with a snide dismissal of Mitt Romney's calls for renewed American global leadership as "hackneyed rhetoric," since in Kupchan's telling the U.S. is an exhausted, overstretched nation that needs to curtail its commitments abroad and "focus on the home front." Having described a diminished America, Kupchan then pivots and applauds President Obama's chest-thumping defiance that those who think America is in decline "don't know what they're talking about." But to back up his praise for Obama, Kupchan describes a world in which America's economy will soon be eclipsed by China, American capacity to project power is diminishing, America is overextended in the Middle East and Europe, and the American ability to influence global events is being overtaken by other rising powers. If that doesn't amount to American decline, I would hate to see what does.
What is going on here? I wrote last week about the confusions that seem to beset the "American decline" debate and the Obama administration's opportunistic political tactics of rhetorically rejecting American decline while implementing policies that assume (and advance) said decline. It is true that the global distribution of power is shifting towards the likes of China, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers. But -- and here is the key point -- these power shifts are not (yet) coming at the expense of the United States but rather primarily come at the expense of the European Union and Japan. For example, American share of global GDP for the last four decades has stayed relatively constant at 25-28 percent of global GDP, whereas the core EU and Japan's shares of global GDP have both declined by over 25 percent from their peaks. Defense budgets tell a similar story. The American share of global military spending has stayed roughly constant over the past decade, while the defense budgets of the United Kingdom, France, and Japan have declined substantially relative to China. So yes, the U.S. needs to adjust to shifts in the global balance of power -- but Mitt Romney is correct that these shifts do not need to come at the expense of American primacy.
This might well be the crux of the difference between the Obama administration and its Republican critics on the decline debate. Both sides agree that global power dynamics are shifting. But President Obama, at least in Kupchan's analysis, sees the shifts as cause to dial back American leadership, whereas Romney and many other Republicans see the shifts as an opportunity for renewed American leadership in helping shape the emerging order.
Yet as Bob Kagan and others have pointed out, while the U.S. is not yet in decline, there is a worrisome possibility that some of the Obama administration's policies are putting the U.S. on a path to decline. Kupchan actually applauds a series of Obama policies -- such as slashing future defense budgets, pulling back from Iraq and Afghanistan with outcomes still uncertain, and conceding that authoritarian capitalism is the model of the future -- that in fact risk diminishing America's standing in the world and cede global leadership to other emerging powers. To that list should be added Obama's exorbitant expansion of the national debt to the tipping point of parity with our national GDP, and a persistent unwillingness to reform the real drivers of our indebtedness: domestic welfare-state entitlement programs. (As just about everyone who follows this issue has pointed out, Obama's blithe disregard for his own Simpson-Bowles debt commission shows just how little entitlement reform seems to matter to this White House). This makes the Obama campaign's talking point, echoed by Kupchan, that it will focus on "nation-building here at home" sound like, well, hackneyed rhetoric.
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On the campaign trail, Republican candidates such as Gov. Mitt Romney frequently criticize President Obama for moving America towards a "European-style entitlement society" with sclerotic social welfare programs and crushing debt burdens. Two recent decisions by the Obama administration raise the prospect that the White House might also be following the European ethos -- or at least the prevailing French model of "laicite" and aggressive secularism -- on religious liberty. With apologies to historic French America-philes such as Lafayette and de Tocqueville, this is not the direction our country should go.
Normally domestic policy developments like Obamacare insurance mandates and school employment disputes in Michigan wouldn't be of much relevance for a foreign policy forum like Shadow Government. But the administration's position on the recent Supreme Court case on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School and Friday's Obamacare mandate eviscerating conscience provisions for religious institutions providing healthcare -- while appalling in their own right -- might also help explain a foreign policy puzzle that I have raised before -- why this administration has been so indifferent to the promotion of religious liberty abroad.
To briefly recap, on the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Justice Department took the position that religious liberty does not protect the right of religious institutions to hire their own employees in accordance with the organization's faith commitments. And the Obama Health and Human Services Department mandated that religious institutions such as hospitals and schools need to fund and include sterilization, contraceptive, and abortifacient coverage in their health insurance plans regardless of any doctrinal convictions otherwise. Just how bad for religious liberty were these two positions that the White House took? So bad that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the White House on Hosanna-Tabor in a 9-0 smackdown (those votes included Obama appointees Justices Sotomayor and Kagan), and the normally understated US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the HHS decision as "literally unconscionable" and "a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights."
The Obama Justice and Health and Human Services Departments -- with at least a green light if not a strong push from the White House -- embraced positions on religious liberty that can only be described as extreme. Religious believers may disagree among themselves on any number of theological, moral, and political issues, but they hold near unanimity on the imperative and importance of religious freedom -- in part precisely because religious freedom preserves the space for diversity and tolerance of differing opinions.
Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because it might help explain the Obama administration's otherwise baffling apathy on international religious freedom. I have lamented previously the administration's negligence on this issue, including the delay until over halfway through its first term to even put in place an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and the complete omission of religious freedom from the 2010 National Security Strategy. When seen alongside the administration's myopic positions on the two domestic policies mentioned above, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this White House sees religious liberty with indifference.
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There is a lively debate among theorists of civil-military relations about the appropriate levels of political activity in which the military may engage. Some advocate fairly tight restrictions, even encouraging soldiers to emulate Gen. George C. Marshall who famously refused to vote so as to demonstrate his apolitical professionalism. Others allow for greater leeway, and encourage the military to speak out more regularly in policy debates, even when those debates have a partisan overlay.
I tend towards the restrictive end of the spectrum. I do not discourage the military from voting, for instance, but I do think it is a mistake for prominent retired senior generals and admirals to campaign actively for political candidates (I do not see a problem with veterans of whatever rank running as candidates in their own right. When they do that, they clearly cross over to the pure political side. The problem is trying to maintain the authority, even deference, that comes with professional distance while simultaneously politicking for a candidate).
For a good introduction into the complexities of this debate, I recommend reading Risa Brooks survey of the topic: her chapter on "Militaries and Political Activity in Democracies," an excellent chapter in a recent compendium. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter in that same book, which I co-authored with a brilliant graduate student. I got permission to present and publish that article while still on the NSC staff because, when my superiors reviewed it, they declared it so academic and abstruse that no one would read it, and thus it would neither constitute a conflict of interest nor expose the White House to any risk of embarrassment -- or words to that effect. Sometimes, there is utility in academic irrelevancy.)
It is also clear that there is a spectrum of opinion within the ranks. A first-rate Georgetown U. dissertation by Heidi Urben (more full disclosure: I was on her dissertation committee) documents that Army personnel have some difficulty in determining where to draw the line -- is it acceptable to encourage fellow military comrades to vote? How to vote? To demonstrate the same with bumper stickers in the barracks?
So I accept that there are gray zones in the area of military and politics and that it is especially difficult to draw clear lines for reservists who have feet planted firmly in both civilian and military worlds.
However, I am hard-pressed to think of a specialists who would tolerate this: an Army reservist, Corp. Jesse Thorsen, speaking to a campaign rally before the Iowa caucus while in uniform. Perhaps there are lawyers who will try to argue that because the corporal was not on active duty at the time he may avoid the harshest punishment. And most people will point out that a corporal is very close to the bottom of the totem pole so hardly on his own capable of destroying our democratic institutions. But this seems a pretty clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Department of Defense regulations.
Of equal importance, it is corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The corporal may believe he is speaking only for himself, but the reality is that if he is wearing his uniform, his audience seems him as speaking on behalf of the institution. For that matter, almost no one is interested in what civilian Jesse Thorsen has to say; the primary reason he was invited to speak was that the campaign knew that folks would be interested in what a corporal had to say. It was his military status, in other words, that gave his political views cachet. That makes it a matter for civil-military relations and a matter for public rebuke.
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In assessing the most important things that the Obama Administration got right and got wrong in 2011, there are an abundance of choices in both categories. National security-wise, the Administration had a very mixed year -- genuinely so, in terms of a number of notable successes as well as a number of significant failures. The former include an improved strategic posture in Asia, the discovery of a freedom agenda for the Middle East and Asia, helping engineer Qaddaffi's ouster in Libya, and of course killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and other Al Qaeda High-Value Targets. The latter category includes being repeatedly behind the curve on the Arab Spring, waffling on Iran's nuclear program, botching the drawdown and military exit from Iraq, losing Pakistan, further alienating Israel, and getting left holding an empty bag on the Russia "re-set." While any of the above would be legitimate choices, my main criteria for selecting the best and worst is how each will look in the light of history. In other words, 25 or 50 years from now, what might historians look back on and evaluate as the best and worst of the Obama Administration's policies in 2011? I honestly don't know, and anyone who insists we can know history's judgments in advance is committing historical malpractice. But that doesn't mean we can't at least speculate -- and admit it is mere speculation -- on what might have the most enduring consequences. Here are mine.
The Obama Administration's Most Significant Success: Creating a new strategic posture in Asia. If the Obama Administration's initial Asia policy consisted of naively pursuing an illusory "G-2" with China while neglecting our regional allies and universal values such as human liberty, than 2011 marked a substantial course correction in the Indo-Pacific. A renewed commitment to allies such as Japan and Australia, increased attention to emerging partners such as India and Indonesia, outreach to potential partners such as Vietnam and Burma, and an upgraded strategic posture across the region were all features of a substantially improved Asia policy that has the potential to pay dividends for a generation.
The Obama Administration's Most Substantial Failure: The National Debt. Recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen frequently called the national debt "the single biggest threat" to our national security. Yet it was also the biggest failure of the Obama Administration during the year, a failure that might hurt America for decades to come. What was the White House's fault on this? Part of it was, to paraphrase Governor Mitch Daniels, a failure of arithmetic: presiding over the increase of the debt to the unfathomable amount of $15 trillion (an unprecedented increase of $4 trillion just since Obama took office) without making any effort to reform entitlement spending. But the bigger part of the failure was the White House's cheap demagoguery that attacked any credible plan such as Paul Ryan's, and the cynical disregard of bipartisan efforts such as Obama's own Simpson-Bowles Commission. All of which further poisoned the political environment and put any prospects for fiscal sanity on life support.
Why is this a national security failure? For the obvious reasons of how the debt strangles needed resources for the defense, diplomacy, and development budgets, or how it gives China economic leverage over us, or how it threatens the dollar's status as the global reserve currency. But more perniciously, the debt is a national security failure because of how it undermines one of the main pillars of American power and global preeminence: our economic dynamism and our model of an opportunity society. Ryan Streeter astutely calls this a "crisis of aspiration," and a national debt that now equals our national GDP cuts at the heart of American exceptionalism and leadership.
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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.