My last four posts, and particularly the concluding paragraph of the final post (here), have received some critical attention. The claim that al Qaeda is in far better condition now than on 9-11 seems especially egregious to some experts, so I'd like to take this post to state fairly the top five objections to my thesis. In follow-up posts, I'll answer each of these.
1) The al-Qaeda core does not command and control the affiliates, who are still primarily concerned with local matters.
Al Qaeda consists of the "core," a group of a few hundred men located somewhere in South Asia. Of course the core claims to control the affiliates -- groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- however, a close look at the development of the affiliates suggests that this is nothing but propaganda, used to make al Qaeda look bigger and more successful than it actual is. All the affiliates evolved out of local conditions, have overwhelmingly local memberships, and have local objectives. Many of them were failed terrorist groups, who seized on a relationship with al Qaeda to give them a new lease on life, and do not have any real commitment to al Qaeda's global objectives. The dispersion of al Qaeda core members out to these affiliates shows just how effective our war against them has been and demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the group.
Another line of argument judges that AQAP and others who have sworn fealty to the al Qaeda core are indeed part of al Qaeda, but argues that only in Somalia has al Qaeda -- through the section of the Shabaab that has sworn fealty -- been able to hold ground. In Yemen and other places they do not have any real base and even in Somalia, the Shabaab are now on the defensive from the regional forces that have boots on the ground. This line of argument would also agree with the other described above about command and control: It is impossible for the "core" to effectively control the actions of these distant affiliates.
2) The main objective of the al Qaeda core is to attack the U.S. All the other expressed objectives are mere propaganda by al Qaeda, used to radicalize Muslims and to inspire attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
The argument here is that no one should take seriously the outrageous propaganda spouted by al Qaeda's spokesmen. They naturally want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and claim all sorts of "achievements" and capabilities that they do not in fact possess. In addition, the larger objectives that they say they are aiming for are clearly fantasies (world domination -- really?) and unachievable. The actions of the affiliates, meanwhile, are judged to be either really aimed at local issues, or to be so ineffective that they can be safely left to capable partners.
3) The means that al Qaeda core has used to carry out its main objective are either cells trained in South Asia or adherents ("lone wolves"), who are radicalized through the internet or extremist preachers.
The U.S. has successfully prevented al Qaeda from operationalizing any large cells designed to attack U.S. persons since 2001. Because of these successes, al Qaeda was forced to rely on the far less effective "lone wolves," showing just how weak the group has become.
4) Based on these three points, the correct strategy for dealing with al Qaeda is counter-terrorism plus countering violent extremism.
Al Qaeda is little more than a small group of frightened men in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and thus to use the military against them is to over-react to a limited problem. It is also extremely expensive to involve the military and leads to the unnecessary loss of American lives. Instead, the U.S. should depend on a counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the group. This would entail law enforcement means and methods to take out the criminals, with the main aim of attrition (i.e. killing or capturing al Qaeda members), until the group is so weak that local law enforcement can handle them on their own (as they are doing in places like Indonesia and Turkey). We also need to stop the radicalization of individual Muslims (like Major Hasan) by countering the propaganda of al Qaeda and killing off its most charismatic leaders (see the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Bin Ladin himself).
For the affiliates, it is enough to involve regional and capable partners, who can be our surrogate "boots on the ground" in places like Somalia.
5) Without its charismatic founder, chief propagandist, main radicalizer and inspiration -- Osama Bin Ladin -- al Qaeda is doomed. In addition, the Arab Spring shows just how irrelevant al Qaeda has become for the life of the Muslim community.
The death of Bin Ladin and the Arab Spring were game-changers. Without its chief radicalizer, al Qaeda core will not be able to replace losses and will not be able to inspire young Muslims to carry out attacks against the U.S. This shows that the U.S. has nearly won the war on al Qaeda. The revolutionary events that we call the Arab Spring also demonstrate that al Qaeda -- once seen as so influential in the Muslim community -- has become largely irrelevant. Al Qaeda neither began nor influenced the course of the uprisings, and was ignored by those who participated in them. We can also see that (in general) the outcomes of the Spring have not favored al Qaeda's resurgence in these areas, and have in fact opened the path for a far more optimistic future for the Muslim world.
Now that I've convinced you that my last four posts are completely and egregiously wrong, you will need to come back over the next few days to see how I'll answer each of these objections.
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Now that Governor Romney can concentrate on the general election, he would be well-advised to consider again the ways that campaigning can complicate governing when it comes to foreign policy. In this, he has no better tutor than the last challenger to successfully win the presidency.
The political process rewards hyperbolic critique of the ruling party coupled with extravagant promises of wholesale change. If candidates governed according to the letter (or perhaps even the spirit) of their campaign rhetoric, then the problems might be acute. However, the prevailing pattern of American politics is a reversion to the mean, the persistence of pragmatic continuity in defiance of flamboyant critiques from the extreme flanks.
There is still room for mischief within the boundaries of that pattern. Sometimes the mischief is minor, as when candidate Obama promised in ever-more-rigid terms to adopt a position on the Armenian genocide that all seasoned experts knew he would abandon once in office -- as he did.
Sometimes the mischief is more consequential, as when candidate Obama promised unconditional leader-to-leader talks with Iran, which led the administration to squander two extraordinary opportunities in his first year in office -- Iran's short-lived Green Revolution response to electoral fraud in June 2009 and the revelations of the illegal uranium enrichment program at Fordow in September 2009. During this crucial period, Obama failed to intensify the coercive diplomacy that they developed later.
And sometimes the mischief is potentially quite profound, as when the Obama administration acted on their campaign belief that the way to leverage better cooperation from the Iraqi government was to underscore our determination to abandon them rather than to follow the Bush practice of hugging Maliki as closely as possible.
So far, Governor Romney has avoided these kinds of self-inflicted wounds. The closest he has come is calling Russia our "No. 1 geopolitical foe," which is a bit of hyperbole that the candidate probably wishes he had phrased differently.
His stance on the Chinese currency also might be a candidate for campaigning vs. governing scrutiny. He has promised to quickly declare it a currency manipulator. While many experts might agree that China has been manipulating its currency, successive administrations have shrunk from making that declaratory step because of concern about the significant repercussions of a trade/currency war that might ensue. Romney might be following a sophisticated strategy of jawboning, however, hoping to cajole China into taking more steps of their own to address the situation so that Romney's threatened step does not need to be taken. If China calls the bluff, however, a President Romney would have a difficult choice to make.
A successful Romney would probably walk back from reckless campaign promises when confronted with the stark responsibilities of governing. But better to avoid the recklessness in the first place.
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North Korea's apparently imminent test-launch of another ballistic missile brings an unwelcome complication to the Obama administration's overflowing inboxes. It highlights yet again the perpetual dilemma posed by the Kim regime: Whether you ignore it or engage it, North Korea invariably misbehaves. For all of the debates over U.S. policy, ultimately the main driver of North Korean behavior is not how the U.S. acts but rather the perverse nature of the Pyongyang regime itself.
Even though the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are in separate regions of the world, they share some linkages and reciprocal influences. In Pyongyang's case, the newest incarnation of the Kim dynasty does not like losing global attention to Tehran, and appears to be returning to its customary patterns of bluster and brinksmanship in part to recapture global headlines and increase its leverage in potential future negotiations with the U.S. Domestic politics no doubt play a role as well, as Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his hold on power and place himself in continuity with the legacies of his father and grandfather. From Tehran's perspective, one "lesson" from North Korea appears to be that possession of nuclear weapons helps ensure regime survival and increase bargaining leverage, despite international opprobrium.
Both nations' nuclear programs also complicate the Obama administration's planned "pivot" to Asia. I remain worried that the White House's Asia pivot contains a mistaken assumption that treats the Middle East and Asia as distinctly separate regions, subject to zero-sum allocations of American strategic resources. Yet as the administration weighs its limited menu of options for North Korea's latest provocation, there is an opportunity to consider potential strategic linkages between how the U.S. responds to North Korea and how it handles the Iran file. At least two possible paths come to mind. Both admittedly have significant downsides, but then what policy doesn't when it comes to North Korea and Iran? As tactically different as each approach is, both represent an effort to consider a strategic linkage between U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran.
Deterrent Linkage. This would mean the U.S. taking an aggressive response to North Korea's missile test, by throwing a brush-back pitch against Pyongyang and also sending a deterrent message to Tehran about American resolve and willingness to use force. Specifically, this could entail an attack on the North Korean Unha-3 missile while on the launch pad, or intercepting it after the launch in its boost phase. Bill Perry and Ashton Carter called for such a strike before North Korea's 2006 test, and Philip Zelikow laid out the case for a similar measure in 2009. Numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions (such as 1695, 1718, and 1874) have declared the illegality of North Korea's ballistic missile program, and such a strike could be justified on self-defense grounds by the U.S. and treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
A strike is of course a dramatic step that carries significant risks. The most significant is the potential for North Korean retaliation and escalation, but other risks include an embarrassing "miss" if the attack fails, heightened tensions with China, potential discord with South Korea if the Lee government disapproves, not to mention a further emboldening of Iran. On the other hand, if successful such an attack could serve as a strategic game-changer with implications in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Benefits could include restraining further North Korean provocations and bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table in better faith, diminishing China's virtually unqualified support for North Korea, and increasing Tehran's openness to a negotiated settlement by demonstrating that the U.S. mantra of "all options are on the table" is a credible threat.
Bargaining Linkage. If the Obama administration takes a less confrontational approach to North Korea's missile test (by, say, a ritual sternly-worded condemnation and perhaps yet another UNSC resolution), it could still be done in a way that creates linkage with the Iran issue. Given the limited options and risks of an aggressive North Korean response, this might be the more prudent path. If so, the White House should at least use its restraint with Pyongyang to increase its bargaining leverage with Beijing -- and thus potentially gain a strategic benefit in pressing Iran. This could mean quietly communicating to Beijing that the U.S. has considered but rejected the option of striking the North Korean missile, in part out of deference to China's preferences for a soft approach to its unruly ally. In return, the U.S. secures from China a commitment to publicly support increased sanctions pressure on Iran, in word and practice.
This approach also carries risks. China may be unwilling to credit American restraint on North Korea as a concession, and may likewise be unwilling to depart from its opposition to tightened sanctions on Iran. Pyongyang and Tehran might both perceive the lack of a strong response to the missile test as further evidence that nuclear adventurism ultimately has little cost (especially if Pyongyang follows up the missile launch with another nuclear test). But this path is also an opportunity for the U.S. to at least try to increase its bargaining leverage with Iran, by persuading China to see our restraint on North Korea as a trade-off rather than a giveaway.
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Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both.
After Qaddafi's fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. power more effectively than previous administrations, something an advisor subsequently branded as a "lead from behind" approach. Even though Libya is still an unfinished project, if you talk to enough Obamaphiles as I do, sooner or later the Libya model will be touted again, especially the dramatic comparison of how low cost Libya was compared to Iraq.
It was low cost, at least for the United States, but as for a model, it may be a precedent for doing nothing in the future -- at least that is the impression one gets from the latest reporting on Syria. Apparently, the White House has told Syrian rebels that they are on their own, that the United States will not be assisting them further, and so Assad may be on track to accomplish what Qaddafi could not: kill enough of his own citizens fast enough to defeat the rebellion before outsiders can intervene to tip the balance in favor of the "right side of history."
In this, the Obama administration may be following the Libyan precedent to the letter. The problem with "leading from behind" is that it really means "following another leader." In the Libyan case, the real leaders were the Europeans, especially the French and British. They led, Obama followed, and Qaddafi fell.
On Syria, no one is leading, not yet anyway. Perhaps the cross-border violence will finally prod Turkey into leading and, if so, perhaps the "Libyan model" will lead the Obama administration into acting. But until then, the Libyan lesson may simply be this: When no one leads, no one follows, and when no one follows, the international community does not act.
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The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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Jim Yong Kim is the American candidate for the World Bank president. The U.S. supported the European candidate for the IMF and the Europeans will support our candidate for the World Bank. I had assumed it was going to be Hillary Clinton. I was wrong and so were many others.
Overall, an out of the box pick and a clever pick in terms of responding to the expected lines of attack to a U.S. candidate. At the end of the day, the Europeans owe us this one after we helped them with the IMF, so ignore any manufactured "drama" about his candidacy being in question.
An initial set of thoughts:
1) Dr. Kim is a dual national both Korean and U.S. He helps respond to the criticism that the U.S. "holds" the World Bank. Perhaps Indra Nooyi's dual nationality was an issue for the White House because putting an Indian in such a role would have likely been "vetoed" by the Chinese.
Also, Dr. Kim's family will have experienced the power of prosperity and development in their own lives through the success of South Korea. South Korea and Ghana famously had the same GNP per capita in 1960. South Korea is now a donor nation and one of the world's largest economies. Dr. Kim's life experience is an asset.
2) Dr. Kim, as a College president has to manage a fractious board, a tenured faculty and deal with donors who want constant attention while also trying to provide thought leadership. The World Bank's staff are (too) pampered with many many privileges -- just like a tenured faculty. The World Bank's board is like a college board of directors -- only larger and more of a micro-manager than a college board of directors. The World Bank's donors -- including the U.S. congress demand constant attention -- just like college donors do. From that standpoint, he also is an interesting pic.
3) Dr. Kim, as a global health expert, answers the criticism that past World Bank Presidents "do not come with development expertise."
4) Tim Geithner is a prominent alum of Dartmouth and thus knows Dr. Kim, and the Treasury Department is the lead agency when it comes to the World Bank for the U.S. Government. This is how Dr. Kim would have been put on the table.
5) Dr. Kim's challenge is that the big opportunities for the World Bank are not in the global health arena and the World Bank will not be the leader in global health going forward. He will need to pick lieutenants who bolster him in three areas. First, in terms of bolstering the World Bank's work in the private sector, a strong banker with development experience would be a good pick for the IFC job (which is also open) -- my recommendation would be someone like the Dutchman, Michael Barth, former head of FMO (the Dutch OPIC) and former World Bank and IFC Director (if an American could get that job, I would nominate the American Elizabeth Littlefield, the very highly regarded CEO of OPIC for the top job at IFC). Second, Dr. Kim needs to elevate the role of governance in the World Bank with a new Vice Presidency for Governance. He should pick someone such as the prominent Chilean economist Dani Kaufman for such a role. Third, he needs to strengthen the World Bank's ability and processes to work in conflict zones and post conflict zones regardless of the vocal objections of the World Bank staff. He should pick a former staffer for that and create a Vice Presidency for Conflict and Fragile States and make it a fast track career path. I would recommend he names someone like the American Dennis De Tray, former Bank Country director and former adviser to General Petraeus, for this role.
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It sure feels like we are on a knife's edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day's developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this quote from an unidentified "Western official":
A Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his assessment, said he was hopeful that the anger over the shooting rampage could be overcome. The burning of Korans by U.S. troops on Feb. 20 -- which American officials said was accidental -- unleashed a wave of violent protests and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. military trainers, but the fury subsided after a few days.
"Everyone said the burning of the Korans was a turning point," he said. "It came and it went. My best analysis is that everyone saw the abyss, and no one wanted to jump in."
That was eerily reminiscent of what Bush policymakers believed after the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006. There was an immediate sectarian furor and then, as my former boss put it in an interview with Bob Schieffer, the Iraqis appeared to step back:
Mr. Hadley: ...So this is a society that has been tested for a while. The interesting point here is what conclusions the communities draw from this difficult week. They've stared into the abyss a bit. And I think they've all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities is not in their interest. And our hope and our ambassador spoke about this this week that in this tragedy there actually is an opportunity where all the communities will decide that really it is in their mutual interest to avoid the violence, pull together and construct the kind of unity government that can move this country forward.
SCHIEFFER: So you're saying they stared into the abyss. Are you saying this may be in some way bring them together?
Mr. HADLEY: That is the hope. Having seen -- having been tested in this way, having seen what the terrorists are doing and trying to provoke the communities. What was interesting is all the statements from all the leaders was that this tactic would not succeed, that the communities were going to stay together and work together and to try and avoid violence and build a unity government.
As we now know, after abating briefly, the sectarian strife intensified throughout 2006 and within months Iraq was trapped in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence. It took the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge to break that and put Iraq on a more positive trajectory.
Viewed through the lens of U.S. policy options, Afghanistan may be in a more perilous situation. Obama has already tried a surge; I doubt he could go to that option again even if he wanted to, which he shows no interest in doing.
The alternative that appears to be gaining momentum inside the Administration involves speeding the transition to Afghan control (ironically, precisely what the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended as the alternative to the Iraq surge back in 2006), and relying on counter-terrorism operations by U.S. forces to protect core U.S. interests. However, as Steve Biddle points out, that option is based on "unrealistic assumptions."
Specifically, advocates of this accelerated transition option have somehow convinced themselves that once we hand over the mission to Afghan leaders, we can step back from expensive nation-building while maintaining precision-strike counter-terrorism operations. But the Afghan leaders hate most those counter-terrorism operations and like most our expensive commitment to nation-building. Why would they be more inclined to allow us to do what they hate when we have curtailed what they most want?
Of course, our national interest in continuing counter-terrorism strike missions will not wane, so the more realistic choice after transition will be this unpalatable set of options: (1) defer to Afghan concerns, at the cost of an ever-enlarging sanctuary for the terrorist network; (2) shift to longer-range counter-terrorism strikes, ones that do not rely on host-nation support. The problems with #1 are obvious. The problems with #2 are that longer-range strikes are also less precise, so they will involve more civilian casualties, thus inflaming Afghan concerns still further. They are also likely to inflame our NATO allies, who are already queasy about the more precise drone-strikes.
We may be at the worst kind of turning point: One where every turn leads to a worse situation.
Don't get me wrong, I loved the Kony video and truly hope it can help bring an end to the murderous crimes of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army. But there is one thing missing from this otherwise admirable effort: What are we going to do about it?
Unfortunately, while the video producers have done a great job of drawing attention to this cause, they have, not surprisingly, fallen short of explaining how to stop Kony. All of their hopes seem to rest in Kony's eventual self-rendition to the International Criminal Court. That's right, self-rendition. In other words, Joseph Kony, international criminal and mass murderer extraordinaire, facing certain life imprisonment in a Dutch prison, will presumably be so shamed by a global internet campaign that he will walk out of the jungle and turn himself in to The Hague. Now, one cannot ever rule out anything (especially if Kony believes the alternative may be to be killed -- which U.S. Special Forces appear to have in mind) but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Instead, the Kony YouTube producers have put their full faith in the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of the ICC is, predictably, reveling in the media attention. How pathetic. Has anyone missed the fact that the ICC indictment was issued seven years ago? The ICC has not been the solution, the ICC has been the excuse -- since 2005 -- for inaction. In the misguided thinking of the ICC's supporters, no government or military needs to do anything about stopping Kony because once he is captured he will be put on trial. One problem: Who is going to catch him? Just like its predecessor, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICC has proven to be an exercise in non-interventionist self indulgence. By focusing exclusively on the eventual prosecution, non interventionists (generally a collection of cowardly governments, conservative realists, and left-leaning peace activists) can wrap themselves in the moral satisfaction of appearing to take action while avoiding the unpleasant reality that someone has to step up and do something about it. As predicted by the ICC's critics at the time of its founding, it is all law and no law enforcement.
When it was created, the Court's supporters argued for its existence precisely to have an excuse for why they oppose the use of force as a tool (along with sanctions, diplomacy and intelligence efforts) to end the brutal reign of stateless actors and dictators alike. Yet, all of their comparisons between the ICC and the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials are irrelevant. Those historic trials were preceded by the vanquishing of the fascist governments that started World War II and perpetrated its most horrible crimes. In short, victor's justice. As in all crimes large and small, enforcement is the essential antecedent to justice. Imagine if instead of mobilizing the world's democracies to combat fascist extremism in World War II, the democratic nations of the world instead banded together in 1939 to set up a court and issue indictments to prosecute Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo -- after they had their way. No doubt these war criminals would have chuckled at the prospect, and the world would look very different today.
So, here is what we know: Joseph Kony was indicted in 2005 for crimes against humanity (crimes that themselves trace back several years earlier still) and Joseph Kony is still free. I understand that nobody, left or right, interventionist or isolationist, takes any pleasure in that fact. But I fear that the distinction may be lost on Kony's many additional victims since 2005, while they no doubt are eager for justice, that for the past seven years he has committed those crimes as an indicted criminal. In this case it appears that a sternly worded indictment, or a well produced video, may not be quite enough.
Guest Post By Otto J. Reich and Ezequiel Vazquez Ger
Ecuador has headlined many newspapers in recent weeks due to President Correa's attacks against the independent press. The international media, however, has not yet focused on an international scandal that is brewing for the Correa regime. Only a few days ago Italian police discovered 40 kilograms of cocaine being smuggled into the country in Ecuador's diplomatic pouch.
Diplomatic pouches are the means by which governments send classified correspondence and articles intended for official use to their diplomatic missions abroad. These pouches are regulated by the Vienna Convention, which states that "the packages constituting the diplomatic bag must bear visible external marks of their character and may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use," and that the bag "shall not be opened or detained." Also, each bag should carry a waybill that lists all the documents or goods being transported, among other information regarding to its content.
On November 21, 2011 in the Official Register No. 212, the Ecuadorian government adopted a provision governing its interpretation of the Vienna Convention, thereby establishing a number of "exceptions" to the waybill on the diplomatic pouches. This stated that the shipping of works of art, jewelry, crafts, and other items with no commercial value for exhibitions of cultural and commercial promotion abroad, were exempted from carrying this waybill.
At the same time, these Ecuadorian provisions introduced a new legal form called "extraordinary diplomatic pouches," which can contain objects such as works of art and crafts, that is, objects that are not necessarily for official use, and, mentioned earlier, are not required to carry a waybill.
In mid-January, Italian police in Milan discovered one of the "extraordinary diplomatic pouches" sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, containing 40 kg of cocaine. This cargo, valued at over 2 million Euros in street value, was distributed in different vases that were supposed to be used in a play by an Ecuadorian artist. Immediately afterwards, five Ecuadorian citizens were arrested for alleged links to the case. Among them was Jorge Luis Redobrán Quevedo. According to a letter sent by Ecuadorian opposition Congressman Enrique Herrería to the Attorney General of Ecuador, Quevedo is someone with a close relationship to Central Bank President Pedro Delgado (who also is President Correa's cousin), to President's Correa sister, and who also maintains constant relations with the Ecuadorian Consulate in Milan.
This is not an isolated case of drug trafficking. Last week, during an anti-narcotics operation in the port of Guayaquil, the police, which apparently still believes in enforcing the law, seized a shipment of 119kg of cocaine hidden inside a container of mashed bananas about to be exported. The company that owns the shipping container had already been denounced two years ago by Congressman Cesar Montufar because of the company's main shareholders was Mr. Galo Borja, who at that time was Vice Minister of Foreign Trade and responsible for commercial relations with Iran, among other nations. Montufar correctly asserted that the Minister of Trade should not be engaged in the business that he is charged with overseeing for the State.
These are but two cases of how the Ecuadorian government has sanctioned a permissive environment for illicit activities within its territory. Through formal arrangements such as the new mechanism of "extraordinary diplomatic pouches," through the apparent involvement of members of its government in drug trafficking, through a virtual elimination of the visa requirement of unknown persons to entry the country, or through financial agreements with Iranian banks that facilitate money laundering operations, Rafael Correa's Ecuador has become an ideal territory for lawlessness and deceit.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Email: email@example.com/ Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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The P5+1 -- which includes the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia -- has just accepted an Iranian offer of further nuclear talks. These talks will come at a crucial time. The West has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the Iranian regime through new sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports and its central bank, and President Obama in remarks on Sunday took a tougher line than he has in the past by ruling out the notion of "containing" a nuclear-armed Iran. The next round of negotiations will therefore be an important test of the notion that pressure can force Iran to reconsider its nuclear ambitions, as well as a test of U.S. resolve in the face of Iranian obstinacy.
Sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly had an impact, driving down the value of Iran's currency, driving up inflation, and making it difficult for Iranians to sell oil or even buy food. But making life difficult for Iranians is not the objective of U.S. policy; indeed, for many years it was American policy to avoid causing widespread hardship in Iran. The U.S. goal is to halt Iran's nuclear activities, and that has not yet been accomplished -- Iran is spinning more centrifuges, and manufacturing more and higher-grade uranium than ever before.
If the upcoming round of talks, like previous iterations, fails to yield progress, the U.S. will be left with little recourse other than additional pressure, while Israel will have additional incentive to carry out a strike. But another alternative exists, which President Obama has yet to rule out -- that the U.S. will draw back our own redlines and accept a nuclear weapons-capable, if not nuclear -- armed, Iran. This would be a dangerous miscalculation.
While the official U.S. and U.N. Security Council stance has long been that Iran must halt uranium enrichment as part of any serious talks, Washington has demonstrated tactical flexibility in an effort to allow Iran to "save face" and get negotiations started. From 2006-2008, the U.S. and its allies offered Tehran the so-called "freeze for freeze" deal, whereby Iran would merely temporarily freeze new enrichment and the West new sanctions, as a brief prelude to the full suspension of both uranium enrichment and sanctions implementation called for by the U.N. Security Council.
Similarly, in October 2009, the U.S. and its partners offered to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) for the fuel plates Iran required to power its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), with which it manufactured medical isotopes. Washington asserted that the arrangement was intended as a confidence-building measure, but did not negate the U.N. demand that Iran suspend enrichment.
Recently, however, there have been signs of a U.S. shift. In his speech on Sunday, the President assiduously referred only to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, not a nuclear weapons capability. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has asserted that the U.S. redline is that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. This leaves open the possibility of Washington acquiescing to a "latent" nuclear weapons capability, whereby Iran retains weapons-applicable components of its nuclear program, such its enrichment work, as long as it refrains from actually building a bomb.
Many analysts have urged President Obama to consider one of the various proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, though perhaps under somewhat stronger supervision. One of these is the so-called Russian proposal, under which Iran would address the IAEA's questions in phases and the West would reciprocally ease sanctions. Another was the vague offer by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his September visit to New York to cease Iran's production of highly-enriched uranium.
The allure of such a deal from the U.S. perspective is clear. Washington would cite the deal as a diplomatic triumph that averted war and limited Iran's nuclear capacity. Likewise, the Iranian regime, having compelled the West to recognize its nuclear status and retained its enrichment program, would tout the pact as a victory.
In reality, allowing Iran to retain its uranium enrichment program would carry serious risks for the U.S. and our allies. The Institute for Science and International Security warns that "without [a halt to enrichment], Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants."
In other words, the Iranian regime would have its cake and eat it, too. The current sanctions drive would fizzle and existing sanctions would be eased or lifted. A military strike would effectively be taken off the table, including by Israel, which would likely feel constrained from attacking nuclear facilities blessed by the U.S. The Iranian regime, having succeeded in defying not only the U.S. but the entire Security Council, would be strengthened domestically. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons would not be removed; instead, Iran could perfect its nuclear expertise, stopping just one turn of the screw away from producing a nuclear weapon, or even building one clandestinely.
As our confrontation with Iran enters a new, more dangerous phase, the U.S. must avoid the temptation of redefining our redlines and objectives in a manner that fails to satisfy our national security requirements. To avert war and diffuse tensions through clever tactics and smart policies is admirable; to do so by abdicating our vital interests is not.
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Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.
It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?
The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.
Let's start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration's answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" -- individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."
This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda's leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."
Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.
It's now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper's statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy -- although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone -- would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.
Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda's objectives and the group's ability to achieve these objectives.
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Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration's willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Linking humanitarian assistance to progress or even the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent and until recently the Obama administration and the State Department have never stated this new position publicly. Many would say that this would be an attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
During the Bush administration the U.S. and other six party member states agreed to provide assistance in the form of Heavy Fuel Oil as a condition for North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and missile tests. While this created some controversy, there was no link to the humanitarian needs of North Korea.
Until now, the United States has always assessed the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the basis of need, not politics. This is not to say that we blindly give assistance to rogue governments. The U.S. Agency for International Development is well versed in navigating this sensitive subject. Experienced teams will put conditions on humanitarian aid, taking extraordinary steps to assure what commodities are needed most and what areas of a country have been most affected. USAID will then elaborate on how it can best respond to humanitarian emergencies.
The Obama administration has been assessing the food situation in North Korea and deliberating on what to do for almost a year. This delay and the statements released by both governments will fuel speculation that the Obama administration decided to wait until now and use humanitarian assistance as leverage on Kim Jong-un's new regime to get them back to the negotiations table.
There were signs earlier this week when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, linked humanitarian food assistance to the stalled six party talks aimed at North Korea's de-nuclearization.
Admiral Willard said, "In terms of these negotiations that have been ongoing, I have been supportive of them, with regard to the United States' proposals for conditional food aid into North Korea and the preconditions that have come with it, which now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing."
I experienced the reality of negotiating with the North Koreans firsthand in late 2007 and early 2008 on three trips to Pyongyang as the lead American negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid where each of these meetings was chaired by First Vice Minister, Kim Kye-gwan. These discussions were done entirely separate from the six party negotiations.
The United States reached an agreement with North Korea to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework ensuring food would reach the North Korean people who needed it most.
This agreement remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues. The North Koreans agreed to improved access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, to allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit American and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.
This program came to an abrupt halt in March 2009 with the expulsion of U.S. NGOs who were in-country monitoring the distribution shortly before the regime conducted another round of nuclear tests and long-range missiles.
The subject of food assistance should have been brought up separately during the meeting between the United States and North Korea. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is well versed in both sides of these negotiations as noted by North Korea's claim that the U.S. has "promised" to offer 240,000 metric tons of food assistance with the prospect of increasing the amount.
What will the Obama administration do when North Korea breaks its promises yet again and humanitarian assistance is now linked directly to the six party talks? One wonders if there was ever a clear strategy within the administration in its attempt to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.
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Secretary Clinton will testify tomorrow before the House Foreign Relations Committee, "Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Amidst Economic Challenges: The Foreign Relations Budget for Fiscal Year 2013." Each year there are myriad advocacy groups lobbying for a robust foreign assistance budget and just as many saying enough with tax-payers' money going to corrupt governments, congressional earmarks, dubious special interest programs and long-standing civil servant pet projects that do nothing to address the challenges of the developing world or compliment U.S. foreign policy priorities.
This year, we can add to this annual procession of Republican candidates vying for the 2012 presidential nomination who still repeatedly call for a foreign assistance budget that starts at "zero." A position that still baffles me.
Americans may be more interested in domestic issues with gas prices rising sharply, unemployment still high, and continued instability in the market -- but a coherent message from Secretary Clinton that stresses the important role that foreign aid plays in an increasingly unstable democratic world is in dire need.
She should recognize the critical role that the U.S. plays promoting the ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights that we enjoy in the United States. Much has been said lately of Americans and other foreign nationals committed to democratic ideals being arrested in Egypt. These anti-democratic actions highlight the danger and challenges of countries transitioning from years of dictatorial regimes to elected governments that represent the will of the people.
In his testimony recently, IRI president Lorne Craner, stated that "one election does not a democracy make." He went on to say, "The second and third elections in transitional countries are more important than the first, because voters have by then had a chance to judge their satisfaction with initial winners, and the political space begins to consolidate in a manner reflective of the new democratic environment." As a former senior administration official, I agree. Congress needs to support and defend the work that is being done in many transitioning countries.
Tomorrow, much will be said about the turmoil and progress that has been made in the Middle East. In the Secretary of State's executive summary to Congress, she highlights the enormous changes we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa and the need for the U.S. to have a coordinated and strategic approach to foster (not control) peaceful democratic transitions. She states that the 2013 budget request provides a "blueprint of how diplomacy and development can sustain our country's global leadership and deliver results for the American people."
I note with some optimism, to this regard, The Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund; a new program within an austerity budget -- but still a big idea.
The budget request includes $770,000,000 to address democratic, economic, and institutional reforms in MENA -- the Middle East and North Africa. It also mentions how various bureaus within the Department of State and USAID will coordinate and provide incentives and conditions on how aid monies will be allocated and accounted for.
Congress will certainly look to hold funding until they are comfortable that monies being spent are not supporting those who are opposed to democratic transition. To be sure, this will be a challenge but it is also a strategic risk we should be willing to take.
The road to democracy around the world will continue to be hard and dangerous. The U.S. should not back away from promoting the ideals of self-determination that humankind is willing to fight for.
It is nice to have a big idea within an austerity budget.
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The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Friday that Iran has in recent months more than tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond what provides fuel toward that which is only used for weapons, begun enrichment at facilities in Fordow designed to withstand military attack, cannot account for significant amounts of raw uranium, and has refused international inspectors the ability to inspect suspicious facilities or interview scientists working on the nuclear program.
Yet the Director for National Intelligence insisted in Congressional testimony there is no evidence Iran has decided whether to develop a nuclear weapon. Given that U.S. intelligence agencies are a major source of information for the IAEA and other international organizations (U.S. agencies discovered the Fordow facility in 2009), how is it that our intelligence services come to such a seemingly contradictory conclusion from the IAEA?
As Thomas Sowell so nicely summarized the sub-prime mortgage crisis: only politics can create this problem. American intelligence services are still so singed from having been wrong about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program that it appears they are emphasizing their skepticism. The most flagrant example of that phenomenon was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from 2007, in which it was concluded that Iran had halted its overtly military programs in 2003, the reason a complete mystery but unrelated to our invasion of Iraq.
Intelligence work is difficult and inherently speculative. Our intelligence professionals have to make judgments based on incomplete information and understanding, and policymakers decide hugely consequential issues on the basis of their information. Accepting that they will be wrong -- perhaps even often wrong -- is surely one of the most difficult responsibilities for both policymakers and intelligence professionals to accept.
American intelligence services were wrong several times over about Iraq, not just in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. For example, battle damage assessments of the Osirak strike showed Iraq was much further along in its weapons program than we believed they had been, making us less confident we understood the scope of the program. Heightened risk-aversion after the 9/11 attacks shifted somewhat the mindset of policy makers, who wanted less risk of being wrong on a false negative, and in that context skepticism we knew the dimensions of programs from inspections was dispositive.
The pendulum has swung back in the other direction now: eleven years after 9/11 without a successful attack on our homeland, policymakers now want less risk of being wrong on a false positive. What they are pulling out of the intelligence assessments is the reasons to doubt Iran's progress, the reassurance we have time to manage this problem by political and economic and espionage means rather than having to destroy the Fordow enrichment complex before it becomes inviolable.
So it appears the Obama administration is persuaded to be wrong in a different way this time: instead of pressing intelligence agencies to conclude that a country has a nuclear weapons program on the basis of inconclusive data and a pattern of suspicious behavior, they are pressing intelligence agencies to conclude that a country does not have a nuclear weapons program on the basis of inconclusive data and a pattern of suspicious behavior. But cherry-picking intelligence findings is dangerous no matter which side of the line it is on.
The leadership of Iran is going to an awful lot of trouble and expense, and incurring an awful lot of economic pain, in order to perpetuate the belief that they have a nuclear weapons program. They have been lying to the IAEA for decades. Perhaps they are seeking to show that although Saddam Hussein couldn't pull off the ruse, Persian subtlety can achieve the dual aims of regional hegemony without provoking American intervention. Perhaps they are rightly reading our war weariness and pushing ahead before we are willing to act. Perhaps it has nothing to do with us but instead plays into their internal power struggles. Perhaps nuclear weapons have a precious iconic value for a country that ought to be prosperous but is not. Perhaps it helps a government holding power by force to intimidate its citizens. Perhaps they are seeking to provoke a military attack at a politically significant time to unite Iranians when their government otherwise cannot inspire loyalty.
One thing our intelligence agencies should be absolutely clear about is that we don't know why Iran is making the choices they are. Motivations are the most difficult part of intelligence analysis to get right. Rather than provide policy makers a confident but unreliable assertion that Iran isn't building a bomb, intelligence agencies should be analyzing the possible motives for Iran making the choices we are observing and providing policymakers with the means to judge the discriminating data: what will prove the case one way or the other? How would we know if we are wrong? Anything else and they are once again politicizing their intelligence findings.
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Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the big news was the supernova-like emergence of NBA star Jeremy Lin.
Ten or twenty years from now, when we look back on this past week, which event will be seen as more important for U.S.-China relations and the future of China itself? No one can yet say, and while the safe bet from the policy-maker's vantage point might be the Xi Jinping visit and its anticipation of his decade-long rule, we shouldn't make the same mistake made by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and count out the Jeremy Lin story. Before I go any further, I admit that even indulging in these speculations risks tripping headlong over the "wait just a second, people" admonition wisely offered by Dan Drezner against investing Jeremy Lin with any Deeper Meaning. And as my former NSC colleague Victor Cha (a scholar of sports and Asia policy) points out, those who hope that Lin's stardom might help improve the complicated U.S.-China relationship are probably indulging in wishful thinking.
First, some context. Continuing in our occasional theme of reflecting on what history can bring to policymaking, one thing history offers is a sense of perspective, a reminder that the most consequential events are often not immediately apparent at the time they occur. As my University of Texas-Austin colleague Frank Gavin has observed, three separate developments from California in the space of a few months in 1976-77 were the creation of Apple computer, the release of the movie Star Wars, and the unprecedented medals awarded to a group of Stag's Leap Napa wines in a Paris tasting contest. Though seemingly unrelated and not fully appreciated at the time, together these events heralded a new era of American culture's global influence, historically far more consequential than the Carter administration's first few months in office. Or more recently, who could have predicted on Dec. 17, 2010 that the most globally important event that day would be the self-immolation of an obscure street vendor in a seemingly insignificant North African country?
Turning back to the two China-related events of last week, the Xi visit and the Lin stardom, Steve Walt makes some persuasive points about why Xi as an individual leader might not be a primary factor shaping the U.S.-China relationship. I suspect this could underplay Xi's importance, given the hard choices China will have to make over the next decade on issues such as rebalancing its economy, addressing its many restive borders, decreasing corruption, and clarifying its strategic intentions in the western Pacific. Much of that, however, depends on the Communist Party continuing to hold its monopoly on power, and here is where Jeremy Lin could bring an added complication.
Lin has already become a cultural phenomenon in China, benefitting in part from the legions of Chinese basketball fans first cultivated by Yao Ming. Yet if Yao Ming's roots and identity were unequivocally mainland Chinese, Lin's identity is not so straightforward. His Taiwan roots could at the least complicate the mainland's popular attitudes that see the island as a renegade province. Perhaps more significantly, his evangelical Christian faith appeals to the tens of millions of house-church Christians in China, who sometimes at great risk worship outside the control of government-approved religious bodies. And his faith might also inspire otherwise non-religious Chinese, further adding to Christianity's explosive growth in China. All of this in turn poses a delicate challenge for a Communist Party that has thus far co-opted every successive new communication technology to surveil and tightly manage the information available to its citizens: How to control the message and image of Jeremy Lin that an adoring public perceives? Especially if Lin continues to play well and popular demand for information about him grows?
How this develops will depend on many factors, including whether Lin continues to play great hoops (hopefully), whether he continues to speak openly about his faith (likely), whether he ever comments about political issues such as religious freedom in China or the status of Taiwan (possible but less likely), and especially how the tension between the Chinese government's need for control and the Chinese public's hunger for information plays out (anything is possible). To be clear to readers (especially those named "Dan Drezner"!), this is not a case of feverish "Linsanity" arguing that Lin will cause democratization in China. (Only rabid Duke fans such as my Shadow co-curator are prone to investing basketball with such cosmic significance). Rather, this is a speculation that China's response to Lin's emergence could possibly play a part in fueling a movement for political change based on a host of other pre-existing factors. Or not. Only time will tell, and history will judge.
Regardless, it seems that the White House's overemphasis on the role of the Communist Party in the U.S.-China relationship may account for the Obama administration's one major mistake in its otherwise successful management of Xi's visit. This was the White House's refusal to support Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook's visit to China. Ambassador Cook's long-planned maiden trip was blocked by the Chinese government, while the White House, concerned about the Xi visit, apparently failed to press Cook's case with Beijing. This was strategically shortsighted, especially since in the long run religious citizens in China may well do more to shape China's future than an individual party leader. Furthermore, the failure to support Ambassador Cook's visa set a bad precedent for U.S. credibility on a range of issues, and conceded undue leverage to the Chinese government. After all, Beijing needed the Xi visit more than the U.S. did, and a quiet message from Washington to Beijing stressing that denying Cook her visa "would not be helpful" to the optics of Xi's trip would have likely done the trick.
How to remedy this? Next time President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton meets with one of China's leaders, they should make sure that Ambassador Cook is also at the table, and should tell the Chinese that she enjoys the president's support on this important issue. Then to keep the tone agreeable, perhaps the conversation can turn to a topic everyone would find of interest, such as Jeremy Lin's most recent game.
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According to the New York Times, the administration is reconsidering its commitment to maintain in Iraq the largest civilian mission the U.S. has ever attempted. Drawing down the U.S. mission in Iraq is the right choice. But while the Time's article attempts to cast the policy shift as the result of declining U.S. influence in Iraq, it is really more a story of incapacity by the State Department to scope, plan, and carry out diplomatic missions of the breadth and difficulty posed by circumstances in Iraq. Those circumstances are largely of the Obama administration's making, as they set arbitrary timelines for our military drawdown that exacerbated tensions within Iraq while ignoring Prime Minister's al Maliki's creeping authoritarianism.
The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review championed the mission in glowing terms: "In Iraq, we are in the midst of the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan. Our civilian presence is prepared to take the lead, secure the military's gains, and build the institutions necessary for long-term stability." None of those objectives has been achieved. It was an odd choice by the State Department to make Iraq the flagship of "smart power," given that the White House has consistently conveyed that President Obama just wants Iraq off the agenda. The president never invested in getting from Congress the resources necessary -- even if the State Department had the capacity to carry out its ambitious plans.
Nevertheless, the State Department's plan for maintaining two thousand diplomats -- protected and supported by 15,000 other civilian personnel -- was a terribly cost-ineffective program fraught with potential for disaster. Outside review of the department's plan by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, and every other outside source highlighted the crucial dependence on mobility that was both vulnerable and reliant on civilian contractors (the majority of them non-American) with the authority to use deadly force. Why the government of Iraq would grant immunity from prosecution to civilian contractors when it denied immunity to better trained military personnel was only one among many questionable planning assumptions.
The discouraging truth is that despite the State Department's bold assertions in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that it will lead through civilian power, its handling of the transition to civilian leadership of our mission in Iraq demonstrates how very far we have yet to go to build a diplomatic corps with the ability to think their way through what is needed in a complex environment like Iraq, design a program of engagement and activity, staff and finance its operations to achieve its objectives. What the State Department fails at is not the high politics of preserving American influence with Iraq's leaders, but the quotidian programmatics that build that influence in the first place.
Our country needs a State Department that is genuinely the peer of our military forces: as intellectually agile, as adaptable, as committed to carrying out the decisions of our elected political leadership. We do not now have such a diplomatic corps, and it badly impedes our ability to shape the international order in ways conducive to American interests. It will take a much greater investiture of political and managerial attention to build that State Department, but it is very much in our interests to continue reforming the State Department so that it could plan and carry out a civilian mission of complexity like that which is now needed in Iraq.
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How to explain the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government's continuing killing spree against its own people? What strategic interest or moral imperative dominates their thinking?
Officially, Russia and China claim to be preventing the international community from doing another Libya; they are insisting on patience and "balance." The U.S., UK, France, the rest of the Security Council and pretty much the rest of the world, including the Arab League, beg to differ. Those speaking out the most forcefully don't buy what they consider excuse making for a bloody dictator.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice finds no ethical stance that can justify it, calling the vetoes "disgusting" and "shameful" and warning that the blame for the future deaths of Syrian civilians is on Russia and China. Amb. Rice does not comment on what strategic interests the vetoing states might be pursuing, though we can certainly speculate.
For Russia, Syria's dictatorship is its last client left standing in the Middle East, both political and economic since Syria provides a warm seaport and buys Russian weaponry. To watch it fall means ceding the field largely to the U.S. and the EU, and losing revenue. The stakes are indeed high for Russia. For China, the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest -- apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can -- according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are. (That China seems to contradict itself when it comes to Filipino, Vietnamese, or Japanese territorial interests requires a little semantic gymnastics.)
But let's look at this matter from thirty thousand feet. This latest turn in the Syrian tragedy reminds one of Talleyrand's famous comment applied to Napoleon's judicial murder of a noble: "[I]t was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." That is, the stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU. When the West and the Arab League are on the same page, and most of the second and third ranking powers and beyond are with them, any state taking Bashar al-Assad's side is hard-pressed to stake a claim for world leadership. Syria's blatant violation of the norms of the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights is patently obvious, as was the late Muammar Qaddafi's. For Russia and China to fail to recognize that and join the rest of the world in condemning it and seeking an end to these violations is in some ways worse: We expect tyrants like al-Assad to do what he is doing, but since the democracy revolutions and the Arab Spring, we rightly expect a different reaction from members of the Security Council entrusted with the only international organizational authority to do something about it.
No one expects Russia to lightly watch an ally go down, or for China to acquiesce in what it considers the violation of the most important international relations principle. Neither country wants to see further precedents being set of the average citizen rising up to challenge the established power. But I'd use their own words against them, the words they used in announcing their veto regarding the need in the resolution for "balance." There was a certain logic to calls for "balance" during the Cold War no matter how clanging it sounded. Much of international relations was a zero-sum game. But the Cold War is over. The publics of the Middle East are all in various stages of uprising and rebellion against centuries of tyranny, and they are aided by technology and social media in a way that means they will not be deterred short of death. That is a fact. Therefore, to oppose them and call for "balance" or "restraint" is to side with those who would without compunction kill as many of their citizens as they have to in order to stay in power; we're talking genocide now as a matter of course and endless instability. The democracy genie is out of the bottle.
So now the logic of "balance" is moot; urging acceptance of the democracy-crushing status quo is a spent force. International prestige and legitimate claims to world leadership now rest on those who accept that history has indeed ended in this sense: People want the dignity of self-government and they have the technological means to perpetually bring once unshakeable dictators to the nightmare scenario. Would-be world leaders should choose the right side now. After all, both ethics and logic point the way clearly now. That's the real "reset" that is needed, and it is good to see the Obama administration's diplomats at the UN representing it.
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I imagine the Obama administration may be wondering whether or not to release another edition of the National Security Strategy (NSS). They released Obama's first (and so far only) one in May 2010. Although the law mandating the NSS calls for annual updates, at the time it looked like the administration might follow the George W. Bush precedent of releasing just one per term.
The one-per-term standard makes sense for a number of reasons. First, we shouldn't expect the overall national security strategy of the country to change on an annual basis. Second, producing a quality document takes a surprising amount of work; better to invest those resources in monitoring the implementation of the old one than in finding ways to repackage old wine in new wine skins. Third, as an administration creeps closer to the silly season of campaigning, the temptation to turn the document into a brag-sheet rather than a serious articulation of the administration's worldview becomes irresistible. Whether or not you agreed with the content of the arguments, Clinton's first NSS and both of Bush's were more substantial and thus more consequential documents than the later ones produced by the Clinton administration.
However, I would not be surprised to learn that a new version is under consideration. Doubtless the campaign temptation is pulling mightily on the Obama team. President Obama will be the first Democratic incumbent in decades -- maybe since Roosevelt -- to have reason to believe that his bragging rights on national security are stronger than they are on domestic policy and the economy. When the applause lines are louder on national security than they are on the economy, it is easy to predict that the candidate will proffer the former more often than the latter (insert late night comic riff about Giuliani mentioning 9/11 here). Whether or not they can produce a document at least as serious as their first one, let alone on par with earlier ones is tougher to predict. Campaign-induced distortions will be a big challenge.
Yet there is one good reason why they should release another version in the current term -- perhaps good enough to overcome all of my other caveats. A few weeks ago, President Obama released a much-ballyhooed "new strategic guidance" and the administration went to considerable lengths to emphasize the boldness and novelty of what they were doing. The commentariat responded in kind -- a Google search of "Obama strategic pivot" produces some 1,200,000 hits.
If it really is so new and so bold, it raises the obvious question: is it new and bold enough to require changes in the (now) old NSS, from which, in theory, such defense guidance is supposed to emanate?
On the other hand, if the new strategic guidance does not require a change in the NSS, how bold and new can it be?
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The Obama administration is sending contradictory messages on a crucially important national security subject. At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Leon Panetta seemed to accelerate the withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan from the end of 2014 -- what NATO nations have been committed to -- to "mid-to late 2013." In Chicago, meanwhile, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes insisted there will be no change to the 2014 plan, warning that "We will need allies to remain committed to that goal." The president's Special Assistant for European Affairs Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, evidently ignorant of Panetta's statement, assured reporters that the Secretary of Defense "will be very clear about our plans to remain on the Lisbon timeline."
The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks.
The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.
This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war. Because arbitrary timelines do not translate into having achieved the objectives that cause enemies to throw down their weapons. And it is the enemy ceasing to contest our objectives that constitutes winning. Interrogations with prisoners in Afghanistan have caused the American military to conclude that "Once ISAF is no longer a factor, Taliban consider their victory inevitable."
Secretary Panetta's public affairs folks will likely spend a few days prettying up the mess, emphasizing the secretary was referring to the transition from combat operations to advising and training Afghans. But the damage has been done. As Michael Clarke of Britain's Royal United Services Institute said, "the suspicion that America is going to pull out early will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and there will be a rush to the exit." The Obama administration created this problem by the president's own arbitrary timeline. It is hard to blame Nicolas Sarkozy for playing politics with the issue; politicization is contagious, and allies caught it from President Obama.
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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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Last Thursday's 90-minute debate in South Carolina was the first time Republican candidates vying for the 2012 Presidential nomination focused specifically on foreign-policy and national security. It is of course true that Americans are more interested in issues that face them domestically; with unemployment still above 9 percent, an economy that is still sluggish, and a consensus that we are in for a slow recovery, how could they not be? But it is also true that the next president will be drawn into issues that affect us globally -- the uncertain outcome of the Arab Spring, weak democracies in Latin America, and development issues in Africa.
I was surprised that several candidates suggested that, each year, our foreign assistance budget start at "zero." Really?
The only candidate to respond in a way that I found realistic was Huntsman, who blasted his colleagues with "sound-bite" campaigning. I couldn't agree more.
During my time in the Bush administration, we stressed the importance of foreign assistance and the fundamental role it plays in laying the foundations for democracy, the rule of law, economic development, health interventions, building bridges, and promoting the ideals of freedom and liberty.
Here are several key quotes from President Bush's introduction to the 2006 National Security Strategy:
America now faces a choice between the path of fear and the path of confidence. The path of fear - isolationism and protectionism, retreat and retrenchment - appeals to those who find our challenges too great and fail to see our opportunities. Yet history teaches that every time American leaders have taken this path, the challenges have only increased and the missed opportunities have left future generations less secure.
This is still true today. The presumptive leader of the United States needs to demonstrate his or her understanding that our country must continue to lead on the world stage. It is important that we as a nation (and our elected leaders) turn not to isolationism, even in rhetoric, but convey how we will continue to deal with global security and development challenges.
The path we have chosen is consistent with the great tradition of American foreign policy. Like the policies of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, our approach is idealistic about our national goals, and realistic about the means to achieve them.
The introduction goes on to say that the United States should also continue to promote economic prosperity around the world and to support vibrant democracies.
How is this done?
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I would like to join, however belatedly, the lively debate about how to assess President Obama's foreign policy and whether this will be a campaign asset or liability. Some of FP's own worthies have contributed as well (see Drezner's take here and here and Walt's take here). Perhaps the most provocative assertion is Thomas Friedman's claim that "Barack Obama has turned out to be so much more adept at implementing George W. Bush's foreign policy than Bush was, but he is less adept at implementing his own."
I am persuaded by the larger claim that Obama has had more genuine successes in foreign-policy than in domestic policy and so when it comes to the 2012 election, his campaign boasts will resonate more in the former arena than in the latter. By "genuine success" I mean when a president accomplishes something that he sets out to do and that something is actually beneficial to the country. Obama has had many policy achievements in domestic policy (in the sense of getting a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass things he wanted them to pass) but they have turned out not to have the beneficial effect promised (cf. "jobs saved or created"), or at least not yet, and so do not (yet) count as "genuine successes." By contrast, there are some undeniable successes in the foreign policy arena, such as ramping up the drone strike program he inherited from the Bush administration and thereby decimating the al Qaeda leadership. There have been many foreign policy failures, too, but his batting average is better in foreign policy than it has been in domestic policy.
What explains the overall pattern? Friedman points to the correct answer: where Obama has continued along policy lines laid out by Bush, he has achieved success, but where he has sought to make dramatic changes, he has failed. The bigger the change, the bigger the failure. Not surprisingly, Friedman presents this as a critique of Bush ("Obama and his national security team have been so much smarter, tougher and cost-efficient in keeping the country safe than the "adults" they replaced. It isn't even close, which is why the G.O.P.'s elders have such a hard time admitting it."). Friedman's sneer about the "adults" is unmistakable and it causes him to miss the obvious: where Obama has embraced that "Bush adult" worldview, it has gone well for him and for America. Where he has not, it has not. Indeed, where he has listened to Friedman and other bien pensant types, it has gone very poorly indeed (cf. Israel-Palestine peace process). And where he attempted a major shift in American grand strategy (elevating climate change to be a national security threat co-equal with WMD proliferation and terrorism) he has made almost no progress whatsoever.
President Obama campaigned on a scorched earth critique of the foreign policy he inherited from President Bush. He promised to undo all of it. Some of those promises (withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq in 16 months) barely survived the first few days, while others (unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad or closing Gitmo) were only jettisoned after months of failed efforts. The correlation is almost perfect: the longer Obama hewed to his campaign critique, the less well it has gone in foreign-policy. And, by the way, the supposedly hyper-partisan Republican opposition actually has chalked up a record that compares very favorably with the recent past: where Obama has pursued a genuinely bipartisan policy, he has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
Of course, Obama deserves credit for jettisoning foolish campaign promises. And in some cases he and his team have been able to build on the policies he inherited with effective innovations. Nor would it be fair to conclude that every point of overlap with the Bush administration is worth applauding (I will have more to say on this latter point with respect to his recent Iraq decision in a future post). Yet on balance the conclusion for fair-minded observers is obvious: perhaps it is worth reconsidering the policies that have not worked so as to borrow a few more from the stockpile that has produced the best results.
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Some weeks ago, Tom Ricks called me out for questioning NATO's Libya operation. I still have my doubts.
To begin with, the interim government is showing few signs of being "interim." In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just told the Libyan leadership that they must set a date for elections. She has also told them to honor the rule of law and not seek retribution against Muammar al-Qaddafi supporters. The regime appears to be doing just the opposite in both cases.
Many observers continue to question just who the Libyan leaders really are, and whether they are affiliated with Islamists. Whether those in power in Libya are Islamists, or whether Islamists will seize power, is simply unknowable at this time. Nevertheless, the new or emerging leaders of that country need not be Islamists to pursue policies antithetical to those of the United States. The policies of Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki, particularly vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, have been demonstrating that reality on a near-daily basis.
In the meantime, in the face of a massive defense budget crisis, about which my Shadow Government colleagues rightly are debating, Washington continues to pour money into its Libyan adventure. DoD's latest estimate of expenditures, which runs through Sept. 30, already exceeds $1.1 billion. But this estimate does not include the cost of the F-15E that was downed in March, some $45 million, with a replacement cost that will be much higher. With operations still ongoing, the total cost of this exercise could well approach $1.5 billion. Some $375 million of this sum has already been "reprogrammed," meaning that the funds were taken from other, presumably important, DoD budget lines. The remainder is to be "reprioritized" within the baseline appropriation request, meaning, yet again, that other programs, previously considered sufficiently important to merit being included in the budget, no longer are all that important.
These sums do not, of course, include monies that will be spent to assist the reconstruction of Libya. It appears that Libyan bank accounts will not cover all reconstruction expenses such as programs to help Libya develop an appreciation for the rule of law, which, as noted above, its leaders still appear to lack.
The truth is that we have no idea what kind of country Libya will be in a year's time, nor who its leaders will be, nor what its posture towards the United States and its interests will be. What we do know is that the operation continues, the costs continue to mount up, and other defense programs are being sacrificed to meet those costs, and new expenditures can be expected down the road. All in all, it is hardly a pretty picture, and certainly not something about which one should call out others.
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A unicorn is a beautiful, make believe creature. But despite overwhelming evidence of its fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas. But unlike unicorns, our China policy excursions into the realm of make believe could be dangerous. Crafting a better China policy requires us to identify what is imaginary in our thinking about China. Author James Mann captures some in his book.
Here are my own top ten China policy unicorns:
1) The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over our China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend and it will become a friend. But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief. Since the normalization of relations with China the aim of U.S. policy has been to bring China "into the family of nations." Other than China itself, no nation has done more than the United States to improve the lot of the Chinese people and to welcome China's rise peacefully. And, rather than increase its deterrence of China -- a natural move given the uncertainty attendant to the rise of any great power -- the United States has let its Pacific forces erode and will do so further. We may soon go through our third round of defense cuts in as many years. Here is just one example of how unserious we are about China: As China continues to build up its strategic forces, the United States has signed a deal with Russia to cap its strategic forces without so much as mentioning China. Unless Beijing was insulted by this neglect, surely it could take great comfort in an anachronistic U.S. focus on arms control with Russia. But despite our demonstrations of benevolence, China still views the United States as its enemy or, on better days, its rival. Its military programs are designed to fight the United States. The self-fulfilling prophesy is far and away the most fantastical claim about China policy and thus the number one unicorn.
2) Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations. Since 2003, when President Bush publicly chided then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on the White House lawn with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, the United States has been gradually severing its close links with Taiwan. President Obama's Taiwan policy has been the logical dénouement. Arms sales have been stalled, no Cabinet members have visited Taiwan since the Clinton years, and trade talks are nonexistent: there is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda. The reaction from China? Indeed, it has moved on. But rather than bask in the recent warming of its relationship with Taiwan, China has picked fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and India. It does not matter what "obstacles" the United States removes, China's foreign policy has its own internal logic that is hard for the United States to "shape." Abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better relations is yet another dangerous fantasy.
3) China will inevitably overtake the U.S. and we must manage our decline elegantly. This is a new China policy unicorn. Until a few years ago, most analysts were certain there was no need to worry about China. The new intellectual fad tells us there is nothing we can do about China. Its rise and our decline are inevitable. But inevitability in international affairs should remain the preserve of rigid ideological theorists who still cannot explain why a unified Europe has not posed a problem for the United States, why post-war Japan never really challenged U.S. primacy, or why the rising United States and the declining Britain have not gone to war since 1812. The fact is China has tremendous, seemingly insurmountable problems. It has badly misallocated its capital thanks to a distorted financial system characterized by capital controls and a non-market based currency. It may have a debt to GDP ratio as high as 80 percent thanks again to a badly distorted economy. And it has created a demographic nightmare with a shrinking productive population, senior tsunami, and millions of males who will be unmarriageable (see the pioneering work of my colleague Nick Eberstadt).
The United States also has big problems. But we are debating them vigorously, know what they are and are now looking to elect the leaders to fix them. China's political structure does not yet allow for fixing big problems.
4) (Related to 3). China is our banker. We cannot anger our banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. treasuries because its economy does not allow investors to put it elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above). It makes a pittance on its deposits. If the U.S. starts to bring down its debts and deficits China will have even fewer options. China is desperate for U.S. investment, U.S. treasuries, and the U.S. market. The balance of leverage leans towards the United States.
5) We are engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, we do have an engagement policy with China. But we are only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party may be large -- the largest in the world (it could have some 70 million members). We do need to engage party leaders on matters of high politics and high finance, but China has at least one billion other people. Many are decidedly not part of the CCP. They are lawyers, activists, religious leaders, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. Most would rather the CCP go quietly into the night. We do not engage them. Our presidents tend to avoid making their Chinese counterparts uncomfortable by insisting on speaking to a real cross section of Chinese society. Engagement seen through the prism of government-to-government relations keeps us from engaging with the broader Chinese public. Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings, and often with groups who are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government). U.S. leaders are far more cautious in choosing with whom to meet in China. We do not demand reciprocity in meeting with real civil society -- underground church leaders, political reformers and so on. China has a successful engagement policy. We do not.
6) Our greatest challenge is managing China's rise. Actually, our greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon. There is little if nothing it can do about its demographic disaster (will it enact pro-immigration policy?). And its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.
7) China's decline will make our lives easier. China's decline may make the challenge for the United States more difficult for at least a generation. It could play out for a long time even as China grows more aggressive with more lethal weaponry (e.g., what to do with surplus males?). Arguably both Germany and Imperial Japan declined beginning after World War I and continuing through the disaster of World War II. Russia is in decline by all useful metrics. Even so, it invaded a neighbor not too long ago. A declining, nuclear-armed nation with a powerful military can be more problematic than a rising, confident nation.
8) We need to extricate ourselves from the "distractions" of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China. This is a very popular unicorn among the cognoscenti. But how would this work? As Middle Easterners go through a historic revolution that could lead to the flowering of democracy or the turmoil of more extremism, how do we turn our attention elsewhere? Are we supposed to leave Afghanistan to the not-so-tender mercies of the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence? This view is particularly ironic given China's increased interests in the Middle East and our need for a partnership with India to deal with China. There is no way to create the kind of order we wish to see in Asia without exerting a great amount of influence over the oil producing states in the Middle East and by allowing India to become tied down in a struggle in South Asia. We are the sole superpower, our foreign policy is interconnected. "Getting Asia right" means "getting the Middle East and South Asia right."
9) We need China's help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful. We do need China to disarm North Korea. They do not want to, and North Korea is now a nuclear power. The same may soon be true with Iran. The best we can get in our diplomacy with China is to stop Beijing from being less helpful. It is a fact that the global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. However, China actually contributing to global order is a unicorn.
10) Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine "unicorns" above may lead to the conclusion that we are destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one. Sino-American relations will be determined by two main drivers; one we can control, the other we cannot. The first is our ability to deter aggressive Chinese behavior. The second is how politics develop in China. The strategic prize for Washington is democratic reform in China. Democracy will not solve all Sino-American problems. China may be very prickly about sovereignty and very nationalistic. But a true liberal democracy in China in which people are fairly represented is our best hope for peace. The disenfranchised could force their government to focus resources on their manifold problems (corruption, misallocated resources, lack of social safety net). The United States and the rest of Asia will certainly trust an open and transparent China more, and ties would blossom at the level of civil society. Historically, the United States has almost always been on China's side. It is waiting patiently to do so again.
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The commentariat is having a field day zinging Governor Perry for his response to the 3 am phone call question in the most recent Republican primary debate. Perry's response was indeed rambling, though perhaps not wandering so far afield as some commentators have claimed. Even though he seemed to misstate who rejected whom on the India-F-16 deal, Perry was right that U.S.-India relations are intimately affected by, and themselves affect, U.S.-Pakistan relations. The effects are often pernicious, and improving relations with India does not always improve relations with Pakistan, but it would be folly to pretend that one can deal with Pakistan without factoring in how India affects Islamabad's strategic calculus.
What interests me about this exchange, however, is the difficulty of debating foreign policy in a sound-bite campaign. Of course, domestic policy is also complex and so the sound-bite constraint surely dumbs down debate in that arena as well. But at least in domestic policy, most Americans have first-hand experience with the issues in some format. Familiarity offers the hope that sound-bites are heuristics that link to a more complete visceral understanding of an issue. With foreign policy, even that hope goes beyond naive into the realm of far-farfetched.
This constraint also appears to operate with the reporters who are doing the questioning. Their command of domestic policy may be weak, but their command of foreign policy is noticeably weaker. Even when they have substantial experience and so should know better, they can mess it up -- consider the way one veteran reporter, Glenn Kessler, fumbled a fact-checking exercise on one of Perry's foreign policy stances.
It is not simply a matter of media bias. Even a media figure obviously sympathetic to one party can inadvertently confound a candidate from that side who is trying to advance a sophisticated foreign policy argument. Consider how Bill O'Reilly handled Mitt Romney in this exchange.
The interesting part of the exchange is not the bit about bin Laden. Rather, it's how O'Reilly expressed impatience with Romney's discussion of the Iran-Russia link.
Romney was advancing one of the most sophisticated foreign policy critiques I have heard in the current campaign: that Obama had simultaneously mishandled both the Russia and the Iranian files by making concessions to Russia on missile defense without getting in exchange comparable concessions on Iranian sanctions. Russia finally did make some token concessions, but this was after months of blocking efforts to put pressure on Iran. Romney's comments showed that he had a remarkably nuanced understanding of Obama's Iran policy and that he also understood the ways it intersected other policy lines. If he had had more time, perhaps Romney could have developed the critique further, pointing out how the missed opportunity was especially consequential because it intersected other missed opportunities on Iran.
But we won't know whether Romney could have developed the critique even further because his response was already too nuanced and long-winded for the television medium. I understand that television is an entertainment medium and that good entertainment requires snappy soundbites. But good foreign policymaking requires leaders to have a command of the issues -- yes even the boring parts of the issues. Before he got interrupted, Romney was showing that he had that command, at least on the Iran question. Yet it didn't seem to help him and may even have started to count against him.
I hope as the campaign unfolds there will be opportunities for the deeper exchanges of the sort Romney was trying to have and I hope the Republican nominee will be up to that task.
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The annual melodrama in New York over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has largely overshadowed the real historic drama that is playing out in the Middle East today. The region seems turned upside-down: rebellions are taking place across the Arab world, Turkish-Israeli relations have dramatically deteriorated, and tumult seems to be the rule.
Nevertheless, trying amid the chaos to determine precisely what has changed in the region is no easy task. In some places, like Libya, the change is total -- Qadhafi is ousted, and leadership has passed to a cobbled-together group comprising both jihadists and bureaucrats. In others, like Egypt, the change is worryingly superficial -- Mubarak is gone, but the military chieftains who have succeeded him have reimposed his draconian "emergency laws" and continue to drag bloggers and activists before military tribunals. In others still, like Syria, little change at all has come -- protests grind on, and so does the regime.
For Western officials looking to protect or advance their countries' interests in the Middle East, sorting the superficial from the fundamental changes is a vital task. While the outcomes of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere remain far from certain, it is possible to identify three shifts in the region which are significant and likely to endure.
First, there can no longer be any question that internal politics matter in the Arab world. Before the Arab rebellions, the conventional wisdom in the West was that understanding policy in a country like Egypt meant understanding the views and intentions of essentially one person -- Hosni Mubarak. He in turn was able to impose his will on the country through a mixture of coercion and co-optation. Public opinion and the views of opposition groups were important on their own merits and for understanding the deeper dynamics of the country, but had little actual bearing on Egyptian policy. This point of view was questionable before, and certainly wrong today. There are now a multiplicity of political groupings and power centers, and issues such as the U.S.-Egyptian or Israeli-Egyptian relationships are political footballs important as much for their symbolism as their substance. Influencing, much less predicting policy in Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia will require diplomats and officials to do something which is second nature to them in places like Europe, but to which they have been unaccustomed in the Middle East - cultivating relationships beyond the presidential palace and its immediate environs, and understanding the interests, motivations, and aspirations of a broad swath of society.
Second, the new governments that spring up around the Arab world will likely be more anti-Western, and anti-Israel, than those they succeeded. Fairly or not, the West and the United States in particular is strongly associated with the old regimes in the Middle East, and thus seen as accomplices in oppression. This is in part a problem of our own making -- the United States supported Arab dictators during the Cold War as foils to Soviet expansionism. When the USSR fell, however, we continued to support those dictators rather than pressing for democratic reform. Those moments, such as the mid-2000s, when the US took a different approach, were not sustained, leading raised expectations in the region to be dashed and our public esteem lower than it began. Our image has not been helped by US policy during the Arab Spring, during which we have been perceived as a fair-weather friend, taking sides only when a conflict's outcome was already clear rather than acting on our pro-democracy proclamations.
The cold peace that has long prevailed between Israel and its Arab neighbors is also perceived throughout the region to have been an unsavory arrangement that worked to the benefit of repressive regimes. The blame for Israel's isolation in the region is often laid squarely at the feet of Israeli leaders for their perceived failure to make peace with the Palestinians; the reality is more complicated. Egyptian leaders, for example, studiously maintained peace with Israel and enjoyed the strategic and economic benefits accompanying it. But they never made the case to the Egyptian people for this peace. Instead, they cynically employed both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric in the official media as a means (ineffective, it turns out) of deflecting public anger from domestic issues.
Third, and most troubling, the Middle East is likely to be a more dangerous and volatile region in the future. For the past several decades, a relatively stable regional order has prevailed, centered around Arab-Israeli peace treaties and close ties between the United States and the major Arab states and Turkey. The region was not conflict-free by any means, and Iran, Iraq, and various transnational groups sought to challenge the status quo, albeit largely unsuccessfully. Now, however, the United States appears less able or willing to exercise influence in the region, and the leaders and regimes who guarded over the regional order are gone or under pressure. Sensing either the need or opportunity to act autonomously, states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are increasingly bold, and all are well-armed and aspire to regional leadership. Egypt, once stabilized, may join this group. While interstate conflict is not inevitable by any means, the risk of it has increased and the potential brakes on it have deteriorated. Looming over all of this is Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon, which would shift any contest for regional primacy into overdrive.
It is likely that there are more fundamental changes in the Middle East which we have yet to detect, or that some changes will be short-circuited as events unfold. As it unfolds, the Arab Spring is unlikely to fulfill the dearest hopes of U.S. policymakers for democracy or bring to pass their darkest worries of radicalization; it is certain, however, to change the Middle East forever in ways we are only beginning to apprehend.
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The Obama Administration is working feverishly to prevent the government of Palestine from asking the United Nations for recognition as a state. The United States cannot prevent the asking, but has said it would prevent the success by vetoing the measure when it comes before the Security Council. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared he will then appeal to the General Assembly for recognition, which he will certainly get. But the Palestinian Liberation Organization has had observer status at the United Nations since 1974, received formal recognition as a state by numerous countries since 1988. What, then, is the big deal of such recognition?
President Abbas described the purpose as "negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another, and not as a vanquished people." Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said the appeal to the United Nations was the best of their options, which consisted of surrender, return to violence, or appeal to the international community. That is, they consider negotiations with Israel at a dead end. He dismissed Quartet envoy Tony Blair's efforts with "sounds like an Israeli diplomat," and called for "international responsibility toward the Palestinians."
For the last several years, Prime Minister Fayyad has been taking an alternative approach: creating competent government so that Palestine actually has a functional state. It's a significant difference. Our own country endorsed that approach, bilaterally contributing $600 million a year, including direct budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority and significant effort to training Palestinian security forces.
That aid to the government of Palestine was a very difficult sell to Congress, who feared we were building the military and paramilitary forces that would threaten Israel. The fear has so far not materialized -- well-trained and disciplined security forces in Palestine have been a stabilizing presence in the occupied territories, often working in conjunction with Israeli security forces. Fayyad's fait accompli strategy has worked well enough that Nabil Shaath now confidently asserts "a new culture of nonviolence." If only.
Using international institutions to threaten Israel is unlikely to make Palestine independent. For all the international sanctimony, who is going to force Israel to cede its territory, and commit to ensuring that territory's independence once arrived at?
What Abbas' gambit is likely to produce is an end to American funding and participation in professionalization of Palestinian security forces (already tenuous because of the April 2011 Fatah-Hamas power sharing agreement), and greater hostility to political engagement with the government of Palestine by the two governments it needs to make a Palestinian state a reality: the United States and Israel. It may also undercut the Palestinian case for a right of refugee return to lands in Israel.
The Obama Administration's veto in the Security Council will incur a high political cost to the United States. It is difficult to argue, as we have, for the independence of South Sudan, the dawn of representative governments throughout the Middle East, and the right of ethnic and religious enclaves to their autonomy while opposing the partition of Israel's territory along those lines. Moreover, as the last two administrations have supported a two-state solution, it leaves the United States in the awkward position of vetoing something we have said we want as the outcome. And then there's the man on the street question: if the Palestinians have a President and Prime Minister, don't they already have a state?
Arab countries will cry foul at our hypocrisy, making more difficult our partnerships in that important region. The Abbas government is surely banking on Gulf states filling in the financial assistance that the Congress will cut off; that may happen, although the record is patchy of fellow Arab states supporting Palestinians beyond rhetoric and Palestinians are already among the world's largest recipients of foreign assistance. There will also be the economic effect of tighter restrictions by Israel.
Skillful working of the U.N. rules could delay the vote until well into October, which would deny Abbas the grandstanding opportunities of the General Assembly convocation in September. That is probably the best the Obama Administration can hope for at this point.
It is difficult to see Abbas' move bringing Israel to the bargaining table. Israeli fears of international persecution will be stoked at the prospect of their security being adjudicated in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. An overtly confrontational move like going to the United Nations will not soften Israeli hearts or government policies. Peace in Palestine depends fundamentally on Israel feeling secure enough to trade land for peace -- something it tried before and got burned on -- and reining in the settler movement.
At the end of the day, Palestinian aspirations would be advanced more by appealing for international support on the basis of the dignity of Palestinians creating their own state rather than having a U.N. coronation for one that may not be strong enough to support itself.
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For those who believe it is just a matter of time before China rides its commercial success to global hegemony, this week offered some compelling imagery: Europe, on its knees, reeling from political discord, rising bond yields, and bank downgrades; China, sitting atop its $3.2 trillion hoard of foreign exchange reserves, condescending to dictate the terms of European surrender.
Of course, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was not so tactless as to describe it as surrender. He actually expressed a "readiness to extend a helping hand and a readiness to increase (Chinese) investment in Europe." It wouldn't hurt, he went on, if Europe should decide to grant China market economy status, effectively lowering trade barriers.
Fareed Zakaria translates this into great power politics terms:
In a world awash in debt, power shifts to creditors. After World War I, European nations were battered by debts, and Germany was battered by reparation payments. The only country that could provide credit was the United States. For America, providing desperately needed cash to Europe was its entry into the councils of power, a process that ultimately brought a powerful new player inside the global tent. Today's crisis is China's opportunity to become a 'responsible stakeholder.'"
That's a twist on the original conception of what it meant to be a responsible stakeholder, but no matter. This interpretation falls apart as soon as one scratches at it a little.
The idea that a big infusion of Chinese cash would set Europe aright misinterprets the problems facing the Eurozone. Although the troubled countries there -- Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy -- each took their own paths into difficulty, they are all in unsustainable fiscal situations. These require difficult choices about future taxes and spending, not just a quick bridge loan. Oddly enough, Zakaria recognizes this early in his piece, when discussing the implausibility of a "eurobond" solution, under which France and Germany would effectively co-sign loans taken out by their neighbors:
The minute such bonds are floated, Italy, Greece and the others would lose all incentive to make painful reforms; they could borrow all the money they need at German-subsidized rates, so why go through the dreary work of restructuring? The Germans know this -- hence their opposition."
How serious is U.S. President Barack Obama about averting a theatrical United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood next week? We know that the United States has said it will veto any such vote, but the famously anti-Israel U.N. General Assembly may still take the vote forward in a way that is more symbolic than binding. Given the potential consequences of any such vote, the Obama administration should be flexing all its diplomatic muscle to ensure that it does not stand alone against this reckless and provocative move.
Tensions in Egypt remain high as the government (such that it is) battles to satisfy young protesters and keep the country safe at the same time. Libya is at a historic crossroads, with the West hurrying to fix up some signposts. Syria continues its brutal crackdown, seemingly undisturbed by Western sanctions and rhetoric. Turkey is flexing its muscles as a new power broker, and Iran continues to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Amid this melting pot of hope and turmoil, the region's strongest democracy, Israel, is isolated and weakened and in need of its friends.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly refuses to be drawn on how his government intends to vote at the United Nations. This is what he told David Frost on Al Jazeera earlier this week:
Britain and America are very, very strong allies. We work together on so many things. In this job you really see the benefits of the huge cooperation and the work that we do. But on this issue there have been times when we've voted in different ways, particularly on the settlement issue, and Britain will always do what it thinks is right.''
Britain has taken a leading role on the world stage since this coalition government was formed in May 2010, not least of course in the Libyan intervention. Throughout the tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa, Cameron has repeatedly supported calls for democratic reform and pluralization in the region. This leadership is at odds with his failure to articulate his government's position on the matter of Palestinian statehood. Neither he nor his ministers will be drawn into anything other than generalities.
Is this a "good cop, bad cop" routine devised by the United States and Britain, or is it simply that the British government no longer stands so firmly with the Middle East's strongest democracy? By refusing to make its position clear, Britain is playing a risky game. True alliances in the Middle East are hard to come by, and I understand from private sources that the Israelis are dumbfounded by the lack of support from old friends, particularly Britain.
And the Israelis are right to be worried. The Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to the United States, Maen Areikat, said this week that their future state should be free of Jews. He said, "It would be in the best interest of the two peoples to be separated." This prompted former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams to describe the ambassador's sentiment as "a despicable form of anti-Semitism," adding that "no civilized country would act this way."
With rhetorical tensions at an all-time high, the United States must increase its efforts to persuade the British government to reject calls for Palestinian statehood. If the Britain still counts Israel as a key regional ally and still believes in a negotiated peace, this is the only course of action open to David Cameron.
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A number of experts share my concern that the Obama Administration is taking undue risks with its Iraq policy. In a compelling analysis, Meghan O'Sullivan lays out the potential upside of a more prudent Iraq policy. And in an equally compelling analysis, Kenneth Pollack lays out the potential downside of the path that the Obama Administration appears to have chosen. Together, they make a powerful argument for reconsidering the current trajectory and for making a mid-course correction.
I worked closely with O'Sullivan on Iraq policy in Bush's second term, and I found her to be one of the most candid and insightful internal critics of our policies. She was an early advocate of the shift to the surge strategy and she was especially good at understanding the interplay of U.S. policy and internal Iraqi politics.
Pollack was one of the more important outside voices on Bush's Iraq policy. He was an early supporter of efforts to confront the Hussein regime, but he also was an early critic of missteps. By 2006 his critique was especially trenchant. Then in late July 2007, he co-authored (with Michael O'Hanlon) one of the most influential op-eds in the entire Iraq saga. At that time, Republican backers of Bush's efforts in Iraq were losing heart and Democratic opponents of the surge were close to realizing their goal of stopping the new strategy. The Bush White House was reduced to pleading for a few weeks delay so Congress could hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker directly in September, but the mood in Congress was unwilling even to do that. In the midst of the political storm, Pollack and O'Hanlon wrote that the new surge strategy was working and that political opponents at home should give it more time. Since Bush opponents had regularly used Pollack and O'Hanlon's earlier critiques as a club with which to bash the Administration, their surprising notes of optimism gave their op-ed outsized influence.
I hope the Obama Administration is listening to O'Sullivan, Pollack, and others today. If Obama policymakers have a good counter-argument, I would like to see it developed in a thoughtful way -- addressing these real critiques, rather than strawman arguments. The Obama team has the benefit of inside information that even the most well-informed outsiders might lack, so it is possible the Administration understands something that these recent pieces are missing. But it is also possible that the Administration has locked onto a policy that is wrong-headed and the President is in a state of denial over the likely consequences. Only a careful and candid engagement of the arguments can resolve the matter. Time is running out for that engagement.
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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.