In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms:
"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."
That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:
Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.
All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.
Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.
I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.
Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!
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The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way:
"The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.
Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."
This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine. Here is the relevant section from Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy (itself quoting from the earlier and controversial articulation in the 2002 National Security Strategy):
If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions.
Of course, the Bush Administration was excoriated for framing the issue that way, and there arose a lively cottage industry devoted to attacking this aspect of the Bush doctrine. While Obama has tended to get away with things his predecessors could not, I suspect that even he will face some tough questioning now that the overlap with the controversial Bush doctrine is so unmistakable.
The issue is a difficult one, for the applicability of the self-defense principle depends crucially on context. Everyone agrees that if someone is attacking you with a knife, you do not have to wait for the blade to puncture your skin before you can strike at the assailant. And everyone agrees that it is not self-defense to attack someone just because you think there is a dim and distant possibility that one day that person might decide that he wants to attack you even though there is no evidence of such intent today. In the real world of national security policymaking, however, there are abundant hard cases in between those easy calls and those hard cases are what policymakers -- as distinct from pundits -- can't avoid.
The memo reveals the Obama Administration wrestling with these problems and coming to conclusions strikingly similar to those of the Bush Administration. I wonder if Team Obama will be more successful than the Bush Administration was in arguing the merits and logic of the preemption doctrine.
Is it possible that the debate and vote on Senator Hagel's confirmation for secretary of defense will be the closest the Senate comes to a debate and vote on the use of force in Iran? As the administration showed on Libya, President Obama believes he can use military force without a prior congressional vote. The administration would be very wary about asking for something it is not absolutely certain it could get, and it would have to be very uncertain of winning such an "authorization to use military force in Iran" vote. Accordingly, it is likely that, if it ever came to it, the Obama administration might believe it must use military force against Iran's nuclear program without the kind of lengthy and contentious congressional debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq war and the 1991 Iraq war.
If my speculations are correct thus far -- a big if, I realize -- then a further, ironic speculation may also be correct: a vote for Hagel may be a vote against the use of force in Iran.
Let's stipulate up front that hawks and doves alike would prefer a negotiated solution with Iran in which Iran verifiably abandoned its nuclear ambitions. The debate between hawks and doves is not a debate between those who think the use of force would be swell and those who know it would not be. It is rather a debate between hawks who think that the "unswell" military option is preferable to learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and/or accepting a hitherto unacceptable negotiated deal that could not be prevented from devolving into "learning to live with an Iranian nuclear weapons") and doves who think that it is preferable to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon than to resort to force.
Officially, the Obama administration's policy is, by this metric, hawkish. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
Hawks and doves differ on one further question: why haven't we been able to get a negotiated solution with Iran thus far? Doves say the reason is that the United States has hitherto botched diplomacy by rejecting legitimate Iranian overtures, failing to adequately negotiate face-to-face, having too many sticks and not enough carrots in the mix, and over-relying on unilateral sanctions; more creative diplomacy from the United States should be able to open up an acceptable deal. Hawks say the reason is that hitherto Iran has not experienced enough pain to be willing to concede on key issues and so the key is to ratchet up the coercive element of coercive diplomacy (whilst keeping the diplomatic element alive as well) until Iran makes the requisite concessions.
Officially, the Obama 2008 campaign was dovish by this metric but the Administration has moved towards the hawkish pole over the past several years. So far as I can determine, Senator Hagel's position has been dovish and has remained dovish.
If you were President Obama and you were in fact still hawkish -- i.e. you believed you might need to use military force -- why would you nominate the dovish Hagel?
One possibility -- call it the "Nixon to China" possibility -- is that a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in Congress, in the Pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it (which, I am sure, Obama devoutly hopes it never will). Likewise, only a dove like Hagel could convince skeptics that the Obama administration has done everything it can on the negotiations front and that no further U.S. concessions are warranted. That might be Obama's calculation, but this would be a grave risk to take. Senator Hagel earned his prominence by being an iconoclast, by breaking with his president, by sticking to his anti-interventionist instincts even when it might have seemed disloyal to do so. Such a maverick would be more likely to break with the hawkish Obama when push came to shove than to blot his military copybook by supporting military action on Iran. I can't rule it out, but I think the "Nixon to China" interpretation is the wrong one.
A more likely possibility is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says. That is, I think it is possible that when push comes to shove President Obama may believe it would be preferable to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (or a bad deal that was tantamount to that) than to use military force. He may also believe that the administration has migrated as far to the hawkish pole on the question of how to structure negotiations with Iran as is wise, and that it is time to try more dovish approaches to negotiations. An Obama that is a dove-in-hawk's-feathers would find a Secretary Hagel fully in harmony with his views.
There is a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the foregoing, in part because Sen. Hagel has not been pinned down on his current views on Iran and the crucial question about which is worse, living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or resorting to force. I expect that to be one of the main foci of the confirmation hearings. And I expect the debate those questions and answers engender to be one of the liveliest debates the political establishment has had to date on the Iran issue.
Which means that Hagel's confirmation hearings and vote may be something of a proxy for congressional action on the use of force on Iran.
Update: Someone much more knowledgeable about the region than I am pointed out another irony about the Hagel nomination. If the hawks are correct both about Sen. Hagel's views and about what hinders negotiations with Iran, then the appointment of Hagel, on the margins, potentially increases the likelihood of the outcome the doves profess most to despise: an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. Here is how the logic plays out: If the hawks are right, the appointment of Hagel undermines the use of force threat, which both undermines negotiations with Iran and undermines Israeli confidence that it can trust the United States to, in Obama's words, "have its back." Failing negotiations, coupled with growing Israeli doubts, intensifies pressure on Israeli leaders to take matters into their own hands, with all of the predictable undesirable consequences that will ensue. Irony of ironies, such Israeli action might be taken to confirm Hagel's critique of Israel, the same critique that some supporters say justifies his confirmation and others say justifies voting against him. Secretary Hagel, my friend suggests, might be a self-fulfilling prophet.
There are too many hypotheticals piled upon hypotheticals to bet the farm on this chain of logic. For one thing, a Secretary Hagel would doubtless work tirelessly to head off such an Israeli preventive strike and the administration may well succeed in preventing Israeli action even if they do not succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. And, of course, the hawks might be wrong about Hagel's views or the likely consequences of those views for coercive diplomacy. But if Hagel is as wise and prudent as his supporters claim, it would probably serve him well to think through "what-ifs" like these and to clarify his views in the hearings accordingly.
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The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department to Republican hands. But the president's priorities argue for a technically proficient executive that can intimidate the Department into compliance and the Congress into restraining spending and hobby horses -- a description neither Hagel nor the other preferred candidates fit.
If the president is simply looking to put the Pentagon into the hands of someone who shares his views on foreign policy, Chuck Hagel would achieve that aim, and with the sublime collateral damage of continuing Republican feuding. But it is unlikely to buy the White House congressional support on defense policy -- and that's crucial, given what the White House actually wants to achieve in the coming four years.
The national security community has a penchant for defense intellectuals, meaning people who work in DOD or NSC or think tank jobs creating and evaluating government policy. We are ennobled with the title "strategists." But very few of us are actually ever trained for or called on to match objectives to means. Just one small indicator is the paucity of defense experts who know anything about budgeting or think about the defense budget in the context of cost-effectiveness in spending -- its absence ought to be a disqualifying factor.
Moreover, the president doesn't need a defense strategy. Like it or not, he has one: winding down the wars and minimizing foreign entanglements, killing suspected terrorists by remote means, and training the military forces of other countries to handle their own problems. It is consistent with his broader national security strategy of investing in American domestic strength and rebalancing spending away from defense. If the president's strategy were actually implemented by the Defense Department, it would mean a genuinely revolutionary reduction in DOD spending and redistribution of spending among the military services, greatly to the advantage of the Navy and detriment of the active-duty Army.
But the president probably isn't going to force that revolution on the Pentagon. A hue and cry much greater than that which followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" would ensue (recall that the Rumsfeld revolution was achieved, to the extent to which it was achieved, by continuing to do almost everything the Services wanted while also increasing spending for "transformational" equipment and activities). Mostly what the president wants is all quiet on the defense front while he fights other battles, and that means a secretary of defense who can cut defense spending by at least $25 billion a year without a rebellion from either Congress or the military or activist groups like MOAA while also hedging against a catastrophic breakthrough in military capabilities by our potential adversaries.
If the trial balloon on Hagel is deemed insufficiently ascendant, the White House seems to have narrowed its fallback plan to two veterans of the Obama Pentagon, either Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.
Michele Flournoy is a genuinely wonderful human being. But her main achievements in defense policy are giving the president political cover for the "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq and keeping the Pentagon busy with a Quadrennial Defense Review that wasn't matched by Secretary Robert Gates' budget and has been repudiated by Secretary Leon Panetta's Strategic Guidance. Being a woman and holding a job ought not to count as an achievement.
Ashton Carter is a genuine defense intellectual -- a physicist and tenured professor of government at Harvard. He has the advantage of actually understanding the technologies in sophisticated weapons systems, did a solid job as the AT&L -- Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the mainstay business of running DOD -- and was a favorite of that superb former defense secretary, Bill Perry. He is the best choice if the White House is choosing from within the administration. He too has proved largely unpersuasive on Capitol Hill, however.
The pool of talent is so much larger than the White House is giving itself credit for. They have set implicit constraining criteria that narrow the field to people who've held defense jobs and are already known/trusted by the president. But the president needs a rainmaker, someone who will be so respected within the building that he or she can make substantial spending reductions and command the respect of a majority of Congress while running a $600-billion-a-year business. The White House would do well to relax its constraints and consider the following six potential secretaries:
Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford. Running the only Big Three car company that didn't take a bailout should endear him to conservatives. He successfully negotiated unions to reduced labor costs with a finesse that will be essential to reining in military entitlement programs, and he sold off nostalgia brands that no longer made sense for the company (take heed, manned fighter platforms). He's an aeronautical engineer with a business degree from MIT, and he knows the defense business, having run Boeing. Putting the man who returned Ford to profitability by cutting costs in charge of the Pentagon in a time of austerity gives the secretary the advantage of arguing he knows how to do something the defense experts and military do not.
Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary for acquisition and technology under Secretary Perry. He has advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from both MIT and Stanford, a military career distinguished by pushing forward technological innovations, and private-sector work experience in high-tech companies. He wrote a hugely perceptive study of emergent technologies, arguing for changes in our export controls that would allow us to capitalize on the work of foreign companies in crucial sectors of the next generation of innovations. If anyone can fix our procurement system and throw the red flag on underperforming or ill-aligned programs, it's Kaminski.
Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway. We have done too little value investing in defense and we are slow to identify the enemy's advantages and minimize our long-term vulnerabilities. His letters to investors are masterpieces of educating your raters, which portends well for managing Congress. Picking winners is the Sage of Omaha's genius, which could be an enormous advantage when turned on the defense industry, emergent technologies, wars, and military leadership; Napoleon promoted his generals by that criteria. And God knows the president owes Buffett.
John Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and current chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Hamre is a Republican from South Dakota who was deputy secretary in the Clinton Administration. He is a superb intellect who dispenses difficult ideas with the grace of a genial Lutheran pastor handing tuna casserole around -- and he comes by it honestly, since he studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to receiving a PhD from SAIS. Hamre was also ruthlessly effective as comptroller in "cutting off the oxygen" to those who wouldn't implement the secretary's priorities while still acting as a generous mentor to a legion of young government officials. He has Capitol Hill chops not only from a decade as a SASC staffer but also from the Congressional Budget Office.
Charles O'Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford School of Business. An expert on organizational renewal (with a BS in chemistry), he literally wrote the book on why successful organizations fail to innovate, which would be a hugely important perspective to bring to today's Pentagon. He advises companies on how to foster disruptive innovation and contributed to James Wolfensohn's efforts to do just that at the World Bank. A former soldier and great team-builder, his book Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) ought to be required reading for defense experts and would be the basis for DOD's rethinking of how to execute its missions in new ways.
Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. A rising star among conservatives, she's a tough former district attorney who could command respect within the building even though defense would be a new portfolio. Being a governor is actually better preparation for defense secretary (and many other managerial jobs) than being in Congress. She would bring a border perspective to challenge the "foreign wars" perspective of our defense establishment, which may lead to better integration of homeland security and defense, a long overdue synthesis. She grew up a Democrat and could therefore be emblematic of the center of our politics, and would buy the administration a defender of their policies who is respected among conservatives. And why not make the advocates of small government take a meat axe to their favorite government program? It would help Republicans too by showcasing on a national level the executive abilities of a potential presidential candidate.
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President Obama's victory last night was decisive enough to spare the country weeks of litigation over provisional ballots. And it delays for at least four years the ceremony where we handed over the cyber-keys of Shadow Government to our friends across the aisle. Aside from that, it is hard to argue that the election decisively resolved the question of where the country should go for the next four years.
As numerous people observed, after years of campaigning and some $2 billion dollars of campaign-related expenditures, the country ended up about where it was in 2010: the reins of government split between the two parties, an electorate narrowly and bitterly divided with neither side apparently capable of empathizing with the other side, and with no apparent national consensus on the big issues facing the country. The Democrats clearly have the whip hand, but does anyone seriously believe that President Obama received a strong mandate on key policy issues?
This applies especially to the foreign policy and national security issues near and dear to the hearts of Shadow Government. What did the voters say about the following key decisions President Obama must make in the coming six months:
If you expand the horizon to encompass the full remaining term of the Obama administration, the list of foreign policy and national security challenges gets even more daunting:
And so on....
What all of these questions have in common is that on each of them the Obama campaign avoided presenting a clear set of proposed answers and so received from the electorate no clear guidance.
In fact, to the extent that foreign policy was discussed, it seemed to devolve into scorched earth attacks on Romney and the pedigree of his advisors or unqualified defenses of a caricatured version of the last four years.
Privately, my friends in the administration would admit to mistakes but publicly the campaign refused any such candor. When pressed, my friends would claim that they were simply adopting a page from the Bush 2004 playbook, implying that they, too, would do serious mid-course corrections as needed once they had secured a second term.
I hope so and, if so, there should be plenty of opportunity for those of us in the cheap seats to applaud the administration and to work to repair areas of bipartisan consensus.
Of course, those of us in the cheap seats have plenty of other work to do or we might be buying a lifetime lease on the bench. The campaign exposed some divisive internal Republican debates on America's role in the world, and perhaps Shadow Government can be a place where that debate is resolved in a compelling and coalition-expanding way.
There are two contradictory narratives about the last four years of Obama's stewardship of foreign policy.
One is advanced by Obama supporters, former and wannabe-future members of the administration along with sympathizers in the media and the academy. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been a foreign policy maestro, responsible for no consequential errors of commission or omission.
The other is advanced by Obama's most hardened detractors, and at times has included official statements from the Romney campaign. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster, responsible for the wholesale surrender of American interests around the globe.
The truth is somewhere in between. Obama has had some successes on the foreign policy front (chiefly when he has followed along a policy trajectory laid down by Republicans), but he has also presided over choices and actions that have hurt American interests. He has avoided the worst possible foreign policy blunders, but he has been responsible for many other decisions that were probably mistakes. He has erred on the side of taking the popular course rather than wise course, and this pattern means that his foreign policy spins today better than it will look in the years to come.
If Obama loses, there will be plenty of time for the historical record to balance itself and for the more reasonable mixed assessment to take root.
If Obama wins, however, there will be an urgent need for the Obama team to stop drinking their own bathwater and to do a sober self-assessment. The Bush administration did just that after winning reelection and the second term was, in some important respects, a distinct improvement over the first.
It is very difficult for any administration to do that, but I think the Obama team is especially challenged because they are so wedded to a distorted narrative about the first four years.
There is hope, however, in the form of insider voices calling for change. To that end, as the DC community hunkers down to endure Hurricane Sandy, my recommendation is that everyone involved with the foreign policy establishment read carefully two articles from FP.com, both by Rosa Brooks: "The Case for Intervention" and "You'll never eat lunch in this town again!"
The articles have already generated considerable controversy in certain circles, but I am surprised how little they have penetrated the mainstream media. I asked a very distinguished reporter who has specialized in reporting on the Obama national security process about them the other day and he indicated he had never read them, even though her article effectively rebuts one of his primary story-lines.
Nor do I consider Brooks' critique to be indisputable. For instance, I give Obama more credit for a strategic vision than she does and I think Obama has resisted Congressional pressure far more vigorously than she claims -- for instance, he resisted Congressional pressure to ramp up sanctions on Iran in 2009 and 2010 so as to preserve his preferred policy of offering unconditional bilateral talks.
Yet on balance her critique is persuasive, all the more so because she cannot be dismissed as a shill for Romney. Indeed, in prior and subsequent posts, she has made her loyalties to Obama unmistakable.
But when she writes about her personal experience inside the Obama national security team, and when that is supplemented with ample quotes from other insiders, her critique has a unique authority.
Brooks' two pieces combine to make up a compelling transition memo for those planning a possible Obama second term. Perhaps a Romney victory will preempt that planning. But just in case he wins a second term, we should all hope that Obama has a planning cell that gives greater credence to what the critics are saying than what the campaign is spinning.
I've just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one's biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers were feeding in abundance, and the Inboden freezer will be well-stocked with fish for months. Meanwhile I'm now playing catch up on various happenings, and over the next few days will offer thoughts on some recent foreign policy and politics items.
First up is Congressman Adam Smith's recent Foreign Policy article. Smith, a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote here at FP.com a few days ago larding praise on the Obama administration while lambasting the Romney campaign for its foreign policy support from former Bush administration officials (hmm, sounds like a lot of us here at Shadow Government including yours truly). On substance, Smith's piece is fundamentally unserious, and certainly will not help elevate his standing as a "wise man on foreign policy." (It is generally expected of a member of Congress who aspires to be seen as a leader on national security policy to write a "big think" piece for a serious outlet like FP -- a well-crafted article can mark a member as an up-and-comer, but a poorly crafted one can do more damage than silence).
On this count Smith's article disappoints. It reads as if it were written by Democratic National Committee staff circa 2005. Like many Democratic critiques from that era, this one lambastes the Iraq war, while conveniently neglecting to mention Smith's own past support for the war. Indeed, Smith, like many Democrats, has not yet figured out how to acknowledge that by their own scoring they were wrong on Iraq twice: wrong to support the war when things were going well, but also wrong to oppose the surge, which substantially helped reverse the trajectory when things were going poorly. They seek to damn all initial supporters of the Iraq war (except themselves) but are unwilling to extend the logic by damning all opponents of the surge.
But beyond its selective history on Iraq, at its core Smith's op-ed has a much bigger problem: the Obama administration has adopted almost wholesale the so-called "discredited doctrines and reckless policies" of the Bush-Cheney administration that Smith decries. This White House's biggest foreign policy successes have almost always come when following Bush administration policies (yes, this point has been made many times before, but it bears repeating as long as tendentious articles like Smith's are being written). Policies and doctrines such as the preemptive use of force, unilateral operations, counter-insurgency warfare, indefinite detention of terrorist suspects, military tribunals, drone strikes, multilateral coalitions to pressure North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programs, strong assertions of executive authority -- all of these were controversial when developed by the Bush administration. And all have been adopted, and in some cases expanded, by the Obama administration, particularly as it continues the war against al Qaeda.
If Smith's article represents the strongest line of attack that the Obama campaign has against Gov. Romney on foreign policy, it is the flimsiest of rubber swords.
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An interesting thing has happened on the way from strategic competitor to regional ally (or whatever it is that President Obama labels China these days). During the economic malaise of the world's largest economy, and during Japan's lingering inability to escape the grips of recession, the Chinese economy has grown to become the world's second largest, behind only the U.S. (Japan's former position).
Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. Economic growth hopefully will bring more freedom to China's people. At a minimum it'll allow more of its citizens to buy widgets that help them get around the Great Firewall.
The part that is troubling is that China's economy is not becoming more transparent. All of their statistics come from a national statistics bureau ultimately beholden to political leadership. The numbers are spartan, and even if the numbers are accurate they are far too broad to dissect an economy as complex as China's. The traditional data sources for the Chinese economy have remained the same and are no longer sufficient for the world's second largest economy, not for the financial world. The shortcomings of the NBS is a topic covered in depth here), here or here. If you're not interested in reading more there, just consider that China's quarterly stats, for an economy of 1.3 billion people, is tabulated in just two weeks. By comparison, the same tabulation takes the U.S. over a month. Amazing given China's size and the very restricted resources of the statistical bureau. Likewise, the headline numbers often seem to be edited to match other economic indicators -- and yet, the quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year numbers often don't make a lot of sense when compared. There is also no attempt to report stats like urban and rural employment. The Statistical Bureau makes revisions but they are only upward revisions and always create a discrepancy between revised and unrevised reports. Most obviously, there's a built in incentive for provincial officials to report higher numbers. You see the result of this in the creative math used in tabulating GDP for China's 32 administrative regions. Every single region reported forecasts of 8 percent of GDP or higher last year. Yet, the nationwide forecast was 8 percent.
But before Tom Friedman or Ray Lahood can say that it's just because China is better managed or uses better math, let me posit the obvious: China is publishing numbers to fit a set storyline and not vice versa. (Full disclosure: I am co-founder of a company that publishes The China Beige Book, a private quarterly survey that uses exclusively independent data to produce an accurate, real-time snapshot of the Chinese economy -- the views here are my own and do represent those of CBB, LLC). In a healthy economy, the government will publish data, and hoards of private companies will do their own research to either support or argue with the official results. That's not happening in China.
It's a real problem because of China's importance to the world market. Bad data begets bad policy. The White House is making decisions based on a limited view of what China's policy freedom of action may be because they're reacting to inadequate economic data -- and we know U.S. policymakers don't have better data. All over the world decisions are made on the perceptions -- not facts -- about what is going on.
How many G20 meetings have there been since the financial crisis during which this issue -- better and more transparent data -- was raised (Hint: Zero)? How about any special point raised by the IMF or World Bank -- all institutions the West controls? This is the world's second largest economy and every leader on earth may be flying blind, and doesn't seem to care. This has ripple effects throughout the financial world. National-level policy makers, hedge and pension fund managers, and even people controlling their own 401k all need better data. Yet, we seem all to be ok flying blind.
With the U.S. locked in horrific growth, no demand from Japan, and the eurozone's fiscal profligacy having made it a ticking time bomb, China's economic growth -- and how it deals (or does not deal) with the serious imbalances in its economy -- is becoming more important to the world economy, not less. The world of finance (including the Treasury Department and the Fed) are hanging their hat on world GDP growth impacted greatly by China's economy. Those decisions will impact your pocketbook directly. Like it or not China is deeply integrated into the world economy and into the U.S. economy in particular.
The fact is that we can't be sure what's going on there (is the bottom falling out of the real estate market, are unregulated non-banks easing credit, are they stockpiling valuable commodities?) We think we know the answer to some of these questions but we're not sure. Just this morning, the Wall Street Journal's Tom Orlick, one of the best commentators on this subject, penned a piece guessing about China's current inflation rate.
It's a very serious issue because the reality -- not the perception -- of China's economic health will impact the world economy. Decisions regarding U.S. government policies, Fed policy, world stock markets plays, and even your 401k are all made based on those perceptions. But the outcome will be based on reality. Tiny Greece is a good lesson -- it's a different situation but the same concept. Europe was cruising along blissfully on the perception that Greece was doing fine. But when the Greek government decided to come clean about the reality of debt off the books the euro crisis began in earnest. I'm not suggesting China necessarily has something to come clean about (though China's non-performing loans make for interesting reading) or that we are at some inflection point. But this is a dangerous time to be leaning on such dubious statistics.
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More than any other economic danger looming on America's immediate horizon, including a possible break-up of the eurozone, sequestration poses the greatest single threat to American recovery in the near term. This arcane process came into force when the congressionally-mandated "super-committee, "officially known as the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, failed in its mission. As a result, the sequester calls for reductions in government spending totaling $1.2 trillion over the next nine years, of which $984 billion, or $109 billion annually, will be realized from across-the-board budget reductions.
Although defense accounts for only 14 percent of the budget deficit, when entitlements are taken into account, the annual $109 billion dollar cut will be evenly divided between defense and non-defense reductions, with some small reductions in entitlements contributing to the non-defense side of the ledger. Put another way, once the sequester comes into effect, defense-related appropriations will have to be reduced by $55 billion annually. And these reductions will be of the sledgehammer variety: Every "program, project and activity" will be reduced by the same percentage, regardless of its relative importance to the overall enhancement of national security.
It gets worse. The sequester does not begin to bite until January 2, 2013 -- that is, until the beginning of the second quarter of the upcoming fiscal year. That means that the entire $55 billion must be found from programs that had not yet been obligated during the first quarter of the fiscal year. To the extent that such commitments will have been made, the amount of funding susceptible to reductions will itself be reduced, and the percentage of reductions will accordingly increase. Finally, because President Obama is expected to exempt the military personnel accounts, which total some $141 billion, and Congress is expected to exempt the contingency-related accounts (which are the major source of funding for the war in Afghanistan), there will remain some $375 billion, from which $55 billion will have to be found, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in all other defense programs.
The impact of that reduction will be highly disruptive to both the current and longer term defense program. It will result in massive reductions in weapons systems, though not in personnel. It will render the pivot to Asia meaningless; any plans for increasing our military muscle in that region will be completely undermined by the reduction in shipbuilding, aircraft, missile, drones, and a host of other acquisition programs. Our presence in the rest of the world will at best fare no better, and, in light of the so-called pivot, will probably suffer even more.
All the foregoing has long been well-known to Washington's defense cognoscenti and especially its bean counters. What is less well-known, and at least equally alarming, is the impact of the sequester on the economy as a whole. As the recently released study by the Bipartisan Policy Center points out (full disclosure: I am a member of the Center's Task Force on Defense Budget and Strategy), the sequester will result in the loss of about a million jobs in 2013 and 2014 and America's GDP will decline by half a percent. Moreover, of these million lost jobs, it can safely be asserted that at least half will come from the non-defense sector. In other words, the sequester is not just a defense problem that should agitate only hawks. It is a national problem, and it demands immediate relief.
Despite the urgency of the sequester's challenge, the administration continues to sit on its hands. No draft legislation has emerged from the White House that would at least postpone the sequester for a reasonable period to enable Congress to try its hand at another effort to reduce the deficit. The administration's allies on the hill, particularly in the Senate, have been equally nonchalant about the coming programmatic and economic disaster.
Such nonchalance carries with it a very high risk, however, and not only for the economy. In addition to its impact on the government's budget, the sequester will also trigger the WARN Act, which requires employers to give a minimum of sixty days notice to private and public sector employees whose jobs are being targeted for possible termination. Those politicians seeking re-election to national office should take note that Nov. 2, 60 days before Jan. 2, when the sequester comes into force, is just four days before election day. They may find it very uncomfortable having to explain to potentially hundreds of thousands of people who have been given WARN Act pink slips why they deserve to be returned to office after they did nothing about the sequester. America's economic house is burning; the Neros of Washington had better act soon, or they may find that their political fate will echo that of their ancient Roman namesake.
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Terrorism, as the United States has learned at a high cost in recent years, comes in many forms and from unexpected sources. The government of Ecuador has once again crossed the line between irresponsible policies and ideologically driven actions that have created a serious security problem not only for its citizens but also for the entire Western Hemisphere. The disarray created in Ecuador's immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups -- possibly including al Qaeda -- to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.
In June of 2008, the Ecuadorian government opened its borders to foreigners and ended visa requirements to enter its territory. This opened the floodgates to nationals from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Cuba, Pakistan, and Somalia). For example, according to statistics of its own National Immigration Office, in 2006 (before the policy change) there were 92 entries of Pakistani citizens, by 2008 were already 178 and in 2010, 518. This is an increase of 550 percent in 4 years. More significantly, just between 2008 and 2010 an estimated 60,000 Cubans entered Ecuador, according to intelligence sources.
Records shows that large numbers of these immigrants enter to obtain Ecuadorian nationality by naturalization and thus be able to travel freely throughout Latin America and eventually to the United States without arousing suspicion because of their original nationalities. The routes by which they enter the Americas generally include a first stop in Cuba or Venezuela, countries with highly subjective immigration controls. Two routes that are used repeatedly are Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables, Ecuadorian authorities were alerted in 2009 by various international intelligence agencies about this deception. However, it was not until mid-2010 when they began to again administer their immigration policies. Thereafter, the Ecuadorian government somewhat modified its visa policy for nationals of certain countries that were considered the riskiest.
Nevertheless, some reports suggest that despite this change, these immigrant groups have developed a criminal infrastructure of sufficient magnitude to keep functioning independently. To bypass the stricter immigration controls, criminal gangs have specialized in forging travel documents, visas, birth certificates, and fake residency permits that ultimately lead to illegally obtaining an Ecuadorian passport. Documents are not difficult to obtain because the Mafiosi suborn government administrators including civil registry officials, judges, and other government officials.
Of particular concern to U.S. security is the case of nationals of third countries who enter Ecuador with passports issued by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, countries for which Ecuador still does not require visas.
It is noteworthy that by Executive Order No. 1065 signed by President Correa on February 16, 2012, Ecuador has substantially eased the process of naturalization of foreign citizens. This resolution orders the granting of letters of naturalization to people who had provided "relevant services" to Ecuador and have resided for more than two years in the country, opening the door for virtually anyone to become a naturalized Ecuadorian and obtain a passport.
The danger these criminal networks pose is illustrated by two examples, among many: In 2011 an investigation was conducted by the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) attaché in Quito, Ecuador, the HIS office in Atlanta, the Miami division of the FBI and the Ecuadorian National Police. The operation led to the arrest of Irfan Ul Haq, a Pakistani citizen who according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was conducting a "human smuggling operation in Quito, Ecuador, that attempted to smuggle an individual they believed to be a member of the TTP from Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban) into the United States." The TTP was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Sept. 1, 2010.
A second case, which resulted in the arrest of Yaee Dawit, alias Jack Flora, probably the most important human trafficker in Africa and linked to different cells of al-Qaeda in East Africa, illustrates the good work of international cooperation, but also the importance that Ecuadorian cities have acquired as "hubs" for terrorists and transnational criminals.
These cases not only illuminate the crime of human trafficking, but they also show how they continuously finance other terrorist and criminal activities. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, describes these criminals as follows: "For financial profit, they [were] willing to jeopardize the safety and security of the American people. Human smuggling operations pose a serious risk to our national security, and we will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners at home and abroad to combat this dangerous threat."
While there is no evidence to show that the Correa government established the policy of "open borders" in an effort to attract criminal organizations, that has been the result. On the other hand, there is no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow. These examples show how Rafael Correa's Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as "government-authorized illicit tunnels" through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms. The time has come to close these tunnels.
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. Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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On the flight from Rome to Mexico prior to his visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI stirred the hearts of many by declaring that Marxism had lost its relevance in the 21stcentury. The comment was seen as a preview to how he would comport himself in Cuba -- an anticipated and welcome contrast to the traditional international indulgence of the Castro dictatorship.
Alas, that was to be the most provocative thing he had to say over the entire trip. Instead, it is what he said next that appears to typify how the Church is approaching its mission in Cuba: that the Church was ready to help the island find new ways of moving forward without "traumas."
Apparently, "traumas" is Vatican-speak for the kind of upheavals seen elsewhere in the world of late, in which populations have risen up against oppressive and bankrupt dictatorships.
In other words, the Church has decided that its role in Cuba is not to be a change agent and it would shun any abrupt turn away from Castroism. It also means that the Church is placing its faith in the Castro regime (and its repressive apparatus) to manage a "soft landing" as Cuba supposedly transitions to wherever it is transitioning.
That is why the Pope's trip is a profound disappointment to many who were hoping for a stronger signal that the cries of the Cuban people were being heard for a better future over their dysfunctional and spiritless existence under the Castro regime.
Pope Benedict did pepper his public remarks in Cuba with words like "liberty," "prisoners," (although not "political prisoners") and reached out to "Cubans, wherever they may be" (more than one million in exile), but even the international press covering the visit seemed disappointed by his lack of powerful symbolism and rhetoric. The Pope "delivered a carefully worded, nuanced and balanced arrival address" and "kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to interpretation." Frankly, there is little in Cuba today that is "open to interpretation."
Indeed, the effort to avoid saying anything that would offend the Castro government was too conspicuous, as was the smothering regime choreography of the visit -- high-ranking officials always appearing near the Pontiff, media restrictions to control public perceptions, the arrests of dissidents. The Cuban people needed no translation on what was really going on: The regime was demonstrating that the Church did not exist as an alternative voice of authority, but that they and the Pope were compatible.
Neither was the visit enhanced by the fact that the Pope declined to meet with beleaguered Cuban dissidents (as Pope John Paul the Great had done 14 years earlier) because of a "busy schedule," yet found the time to reportedly add a last-minute meeting with cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (in Cuba for medical treatment), a man who has notoriously insulted Church leaders in Venezuela time after time.
In one encouraging note, however, a brave Cuban refused to go along with the regime's charade and began shouting during one of the Pope's addresses: "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" As he was being led away, he was punched by an official wearing a Red Cross vest. (Such is life in Cuba.) His fate remains unknown.
Cuba is, of course, hostile territory for the Church, which has been repressed -- at times violently -- for five decades. And it stands to reason there may be a bit of a whipped dog syndrome in the Church's reluctance to be bolder. But the Church is not without its own strengths -- a fact that terrifies the Castro regime, hence, the overexertion to try and co-opt it. But the bottom line is Pope Benedict declined the opportunity to meet the regime on equal terms, and the Cuban people are poorer off for it.
The irony is that the Vatican's choice of a passive and accommodating approach will only help to bring about the kind of turmoil it ostensibly seeks to avoid -- as the pent up frustrations of the Cuban people continue to be denied any viable outlet. It also diminishes the Church's own image as an honest broker in a future Cuban transition.
History will ultimately render the verdict on the Vatican’s choice, but the record shows that placing one’s faith in the hoped-for good will of a dictatorship never really does work out very well in the end.
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In a recent FP article, Francis Gavin and James Steinberg observed that historical analogies can prove an unreliable guide to present-day policy decisions, specifically with regard to the momentous decision facing the United States and its allies regarding whether to strike Iran. As if to prove Gavin and Steinberg's point, Fareed Zakaria seeks in a Washington Post column to marshal two historical analogies in defense of his view that Israel should not attack Iran, but rather should seek to "contain" a nuclear-armed Iran if necessary. In doing so, Zakaria provides little insight into the difficult decisions facing Israeli or American leaders, but instead provides an instructive example of the fallacies that Gavin and Steinberg warn against.
Zakaria's first error is to cherry-pick historical analogies which fit what is presumably a preconceived conclusion -- that attacking Iran would be a strategic error. To support his view, he cites Germany's ill-fated decision to invade France in 1914, and the United States' decision not to attack the USSR in the late 1940s.
There are two problems with this sort of cherry-picking. First, Zakaria chooses only those historical cases which support the case for non-intervention, and ignores other possible analogies which might undermine his view. Just as critics of a strike like Zakaria could point to the cases he mentions or others to demonstrate how an attack could fail or non-intervention could succeed, advocates of a strike can cite the failure to confront mounting German militarism in the 1930s to highlight the risks of passivity, or cases of successful military interventions to illustrate the benefits of action.
Second, as with most broad historical analogies, both of the events cited by Zakaria are problematic as comparisons to the current tensions between Israel and Iran. Indeed, they must be shoe-horned into service to Zakaria's thesis. For example, Zakaria focuses on one factor which contributed to the outbreak of World War I -- German concerns about Russian armaments and mobilization capacity -- and excludes the many other circumstances which precipitated that conflict. And in citing the success of the decision to maintain a policy of "containment" (which was adopted prior to Moscow's development of nuclear weapons) toward the USSR rather than go to war, he fails to mention that this success came at considerable cost -- the domination of Eastern Europe for decades by the Soviets, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and several major and countless minor wars.
Zakaria's second error is to commit, as many who employ analogies do, the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- that is, to assume that because an outcome followed a decision, it was caused by that decision. It is difficult to know even in retrospect whether the course of events depended on a particular decision or were in fact independent of it. Historians may wonder whether any decision by the major powers in the summer of 1914 could have averted a war in Europe, just as present-day policymakers are concerned that the Middle East will be more conflict-prone in the future regardless of Israel's decision regarding Iran.
Also problematic is the question of counterfactuals -- that is, whether different decisions would have produced outcomes better or worse than those which actually occurred. Historians argue vehemently over such issues, whereas partisan policy analysts have the cynical tendency to argue that anything that went well did so because of decisions their party or leader made, and that things that went poorly were either fated to do so or were someone else's fault. In reality, policymaking is a world of maddening ambiguity, in which not only outcomes but even facts tend to be uncertain.
Policymakers can -- indeed, must -- learn from history, but not by employing facile analogies in the service of preordained conclusions. History can help us understand problems and put them in their proper context; it can offer up novel solutions or shed new light on a dilemma; and it can warn us of the pitfalls that attend any decision and perhaps teach us how to avoid them. Learning from history is a tricky business -- in studying history, a policymaker must take lessons from one context and determine how and whether they apply to a different situation and a different era. Not only do different historical cases frequently suggest contradictory conclusions, but even individual cases -- for example U.S. arming of Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s or the U.S. rapprochement with Muammar Qaddafi in the 2000s -- can offer multiple lessons which pull one in different directions.
As Gavin and Steinberg assert, in the end history cannot tell us what to do. Resolving thorny policy problems requires not just historical analysis, but also regional and strategic expertise, personal experience, and sound judgment. But above all, it requires the courage and conviction to choose, amid great uncertainty, among risky options. This is the essence of policymaking.
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On the campaign trail, Republican candidates such as Gov. Mitt Romney frequently criticize President Obama for moving America towards a "European-style entitlement society" with sclerotic social welfare programs and crushing debt burdens. Two recent decisions by the Obama administration raise the prospect that the White House might also be following the European ethos -- or at least the prevailing French model of "laicite" and aggressive secularism -- on religious liberty. With apologies to historic French America-philes such as Lafayette and de Tocqueville, this is not the direction our country should go.
Normally domestic policy developments like Obamacare insurance mandates and school employment disputes in Michigan wouldn't be of much relevance for a foreign policy forum like Shadow Government. But the administration's position on the recent Supreme Court case on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School and Friday's Obamacare mandate eviscerating conscience provisions for religious institutions providing healthcare -- while appalling in their own right -- might also help explain a foreign policy puzzle that I have raised before -- why this administration has been so indifferent to the promotion of religious liberty abroad.
To briefly recap, on the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Justice Department took the position that religious liberty does not protect the right of religious institutions to hire their own employees in accordance with the organization's faith commitments. And the Obama Health and Human Services Department mandated that religious institutions such as hospitals and schools need to fund and include sterilization, contraceptive, and abortifacient coverage in their health insurance plans regardless of any doctrinal convictions otherwise. Just how bad for religious liberty were these two positions that the White House took? So bad that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the White House on Hosanna-Tabor in a 9-0 smackdown (those votes included Obama appointees Justices Sotomayor and Kagan), and the normally understated US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the HHS decision as "literally unconscionable" and "a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights."
The Obama Justice and Health and Human Services Departments -- with at least a green light if not a strong push from the White House -- embraced positions on religious liberty that can only be described as extreme. Religious believers may disagree among themselves on any number of theological, moral, and political issues, but they hold near unanimity on the imperative and importance of religious freedom -- in part precisely because religious freedom preserves the space for diversity and tolerance of differing opinions.
Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because it might help explain the Obama administration's otherwise baffling apathy on international religious freedom. I have lamented previously the administration's negligence on this issue, including the delay until over halfway through its first term to even put in place an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and the complete omission of religious freedom from the 2010 National Security Strategy. When seen alongside the administration's myopic positions on the two domestic policies mentioned above, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this White House sees religious liberty with indifference.
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My colleague Kori Schake goes some way toward taking the administration to task for what it calls a new strategy. But she does not go far enough; her critique appears to postulate that the strategy is not new. On the contrary, in my view it is indeed a new strategy of sorts, and a very dangerous one at that.
This is, of course, a budget-driven strategy -- after all, the DoD's Strategic Guidance, which was released together with the president's announcement, specifically states that the strategy "supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending." Leaving aside for a moment the question of how a reduction of some $50 billion a year will enhance national security given an annual deficit that exceeds $1 trillion, such an assertion leaves little doubt regarding the reason for a new strategy.
It should be recalled that the administration's own Quadrennial Defense Review, written in the shadow of the president's pledge to depart from Iraq, was committed to "maintain ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors." Now, however, the administration proposes to plan for our forces to fight just one war, while being "capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region" (emphasis in original document). What changed since the QDR appeared, other than the explosive growth of the national debt? What exactly does denying the objectives mean? Would we necessarily know what those objectives are? Where would we find the forces to deny those objectives if they were enmeshed in a major conflict elsewhere?
This budget driven strategy is a throwback to the discredited "win-hold-win" strategy that the Clinton administration proposed early in its first term. At that time, it quickly became clear that the strategy could not work. There was no way of knowing whether forces engaged in one combat theater could be freed to fight in another theater, and, even if they could be freed, whether they could arrive in a timely fashion to defeat the enemy.
The Obama administration does not even offer the pretense of "holding" an enemy. The troops fighting elsewhere will somehow miraculously arrive in time to fight a second war. But our forces are not the cavalry in a 1940s Western. With the cuts that are being proposed, there is no way that they can arrive in time to fight a second war, assuming there are enough of them to do so. As for our enemies, it is a virtual certainty that they would do all they could to ensure that our forces do not arrive in time and, indeed, would exploit American preoccupation in another theater to realize long held objectives of their own. North Korea and Iran both come to mind in this regard.
The new strategy asserts that "everything is on the table," meaning perhaps, that everything is subject to cuts. Given the administration's concomitant commitment to preserve benefits and avoid a hollow military, it is clear that, in addition to force structure (which must mean the land forces, since naval and air forces have been cut significantly over the past decade), the acquisition accounts will be the bill payers.
There is nothing in the two regional contingency strategies that needs fixing. We have potential and real enemies in several theaters, and encountered difficulties conducting two wars in the same regional theater. What is needed is a focus on accounts that the administration shies away from: civilian personnel, staff augmentation contractors (which Robert Gates identified as a major budget concern) military retirement, and military entitlements. The latter have grown as much, if not more quickly, than civilian entitlements and both need to be ratcheted back.
The administration itself acknowledges that the world remains a dangerous place. It wants to maintain its commitments to Europe and NATO, and to the Middle East, and to our Asian allies and friends. It wants to do so with a strategy and budget priorities that belie its high flown pronouncements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs asserts that the new strategy accepts more risk. That is quite the understatement. This is not a strategy that merely invites risk, it is one that courts disaster.
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The administration's most important success in 2011? I'll go with the obvious: the Seal Team 6 takedown of bin Laden. Never discount the vital national interest in visiting harsh justice upon those who mastermind mass slaughter on the American homeland -- even 10 years delayed. The victims and their families deserved it. The country yearned for it. And the rest of the world needed a stark reminder that no matter how much time passes, no matter how far they run, the long arm of American retaliation will eventually reach out and touch those who opt to wage war against the United States. Republican or Democrat in the White House, it makes no difference. The message is the same, always the same: Don't tread on me.
It was the president's finest hour. His least charitable critics will demur. In retrospect, they argue, he had to take the shot. To have passed it up would have subjected him to intense criticism and ridicule. A political catastrophe that would have sunk his presidency.
Perhaps. And yet. The risks of giving the "go" order were substantial too. The odds that bin Laden was not actually in the compound may have been as high as 50 percent. Several of the president's most senior advisors argued against the operation. The potential geopolitical ramifications of a stealth raid deep inside Pakistan, the world's fastest growing nuclear weapons state and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, weighed heavy. As did the political and strategic costs of failure. Images of the carnage at Desert One in Iran, and of Mogadishu's Black Hawk Down, could not but have haunted Obama's thoughts. And still he went. A quintessential presidential decision. Lonely. Courageous. Necessary. Good on him.
The bin Laden hit was part of a larger pattern of counter-terrorism successes that rightly should inure to the administration's credit. Add to it the president's call to serve as judge, jury and executioner of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on a remote highway in northern Yemen -- constitutional niceties and the qualms of Obama's liberal base be damned. And more generally, the ten-fold escalation in drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan that unquestionably have wreaked havoc on the organization's capabilities and morale. Yes, the threat we face from bin Laden's evil spawn remains. But the president has combatted it well, with a steeliness of spine, a quotient of ice in the veins, that deserves respect and appreciation. His administration has kept the nation safe from further terrorist attack, despite the best efforts of a vicious and implacable foe.
As for the most important thing the administration got wrong in 2011? Perhaps too predictably, I'll venture Iraq. I don't believe the president ever really had the intention of maintaining a significant American military presence there. Deep in his bones, he long ago resolved that the war was a huge blunder, a blot on America's moral character and a dangerous distraction from the real threats and challenges facing the nation. No amount of progress on the ground could convince him otherwise, or wash clean the stain of the war's original sin in his eyes. Obama's mission from the get-go was to put Iraq into the nation's rear-view mirror, a goal from which he never really wavered. The trick was to do it in a way that didn't immediately sacrifice all the hard-fought gains of Bush's surge, to create the prospect of a "decent interval" that would limit the potential for political blowback.
To placate those -- especially among the military's top brass -- who saw the strategic sense in consolidating a long-term partnership, the president authorized, albeit belatedly, negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence. But his heart was never in it. As had been the case from the beginning of his term when it came to les affaires d'Irak, the president's involvement in the effort to get to "yes" was notable only for its absence. Anyone who'd ever spent any time working Iraq policy post-2003 could have told you from the start: A negotiation structured to limit the president's personal engagement in the muck and the mire of shepherding a deal through was in fact a negotiation structured to fail. And so it did.
Iraqi leaders certainly sniffed out long ago that Obama viewed them as the bastard step-children of Bush's failed policies, whom he hoped to kick to the curb at the first available opportunity. They knew he had no intention of ever taking any real risks for them. Predictably enough, when it came to the thorny issue of immunity for U.S. troops, they weren't about to take any for him either.
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Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq - as I do often - and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this:
President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq. The departure this month of the last major military units marked a heroic turn in the war -- heroic not for the troops, perhaps, but for the policymakers who had the foresight to end U.S. involvement in a foolish war of choice. Well, not end U.S. involvement, since the largest State Department footprint in the world remains in Iraq, to be guarded by the largest private security force the State Department has ever attempted to manage. But still the war is ending and for this "campaign promise kept" President Obama has earned the admiration of his boosters.
If you point out the rapid unraveling in Iraq, and ask whether a slower withdrawal that left behind residual forces might have preserved more stability in Iraq, the Obama boosters rapidly shift their reasoning. Obama had no choice but to take out all U.S. troops, they will say. The Iraqis did not want U.S. troops to remain and the American people were adamant that the war should end (before the 2012 campaign really gets going, is the silent coda). This was not an exit of choice, this was an exit of necessity.
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It seems odd that President Obama is willing to apologize for American actions in so many instances, but not for the actual violation of an internationally-recognized border by the United States in the conduct of an espionage operation. An American drone touched down 140 miles inside Iranian territory, and the White House is refusing to apologize for our aerial invasion.
The drone crash is an open and shut case: there is nothing the RQ-170 could have been doing other than collecting intelligence. We have lots of good reasons to be collecting intelligence inside Iran; but our government committed an act of espionage, intruding clandestinely into another country, something that is illegal although widely practiced.
The president looks foolish calling for Iran to return the drone while petulantly refusing to explain our actions that resulted in being caught en flagrante delicto committing espionage. Especially given our outrage a few months ago when the U.S. traced to Iran's Qu'uds force a bungled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
After China shot down an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001, the Bush Administration apologized, saying we were very sorry both for causing the death of a Chinese military pilot that had intercepted our plane, and for entering Chinese airspace. Technically, the letter was "an expression of regret," while claiming we did nothing wrong, but for all practical purposes, we apologized to China.
By not apologizing for what is a clear infraction of an (often compromised) norm of international behavior, President Obama both justifies Iran's attempts to conduct espionage inside the U.S., and makes us look like a brutish superpower that flaunts the rules. So much for a new era of respect for international law and cooperation under President Obama. Senator Obama would surely have cited such behavior by the previous administration as one more demonstration of the arrogance making the U.S. so unpopular in the world.
It may be the drone just wandered off course from Afghanistan or elsewhere and was not intended to be over Iranian airspace. It may be we were plotting grid coordinates to target Iran's nuclear program, which it continues in violation of its commitment in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to pursue weapons and despite numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions condemning its actions. It may be the drone was collecting radiation emissions from recent activity at know Iranian centrifuge or testing sites in support of the International Atomic and Energy Agency.
The Iranians claim to have used cyberwarfare to down the drone, a claim that is unlikely and that our explanation should also put to rest. Iran ought to be very worried that we can operate with impunity in their airspace; fueling that concern is a useful deterrent given Iranian nuclear and missile programs.
Whatever the explanation is, the president or a senior figure in the administration should actually give the explanation, both to the American people and to the world. Thomas Jefferson was right that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them."
The president should apologize. He should also use the explanation as an opportunity to review all the reasons we feel the need to collect intelligence inside Iran:
Why the president would be hesitant to do so in this instance, where we are clearly in the wrong, is mysterious. Perhaps the president doesn't want to be seen apologizing to one of the world's worst governments. Nor might he want to remind voters of his commitment to negotiate with that government, or his awkward tendency to blame both aggressor and victim by urging restraint on both sides during the election protests. Still, he should apologize... and continue conducting intelligence overflights of Iran.
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The Obama administration is attempting to cast the Iraq war as a triumph of the president's vision for American foreign policy. As a candidate, he promised to bring this war to an end, and as president he's done so. It also conveniently fits into the Obama campaign's general narrative that President Obama inherited problems of Herculean magnitude.
But, in fact, the Iraq war was on a glide path to conclusion at the end of the Bush administration: the increased troop commitment of the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency tactics had succeeded in breaking the dynamic of insurgent success; it had concluded the Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq that the Obama administration is now taking such credit for.
What remained to be done when the Obama administration took office was implementing the agreement in ways that strengthened the practices and institutions of democracy in Iraq, incentivized non-sectarian political cooperation, continued confidence-building measures (especially along the Kurdish fault lines), reassured Iraq both of their sovereignty and our continuing involvement, and fostered support for Iraq among U.S. allies in the region.
What the Obama administration achieved instead is a faster end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, but one that undercut the political objectives it remains in American interest to attain. Iraqis may achieve those things despite our policies, but they are not achieving them because of our policies. On that President Obama deserves to be held account.
The administration claimed it was committed to a "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq. But their policies of establishing deadlines unconnected to the progress of our war aims, inattention to political developments within Iraq, and unwillingness to acknowledge he increasing repressiveness of the Maliki government have shown the administration's emphasis on withdrawal rather than responsibility.
On President Obama's watch, the Maliki government struck hundreds of opposition Parliamentary candidates off the ballot; violated the Iraqi Constitution's principle that the party gaining the most Parliamentary seats has the right to form a government; kept the country in a state of suspended animation without a government for seven months; refused a non-sectarian coalition choosing instead coalition with the virulently anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr; has not appointed either a minister of defense or a minister of the interior, preferring to hold those powers himself; declined to join in Arab League sanction of Syria's government; looked the other way as Shi-ia militia emerged that, according to GEN Austen, the commander in Iraq, parallel Hezbollah in Lebanon; and now has arrested hundreds of Sunni "coup plotters." Maliki has begun to resemble a character from the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, banal in his ruthlessness.
Maliki has even claimed that the U.S. is to blame for Iranian influence in Iraq, explaining that Iran had justification for its actions -- the "excuse was that the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil...with it ends all thinking, calculations and possibilities for interference in Iraqi affairs under any other banner." If Maliki actually believes that, it is both offensive and dangerously self-deceptive.
The Obama administration felt no need to counter the Iraqi prime minister's statement; indeed, that would make news, and the only news the Obama administration wants about Iraq is "It's Over!" The president's consistent emphasis in talking about Iraq is that finally, the last American troops are coming home.
If no troops in Iraq is the metric for success, then President Obama has led us to success in the Iraq war. But if capitalizing on the gains won by our military to nurture an Iraq that is more than a Shi-ia autocracy leaning toward Iran, President Obama has merely conceded our political aims in order to get our troops out.
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For months, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been warning in the starkest possible terms that the $600 billion in defense spending cuts will be catastrophic. He has said they will do irreversable damage to America's defenses, even invite aggression. Which makes it all the more curious that Panetta has also fully endorsed President Obama's commitment to veto any effort to prevent those cuts from occurring.
Panetta attempted to explain the contradiction by suggesting the problem isn't the cuts themselves, but the process by which they are to be determined: "When there's a mechanism like sequestration, which is this kind of blind meat-ax approach to putting that in place if you don't do the right thing, there's something wrong ... if it happens, it could do lasting damage, obviously, to defense policy in this country. And it will."
His explanation is disingenuous. The sequestration provides DOD a topline spending figure, not a blueprint by which the department brings itself into alignment with its budget. The Secretary of Defense has wide latitude to determine where to make cuts and develop a strategy to secure White House and Congressional support for his priorities. It is the Secretary of Defense's job to run a process of determining where to accept risk in the defense program. The Secretary's ability to lead that process inside the Defense Department and to effectively promote the defense program to the Congress that provides its funding hinges crucially on whether he can persuade both the military and the Congress he has rightly assessed the nature and magnitude of threats we face and the seriousness of his program for addressing them.
Panetta is badly corroding his credibility by claiming that the cuts will destroy our defenses but that he supports making the cuts. Advocating both these positions ought actually to disqualify him from continuing at the helm of the Defense Department. If Panetta oversold the threat of cutting so severely in to defense spending, he should recant his earlier positions and provide a substantive explanation why he now believes the budget strictures required by sequestration are manageable. If he continues to believe the proposed cuts endanger American security, he ought to challenge whether those cuts should be enacted.
Which is it? Either the cuts are catastrophic and must be avoided, or the president should veto any attempt by Congress to prevent them taking effect. Panetta cannot have it both ways.
UPDATE: George Little, Pentagon press secretary, responds:
"I read your blog with interest, particularly because it contains basic errors. First, the sequester mechanism does require the Department of Defense to make across-the-board cuts. You suggest that the Secretary would have wide discretion if those cuts were to kick in. He wouldn't. Second, the Department has already agreed to more than $450 billion in cuts over ten years. We can achieve those hard-but-manageable savings by prioritizing our budget decisions based on sound strategy. If we move to sequestration, which would add another $500-$600 billion in cuts to the Department, we wouldn't be able to make decisions based on sound strategy. We'd be forced by the Budget Control Act to slice the defense budget across the top. That's certainly no way to make the right choices for our national defense."
I didn't say the sequester would mean no across the board cuts, but that the Secretary would have latitude in deciding where in DOD to take those cuts. The topline is what is affected, not DOD's choice about where inside its budget to take the cuts. I also didn't say that DOD hadn't taken earlier cuts. If the Secretary can't make a sound defense strategy and accompanying program, he shouldn't support the President's refusal to veto any changes that would reduce DOD's sequester cuts.
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
I have no idea if the reports are true that Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, Hussein Haqqani, attempted to orchestrate a civilian coup against the Pakistani Army and intelligence establishment. I have read Haqqani's book, so I can at least affirm that the alleged coup memo is certainly consistent with Haqqani's view of the Pakistani Army and his understanding of the roots of his country's perennial crisis. In Haqqani's view, the ties between militant Islamist groups and the Pakistani military date all the way to Pakistan's founding and are the defining feature of Pakistani history (a view other scholars, like David Gartenstein-Ross, have criticized as too simplistic).
Apparently, Admiral Mike Mullen ignored the coup memo -- which offered to oust the leadership of the Army and ISI and install pro-American replacements, hand over remnants of al Qaida and the Taliban, authorize unilateral U.S. ground strikes on Pakistani soil, and shut down Directorate S of the ISI -- because he believed it was not credible.
He was probably right. The memo reads like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up, not an international diplomat. And even if Haqqani and Zardari were behind the memo, it is doubtful that they could have pulled off the coup. Every civilian leader in Pakistan's history since the first military coup has tried to weaken the power of the military establishment. And every one has eventually been overthrown. Zulfikar Bhutto was executed, Benazir Bhutto was dismissed and eventually assassinated by Islamists, and Sharif was overthrown and exiled and has corruption charges pending against him. The Pakistani military has all the guns and no incentive to surrender power. The memo is naive in its belief that Pakistan's civilians could simply flip a switch or announce a decision, and suddenly transform Pakistan's political culture.
However, that does not excuse Mullen's inaction. The memo might be incredible, but it still presented an opportunity for the United States. I find it amazing that Mullen had to "search" his records to "discover" that he had indeed received the memo-which almost certainly means the White House was never made aware of the memo. That represents an astonishing failure to recognize and act on a potentially valuable lead. It is especially troubling considering the strategic and political implications of the memo's contents.
U.S. officials could have pursued the idea without officially condoning it, let it be known that they had offered to meet with the author, quietly encouraged him to develop the idea more fully, or leaked the memo. These moves would have put pressure on the military establishment, communicated the U.S.'s waning patience and our interest in developing ties to other actors in Pakistan, and emboldened the civilians while maintaining a thin veneer of deniability for the U.S. and Zardari.
Of course it would be risky and could have provoked the Pakistani military to move against the civilian government. (Though even that is unlikely: they haven't overthrown Zardari yet even though the memo has actually now been leaked). In any case, the military pretty much runs the government in all but name anyway, so a military coup would only pull back the curtain without changing who is actually in charge. There is little evidence that the fiction of civilian authority in Pakistan has restrained the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment from pursuing its own foreign policy. U.S.-Pakistan relations are so bad that it's not like we have anything to lose.
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The Castro regime's announcement that for the first time Cuban citizens will be able to buy and sell their own homes has spurred an outpouring of irrational exuberance that real change is finally coming to the island-prison of Dr. Castro. "To say that it's huge is an understatement," one interested observer told the New York Times. "This is the foundation, this is how you build capitalism, by allowing the free trade of property."
Another told Reuters, "The ability to sell houses means instant capital formation for Cuban families ... It is a big sign of the government letting go." Still another writes in the Christian Science Monitor that these are "incredibly meaningful changes."
Such optimism is ill-founded. In fact, it is indicative only of one of two things: either it betrays a brazen political objective (Time magazine: "Why the U.S. Should Drop the Embargo and Prop Up Cuban Homeowners") or it demonstrates just how low the bar of expectation has been placed for what the Cuban people need and deserve that we must celebrate mere crumbs tossed their way by the Castro dictatorship.
Indeed, sweep away the hype and all you see are daunting hurdles as to how this announcement will change in any way the regime's suffocating control of the Cuban population. The new order restricts people to "ownership" of one permanent residence and one vacation home (as if the average Cuban is in any position to own a second home); all transactions must be approved by the State; no explanation is given on how you grant titles to homes that either have been confiscated from their rightful owners, have been swapped multiple times in the underground economy, or which house multiple families because of the severe shortage of available housing; the construction industry remains state-controlled; and the regime itself admits this order reflects no backsliding on the preeminence of the State in controlling the country's economic and political systems.
Beyond these challenges, however, is the fundamental fact that you cannot conjure private property rights, let alone the free trade in property, out of thin air. Those rights exist only where they are rooted in a credible, impartial, and transparent legal superstructure that can protect one's property, settle disputes, and guarantee transactions against the predations of the State. Anything less is a rigged game where the State is the dealer.
This is how the State Department's annual Human Rights Report characterizes Cuba's judicial system: "While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is subordinate to the imperatives of the socialist state. The National Assembly appoints all judges and can remove them at any time. Through the National Assembly, the state exerted near-total influence over the courts and their rulings ... Civil courts, like all courts in the country, lack an independent or impartial judiciary as well as effective procedural guarantees."
Translation: Cubans' ability to "own" property, trade, or leverage their property to build capital will continue to exist at the sufferance of the State. And what the State giveth, the State can taketh away. The bottom line is that, ultimately, all Cubans will really own is a piece of paper that says they own something.
Rather than empowering individual Cubans, the regime's goal in allowing the open trade of houses is to hopefully siphon more Cuban American money into the island's perennially bankrupt economy. With average Cubans on the island too poor to buy or improve their dilapidated dwellings, their hope is relatives in Miami and elsewhere will remit even more cash to the island attempting to improve their relations' situation. Indeed, the cynicism of relying on Cuban exiles to support the Cuban economy has never bothered the Castro brothers in the slightest.
The Castro regime recognizes the increasing unrest among the repressed and impoverished Cuban people for fundamental change, but they are capable only of prescribing more painkillers rather than the radical surgery that is needed to restore the nation's health. Pretending to devolve more autonomy in individuals' lives is just one more cruelty inflicted on the Cuban people over five decades of dictatorship, a cruelty made worse by the cheerleading from abroad.
Two separate stories throw in sharp relief the art form known as "first-draft-of-history" journalism. Two of the most commercially successful practitioners of this art form are in the news in ways that point to the limits of the art form.
In the bigger story, the Obama administration is fighting back against a damaging account of policy dysfunction, as recounted in Ron Suskind's latest book, Confidence Men. Suskind previously was a darling of Democrats for his earlier work attacking the Bush White House. For nearly a decade, Suskind was quoted as an authoritative source, especially for juicy anecdotes that seemed to legitimize caricatures of a megalomaniac Bush administration. Now it is Obama's turn, and the sauce for the goose seems to taste more bitter than it did for the gander.
Supporters of Obama are hard-pressed to distinguish between the Bush and Obama era books, especially when Suskind makes clear in the titles that he sees them as paired chapters in a longer narrative about American politics: notice how the tagline of the subtitle of the Obama book, "...the Education of a President" echoes the Bush book "...the Education of Paul O'Neill." And the administration's attempts to discredit Suskind have an added obstacle to overcome: Obama gave Suskind extensive authorized access to White House players, including a long on-the-record interview with President Obama himself. Despite all of this, the White House push-back has been especially vigorous, with several of the people who supplied the most damning quotes denying on-the-record that they said what Suskind claims they said.
For my part, I have some sympathy for the White House line in this dispute. While I have quoted Suskind's earlier Bush reporting myself from time to time, I have always done so with more than a grain of salt. One of my hobbies during my days in the Bush White House was trying to track down the facticity of the more prominent critiques of the Bush administration, the sort of critiques that were accepted uncritically as gospel truth by my academic colleagues. Some of the critiques had merit -- Vice President Cheney's influence really was hard to determine because he kept his counsel in large group meetings and no one had read-outs from his private meetings with the president -- but for many more I could find no strong factual basis. In particular, I could not verify some of the more sensationalized claims by Suskind. I came away from that exercise with a healthy dose of skepticism that I wished other consumers of his work shared.
Perhaps now they will. Consider one of the juicier Suskind quotes, Anita Dunn's claim that "This place would be in court for a hostile workplace ... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women." Here is what Anita Dunn told Politico about that quote: "This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn't true." In other words, what Politico calls a "flat denial" coupled with a claim that Suskind fabricated a quote.
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The confusion inherent in the Obama's approach to Iraq continues, according to this New York Times account.
From a short term perspective, the confusion hasn't seemed to matter much. August, which by some measures was the bloodiest month in Afghanistan, was an exceptionally low-cost month in Iraq. If one tabulated success in U.S. body counts, Obama's approach appears to be working for now.
The long term outlook is more worrying. According to several unnamed sources, military commanders are "livid" with President Obama's decision to authorize a plan that is resourced at a fraction of the level that the military considered to be the minimum -- and even that minimum would only work "in extremis." Obama's approach appears to involve several multiples of risk beyond what the military consider prudent. Reportedly, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued for a level of resources above what Obama appears to have authorized.
Reasonable people can disagree whether it makes national security sense for Obama to adopt such a risky path. For my part, I wish he had invested more effort in the Iraq file, especially working more closely with Prime Minister Maliki to push the process towards an outcome that is more favorable to American (and, I would argue, Iraqi national) interests.
The part that mystifies me is why his team thinks it makes political sense to have taken this course. His administration has already pocketed as much political benefit as there is to be wrung from Bush's surge -- and the media has generously refrained from pointing out that whatever positive developments came in Iraq came because of policies Obama and Biden tried strenuously to thwart in 2007. Given that the administration has already claimed Iraq as a great achievement, why take so risky a course now, one that could result in a great unraveling during the presidential campaign?
There is no domestic political pressure to speak of demanding a reckless withdrawal from Baghdad. The cost savings of denying the military the resources they say they need is trivial compared to the stakes. For that matter, the amount of time and effort it would have taken Obama to invest in Iraq policy so as to achieve greater progress with Maliki was probably trivial, too. Yet it seems that when it comes to Iraq, Obama is determined to do whatever is less than the minimum.
This is a strategy that depends heavily on luck. For the sake of U.S. national security, I hope Obama is lucky on Iraq. If he is not, at some point his choices could produce outcomes that are seen to be Obama's doing, and not merely the legacy he was handed. That point may well be this winter.
America's Secretary of State gave a stunning interview this week, in which she defended the Obama administration's foreign policy choices and claimed that soft power was working to reshape America's image in the world. It was a deeply discouraging insight into the philosophy that guides the administration. When challenged about the administration's responses to the Arab spring, Clinton said:
"This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see, where it's not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the cost, while we bear the sacrifice, while our men and women, you know, lay down their lives for universal values...look, we are, by all measurements, the strongest leader in the world, and we are leading."
Clinton is right that the United States has allowed responsibilities to accrue to us that many states benefit from, and that a more evenly distributed burden sharing arrangement would be preferable. But she seems not to understand that shoving the work off onto others and diffidently watching their struggles is not only failing to lead and disappointing the hopes of millions who consider us an ally and a champion of liberty, it is also ushering in a more dangerous international order, and one in which U.S. power will be diminished.
The soft power Clinton so adamantly believes is advancing America's cause in the world has always been hugely enhanced by the view that whatever our national failings, we stand for freedom and believe ourselves safest when other people also live in freedom. The Obama administration has squandered a fair amount of that capital by its wavering reaction to protest movements in the middle east and its unwavering commitment to exits rather than strategies in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.
When pressed on whether the administration should demand that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad step down, Clinton replied: "where we are is where we need to be, where it is a growing international chorus of condemnation...I am a big believer in results over rhetoric." But what are the results of our Syria policy? Is what is happening in Syria really the outcome we should want?
The Obama administration is more concerned about an amorphous "international chorus" than they are about the attitudes of the people working to overthrow repressive governments, and that is a major shift in American foreign policy. Secretary Clinton's claims notwithstanding, it is showing negative results. For if American soft power were working, wouldn't attitudes toward the United States be improving? Favorability ratings -- especially in the Middle East and South Asia -- have actually declined from where they were during the Bush administration. Wouldn't governments be more inclined to support our policies? Crucial test cases should be Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq -- all of which are less cooperative with the Obama administration than they were with the Bush administration.
The secretary of State unreflectively made the statement that it mattered more what Turkey and Saudi Arabia said about Syrian repression than the United States. "If other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it," was Clinton's justification for doing so little. That's quite a breathtaking world view for the chief diplomat of the world's most powerful country. We are unimportant in the global debate about freedom and governance, but Saudi Arabia and Turkey have standing.
On one issue Secretary Clinton was unmistakeably correct: "it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go." Yesterday, the White House finally issued a statement that Assad should go. And it appears to have exactly the impact Secretary Clinton anticipated: nothing. But doesn't that refute her assertions that soft power and the Obama administration's approach are working?
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The domestic incredulity over U.S. debt ceiling battles has gone global. Chinese officials have expressed concern over the prospects for their substantial bond holdings:
"We hope that the U.S. government adopts responsible policies and measures to guarantee the interests of investors," Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a news conference late last week.
A less measured statement of concern came from the voluble Vincent Cable, Britain's business secretary. He offered his analysis yesterday:
The irony of the situation at the moment, with markets opening tomorrow morning, is that the biggest threat to the world financial system comes from a few right-wing nutters in the American congress rather than the euro zone," he told BBC television.
It is more than passing strange to have a British government that has made credible austerity its central focus turn around and denounce the lunacy of seeking credible austerity. Perhaps something was lost in translation.
The U.S. debt ceiling must certainly be raised. In all likelihood, it will be lifted sometime before the critical hour. But at home and abroad, there is disbelief that such an easy problem cannot be dispensed with more quickly. The festering nature of the impasse is taken as a sure sign of something deeply amiss in our political sphere. Herewith, some central misperceptions about the debt ceiling debate:
1. Just raise the ceiling, already! Problem solved.
The presumption is that there is an easy fix that is being blocked solely by partisan maneuvering for political advantage. What would such an easy fix look like? Two major candidates:
2. Republicans won't take yes for an answer.
Vincent Cable may be suffering from having read David Brooks, who wrote earlier in the month that Republicans were
… being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases. A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.
How could any party in its right mind (intended) fail to accept such a deal?
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Now that the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, debt reduction negotiations are getting serious. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission had recommended nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts across a decade. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his own plan that would entail similar cuts to defense in the context of an even larger $9 trillion debt reduction. President Obama, while saying that Bowles-Simpson went too far, committed himself to an arbitrary $400 billion cut to defense across 12 years, the only concrete cuts to spending that he identified in his April 13th speech. The deal taking shape among the Gang of Six of budget leaders in the Senate will result in an $800 billion cut to defense across a decade. The Project for Government Oversight, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Stimson Center, and Center for American Progress all also have offered plans for cuts.
Defense spending will be further cut; that seems inevitable in the current, beneficial, climate of reducing government spending. Moreover, to take our military leadership at their word, debt reduction is our country's gravest national security threat, a case Admiral Mullen has repeatedly made. The 2010 Joint Forces Command planning guidance, called the Joint Operations Environment, likewise warned that our debt is not only a strategic liability, but unless brought under control will crowd out all discretionary spending -- including defense -- as debt service payments dominate.
Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.
The question is how much, and what, to cut. Here we ought to be intensely skeptical of debt hawks telling the Department of Defense what to cut. The Simpson Bowles Commission is not ideally suited to make the determination of whether manned aviation is a continuing requirement for warfighting. The major challenge facing the Pentagon is to design a robust defense program that can both win our current wars, prepare for future wars of different types than we are currently fighting, and engaging in activities that shape the nature of the security environment and affect the choices of potential enemies.
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In Today's Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria has made another spirited defense of the Obama administration's reactive, lead-from-behind approach to foreign policy. Zakaria asserts in his column that every U.S. foreign policy doctrine other than the Monroe Doctrine was formulated in the simpler bipolar context of the Cold War. Trying to construct a modern doctrine to capture the complexities of current developments like the Arab spring would be pure folly, he concludes, much better therefore for Obama to stick with his prudent strategy of restraint.
Zakaria's intellectualization of a foreign policy driven by domestic priorities ("now is the time to focus on nation-building here at home," as the President declared in a June 25 speech) has two major flaws.
The first is historical. The Monroe Doctrine was not the exception that proves the rule. There was also the Tyler Doctrine which asserted U.S. strategic pre-eminence over Hawaii and the Eastern Pacific; John Hay's Open Door, which historians consider a book-end to the Monroe Doctrine; Henry Stimson's Non-recognition Doctrine, etc.,etc.
The second flaw in Zakaria's argument is more fundamental, though. There is a difference between doctrine and strategy. Doctrines articulate aspirations for strategy and are therefore arguably expendable. Strategy is not. Small powers can go without grand strategies. Great powers cannot. Either the United States seeks to shape the direction of key regions like the Middle East and Asia, or it perpetually reacts to the initiative of revisionist powers and forces within those regions until friends and allies lose confidence and American preeminence is undermined.
If there is a doctrine we don't need right now, it is the faux realism and abdication of international leadership represented in "strategic restraint."
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The conventional wisdom is true: from 2002 to 2006, the United States took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan to focus on Iraq. As a result, we paid a stupendous opportunity cost by failing to rebuilding Afghanistan during those crucial early years. The U.S.'s failure to dedicate sufficient people, money, and attention to Afghanistan is now well-documented in several books and memoirs.
Dov Zakheim's new book is the latest. My fellow Shadow Government contributor served as Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller from 2001 to 2004, and he was tasked to be the Department's coordinator for Afghanistan reconstruction. He writes in his new memoir (see the excerpt here) that Afghanistan "needed constant monitoring, constant assistance, constant attention," but openly admits that because of Iraq and other responsibilities, he and the administration "did not pay Afghanistan the attention it required." That included not giving enough money. Zakheim quotes internal memos from officials aghast at the low level of assistance the United States gave to the world's most broken country.
None of this is new or revealing -- President Bush himself tells a similar story in his own memoir, which I covered in an earlier blog -- but it does add some detail to our growing understanding of what went wrong in those early years. For example, Zakheim is right that the U.S. government does a poor job implementing foreign policy regardless of whether it is conservative or liberal policy, that our bureaucracies are poorly designed for reconstruction and stabilization, and that policymakers are overly "shackled to their inboxes," driven by the urgent task rather than the important one. I hope the folks in charge of the war in Libya are paying attention.
Another interesting detail: Zakheim is the second source I have seen to blame the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and specifically Robin Cleveland, associate director for national security programs, for the persistently low levels of funding for the mission in Afghanistan (the other source is Seth Jones' book, In the Graveyard of Empires). I never worked with Ms. Cleveland and can offer no independent corroboration of the accusation, and I have no interest in a witchhunt. But considering the emerging picture of OMB, she or other former OMB colleagues may want to come forward with their own accounting of OMB's role in the under-funding of the mission in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006. OMB surely has a reason -- maybe they were following orders; they were heeding other budget priorities; they sincerely believed Afghanistan did not require substantial funds, etc. -- and we would benefit from hearing their side of the story.
Zakheim, as well as Bush and others who have admitted their failures regarding Afghanistan, should be commended for their humility and honesty. Books by policymakers are almost always attempts at vindication. It is rare to hear them say, in public and on the record, something like this: "nowhere, in my estimation, did [our] deficiencies and flaws accumulate to do more damage than in the case of the war in Afghanistan," as Zakheim writes. He is right.
The heartbreaking thing is that we knew it at the time. Zakheim recounts fruitless efforts from within the bureaucracies to increase attention to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. I first briefed the conventional wisdom to Lieutenant General Dan K. McNeil in the summer of 2002, when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He asked me, an analyst in his intelligence support element in Bagram, what the biggest long-term threats to Afghanistan were. The Taliban were on the run, Afghans were welcoming of international forces, and the warlords were willing to cooperate with the new regime (for a price). "A lack of money," I told him, "and a failure of international will." Without commitment and resources, we risked snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
By 2007 the threats had become realities. To his credit, Bush recognized how badly things were going and put the pieces in place to change course. From early 2007 he quadrupled U.S. assistance to the Afghan security forces, doubled the U.S. troop presence, and appointed General Doug Lute (on whose staff I served) as Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan to bring more attention and coherence to the wars.
It wasn't enough to undo the damage done by five years of neglect, but it was enough to give Obama a fighting chance. The war in Afghanistan is not lost, contrary to the credentialed doomsayers. When the New York Times and The Economist are both reporting good news out of Afghanistan, there is reason to hope (see also this well-researched report from the Institute For the Study of War). The rest depends on how well Obama and his team have learned the lessons of recent history that Zakheim chronicles so well: without a sustained commitment of sufficient resources and attention, hard-won progress can unravel quickly.
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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.