Vice-President Biden may have fired up his base with his sneering condescension last night, but I wonder whether he may have unintentionally fired up others as well.
Before the debate had reached the 10 minute mark, FP.com's own Josh Rogin pointed out that Biden told a whopper on Benghazi security. This is not a trivial matter, and when even mainstream reporters are saying that Biden has some "clean up of his own to do today on Libya," Biden must know he made a grave mistake.
Moreover, as this careful reconstruction makes clear, the administration faces very serious and troubling questions about the way they have misled the public on what happened in Libya.
The administration desperately needs a scapegoat to keep this scandal as far from the White House as possible. And that is why I think that, beyond Biden's fact-challenged statements, the more consequential thing he did last night was to try to make the intelligence community (IC) the scapegoat (and I am not the only one who picked up on this). Based on this interview with Obama's deputy campaign manager, the fingering of the IC appears to be a deliberate, coordinated strategy by the politicos -- and it is very risky.
First, as numerous fact-checkers have already pointed out, the administration did not merely go with whatever the IC told them. They went with whatever was the most politically useful story at the time. The Obama campaign keeps complaining about how Romney-Ryan have politicized this issue, but in fact the Obama campaign has played this as a political issue from the very start.
Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.
So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat.Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security -- and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.
The CIA was not the only national security institution Biden took aim at last night. Even more troubling was the damage he did to civil-military relations, which I will take up in a later post.
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Like most foreign policy specialists, I have generally welcomed the way the presidential campaigns have begun to focus more on national security. Even if this election will be decided on economic matters or on base-turnout machines, it still is important for the campaigns to debate foreign policy. In that regard, Romney's speech yesterday at VMI was timely -- I would say, overdue.
Romney's speech was sound and sensible. One could quibble here or there -- a fair-minded Obama supporter can ask what more can Romney do than Obama has done to try to get the NATO allies to honor their defense budget commitments -- but as these sorts of speeches go, it was careful and precise. It didn't answer every question someone might have for the Governor, but it laid down some important markers.
In fact, it was so sensible that it made the Obama campaign's response -- or rather, "presponse," since they released it before the speech was given -- look rather nonsensical by comparison. The memo was written by two top Obama surrogates, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl. I have great respect for both of them, but I having a hard time reconciling the various contradictions in their critique.
On the one hand, they try to dismiss Romney as extreme and ideological, to the right of President Bush. On the other hand, in the very next paragraph, they try to dismiss Romney as merely echoing Obama's own policies. Is Obama extreme and ideological and to the right of President Bush?
They try to dismiss Romney as vague and lacking in specifics on he would do in the next four years. But has there ever been an incumbent more reluctant to offer specifics about what he would do with a second term than President Obama? Is there anyone who can say with confidence how Obama intends to handle relations with China or with Russia going forward? Does anyone know what is the significance of Obama's promise to Medvedev to show Russia more "flexibility" after the election? Has Obama outlined a coherent strategy for how to deal with Syria? Or what he will do if the current sanctions do not convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions?
Given how dramatically the administration has retreated on Afghanistan from its "war of necessity" pose of 2009 to its "Afghan good enough" pose of today, does anyone really know what sort of commitment a second term Obama would honor in 2014 when the mission is scheduled to transition to a new phase?
These are difficult issues to debate. I had a chance to discuss them briefly with Flournoy on PBS New Hour last night and I am not sure I made my points as effectively as I should have. Of course there is some similarity between what Obama and Romney are proposing now on Syria or Iran. Obama's approach has backed us into a corner and there are only so many ways out of a corner.
Moreover, Obama's approach on both countries has evolved significantly in the direction of policies Romney has consistently supported for a long time. On Iran, the administration shifted from an unconditional bilateral talks approach of 2009 -- an approach they stuck with for far too long and which caused them to squander the opportunities of the Green Revolution and the Fordow surprise -- and only ramped up the pressure track after the Europeans and the U.S. Congress led the way. On Syria, Team Obama started off calling Assad a reformer and shifted to supporting the insurgents much later.
And on Iraq, there is no question that Flournoy worked diligently to secure a follow-on agreement and that Maliki was reluctant to compromise, as she claimed. But there is also no question that Flournoy did not get the help she needed from the White House and that all of the mistakes I listed (and more I could have but didn't) undermined the negotiations.
It is hard in a few minutes to get to the nub of these issues, but that is where the campaign debate should go.
I have great sympathy for Flournoy and Kahl. They are both smart and knowledgeable and they have served the country honorably. But in their campaign surrogate role they are operating under extreme constraints and may not be free to speak candidly about Obama's record. They know better than anyone else the long list of missed opportunities and implementation errors that has dogged President Obama's Middle East strategy since the very beginning. They were insightful in identifying similar problems in the Bush era. If they applied to Obama the kind of sharp-eyed standards they applied when they were on the opposition bench, the results would be a withering critique of the last four years.
Perhaps the Obama Team conducts that kind of sober self-assessment in off-the-record sessions. Let's hope so, because if they get the chance to govern for another four years, it would not be good for U.S. foreign policy if they governed according to the standards of their campaign memos.
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Gov. Romney's speech at VMI this morning offers a few new insights into his thinking about foreign policy, such as specifics on Egypt and Syria. But the rhetoric and tone also continue to reveal a leader willing to state in bold terms the foreign policies he would pursue if elected that are unlikely to be popular in the general election nor even with some of the Republican base. Finally, he continues to show that he grasps the ugly realities we face in terms of our enemies and the circumstances they manipulate for their good and our harm, and that the United States must lead if we have any hope for success.
A few portions of the speech demonstrate these points. First, Romney repeats his assertion that no video or enraged mob explains the widespread and violent attacks on our embassies and personnel, including the murder of Amb. Stevens. Says Romney: "No, as the administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West." In the speech he also uses the term "Islamist extremists." Not shying away from this term is important for defining himself differently from the Obama administration.
He goes on, nevertheless, to find hope in this situation, by noting the many Libyans who took to the streets to denounce the terrorism and express their desire to remain close to the United States and not "go from darkness to darkness."
For Romney, such displays increase our hope that the United States can shore up our interests in this region. We should start by calling the problems what they are -- Islamist extremists who commit terrorism -- and then countering them with force and in league with allies.
He draws upon the example of Gen. George Marshall and the defeat of our enemies in Europe and the rebuilding of those societies and free and prosperous countries.
"We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today's crises from becoming tomorrow's conflicts.
Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century.
This is what makes America exceptional: It is not just the character of our country -- it is the record of our accomplishments. America has a proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership -- a history that has been written by patriots of both parties. That is America at its best."
Second, Gov. Romney offers some specific policy goals regarding several countries and issues. Some statements reflect what he has already said, but in a couple of cases, he offers new policy that is not necessarily the safe stuff that a campaign advisor likes to see. To focus on two (and not the obvious ones of Iran and Afghanistan), regarding Syria, he calls for U.S. involvement in the form of picking a side among the rebels and helping them succeed with arms:
"In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran-rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East."
For Egypt, he makes it clear we should use our aid to require the Brotherhood government to be open to all voices and be truly democratic, as well as to respect its treaty with Israel:
"In Egypt, I will use our influence-including clear conditions on our aid-to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid."
There are a number of other points Romney makes in this speech, which is clearly an attempt not only to lay out his views but provide a stark contrast to President Obama. Gov. Romney succeeds at drawing the contrast and in ways that show the same kind of bold and clear leadership, complete with specifics, that he offered recently in the first debate on the economy and healthcare. Thus, we've got a preview for the debate that covers foreign policy.
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Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president.
Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."
Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want.
In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."
Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?
The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.
To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.
I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.
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Like everyone else, I thought Governor Romney helped himself last night. I won't dwell on my reactions because the debate focused on topics far removed from Shadow Govt's ballpark, though both candidates did make a passing reference to foreign policy. Doubtless the Shadow Govt. team will have more to say when the ball moves into our court with the October 22 foreign policy debate.
However, I can't resist making two observations that I haven't seen get much emphasis in the commentary I have read thus far:
1. Obama talked the longest but Romney said the most. I was watching on MSNBC (I wanted to get a sense of what my Duke colleagues were thinking to gird myself for the inevitable hallway ambushes) and their pundits all seemed to think that Romney had run roughshod over the moderator and, in Rachel Maddow's words, won on "time of possession." That struck me as odd, because my sense was that Obama had droned on longer than Romney. It turns out I was right, according to CNN's clock,which had Obama speaking for 42 minutes and 50 seconds while Romney spoke for only 38 minutes and 32 seconds. It felt like Romney was more efficient with airtime -- alternating between rapid-fire statistics and repetition of key points -- whereas Obama meandered and often seemed at a loss for words, maybe even at a loss for thoughts. There is no question Romney was more commanding -- more sure of himself and more sure of the facts -- but he was not commanding the clock.
(2) Obama seemed like he had something bigger on his mind than the debate. In part because the president came off as distracted, I began to wonder what was distracting him. There have been many hypotheses advanced: maybe he was distracted by actually getting challenged, given how gentle the press usually treats him; maybe he needs his teleprompter to help him; and so on. Perhaps because of the bias of my interest in foreign policy, I wondered whether he had just had a very troubling intelligence briefing. I imagined him standing there and thinking about this briefing about some horrible pending threat and then having to overcome that distraction to focus again on, what was it, oh yes, my $716 billion worth of cuts to Medicare. Of course, there is no evidence for my hypothesis beyond Obama's halting performance, but an enterprising reporter might want to dig in that direction a bit.
There has been a lot of commentary on the Obama administration's "pivot" (or "rebalance") to Asia here at Shadow Government. Most commentators have praised Secretary Clinton's activism towards Southeast Asia, but pointed out that the rhetoric of the pivot will look hollow without a real trade strategy and adequate resourcing for our forward military forces. This past month it looks like the wheels may have started coming off on the trade strategy axle.
In early September regional leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Vladivostok, sans Barack Obama who was unwilling to skip town in election season, and courtesy of Vladmir Putin who was unwilling to schedule the meeting at a time the U.S. President could attend. President Obama's absence was not the end of the world: Bill Clinton skipped two APEC summits and managed to compensate the next year (for the record, George W. Bush missed none...but that was before we were "back in Asia" as the current White House likes to say). The real problem at Vladivostok was the hallway banter by the other delegates about TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- that forms the core of the administration's strategy for building a regional economic architecture that includes us and strives for WTO-consistent trade liberalization and rule-making. The overall critique in Vladivostok was that the U.S. side is playing small ball on TPP, to the frustration of multiple stakeholders. The U.S. business community is worried at the lack of market access in the negotiations; the Australians and Singaporeans are hedging with Asian-only negotiations because of what they see as incrementalism by USTR; and Japanese officials are dismayed by administration signals discouraging Tokyo from expressing readiness to join TPP.
This all matters because of the other summitry gossip that is coming out of Asia. On November 18-20, the Cambodians will be hosting the East Asia Summit, which President Obama joined with great fanfare last year and which the president will be able to attend this year because it is after the U.S. elections. The main deliverable on economics at that summit will be a decision within the region to proceed with the RCEP -- an Asian "Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership" that includes the ten ASEAN states, Japan, China, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- and does not include the United States. The Cambodians' current plan for the November summit is to hold an RCEP inaugural meeting while President Obama waits outside the room cooling his heels with Vladmir Putin (since Russia is also not included in the regional trade deal). Stunningly, our allies Japan, Australia ,and Korea all appear to be on board with this scenario.
At one level this resembles the silliness of a junior high school prom, but at another level it could be the moment people start writing the obituary for the "pivot." To prevent that, a returning Obama administration or a new Romney administration has to put more oomph into the current anemic U.S. trade strategy. The RCEP launch will be embarrassing, but since those talks have no prospect of hitting a WTO-compliant level of trade liberalization, the United States can retake center stage again by showing that it can form an even more impressive coalition of trade liberalizing states. This means getting Japan in to TPP; leveraging Canada and Mexico in the TPP process (which will also help us counter Brazilian efforts to separate South America from us); and beginning to move on a complementary trans-Atlantic FTA process. The "pivot" was never sustainable without like-minded allies in our hemisphere and Europe and now is the time to recognize that and develop a strategy accordingly.
The next administration will also have to demonstrate credibility by moving to secure trade promotion authority (TPA) from the Congress (just can't get around Article One Section Eight of the Constitution). Finally, the administration had better start thinking about new ways to engage on economic issues within the EAS that keep us in the regional dialogue without requiring a high-standard FTA with countries like Laos or Burma. Bob Zoellick was a master of that art at USTR when he pioneered the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative -- a flexible framework that allowed a la carte participation by countries ranging from an FTA (Singapore) to establishing very basic economic dialogues (Cambodia).
In short, for trade to continue underpinning U.S. leadership in Asia, we will have to go global, be agile within the region, and give a shot of adrenaline to USTR. Otherwise, the "pivot" will be a minor footnote in the textbooks.
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Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.
This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.
President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.
Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.
What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.
On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.
Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.
The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.
Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.
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Governor Romney delivered a major speech at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, focusing on foreign assistance, global development, and how U.S. policy should evolve in these fields. He laid out a vision for placing development assistance squarely in the center of the nexus of trade, investment, and policy reforms. He sees the private sector and capitalism at the center of human progress (read "economic growth" for those in the business), and he also stressed the central place of institutions that support political freedom and rule of law (read "democracy and governance" for those who follow this stuff closely). He strongly endorsed 10 years of progress on public-private partnership in development -- a major factor in development since the Bush administration, adopted energetically by the Obama administration, and a central focus of the Clinton Global Initiative (so, no, he was not in favor of "privatizing foreign aid," just as no one would say that about Hillary Clinton when she talks about public-private partnerships through her Global Partnerships Initiative, as she does here).
Finally, he emphasized what serious development thinkers have been talking about but have only found limited appetite for within development bureaucracies -- a much larger focus on small and medium sized enterprises.
Governor Romney's speech is by far the most detailed speech by either of the major candidates on development in this electoral cycle and likely the most detailed speech of any candidate during the primaries in this cycle.
There has been a series of responses (including a GREAT post from my friend Paul Bonicelli yesterday and a thoughtful op-ed from Amb. Mark Green and Rob Mosbacher) to Governor Romney's speech, not surprisingly, as it outlined a bold plan for American assistance moving forward.
In sum, serious thinkers about development and America's role in it have been positive in their praise as they recognize the depth of the thinking behind this speech and know that the most serious change and advancement in U.S. development policy have happened under Republican presidents.
Governor Romney's strategy would place U.S. assistance on the cutting edge of development theory and practice. By linking greater investments in economic growth and the institutions that promote liberty with a renewed vigorous global trade agenda and pro-growth domestic policies under a Romney administration, along with the sorts of investments in assistance Gov. Romney described in his speech, we are talking about a very powerful combination of forces that are pro-development and help the United States share in that prosperity.
Development theorists and practitioners talk about "private sector led development," but when push comes to shove and the money is allocated, the temptation is always to fund pressing social service delivery projects or photogenic or politically connected causes. At the end of the budget allocation race, policy reform investments that support economic growth, and investments that support democracy and governance --the two sorts of investments that most development practitioners know matter -- often get left behind.
Finally, Governor Romney's speech recognizes the changed world that we live in and the need to change our development policy, processes, systems, and priorities to reflect this changed world. First, foreign aid can help but is dwarfed by trade, investment, remittance, and private philanthropy by foundations, individuals, church groups, and corporations. He cited the central fact that U.S. economic engagement has changed over the last 40 years with massive foreign direct investment flows going to middle, lower, and poor countries in massive amounts, the massive flows of remittances and, the massive amounts of private charity. At the same time his description of "corrupt governments" suggests a skeptical view towards various forms of budget support and an interest in aid transparency initiatives.
Another central change from the past is that the United Nations Development Program estimates domestic resource mobilization in low income countries will reach $394 billion by 2015. Compare that to global ODA of approximately $120 billion, and domestic resources are only going to get bigger over time as societies continue to move up the ladder of development. Foreign aid is a minority shareholder in the business of development already. Development practitioners can provide expertise, technical support, and strengthen the institutions that support private sector led growth and democratic governance, but ultimately over time/in due course (please note emphasis here, so no panicked misinterpretations, please) we want to be moving out of the direct social service delivery business and instead have governments themselves "pick up the tab" using domestic resources similar to the way that PEPFAR is evolving.
The global economic situation means that budget austerity is impacting foreign assistance around the world including the Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and possibly the UK. We should assume that the 150 Account (the account in the U.S. budget where foreign aid is housed) which has until now has defied gravity is going to be examined in the light of trillion dollar deficits and $16 trillion in debt. Regardless of the overall topline number, questions about aid effectiveness and development priorities are going to be at the forefront of any U.S. development conversation under any administration just as that conversation is happening in the rest of the "DAC" (the Major League Baseball Commission equivalent for foreign aid donor) countries. Pressing humanitarian needs (such as ending polio in our time) will always be a part of the U.S. foreign assistance policy as the U.S. still stands ready to respond in situations international disaster relief, but long term foreign aid's role needs to change with the changed global context.
Governor Romney sees foreign assistance as a form of "soft power." It is clear that Governor Romney sees foreign assistance as an instrument of American power and influence and one that we should use to ensure that the 21st century is an American century.
Note: While Dan Runde co-chairs the Romney Campaign's International Assistance Working Group, the blog post above contains Mr. Runde's own opinions.
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Josh Rogin's take on Gov. Mitt Romney's speech Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering left me scratching my head. Much of his piece quoted Romney's remarks to good effect by highlighting portions where Romney calls for reforms designed to treat the causes of poverty, oppression, and suffering, not just the symptoms. But in a couple of key places Rogin draws inferences the text does not support, such as the inference that a Romney administration won't be as interested in humanitarian assistance. In another place, he says that Romney believes that the corruption that results from foreign aid is because today the vast majority of foreign aid comes from private sources (investment and charitable giving) and not from governments. But Romney simply did not say any of this. Let's look at these in reverse order.
Rogin notes that Romney understands the American public's frustration with decades of aid that is ineffective and doesn't solve problems. And worse, as Romney notes, the aid gets into the hands of corrupt governments. That is, Americans believe that for too long the U.S. provided aid that didn't do what it was supposed to do: End suffering and promote prosperity. The context of the entire quotation is historical in nature, and that is important to understand in order to get Romney's next point.
Romney asserts that "Perhaps some of our disappointments are due to our failure to recognize just how much the developing world has changed. Many of our foreign aid efforts were designed at a time when government development assistance accounted for roughly 70 percent of all resources flowing to developing nations. Today, 82 percent of the resources flowing into the developing world come from the private sector. If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives."
But Rogin takes these comments -- the lament about ineffectiveness and corruption -- and interprets Romney to be saying that the failure is due to this very privatization of aid. This is odd. Romney cannot possibly believe that for two reasons. First, as an advocate of the private sector, the governor knows that corruption results from too much government control and power over people's lives, not less. More aid flowing from the private sector of the developed countries to the private sector of the less developed countries is a good thing. The only corruption I can think of that could be suggested by increased inflows of private sector money is when foreign businesses pay bribes to get an advantage, but Romney says nothing about that and Rogin does not suggest it. Besides, that would be an argument about too much power in the hands of government, the very thing Romney decries because it makes aid ineffective and breeds corruption.
Second, as I noted above, Romney is referring to Americans' frustrations in historical context, the "years of aid relief" that don't work as planned. So he states what Americans have been seeing and thinking over the years, and says they want something different. Romney thinks that something different is here and now but we haven't adapted to it yet. That is, more aid flows from and to private hands and that is a good thing, but our policy is outdated and needs to catch up to that fact and build on it. Says Romney, "If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives." The point should be clear: If we want to avoid foreign aid ineffectiveness and corruption, we need to make sure our policies promote the private sector in the developing countries. This is the point about partnerships and trade.
Another problem with Rogin's interpretation of Romney's remarks is the former's assertion several times that Romney wants to "deprioritize" or "lower the priority" of humanitarian assistance. Romney simply did not say this. Let's first note exactly what Romney said the priorities of foreign assistance should be.
"There are three, quite legitimate, objects of our foreign aid. First, to address humanitarian need. Such is the case with the PEPFAR initiative, which has given medical treatment to millions suffering from HIV and AIDS.
Second, to foster a substantial United States strategic interest, be it military, diplomatic, or economic.
And there is a third purpose, one that will receive more attention and a much higher priority in a Romney administration. And that is aid that elevates people and brings about lasting change in communities and in nations."
This is a clear and definitive statement of Romney's priorities and goals with his suggested reforms. At no point in these lines does he suggest what Rogin appears to infer, that Romney wants the U.S. to provide less humanitarian assistance. But Romney would put a higher priority on aid that works; on aid that keeps governments from getting in the way of free people and free markets; and on aid "that elevates people and brings about lasting change." It is a stretch to say this means deprioritizing humanitarian assistance unless you believe that the one and only way to deliver humanitarian assistance is by means of government, or that there are no partnerships between the public and private sectors to fulfill this foreign assistance goal.
The GOP nominee laid out one of the boldest and clearest reforms since the U.S. foreign assistance regime was inaugurated with the Marshall Plan more than half a century ago. In doing so, Romney recognizes the problem of too much government control over problems that only the private sector can solve. He celebrates work and personal achievement over never-ending government programs that treat symptoms and not causes...sort of like he does with the U.S. domestic economic problems.
Having been quite critical in these pages last week about the Republican candidate's exclusion of the war from his speech accepting his party's nomination for president, it seems only fair to praise him for the magnificent speech he gave on the anniversary of September 11th. Governor Romney's speech was warm, personal, and unifying -- a beautiful combination on a day of painful remembrance for our country.
Most importantly, Romney sounded like a strong and compassionate Commander in Chief, expressing his appreciation for the first responders on 9/11 and the military that has fought our wars since. It was a nice touch that he gave the address to the National Guard, the arm of our military responsible both for defending the nation and assisting civil government in dealing with national disasters. In the past ten years of war, Guard units have become part of the regular rotation of forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have shattered the stereotype of weekend warriors not being the peer of their active duty counterparts. It also showed a real elegance of orchestration that the campaign tied in Romney's visit last week with hurricane victims in New Orleans and the important work our Guard does when help needs to be mobilized.
Romney alluded lightly to the significant differences the candidates have on the war in Afghanistan. He said "...nearly 70,000 American troops still remain in Afghanistan. Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission..." In four sentences he summed up the president's mistaken focus on ending rather than winning the war, and under-resourcing the war. And he did so without a sharp edge inappropriate to the occasion.
Romney's own words reflect a commitment to allowing conditions and commanders' recommendations to drive the timeline of our transition to Afghan responsibility for the war. To providing the resources and leadership our military efforts need in order to achieve our war aims. The most important of those resources is political attention, something President Obama has consistently shrifted short the wars conducted while he has been Commander in Chief.
When the Obama administration was winding down the war in Iraq, officials claimed our timeline was a function of conditions on the ground. It was flat out untrue. On Afghanistan, they aren't even attempting to pretend the readiness of Afghan security forces, regional political developments, and the ability of the Afghan government to continue the war effort have any affect on their exit timeline. Romney's commitment to the 2014 withdrawal date show both an appreciation for the coalition agreement but also leaves room for adjustment should General Allen believe more time is need.
Romney was rightly critical of the Veteran's Administration backlog of claims, the delays in providing mental health care, and the crisis of suicides among veterans. These are all serious problems that deserve focused managerial attention. I do believe, however, that the current Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, Eric Shinseki, both shares these concerns and is doing an admirable job addressing them. Much of the backlog and delay is the result of increased claims filed and demand for services, not mismanagement by the VA. If I were influential with the Romney campaign, I'd advise them to carry Shinseki over into the Romney administration to continue the direction he has begun.
The nicest part of the speech was Romney's description of calling families after visiting Massachusetts Guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was really touching, the kind of tribute military people themselves actually appreciate. And it's a more difficult balance to strike than many people understand. Romney explained he thanked them for their sacrifice, and they responded by telling him it isn't a sacrifice, it's a privilege to defend our country. That perfectly captures the feel of the culture of our military. In a time when those of us not bearing the burden of fighting the country's wars are the 99 percent, military families appreciate we are polite enough to thank them for their service, but they also often feel that convention distances them from us, especially since it is so rarely coupled with effort to understand or help bear those burdens. Most Americans never catch that subtlety, but Governor Romney did. And he tried to bridge that gap, as a Commander in Chief should. President Obama often talks of veterans as though they are all disabled; Governor Romney today talked about our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in a way that celebrated their strength, their patriotism, and their honor, and held them up as an example for us all.
Full Disclosure: I am in a small way advising the campaign on European issues. I'm very much at the margin of the effort, in no way influential in policy formation. I don't speak for the campaign or the candidate, whom I've never even met.
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If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will immediately face several urgent foreign policy crises. (For that matter, President Obama will face the same crises if he is reelected). What's worse is that the crises are the most urgent, but arguably not the most important issues he will face. He and his team will have to decide rather quickly their basic stance on these crises, and then clear the decks so they can focus on the longer-term and more important issues.
1. Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States, but with 80,000 U.S. troops in combat, it is still the most urgent, despite the media's criminal neglect of it. Romney would do well to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and order another Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review to reexamine the nature and extent of U.S. involvement there. The review should look closely at where we've made progress, where we are still lacking, when we can afford to transition, and what sort of stay-behind force should take shape after transition.
In my view, the review should affirm the importance of the war, recognize the slow security gains made in recent years, affirm the goal of transitioning to Afghan lead as conditions warrant (with 2014 as an aspirational, flexible deadline), pledge a larger commitment of civilian aid to bolster the Afghan government's capacity, and prepare for a stay-behind force of perhaps 30,000 to 35,000 troops to continue counter-terrorism, training, and village stability operations. It should also lay out a series of steps to increase pressure on Pakistan to compel it to stop supporting militants.
2. Iran. Do we bomb or not? This is one of the hardest questions for foreign policy wonks to answer because it is nearly impossible to know 1) how close Iran is to getting a nuclear weapon, 2) what Iran would do with it, and 3) what Iran would do if we bombed them. Bombing Iran could be a brilliant and low-cost means to stabilizing the Middle East (if we live in a Panglossian universe) or the prelude to general catastrophe.
At the very least, we need public redlines which will trigger a strike (such as enriching a certain amount of weaponized uranium, or assembling a nuclear-capable warhead, or some other step prior to a nuclear test), otherwise our vague threats are not credible. We also need a declared policy for how to respond if Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon (a nuclear attack anywhere is an attack on the United States; the use by any actor of a weapon traceable to Iranian sources will be treated as originating from the Iranian government, etc.)
3. Syria. Do we intervene or not? Syria's descent into civil war is messy and awful. Less clear is whether the U.S. has any direct interests at stake in Syria's awfulness. The Obama administration has established a strange redline: the president threatened a U.S. military response against Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels. Why would that make a difference? The use of chemical weapons might make Assad more awful, but it doesn't mean U.S. interests are more threatened. Are we now establishing a "no-use" taboo for all weapons of mass destruction? Is the U.S. going to enforce a global norm against any and all WMD, everywhere, forever? Because the Obama administration doesn't have a policy towards Syria, the Romney administration will essentially have to start from scratch. I may be in a minority amongst conservative foreign policy types in my hesitance to advocate an intervention in Syria.
4. The European financial crisis. I'm not going to pretend that I understand much about the financial crisis in Europe, other than that it is a Bad Thing, which also means I have little idea what to do about it, other than Something. Unfortunately, I get the sense that my level of expertise is typical for the foreign policy establishment. The United States is not in a position to bail out the EU, but it is not in our interest to stand by and watch our largest trading partner collapse, nor our strongest allies plunge into depression. The Europeans do not often welcome an American role in EU affairs, but is there room for some old-fashioned U.S. shuttle diplomacy between the Greeks and Germans (or the Germans and the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians)? Could the U.S. play the role of a trusted outsider, an impartial third-party? Is it time for the U.S. to call an international summit to reform or replace the world's financial architecture? Doing nothing for four years has accomplished little.
With a policy in place on these three issues -- ideally in NSC meetings held in the first few weeks of the new term -- the Romney administration could then take a moment to breathe before starting more in-depth reviews of bigger challenges: China, Russia and its stance towards Europe, globalization and state failure, the global Islamist insurgency, the environment, the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy, and lots more -- which I hope to address in a future post.
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With two months to go before the election, it's never too early to start one of Washington's favorite post-election parlor-games: assembling a dream cabinet. Who should be the next Secretary of State? Defense? National Security Advisor?
The answer is, of course, David Petraeus. Given my earlier advocacy for Petraeus as vice president, readers will be unsurprised by my suggestion that the president simply call up the good general and ask him what job he wants. Unfortunately, reproductive human cloning is neither legal nor fast enough to grow enough Petraeus' to fill the cabinet, so we will have to find a few others to fill some of the top roles.
These views are, of course, my own (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek at that). The Cable had an interesting article on the potential Romney cabinet last month based on "interviews" with "sources." Unlike the folks at The Cable, I was trained as an analyst at the CIA. This article is based on nothing but speculation and Google. Here is just a short list of folks whom we might see in Senate confirmation hearings next spring. These are not my endorsements so much as my guesses as to whom might get the pick.
National Security Advisor Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, is listed as one of the Romney team's advisors. He probably knows the defense and intelligence worlds better than most people alive, and would be a strong pick for National Security Advisor. Barring that, he would also make a good Director of National Intelligence. Also, he knows lots of things that he could tell us, but then he'd have to kill us. Con: His four stars were in the air force (go Army!). Plus, he's tied closely to the alleged wiretapping program at the NSA, making him a lightning rod for partisan attack, something a new administration may want to avoid.
Secretary of State John Negroponte. With five separate stints as an ambassador (to Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, Iraq, and the U.N.), as Deputy Secretary of State, and as first Director of National Intelligence, Negroponte has the kind of resume that you get when you've spent five decades in the federal bureaucracy. His wide experience makes him a candidate to head the State Department. Plus, he had the good sense to drop out of Harvard Law. Con: He spent five decades in the federal bureaucracy. Also, a new birther movement will spring up around the fact that he was born in London, making his loyalties suspect.
Secretary of Treasury Bob Zoellick. Another Romney advisor and former Deputy Secretary of State, Zoellick also served as U.S. Trade Representative, Undersecretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, in several positions at the Treasury Department, and most recently as President of the World Bank. His selection as Secretary of State would be a sop to those fuzzy-headed softies who think economics are a legitimate concern for international diplomacy, rather than guns, power, and honor, as all real IR scholars know. Or he might be shunted off to head the Treasury Department, where the pointy heads belong. Con: the mustache. Zoellick is obviously a highly-trained covert operative hiding behind the mustached guise of an academic. The problem: It's too obvious. He needs better cover; perhaps a full beard.
Secretary of Defense John McCain. The Chuck Norris of Senators. Member of the Armed Services Committee, Vietnam veteran and POW. McCain was prescient on Iraq, calling for a surge long before anyone else. He has been a champion of American power and democracy abroad and, more recently, a principled opponent of "enhanced interrogation." He's the original Maverick and would make a heluva Secretary of Defense. Con: He's the original Maverick. He's conservative by disposition, not ideology, and therefore is sometimes inconsistent.
Secretary of Defense John Warner (in case the first one doesn't work out). Three-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner is far more interesting than his Senate title suggests. He is a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, a former Marine, and former Secretary of the Navy. Warner is one of the senior statesmen of the Republican Party and was a true eminence grise on foreign policy and is well-qualified to head the Pentagon. Plus, he was Elizabeth Taylor's sixth husband, which has to be worth something. Con: Before his distinguished service in the Korean War as a Marine, he served in World War II in the Navy (go Army). More to the point, he left the Senate in 2009 and may be uninterested in returning to public life. After two wars and decades in the Senate, how much more can your country ask of you?
These are only a few of the many stellar lights of the Republican foreign policy establishment waiting to go nova the moment Romney clinches victory. Who are your picks?
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A recent headline -- "State Dept. Advisers: Let's Cut Nukes Some More" -- left a deeply misleading impression about the work of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board, on which we serve. The Board is chartered to provide "independent insight and advice on all aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and related aspects of public diplomacy." The opinions expressed in this article are our own and represent neither the views of the State Department nor those of other Board members.
Contrary to the recent headline, the Board has not recommended further cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Some Board members would likely now favor such reductions; others would not, but the Board as a whole has made no such recommendation.
What is the source of the misunderstanding? The Board responded to a tasking from that State Department to "undertake a study of how the United States could manage a transition to a world of mutual assured stability." The tasking was a given. The logic of the Board's response was to outline the necessary prerequisites for the end state identified in the tasking. The report identified six essential, but not sufficient, preconditions for such a world, first in the context of U.S.-Russian relations, but also noting that other states would need to be involved.
As the report states, the six essential components require real achievements on cooperative security, transparency of capabilities and intentions, and mutually beneficial interdependence. In short, a transition to "mutual assured stability" would require profound changes in the world we inhabit today. Imagining a more secure and stable world is a worthy endeavor, but it is also necessary to be clear about what is necessary to achieve it.
The report leaves open the possibility that the conditions it identifies may not be achievable, and states that they will require many years and fundamental changes in U.S.-Russian relations if they are to occur. Those who find the preconditions identified by the report to be unrealistic will not find the end state described in the tasking given to the Board to be plausible. Those who believe seeking a world of mutual assured stability is feasible, will at least understand the significant preconditions that their policy goals will require. Either way, the Board's report has added clarity. What it has not done, is advocate further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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Charlie Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson have launched another round in our ongoing conversation about the Obama vs. Romney comparison on foreign policy. (You can read the exchange in chronological order: here, here, and here.)
After reading their latest, I think it may be time for me to declare victory. I had three principal claims in my initial response, and their piece (unintentionally) confirms all three.
First, I claimed that there were legitimate critiques of Obama's record from the Republican perspective -- i.e. not merely the critiques from the left, such as he shouldn't have kept his campaign promise to conduct a fully resourced COIN strategy in Afghanistan, or that he hasn't bragged enough about his accomplishments, or that "leading from behind" was bad spin. Obama partisans can usually be cajoled into making a critique of Obama from the left, but this hardly shows them to be fair and balanced. The test is whether they can admit a critique from the other side of the aisle, or whether their worldview denies the possibility of wisdom from the other party. I outlined just four Republican critiques, and challenged Kupchan and Jentleson to concede at least one or rebut them all. In their 2200 word response, they write about many, many things, but they avoid entirely answering the four specific critiques I raised. I know they saw the critiques, because they refer to them in passing. But Kupchan and Jentleson do not say whether they consider them valid or whether there is an Obama defense that neutralizes the critiques. My inference, based on my respect for them: If there was a strong rebuttal available, they would have provided it.
Second, I claimed that they substituted a cartoon version of Romney's foreign policy platform, trying to turn legitimate foreign policy debates into a Manichean struggle between Obama's essential goodness and, in their words, Romney's "Dangerous Mind." In their latest response, Kupchan and Jentleson go back to an older, more tired version of this Manichean worldview, this time attacking a cartoon version of Bush's foreign policy. But the cartoon fits only if one ignores inconvenient facts. Consider just two examples:
Far from relying "too heavily on power and bravado alone," it was the Bush administration that developed the G-20, the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative, the free trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the TransPacific Partnership, the strategic outreach to India, the 6-Party Talks on North Korea, the P5+1 framework on Iran, and so on -- all initiatives the Obama administration and Kupchan and Jentleson boast as proving their own smarter approach to global relations.
If we have left behind "a reasonably stable country" in Iraq that is "headed in the right direction," then surely the credit for that rests with the 2007 Bush surge, which President Obama vigorously opposed and tried to block. For my part, I think Kupchan and Jentleson paint a bit too vividly a rosy scenario for Iraq. I think the situation there is far more precarious. But if they want to declare victory in Iraq, they have to share credit with the Bush surge. And if they want to declare the Bush surge a failure, they can't claim Iraq is headed in the right direction now.
Third, I claimed that Obama's foreign policy successes came mainly in places where he followed in the tracks of his predecessor -- tracks that Romney would likely follow, as well -- whereas his foreign policy failures came mainly in places where he struck out on his own. As my analysis of the first two claims makes clear, Kupchan and Jentleson prove my point rather nicely. For the most part, they avoid talking much about the areas of genuine Obama innovations on the foreign policy front (with the exception of the Russian reset) and instead dwell mainly on approaches and initiatives that hail back to the Bush era, and they invariably describe them as glowing successes.
Given their particular areas of expertise, I would have liked to see more discussion of the situation in Syria. They mention Syria just once, when they concede that Russia has now taken an oppositional stance on Syria (sounds a bit like they are saying Russia is our foe on that geopolitical issue....maybe a geopolitical foe...perhaps the top geopolitical foe blocking U.S. action through the UN?). But surely it deserves more discussion than that. Isn't Syria a critical case for the effectiveness of any Obama doctrine on American foreign policy, one that they claim "restored confidence in American power and purpose"?
Kupchan and Jentleson are among the best foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side of the aisle and their two pieces together present a clear picture of how Democratic experts would like to frame the foreign policy debate. That frame does not fit the facts very well, but we won't know until November whether it fits the public mood well enough to scare voters away from Romney.
When I first posted my challenge to Obama partisans to step up and concede at least a few honest-to-goodness mistakes by their champion, I didn't expect that the first Obama partisan to step to the plate would be FP's own Blake Hounshell.
Besides being the Grand Vizier of FP's Web site, Hounshell is a decent and thoughtful fellow who has contributed some first-rate dispatches from the frontlines of the Arab Awakening over the past couple of years. He is the kind of Democrat who at least will entertain the possibility that Republicans might have interesting things to contribute to the debate, hence his willingness to give intellectual and political diversity a few electrons on his site, viz Shadow Government. For that, I am exceedingly grateful, but that doesn't mean I am going to give his post a free pass. (At least, I don't intend to...since he is the one who decides whether my posts actually make it on the site, I may draft this devastating riposte and it may never see the light of day...)
Hounshell grades my critique and seems to be more favorable than I expect Jentleson and Kupchan will be. Still, I think he misses some important things so below I reprint his grades, with my grade appeals interspersed....
"1. Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline along with Afghan surge. Dumb. Obama undercut his surge by declaring it would only be a temporary thing. The rationale here was twofold: reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party (and many others) that the president didn't want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai et al that they'd better get their acts together in a hurry. The first part of the strategy worked, in the sense that it took the war off the table domestically. The second part? Meh, not so much. Maybe the impending 2014 withdrawal deadline will focus some minds in the Afghan government, but there are precious few signs that it has done so to date.
Verdict: Point to Feaver, but just barely. Why? Because staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever is a terrible idea that very few Americans support, which is why Romney has barely mentioned the war and didn't even say the name of the country during his convention speech."
Surely I deserve better than "barely." I win running away, because the choice is not the false one Hounshell paints: between (a) undermining the surge by announcing an arbitrary timeline or (b) "staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever." There were other alternatives available to Obama, such as allowing the withdrawal timeline to be dictated by conditions on the ground or, if he wanted to leave regardless of conditions, simply not announcing that fact at the outset of the surge so as to give the surge the maximum chance at success. Undermining his own surge was a strategic blunder by Obama and the only way Hounshell can minimize the seriousness of it is by replacing my argument with a strawman.
"2. Failing to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime. Note here that Feaver is careful not to make the crazy, indefensible version of this charge: that Obama should have somehow embraced or helped the Green Movement overthrow the Iranian government. The Obama administration's assessment was that coming out loudly in favor of the protesters would have made it even easier for the regime to crush them, and many Iran analysts agree. It's worth noting here that the Green Movement was not actually about overthrowing the system, however (though its remnants may evolve in that more radical direction). It was about disputing the results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, which was the common denominator consensus of the movement's various different factions. The movement's putative leaders, Mir Hossain Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Muhammad Khatami, were careful not to call for an end to Iran's clerical system, and they never called for outside help as far as I can remember.
What about the case for ramping up more pressure on the regime? Well, that is exactly what Obama has done since then, getting the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese to sign up for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And, though arguably Obama has been pushed by Congress into enacting tougher unilateral sanctions than he wanted (or than many on the left thought were humane or wise), here we are.
Verdict: Unknowable, but I don't see much to Feaver's argument."
I don't see much in Hounshell's argument, but I do give him credit that at least he doesn't pretend that critics of Obama's handling of this episode were insisting that Obama invade Iran in June of 2009. However, he does repeat another common error, pretending that the critique hinges on the Green Movement inviting Western help or being anti-nuclear themselves.
The case for a squandered 2009 does not rest on hopes that the Green Movement would have begged for more sanctions or that a President McCain would have unleashed the 4thID in a made dash for Tehran. Rather, the squandered opportunities involve: an opportunity for the Obama Administration to get out of the bone-headed "unconditional bilateral talks" trap they set for themselves; and an opportunity to ramp up multilateral economic pressure years earlier than they did, thus simultaneously increasing the (small) chance that diplomacy might have succeeded and the (larger) chance that the program could be delayed on the right side of more defensible red-lines; and an opportunity to unambiguously align with Iranian society rather than with the mullahs.
Eventually, the Obama administration did follow the lead of Congress and the French and British in implementing tougher sanctions on Iran. But they did so after squandering two golden opportunities to ratchet up pressure in 2009: the Green Revolution and the September surprise announcement of the secret enrichment facility.
The extra year's worth of pressure might not have worked. Obama partisans can always retreat to the counterfactual that Obama could have handled the Iranian file perfectly and we would still end up with the same dead-end confrontation we are heading to now. But that is like saying, throwing the interception did not cost us the game. Maybe, but it is still a turnover.
3. Imposing new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Israeli settlements -- excuse me, "housing developments." If you believe Israel should not be making it harder to reach a permanent agreement, as U.S. presidents have for several decades now, then Obama was just hewing to a longstanding bipartisan consensus. It was probably a tactical error for Obama to make settlements the focus of discussions if he wasn't prepared to stick to his guns. But look, folks: Neither side is willing to pay the price required for a lasting peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't believe in it (read his book -- he says so explicitly), and Mahmoud Abbas is too weak and wrongly thinks time is on the Palestinians' side.
Verdict: Meh. Basically, it's hard to argue that course X or course Y would have led to a better result, because the peace process is a joke and very few people believe in it anymore. Obama's real mistake was trying at all, given the circumstances and his fundamental gutlessness on this issue.
Give Hounshell credit for recognizing this was a tactical error. But since this is the clearest example of Obama promising and acting on his promise to do something very different from Bush on a foreign policy matter that he, Obama, claimed was of great strategic importance, and then having that whole matter fail spectacularly so that the president has to spend the next several years running in the opposite direction -- well, I think in that case it merits a bit more than "meh." (Interestingly, in my private interactions with Obama administration officials, this is one of the few errors they are willing to acknowledge.) He goes on to slam Obama as "gutless" -- I don't go that far, but it may be because I don't see much merit in the typical lefty critique of Obama as being too quick to compromise and not tough enough on "enemies" like Republicans in Congress or Israeli politicians.
4. The delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. So what? The South Korea FTA was fairly large, as these things go, but eventually it got done, as did Colombia. The opposition to the Colombia FTA was ridiculous given that it was fundamentally about ratifying a strong existing relationship and permanently opening the Colombian market to U.S. goods. But the Colombian market is just not very big.
Verdict: Weak sauce. I'm actually surprised that Feaver doesn't level a far more serious and defensible charge, which is that Obama just isn't a free trader at heart and has pandered to the left wing of his party by talking nonsense about outsourcing (when he really means offshoring) and failing to offer a Bill Clinton-like argument about why globalization is not only irreversible, but good for the United States. Obama has continued to explore things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced Russia's long-overdue entry into the WTO. But in general, this isn't a big priority for his administration and Republicans have rightly criticized him for it.
But here's the problem: Free trade just isn't very popular among voters, and especially not in the Democratic Party in the post-2008 era. Even economists like Alan Blinder have started to have their doubts about offshoring. Does anyone believe Obama could have fundamentally moved the needle on this?
P.S.: Remember when the Bush adminstration succeeded in finishing the Doha Round? Me neither.
So here Hounshell's complaint is that my critique of Obama is too soft -- "weak sauce." Hounshell says Obama deserves even greater criticism for being an anti-free-trader. But then Hounshell gives Obama a pass from this, his, critique by saying that free trade is just not popular with voters so the Obama administration should not be criticized for failing to secure another grand round of multi-lateral trade negotiations. But I didn't criticize Obama for that. I criticized him for further politicizing trade and slow-rolling the two free-trade agreements (three if you count the smaller Panama FTA) that were handed to him on a silver platter. He didn't need to move voters, he just needed to work with a bipartisan coalition in Congress ready to act.
So where does that leave the score? I identified four Obama errors and, after reading Hounshell's discussion of them, I am more convinced than ever that they are obvious, unforced errors.
Does this mean that Obama is a terrible foreign policy president or that Romney is clearly the superior candidate on foreign policy? Both might be true, but I am not trying to argue either case right now. Rather, I am making the far more modest claim that there are a number of legitimate critiques of Obama's handling of foreign policy from the Republican perspective. Hounshell's interesting blogpost reminds us of how difficult it is for Obama partisans to concede that point.
From time to time, Josh Gerstein of Politico has observed that the mainstream media has glossed over things the Obama administration has done without subjecting it to the firestorm of protest that greeted a comparable (often less egregious) action by the Bush administration.
Some of the items are quite serious: the targeted drone strike on an American citizen or the creative interpretation of the UNSCR on Libya or the prominent role in sensitive national security policymaking given to domestic political advisors. Others are less so: the frequent gaffes like misspelling "Ohio" or the priority given to golf games or the record-breaking prominence of fund-raising.
The issue is not necessarily that President Obama deserves condemnation for any of this. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration seems to have no idea how generous the media's double-standard is.
A recent report made me think that it is not only the Bush administration that is the victim of this double standard. The Clinton administration has some grounds for a complaint, too.
In a lengthy article exploring the extraordinary influence over policy wielded by Valerie Jarrett, the New York Times reports on an incident I have never heard about before:
"Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious -- at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter -- and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.
A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.
She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed." (emphasis added)
This is a remarkable anecdote, and it immediately called to mind one of the signature anecdotes from the Clinton White House. I wrote about it in my book because it took on iconic status as a symbol of the poor civil-military relations of the early Clinton era. Early on in the Clinton tenure, Lieutenant General McCaffrey was over at the White House for a meeting. As I described it:
"While there, he greeted a young Clinton staffer who allegedly replied, "I don't talk to the military." McCaffrey presumably related this back at the Pentagon, for the story quickly spread throughout the Beltway community as apparent confirmation that the new commander in chief -- who once wrote that he loathed the military -- was surrounding himself with advisors who were viscerally anti-military. The White House, which was already reeling from the backlash against the president's proposal to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military, quickly scrambled to undo the public relations damage of the petty snub. In a highly choreographed move, the president invited General McCaffrey to jog with him at a summit meeting, and the distinguished military officer agreed, thus graciously conferring absolution on his commander in chief."
Now civil-military experts can spend a lot of time in the bar debating how much of the McCaffrey story really happened the way it is usually reported, and if it did, how significant it really was. But there is no debate about how much attention the anecdote got (a google search on "I don't talk to the military" and clinton generates some 3,690,000 hits).
Is there any doubt that if George Stephanopoulos had confused a 4-star general with a waiter it would have gotten huge play? (Yes, I know there were also reports about the Clinton team asking the White House military aides to serve canapes and drinks at social functions. That, too, got lots of attention, and in some ways might seem a better analogue to the Jarrett incident. But those particular military aides were substantially more junior and, in fact, had social duties as an important part of their regular functions, in addition to their core mission of carrying the "nuclear football," so I give the Clinton White House more slack on that.)
The context is different. As Tom Ricks has noted, the Obama White House has very fraught relations with the military, but they are nowhere near as fraught as Clinton's were in 1993. Moreover, the Clinton-era snub seemed intentional whereas it was (apparently) only inadvertent in the Obama-era case.
Still, if the Jarrett anecdote gets no more commentary than the brief discussion I am giving it here, I think my fellow Clinton White House veterans can be excused if we start a new meme: "what if the Clinton White House had done this?"
Update: A friend who follows civil-military affairs just as closely as I do but with a better memory than mine, pointed out to me that the Jarrett incident was reported at the time. It is possible I saw one of those earlier reports and just forgot about it -- my 90-plus-year-old parents like to say that their forgettery overwhelms their memory, and perhaps I am heading into the same zone. But I think it is more likely that I didn't notice at the time and, certainly, the incident did not get extensive coverage the way the McCaffrey incident did.
In my post, I suggested two possible reasons for this, both of which I think are true. First, the McCaffrey anecdote was intrinsically more toxic and also fit more readily into an existing narrative of a President who "loathed" the military. Second, there is an undeniable double-standard, with the press giving the Obama Administration a pass for things they would have framed far more negatively in previous Administrations; as the Politico editor put it, the mainstream media is "quite smitten with the Obamas" and their coverage obviously reflects that fact.
My friend suggested yet a third reason: Gen Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, whom Jarrett confused with a waiter, went out of his way to defuse the incident. I think this was an important factor, and perhaps co-equal with the other two. At least initially, the McCaffrey incident went viral (if that term applies to those early days of the internet) because someone spread the story back in the halls of the Pentagon. The most likely person to spread that story was General McCaffrey himself. After it became notorious, McCaffrey collaborated with the Clinton White House in tamping down the furor, but it is plausible that McCaffrey did less than Chiarelli did in the initial stages to minimize the incident.
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No surprise that as a former George W. Bush appointee, I support the 2012 Republican Platform. But it is a surprise (at least to me) that there is actually a good bit to be excited about. After all, platforms are not often the stuff of "wow" moments. There are usually few surprises or wholly new ideas expressed every four years. Sometimes this is because the party's nominee is pursuing a second term, and sometimes it is because there just isn't a lot of change in a party's outlook.
To be sure, much of the 2012 platform echoes the 2008 platform, but where it differs, where it expands into new ideas, it is in my view exciting and inspiring. My focus, of course, is the foreign policy plank, and in particular, the section on international assistance. This section is not simply a re-tread of previous ideas.
It begins like last time by pointing out the generosity of the American people both in their publicly funded aid as well as aid from private sources. But it goes into greater detail to note the various ways that Americans are generous in their private giving of their time and talent and treasure -- and this aid comprises far more than what comes out of the USG's foreign aid budget. I just wish the point had been made in this section about the valuable role of the U.S. military in not only securing the delivery of aid but sometimes in the actual dispensing of it. Not to mention the benefits that accrue to a world where a superpower helps to keep or restore the peace, and keeps shipping lanes open without which there can be no free trade. To put a fine point on it for the sake of our heroic military (who will not brag on themselves), we were treated to this picture recently of Army Sgt. John Gebhardt comforting an Afghan child. Do yourself a favor and read the short item on this.
Next, the plank takes a swipe at the outdated way in which most donors have dispensed aid over the years: by providing aid to governments whether as budget support or toward programs that are treating symptoms and not the causes of poverty, disorder and tyranny. In the latter case, we must remember that money is fungible, so just because a program is good does not mean it is wise. Our focus should be on the causes of what we want to rid the nations of who ask for our assistance. The U.S. has done better than most at targeting aid toward people and worthy programs that attack those root causes, but there is still much more to do in terms of reform, and this plank deals with that as well.
I appreciate that the party emphasizes that the best way to assist people overseas is not through government. Rather, the plank points to charity and the great engine of growth and prosperity that is the private sector.
Of great importance is that that party makes a very clear statement about the purpose of foreign assistance: it must serve our national interests in the form of promoting the "peaceful development of less advanced and vulnerable societies in critical parts of the world." It is that simple. U.S. taxpayer dollars are not a kitty from which politicians should feel free to do good with other people's money. Aid programs whose goals are not measureable and that do not serve national interests -- specifically defined -- are not just a waste of money but a dereliction of duty. There is no shortage of congressmen and NGOs who can easily come up with warm fuzzy reasons why we should do something, but that's not the question. Again, just because something might be good does not mean it is wise for the government to do it.
And the platform points to historical successes that can not only inspire us but guide us. Aid that has helped strengthen democracy and private enterprise in Latin America and East Asia should inspire us to put aid where it works: in places where leaders and citizens have determined to follow the path of free markets and free people.
And speaking of that approach, rather than provide a detailed list of programs (as was the case in the 2008 platform) the plank provides unequivocally the party's foundation for all USG assistance: "U.S. aid should be based on the model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, for which foreign governments must, in effect, compete for the dollars by showing respect for the rule of law, free enterprise, and measurable results. In short, aid money should follow positive outcomes, not pleas for more cash in the same corrupt official pockets."
So that is what we should do. What should we not do with international assistance? Here the plank takes a hard shot at the Obama administration's practices over the last three and a half years. The plank criticizes the administration for basing its aid policies on its own cultural agenda as it has imposed its views on abortion and the homosexual rights agenda. It has blocked the participation of faith-based groups that were so key to many of the successes of the Bush administration. The conclusion of this section points to a clear policy change: "We will reverse this tragic course, encourage more involvement by the most effective aid organizations, and trust developing peoples to build their future from the ground up."
There are a number of other sections in the foreign policy plank that express new ideas, new ways of thinking, and that call for new policies. But this plank on international assistance is truly exceptional in that it calls for a reform of our foreign assistance philosophy. It elevates free people and free markets as the starting point; it says "treat the causes, not simply the symptoms."
It is quite appropriate, therefore, that the plank on foreign policy that deals with international assistance is titled "American Exceptionalism" because this approach truly is exceptional, like the United States of America.
Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan for the VP slot has focused most attention on fiscal issues, in particular entitlement reform, and well it should. This election will be about the bad economy, the urgent need to restore economic growth and job creation, and the coming fiscal nightmare if we don't get our house in order.
But what of foreign policy? Some commenters have addressed it, most of them critics of the GOP ticket who have said that neither Romney nor Ryan has sufficient experience to manage it. They have also insisted that what Romney and Ryan have said recently demonstrates their inadequate understanding of statecraft.
It is no surprise that the ticket's defenders take exception to these criticisms and characterizations. As one of these defenders, my view of their fitness for commander-in-chief and commander-in-chief-in-waiting is based on what I perceive to be their principled views on the role of the United States and their understanding of the realities of the international arena. They are not running for secretary of state or defense or for national security adviser, nor are they trying to win an agency post like arms control czar or head of USAID. They seek the office that sets the tone, lays out the objectives, and staffs the agencies that formulate and implement policy. So what they believe fundamentally about foreign policy is the first thing to address if we wish to understand what kind of foreign policy leaders they would be. We can think about experience separately, understanding that they can't help having no more experience presiding over the most powerful nation-state in the world than have most contenders for the office, including President Obama. As Peter Feaver points out here, let's please not absurdly hold them to a higher standard than candidate Obama was held to four years ago. Once we understand their thinking, we can speculate with some confidence on the types of appointments and policies they will pursue and the objectives they will seek to fulfill. We already know that Governor Romney is a manager and leader of considerable skill; Congressman Ryan has been a chairman of a major committee in the Congress during a crisis when his leadership skills have been tested (and he passed), which is more than the current occupant of the White House could boast in 2008.
I do not claim to have much first-hand knowledge about Romney and Ryan's views, just as I did not about President Obama's views when he was a first-term senator with no experience other than his time in the Senate. I rely primarily on three things to make my assessment of them as I did for Obama: 1) what they have said and done that shows what they believe about the United States' role in the world; 2) what they believe about the world itself; and 3) how they have operated in it, whether in the public or private sector.
Governor Romney's speeches and comments since he has been running for president for several years reveal a leader committed to the notion of American exceptionalism. He asserts regularly that the United States must lead the world if we are to enjoy peace and stability and if freedom and prosperity are to expand. His comments imply that he knows that the world is a dangerous place, and that while pursuing the ideals of cooperation and collective defense is commendable, in many cases only force wielded by a free nation or coalition thereof can secure not only our interests but those embraced by all signatories to the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights. We need not wonder what his foreign policy would be generally and so we can therefore extrapolate to the specifics of, say, arms control and the defense of the safety of our citizens and property. His appointments would comprise a coterie of officials who share his views. I imagine some combination of Reaganites and Bushites (both 41 and 43) would be called upon, and there is a lot more agreement among them on these things than disagreement. Plenty of them have the skill to man the posts in service of a President Romney's goals. To put a fine point on it, he has little experience running an energy or a farm policy, but I imagine he has some clear ideas about those things, too, and would set out goals and make appointments to attain them. That would be him exercising leadership, and for all he would draw upon his experience as a governor, a business leader and administrator of one of the world's largest global concerns, the Olympics.
Gov. Romney has also demonstrated some sound instincts. In this respect I'd like to address the recent controversy related to his recent visit to Israel. Gov. Romney said that Israel's strong economic performance relative to its Palestinian neighbors could be traced in part to cultural factors. For this he was called racist and naïve. But this is a perfectly rational comment and it underscores the main theme of my comments here about big ideas and broad principles. Romney did not say Palestinians were inferior biologically and unable to engage in commerce leading to prosperity; nor did he say they did not have ambition or a work ethic. He simply alluded to a fact that should be uncontroversial: the cultural factors animating the citizenry of the State of Israel (both Jew and Arab) are conducive to democracy and economic development. Israel's is a democratic government that protects civil rights and property rights. The same cannot be said about the Palestinian territories under both Hamas and Fatah rule. In each of those cases, whether the Arabs generally have a culture that is conducive to democracy and development -- and I believe they do -- is irrelevant when the culture of the leadership of both public and private sector elites tramples upon it. The fact is that those who have the ability to control society through state power, education, and religion use that power to retard development, enrich themselves through corruption, and do all with impunity. Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the world over practice politics as democrats and prosper; Palestinian Arabs living under the culture that Hamas, Fatah and their parasitical and corrupt clients have fostered do not. How is it racist or naïve to make this case? I think it shows that Romney gets what causes human flourishing; and getting that means he knows not only what he wants to do in terms of domestic policy but also what a fundamental pillar of his foreign policy would be. That is, the United States will be a promoter of individual liberty at home and be its champion everywhere and protector when it is in our interests.
Turning our attention to Congressman Ryan, he's had fewer chances so far to speak at length about foreign policy; his main focus as a member of Congress has been on the fiscal health of the United States. But those who know him argue that he approaches and understands foreign policy much the same way he does fiscal and domestic policy, that is, by means of principles he has imbibed from the American Founders. He starts first with, no surprise, that the United States is an exceptional nation because it is first an idea before it is a place. He has been saying this for several days now since Romney named him and it reflects what he has said as a congressman and it fits with his work at Empower America. He and Romney are perfectly compatible when it comes to what they believe about the United States and what they believe about the international arena. The only question that remains is are they intelligent enough to establish goals based on their principled beliefs and are they smart enough to choose the right people to help them devise and implement policy. I see no reason to believe that they are not, certainly no more reason than was the case with the former junior Senator from Illinois. The difference is the principles and goals, and for that, of course, I'm grateful.
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The dominant story line of the Ryan pick is probably the correct one: This focuses the national election on the Big Issue of the parties' differing philosophies on how to fix America's troubled economy. I have been struck by the zeal with which both sides have embraced the Ryan pick, each believing that it presents a golden opportunity to present the contrast between the two parties. Each team fervently believes the contrast favors their side, since each team fervently believes the American public will embrace their view, if only the view is presented clearly enough.
But does the Ryan pick have any implications for foreign policy, the bailiwick of Shadow Government? To answer that, I reviewed the most consequential Ryan speech on foreign policy, an address to the Hamilton Society (full disclosure: I am the faculty advisor to Duke's chapter of the Hamilton Society and enthusiastically support its mission to provide informed debate on foreign-policy issues to college campuses).
The speech is well-worth listening to. Early on, Ryan offers a pithy summation that "our fiscal policy is on a collision course with our foreign policy." He fully embraces the Republican critique that the crash is avoidable -- that, because our political leaders keep kicking the fiscal can down the road, "we are choosing decline." Such decline is not inevitable, nor is it desirable.
The Obama campaign is going to great lengths to paint Ryan's political views as extreme. When it comes to foreign policy, I don't think they will be able to do that. The worldview Ryan presents in the speech may bother some FP colleagues, but it is not an extreme or radical worldview. Or, to put the matter more sharply: It is definitely not an un-American view. Indeed, it is squarely within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign-policy practitioners.
It is a worldview that recognizes the benefits -- to the United States and to the world -- that has come from American global leadership.
It is a worldview that tempers American exceptionalism with a recognition of the universalism of American ideals -- that is, Ryan recognizes that America is expected to bear burdens that other states do not, and also recognizes that the American idea has an appeal that other national founding ideas do not.
With a little digging, one could find echoing quotes from almost every president since Lincoln.
It is not triumphalistic; Ryan acknowledges limits to American power (as every president has done). It recognizes the need for prudence: In a brief section on Saudi Arabia, Ryan carefully navigates the tricky shoals of how to work with a longtime partner that does not share our values.
Perhaps its greatest appeal is the way he twins pessimism and optimism. Ryan paints a very pessimistic (albeit realistic) picture of the trajectory the country is on. And Ryan paints a very optimistic (and hopefully realistic) picture of the trajectory the country could be on, if we got our fiscal house in order.
It is this optimism that may provide the greatest appeal, and the most important philosophical contribution. My friend and former colleague Ryan Streeter is one of the most articulate thinkers on the ingredients of upward mobility and improving opportunity for lower- and working-class Americans, and he has long identified Paul Ryan as the political leader who most embodies the aspirational nature of American society. Streeter quotes Paul Ryan in a recent interview laying out this vision -- including a robust social safety net that serves more as a spring upward rather than a dependency trap:
We want an upward mobility society. We don't want a safety net that turns into a hammock that lulls people into dependency in this country. We want people to get up on their feet and grab that higher rung of the economic ladder. We believe in upward mobility. We don't believe in class division. We believe in growth and prosperity, helping people when they are down on their luck get back on their feet, and pro-growth economic policies that put America in the lead, that make us competitive, that stop tearing people down in this zero-sum thinking.
That last sentence contains the most consequential implication of Romney's selection of Ryan for American foreign policy. The possibilities of upward mobility, innovation, and entrepreneurship are also the attributes that have long distinguished America's global competitiveness and leadership. Romney and Ryan both realize that the single most important quotient of American power is the prosperity and moral purpose of the American economy, to generate prosperity and to inspire those across the globe who aspire to better lives for themselves.
Of course, in a short (20 minute) speech, Ryan cannot and does not answer all questions. He will get those questions in the coming weeks. If his Hamilton speech is any guide, his answers will likely resonate well with American voters.
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A friend with a better memory than mine had an interesting reaction to my post about Secretary Clinton's opposition to an artificial timeline to end the Afghan surge. He said it reminded him of an earlier episode in 2007 involving timelines, the Iraq surge, and then-Senator Clinton.
Back then, Congressional Democrats were vigorously opposed to the Iraq surge, and were mounting a coordinated effort designed to block it, thwart it, or at the very least bring it to an early end. Politico called it a "slow bleed" strategy, because it involved trying to hobble the surge with all sorts of restrictions that might have a superficial appeal but that had knowable secondary effects that would undermine the surge.
One of those restrictions was getting the Bush administration to announce a timeline for ending the surge, which Congress could then use as a device to lock in an Iraqi withdrawal. The Bush administration did not want to establish such a public timeline in 2007, while the surge was still unfolding, and instead promised to unwind the surge at a pace based on conditions on the ground.
This promise was not good enough for Congressional Democrats, and one of them, Senator Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the Department of Defense demanding that it release internal analyses and plans that considered various alternative timelines. Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman wrote back:
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia... Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks."
Senator Clinton angrily claimed that this response was "impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions" about the way the administration was running the Iraq war. Clinton's letter was remarkably ad hominem in its attacks on Edelman, alleging he had his "priorities backward" and calling his claim that withdrawal talk would embolden the enemy "outrageous and dangerous."
In the light of this 2007 episode, now-Secretary Clinton's views on the Afghan surge timeline are all the more remarkable and newsworthy. Here, according to David Sanger, are her views today:
"Clinton thought [the deadline to start pulling the surge troops back out] was a mistake and still does; an internal deadline would have been fine, she believed, but a public one simply telegraphed to the Taliban and the Pakistanis when the United States would be leaving. The Taliban read the newspapers too, she pointed out.
In the end her concern -- also voiced by Gates -- seems prescient. The effort to explore the possibility of 'reconciliation' talks with the Taliban sputtered along in low gear for years. It is impossible to know for certain how the pullout plan affected the Taliban's calculations, but interviews with Taliban taken prisoner by NATO suggested that the insurgents knew time was on their side, and they were simply waiting for the Americans to begin a significant withdrawal.
In other words, according to Sanger, Secretary Clinton opposed announcing the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline for the very same reasons that she denounced as "outrageous and dangerous" earlier as a Senator.
Secretary Clinton has been a comparative bright spot in the Obama administration, and so I bring up past performance with some reluctance lest it impugn future success. Comparing these two surge timeline debates probably says more about the quality of politics five years ago than it does about the quality of her contribution to Obama policymaking today.
And I cannot disprove the hypothesis that Clinton's simply views evolved in the interval. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the wisdom of public timelines in 2007 and changed her mind in ensuing years; perhaps she sincerely believed that raising concerns about those timelines was tantamount to questioning one's patriotism in 2007 and has a different view today. (I reject absolutely the notion that in raising doubts about the Afghan surge timeline she was seeking to impugn the patriotism of those in the Obama administration, most notably the president himself, who wanted it.)
Yet I think it is more likely that Senator Clinton was pursuing a partisan agenda in 2007, whereas Secretary Clinton today is motivated more by weightier concerns about the overall success of the Afghan mission.
If so, then wouldn't it be laudable if Secretary Clinton offered an apology to Edelman?
Even if no such gracious gesture is forthcoming, Republicans can benefit if they take to heart the central lesson of this little morality tale: positions that look appealing when one is sitting on the political opposition benches can look appalling when one is sitting in the Oval Office.
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Nick Kristof has an interesting column outlining his takeaways from the recent Aspen Strategy Group summer workshop. I was at the same workshop, and it seems he and I had a similar reaction: It was striking how many different experts believed that the United States was going to have to pursue a more interventionist American posture in Syria than the one the Obama administration currently is following.
The view was not unanimous, of course, and most supporters of American intervention seemed to arrive at the position reluctantly, without any illusions about how easy or cheap this would be. Moreover, most recommendations included explicit or implicit restrictions and caveats, such as "no U.S. ground troops" or "must get Arab League endorsement" -- some even would wait for explicit authorization in a new U.N. Security Council Resolution. Yet few thought the Obama administration's current strategy was working, and most did not think that the administration had yet articulated a coherent and plausible way forward.
The discussion on Iran was also lively, with a wide range of views, some quite hawkish and others quite dovish. Yet here again I was struck by how many strategists believed that the window for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue was closing. And a sizable number of them believed that when the window closed, if push came to shove, the U.S. president, whoever he might be, would have to decide for war.
In short, I came away from the workshop thinking that the tide of war is rising, not receding. Whether the tide will reach all the way to a full American intervention involving substantial ground troops, I do not know. But I do know that the Obama administration has not prepared the ground politically, rhetorically, fiscally, or any other way for a new American military confrontation.
The timing is exceedingly awkward. Neither presidential campaign seems eager for an extensive public discussion on possible future military interventions (the Obama campaign seems happy to have extensive discussions about past interventions, especially the Bin Laden raid). President Obama, who rarely talked about Afghanistan despite authorizing a major escalation in the war there, seems more comfortable talking about ending interventions than launching them.
But events may force the conversation, and a growing number of people sympathetic to the president seem to be coming to that very conclusion.
When Nick Kristof starts accusing the president of being AWOL, the tide is turning. What will President Obama say in response?
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This weekend, the New York Times assured us that there was relatively little difference between President Obama and Gov. Romney on international affairs. "Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy," read the web headline Saturday. Peter Baker writes:
"...once the incendiary flourishes are stripped away, the actual foreign policy differences between the two seem more a matter of degree and tone than the articulation of a profound debate about the course of America in the world today."
The story builds around a debate between campaign surrogates at the Brookings institution, at which Marvin Kalb, the moderator, concluded that differences "were more about words than substance." What would a real disagreement look like? The story offers an example of a significant contrast from times past: the debates over the Iraq war.
There is a political implication of such reporting, at a time when Gov. Romney is meeting with world leaders abroad: No reason to oppose the incumbent on foreign policy grounds. They are all the same. Nothing to see here. Move along. [Disclosure: I advise the Romney campaign on some foreign policy matters].
At the risk of drawing my Shadow Government colleagues away from their Olympic Beach Volleyball, let me pose a question to them: How should one measure foreign policy differences? Or, as we economists are wont to say: What's your metric?
I might be willing to accept these bland statements about continuity in foreign policy if only we had not spent the last few years elevating every presidential utterance into the start of a new era in foreign policy. Consider as Exhibit A the "pivot to Asia." After a period of shameful neglect, the implication went, the Obama administration was finally returning attention to a strategically critical region.
If only the same skeptics who covered the Brookings debate had covered those administration speeches, they might have asked some probing questions: Other than tone and words, what has really changed? Is this a dramatic new commitment of military resources? (No.) Is this a newly launched regional trade agreement? (No. The TPP was actually launched under the Bush administration). Will we now have bureaus at State, DoD, and NSC to watch East Asia and the Pacific, when formerly we dozed? (No. Those were there before, fully staffed and awake).
What of the story's example of real policy differences from days gone by: the Iraq war. Did President Obama order all American troops to leave on January 21, 2009? Or did the withdrawal basically follow the timetable set out in a status of forces agreement negotiated before the last presidential election?
I do not mean to suggest that nothing ever changes in U.S. foreign policy. Far from it. Alliances, left untended, can fall into disrepair (I think the Libya campaign did nothing to strengthen NATO, for example). A lack of presidential leadership on issues like trade can leave institutions to crumble (the Word Trade Organization) and can leave partners feeling snubbed (Korea and Colombia, enduring needless years of delay; and now potentially Russia). My Shadow Government colleagues have provided numerous other examples over the years.
We either attach weight to amorphous factors like tone, and words, and leadership, or we do not. If we are going to score a foreign policy shift only when the country refocuses its grand strategy around alliances with Uruguay and Mongolia, then so be it. I look forward to the future headline, "Reporters Strain to Show Gap Between Bush and Obama on Foreign Policy."
Amidst Congressional calls for special prosecutors to investigate leaks of classified information, bipartisan concern about President Obama's team revealing sensitive intelligence details in order to make the president look like a stalwart commander-in-chief, and Mitt Romney giving a major speech (to the Veterans of Foreign Wars) castigating the president for condoning those leaks, the White House has once again subordinated national security to national campaigning.
In an article titled "Insight: Cautious on Syria, Obama Moves to Help Rebels," current and former Obama White House officials reveal that the White House drafted "a highly classified authorization for covert activity" allowing greater assistance to the Syrian rebels. They evidently assuage concern about revealing classified information by declining to say whether the president has actually signed the finding. So the White House wants us to believe the president is moving forward on the basis of a staff document they will not confirm he supports. Such is the politicization of these issues by the Obama White House and the Obama presidential campaign, between which there seems to be no distinction.
The story reveals that the U.S. has sent encrypted radios to the rebels, contradicts itself by confirming that the classified directive has been for some time languishing in the National Security Advisor's inbox, and also quotes an anonymous senior administration official assuring us that "no policy decision like this languishes at the White House."
The article states that "Obama made his boldest known move in the Syria crisis cautiously, underscoring his preference for diplomacy and coalition-building. Nearly a year ago, he called on Assad to step aside." Administration officials then recount the contents, and even the date, of President Obama's telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan about Syria. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes chimes in to explain how difficult and how significant a step President Obama took in removing his support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The White House account makes the Turkish president sound like an apologist for Assad, which "President (Obama) countered point by point." Either the White House believes this negative portrait of an important American ally is advantageous to both political leaders, or they are unconcerned about the effect it has on the president's counterparts. Some of those enterprising White House officials who trumpet the president's decisiveness for having a staff that drafts and leaks a classified intelligence finding ought to ask the government of Turkey how satisfied they are with the White House characterizing their head of state's views this way in public. If other world leaders believe they can have no private conversations with an American president, they are likely to only tell our president things they wouldn't mind reading in American newspapers. That cannot be advantageous to our national interests.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein asserted last week that the White House was the source of leaks of classified material. She later backtracked to say only that she shouldn't have speculated -- not to recant that she believes the White House is the source. This latest in a long line of White House releases of classified material just proved her case. Obama campaign surrogate Michele Flournoy recently tried to defend the administration's record on leaks, saying "there's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one." Evidently it's only permissible for President Obama's messaging machine to release classified information.
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American decline is in the news again. Now even the embarrassed Australians have joined the debate, with an awkward "clarification" of Foreign Minister Bob Carr's reported comments to Mitt Romney about how to reverse America's decline. Meanwhile yesterday President Obama's remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference continued what appears to be an election-year conversion to the anti-declinist view (more on this below) as he rejected accusations of decline and called the 21st century another "American century." Governor Romney will likely present his own take in his VFW remarks today.
All of this came to mind as I recently read Jim Mann's engaging new book The Obamians profiling the Obama administration foreign policy team. Like Mann's other books, this one is generally thoughtful, balanced, and insightful. Yet what emerges from Mann's book is an unflattering (perhaps more unflattering than the author intends) reminder of just how many strategic mistakes the Obama administration made when it first took office. Taken at face value the book portrays the combination of hubris and naiveté that consumed the Obama team during their first year in particular. Most of their signature policy initiatives from that time became strategic failures: the embrace of China around a "G-2" partnership; the support for Medvedev as a pillar of the Russia "re-set"; the ideological commitment to unconditional negotiations with the Iranian regime that prevented support for the Green Movement or tightened sanctions during a more opportune window; the failed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on unprecedented pressure on Israel; the belief that the war in Afghanistan could be simultaneously escalated (with a troop increase) and ended (with a politically-driven drawdown date).
Beyond these specific mistakes, what also springs from the book is the overriding sense of how President Obama and his team internalized a belief in America's decline as they sought to frame American foreign policy. This animated their worldview and became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they consciously chose to cede American leadership to other actors on the world stage and downplayed American influence and capabilities. It is one thing to understand and act on shifts in global power balances, such as the relative decline in the EU and the relative ascendance of China and India. But it is another thing altogether to deliberately position the United States as a declining power.
In Mann's description, part of the Obama team's belief in America's diminished power came from what they saw as fiscal resource constraints. He cites Obama administration officials lamenting that, unlike the supposedly ample budgets of the Clinton years, the U.S. now has very little money to devote to national security concerns, and thus can exercise less global influence than during the 1990s. That today's national security budgets face considerable pressures is true, but Mann's account and the Obamians' attitudes gloss over two important points. First, in comparison with the allegedly halcyon days of abundant resources during the Clinton administration, the Obama national security team actually has substantially more money -- roughly twice as much -- at its disposal. For example, the FY 2000 defense budget (during Clinton's last year) was $295 billion, whereas the FY 2011 budget is almost twice that at $549 billion -- which rises to over $700 billion when the Iraq and Afghanistan accounts are included. The percentage increase in the diplomacy and development budgets, known as the "Function 150 account", over the same time span is similar. The combined budget for the State Department and USAID in FY 2000 was around $23 billion, whereas the comparable FY 2011 budget was over $48 billion (the FY 2010 budget was even higher). The international affairs budget actually hit a 30-year low in 1997, in the midst of the Clinton presidency. In short, it is easy to view history through greenback-colored lenses and assume that previous eras had abundant resources -- and forgot that the 1990s were characterized by severe reductions to both the defense and international affairs budgets from the post-Cold War "peace dividend."
Second, Mann fails to probe a primary reason why the Obama national security team feels the fiscal pinch. National security is not a budget priority of this White House, especially in comparison with domestic entitlement programs. The only line in the federal budget that the Obama administration has targeted for specific reductions is Defense, while leaving relatively untouched the main drivers of the fiscal crisis and the largest portions of the federal budget: domestic entitlement programs. What the Mann book elides is that these budget realities reflect deliberate policy choices and priorities of the White House.
Recently this White House seems to have realized that they may have prematurely bought into the decline notion -- at the very least, they have realized that it is not helpful to Obama's reelection prospects for voters to believe the administration embraces decline -- and they responded with a time-honored Beltway gambit, touting an author making the opposite argument on the president's reading list. However, this election-year conversion follows three years of damage to America's global standing, and the bills for this erosion will come due in the coming years. (Curiously, Mann portrays Secretary Clinton as differing from Obama in still affirming American preeminence).
Finally, if the United States does face the real prospect of decline, should American leaders be resigned to this fate -- or should they resolve to resist it? The picture that emerges from the Mann book is of an Obama administration that chose the former path. American power and influence is diminishing, they seem to believe, and one task of statecraft is to manage this new reality.
Perhaps so. But I recently came across a quote from an American statesman from a previous generation that displays a fierce resolve against succumbing to decline. Bill Clements served as Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Nixon and Ford Administrations from 1973-77, and he famously admonished his staff: "Let us never send the president of the United States to the conference table as the head of the second-strongest nation in the world."
This resolve is all the more remarkable when considering the historical context. During the years of Clements' Pentagon service the United States faced the most sustained erosion of its global standing since becoming a world power. It had just lost its first war in Vietnam; seen its first president ever to resign from office; was enduring the triple economic whammy of oil price shocks from the OPEC embargo, inflation, and stagnant growth; and was witnessing its foe the Soviet Union make strategic advances around the world. American decline was not just a fear, it was a fact. Yet Clements did not resign himself to merely managing this decline, but urged his staff and colleagues to work to renew American power.
This should be remembered today. Some data points of decline may be unavoidable, but how we respond is a choice.
(For those interested in further commentary on the decline debate, check out the National Intelligence Council's blog on its upcoming Global Trends 2030 report, which this week considers various angles on the question of American decline).
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
That David Brooks is practically a surrogate for the Obama presidential campaign probably shouldn't be surprising, given that the supposedly conservative columnist for the New York Times endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Leaving aside his infelicitous use of terms like "multi-problemarity," Brooks' current endorsement of the administration's foreign policy -- as an ingenious fox compared to the blundering hedgehog of its predecessor -- averts its eyes from the continuity of policies. One might argue the same policies have been carried out with better management and cost-effectiveness than during the Bush administration, except that the Obama administration has proved itself no more adept -- think the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan. Nor are they any more inclined than was the Bush administration to alter ideological positions on the role of the United Nations or the virtue of nuclear reductions or the need to "protect" American jobs or the centrality of Russia or the need to end the war in Iraq, even when evidence is plentiful their choices have negative consequences.
Brooks makes a general virtue of the president's failures because they illustrate his resilience in adopting new policies. But a policy isn't necessarily wrong because it is failing. It could be failing because the administration isn't providing the necessary resources, hasn't brought its different policy tools into supportive alignment, is being tested by adversaries to determine our commitment to see it through, is arrogantly assuming regional actors don't understand their own interests and demanding they adopt our approach, takes near-term actions that undercut their long-term goals, or alienates actors that have the potential to ruin our approach. (All of these apply to Obama administration Afghanistan policy, incidentally.)
Brooks' encomia is of a piece with praise of the Obama national security team in James Mann's "The Obamians," and Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon's "Bending History." A common theme in all these accounts is applauding the Obama team's "new realists" for their pragmatism. A less flattering way to say this is that the Obama administration adopted the very policies they campaigned against, and jettisoned policies they support when the achieving of them proved difficult. As one comedian put it, President Obama would really be in trouble if he were running for president against the guy who got elected in 2008.
President Obama has made a lot of political hay over not being President Bush, but has succeeded only in a Nixon-to-China kind of way: He can get away with policies that liberals opposed when practiced by conservatives. Where the president has bungled, it has been by indulging new directions so admired by chroniclers of the administration. Here's the tally of their signature initiatives:
A seminal question for the 2012 campaign will be whether President Obama can sustain the support of liberals while championing conservative national security policies. The Obama campaign certainly believes national security is a winning issue, but early evidence should not be reassuring to the president's supporters. The campaign's swaggering bravado and politicization of national security issues seems to alienate independent voters, and it may even serve to dampen turnout among liberals less enraptured with the president's new enthusiasm for targeted killings and disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries.
It also leaves an awful lot of room for Romney to lay claim to foreign policy themes with wide public resonance, such as the ideas that the most important and enduring international relationships are built on common values; that you build coalitions with countries that share your interests rather than allowing countries that don't to determine your choices; that where governments are repressive they lose the legitimacy to govern; that trade agreements advance our own economy and force adversaries to play by the rules; that new democracies deserve our help in building the institutions and practices of governance; that sound management of our foreign affairs requires the ability to bring political, economic, and military means together cost-effectively; that American military power is essential to maintaining a global order that is in our interests.
This will not be a campaign about foreign policy, given the president's mismanagement of the economy. But conservatives should not allow the president's advocates to pretend their "new pragmatism" means there are no differences between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, or shy away from advocating the principles that appeal to American voters.
Well, President Obama has been speaking non-stop about outsourcing. In his campaign video that I'm being subjected to endlessly in Northern Virginia, he's even trotted out a new word: "insourcing."
I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's just toeing the line drawn by his union supporters. Otherwise, there is something clearly awry with his Council of Economic Advisors.
But stop the presses: Obama is guilty of outsourcing, too. And while president. He's outsourcing security at our embassy in Iraq (and probably others but I've only wasted time checking one).
President Obama is outsourcing our national security. Literally. Take a gander at this part of the website provided by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Almost all firms are foreign and those that aren't employ lots of third-country nationals. He is advertising for outsourcing firms with your tax dollars...which means Barack Obama is promoting outsourcing with your tax dollars.
Rather than delve into this too deeply let me just say two things: These firms are all very good at what they do. Very good. Second, this is who should be doing this work. This is not a job for the U.S. military. They are not security guards. Rather, outsourcing these jobs is the right thing to do, and who cares what their mailing address is or where their employees come from? Obviously, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree with me because they have kept this Bush-era policy for more than three years. Three years of government outsourcing and President Obama still carries on -- and I applaud him for it.
Yes, it's a blatant attempt at avoiding discussion of the Obama economy. But this outsourcing rhetoric has the benefit of putting Obama's economic literacy on display -- and it's worrying. There is a very serious conversation to be had about what the president's economic policies have translated into for American leverage around the globe and we will get to that in future posts. (In the meantime, if you want more finesse and grey matter on the subject you can read about it here.)
The frightening thing about this outsourcing discussion is that the president appears to believe his rhetoric. I assume it's just politics but it's dishonest politics, even so. The reason for outsourcing is to achieve greater economic efficiency. Of course, the national security realm is hardly the area that you want to see that pushed as a first order priority. But don't forget, there are Americans who can do this security work, and who are better trained than anyone else. They are just more expensive.
So, why isn't Obama doing anything about this dangerous outsourcing of thousands of jobs with taxpayer money on his watch? There can only be three answers here.
The first is that he's just not paying attention. Fair enough. Why would the president of the United States focus on security guard contracts? But this is the biggest embassy on the planet and withdrawal from Iraq and downsizing the embassy there is the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He paid enough attention to remove his nominee for ambassador to that post. He also talked about the embassy security guards in his campaign. (Remember Blackwater? He and the his party carped on the subject for so long the company actually had to leave the country, which is another "feature" of the president's policies and anti-capitalist populist rhetoric that merit a separate post.)
But back to why Obama is perfectly aware of his outsourcing. This subject has been the centerpiece of his re-election campaign thus far. After three-plus years of promoting various economic policies this is the one he has chosen to highlight. The only one. He has spent millions of dollars to tell people that he cares about this. And yet, those outsourcees still have their jobs.
Remember all that talk about jobs created and saved? He saved some jobs alright -- outsourced ones. And remember I've only looked at just this one embassy. It's too silly to look for more, though I'm certain other examples exist. This could potentially involve thousands of people. In January, the State Department estimated the embassy would cost $3.5 billion, annually, to run. Think of how many jobs you could save or create with all that cheddar.
The cynical explanation for all this is that the military is not represented by the SEIU or AFCSME. When the union bosses want something this president delivers. He knows who butters his bread. This is just a case where the union bosses haven't had much to say. They just don't care, so he doesn't care.
Before the president's advisors take me literally, I am not advocating that the military be unionized and turned into the TSA. The State Department already is unionized and that's quite enough.
The third explanation is that the president is full of it and just wants to distract from discussion of the economy under Obamanomics. The monthly job report should tell you all you need to know about how well Obama is performing his "insourcing" duties, or his grasp of economics, for that matter. The president is making an absurd economic claim that he himself is spending billions -- much of it your money -- contradicting. And were he to "fix" it, it would put people's lives in danger. Obviously, this is a bit of a stark example. But it also highlights just how bogus this line line of argument is. Sometimes the examples are very simple: Labor is expensive and companies move manufacturing to a new location where it's cheaper. Sometimes jobs are moved to India. Sometimes they go to right-to-work places like South Carolina. In this case, American labor is expensive so the embassy has called upon third-country nationals. It's all outsourcing. We've seen the president move heaven and earth to try to block the opening of a new factory in South Carolina. Yet, here he is promoting outsourcing at the U.S.' largest embassy abroad and most likely at others.
So next time you hear Mr. Obama expound on outsourcing (or God help us, outsourcing vs. insourcing) remember that the president has turned to outsourced labor to protect the forward edge of the unclenched fist, the reset button, smart power, etc. etc.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."
At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.
There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.
This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak's early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.
A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.
The international community is now more than a few steps behind events -- leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.
President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court's controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story is the mushrooming revelations about the Obama administration's suboptimal national security policy-making process.
The most shocking charges have come in a series of excerpts from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book. The book makes a string of damning charges: that the Obama team sought to suppress intelligence that ran counter to its policies; that the president was actually disengaged from the policy process and not the forceful decider his spinners were claiming; that the team let petty personal feuds trump wise policy; and so on. This comes on the heels of other deeply sourced accounts that reported that the White House political office was in the room when the national security team was deciding on targets for drone strikes, and the extent to which someone leaked details about covert operations that made Obama look strong on national security.
I agree with Paul Miller that the excerpts from the Chandrasekaran's book have a tabloid feel to them, and may indeed contain as much distortionary spin as any White House press spokesman's daily briefing. It is not too hard to cherry-pick vignettes that ring false. For instance, this brief account strikes me as misleading:
But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet -- which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more marines in Helmand. The civilians didn't know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.
From his seat along the wall, Obama's top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy -- whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries -- they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.
Lute may or may not have felt that way, but the book makes it sound like that was the end of the matter. But Lute was uniquely positioned to address this problem by virtue of his privileged access to the president and to Jones and his control over the paperflow for the review. So I think it is more likely that the account describes a problem that provoked Lute into taking some remedial action. Only reporting the problem without reporting the remedial action paints a distorted picture.
Yet, even after discounting for such likely distortions, the picture that remains is disturbing. It would seem to put to rest the myth that this administration has been vastly superior to historical norms in terms of bureaucratic process. And it makes some of the gushing words of the myth-purveyors almost cringe-worthy when reconsidered in context.
Take, for example, our own FP's David Rothkopf:
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the president and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the president enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the vice president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process.
Or David Ignatius:
The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility -- and he'll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.
Donilon's advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones's deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.
"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.
Or Edward Luce:
‘The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger -- no one else plays that role,' says a senior official. 'Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.'... 'By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.'... At the end of each meeting, the president summarizes what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer's clarity," says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. 'When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.'
It didn't take a lot of insider knowledge at the time to recognize that those puffed-up descriptions probably exaggerated the quality of the national security policy process. Now, thanks to a wave of books drawing on extensive insider leaks, it is possible to see just how unduly flattering the early praise was.
When the pundits return to national security issues -- as surely they must at some point in the coming months -- perhaps they will return with a bit more realistic awareness of the process problems that have plagued this administration, just as they plagued previous ones.
Update: A friend sent me a note suggesting that I was guilty of distortion myself when I cherry-picked the Chandrasekaran piece, particularly when I ended the quote where I did. He points out that the very next paragraph would seem to rebut my claim. It reads:
After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to "demonstrate momentum" in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.
My friend is right that I should have included that extra paragraph, but I think my basic point still stands regardless: Surely Lute was perfectly positioned to follow up further and press the matter again with McChrystal? Yet the (entire) excerpt makes it seem like he did not, like his unsatisfactory initial exchange was the end of the matter. Now, giving Chandrasekaran the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did investigate further and found no evidence of any follow-up. If that is the case, given the extensive reporting in the piece, it is a pretty damning incident, indeed. For my money, I suspect that Lute and others took some remedial action that is not covered in the reporting.
Either way, my overall thesis seems on solid ground: The Obama national security process has been no where near as idyllic as the boosters have claimed.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Every year between Memorial Day and the 4th of July there is a flurry of interest in reviving the draft. I expect some of my FP colleagues will post seasonal items on the subject -- Josh Rogin already has.
This is the hardy perennial of American civil-military debates. And since I have the most parochial of interests in civil-military debates, who am I to complain about civil-military debates that will never end?
So I won't complain about the re-occurrence, but I do have a complaint about what is missing in the debate. Usually, the draft is presented as a way to close the gap between the military and American society. The gap arises because we ask a few to protect the many, and this creates the potential that each side will become alienated from the other, especially if the few becomes drawn ever more narrowly from a self-selected segment of American society. Sometimes, the draft is also presented as a way to make it more difficult to use the military in a cavalier fashion -- not merely to bind the military to American society, but to bind the military, period, or at least bind the hands of political leaders who have the authority to order the military into battle.
However, I have yet to read a compelling case for reviving the draft that is premised on making the military more effective -- more capable of defending American national interest, which is, after all, its primary purpose. The reason those arguments are not made in a compelling fashion is because the most likely result of a draft is a less capable military.
Today, the United States is protected by the best trained, best equipped, most capable fighting force in history. That boast has been made for the past two decades and it has been true every year. Indeed, the U.S. military of today is vastly more capable than the draft-era military.
Moreover, it is especially more capable at fighting the way American society has increasingly asked to fight, namely with exceeding care simultaneously to reduce our own casualties and civilian casualties on the battlefield. That is emphatically not how the draft-era militaries fought because they had neither the technology nor the training to do so.
I suspect many of the proponents of the draft would be content with the less capable U.S. military that would result because they believe that the higher goal is to limit the use of the American military. They believe American leaders have been too quick to intervene militarily, so this diminished capacity might not be a bug but a feature of the draft-based force. And given the controversial interventions of the past two decades, they have a point. But there have also been numerous controversial non-interventions (Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, etc.), which those proponents never seem to discuss much. More importantly, there is little evidence that U.S. political leaders have been cavalier about committing U.S. troops to battle. On the contrary, they have agonized about the decision, even in the controversial cases.
There is abundant evidence, however, that when committed, U.S. troops have been extraordinarily capable and proficient. Would that be lost if we reverted to a draft?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mexican voters go to the polls this Sunday to decide whether to return to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed the country for seventy years under a "one-party democracy." Polls show PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto comfortably ahead of his two rivals, leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent center-right National Action Party (PAN).
If those polls hold, it would mean a remarkable comeback for a party that was tossed out of power in 2000 after it came to symbolize nothing more than clientelism, patronage, muscle, and corruption.
For most observers, a Peña Nieto victory raises the $64,000 question: Will he govern as a forward-looking reformer eager to modernize and accelerate Mexico's integration to the global economy, or will he simply preside over Mexico's slide back to its authoritarian and statist ways under the PRI?
This question is not just academic. This election is important for the United States because what happens in Mexico does not stay in Mexico. Instead, events there have a direct impact on U.S. interests, whether it's the health of the Mexico's $1.1 trillion economy, energy production, and security issues -- e.g., narcotics trafficking -- among a range of other important issues.
In short, we really don't know how Peña Nieto intends to govern because his campaign has been vague on many key policy issues, although he has tried to reassure voters who remember the PRI-style all too well that, as president, "[he] will govern with the most solid and free democratic principles in the world."
While only time will tell where a President Peña Nieto will lead Mexico, on one crucial issue he will not have the luxury of time or nuance. That is, the war begun by President Felipe Calderón to break the backs of the Mexican drug cartels, a courageous decision that specifically upended the PRI-model of "live and let live" and deal-cutting with the drug syndicates.
Many thus are looking for signs as to just how Peña Nieto intends to wage (or not) the war against the cartels. So far, there has been no detailed plan, only vague statements about shifting priorities to reducing violence over the primacy of taking down capos and drug seizures. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the drug war is not a loser with the Mexican people; 8 in 10 support the use of the Mexican army against the cartels, according to Pew.
However, in a nod that Peña Nieto intends to keep the pressure on the cartels, his campaign recently announced the hiring of Colombia's former national police chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo as his drug war adviser. (Naranjo has a sterling record against Colombia's drug cartels and is well-known to both Washington and the Calderón administration.)
While that is a good sign, it still will not be easy for Peña Nieto to overcome his party's historical reluctance to take on the drug cartels or, politically, to embrace his predecessor's signature policy. It is admittedly a war fraught with great risks and enormous costs. Some believe that the extent of the counter-drug mobilization ordered by President Calderón means that any successor will have no choice but to continue forward.
One certainly hopes that is the case, but there is no guarantee. And there can be any number of gradations on how that war is fought and the underlying commitment communicated. Let's hope that Peña Nieto also understands this is a battle to take back Mexico's security and sovereignty from criminal organizations and that there is no going back to some deal-cutting modus vivendi.
Lastly, this is not just Mexico's war, but our war too. It is U.S. demand that fuels the Mexican drug trade and it is their product that blights our neighborhoods and poisons our youth. Yet a transfer of power in Mexico will necessitate a delicate diplomatic dance by the Obama administration to help keep the next government on the right path. The administration stumbled a bit trying to build a trusting relationship with the Calderón government. We need to get it right from the start this time around.
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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.