Will and Peter have raised important points about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their ideological proclivities.
An intervention focusing on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948. Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover, constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role -- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S. involvement.
An intervention that seeks to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas. Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone, or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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Last year, in the run-up to what would be Hugo Chávez's final election, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter provided the ultimate cover for the late caudillo when he called the Venezuelan election process "the best in the world." Today, as the country roils in the aftermath of a contested election to elect Chávez's successor, we now know that is not the case.
Who says? Carter's own election-monitoring organization. Last week, an official at the Carter Center told the Washington Post, "The concerns are not about the [voting] machines and whether they counted accurately. The questions are much more about who voted. Was there double voting? Was there impersonation of voters? And was there coerced voting?"
All good questions, ones which anyone should expect to be assessed before making pronouncements about any electoral process as the "best in the world." This is no small matter, since the Carter Center, perhaps more than any other organization outside Venezuela, has repeatedly granted legitimacy to Hugo Chávez's successive reelections, even as the evidence mounted that elections in Venezuela were exceedingly one-sided affairs.
From stacking the electoral council with his loyalists, to his near-monopoly control of the broadcasting media, to his non-transparent spending of Venezuela's record oil profits for political purposes, to intimidating voters with the public exposure of their votes, Chávez used every tactic, above-board and underhanded, to smother opposition candidates.
But with the rabble-rouser-in-chief no longer among us, it appears chavismo, the movement Chávez created, has run its course. Something went seriously awry in April's snap election for Chávez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Whereas the late president won the October election by eleven percentage points, Maduro barely edged challenger Henrique Capriles, beating him by one percentage point.
What we learned from that election is that Maduro is no Chávez, and not even the obscene collusion between the government, the ruling party, and electoral officials could change that. (My colleague Roger Noriega has exposed the sophisticated chavista vote-getting machine here.) What they failed to account for was that Chávez's link with his base was not transferrable to the wooden Maduro.
What Chávez's successors also underestimated this time around is the adamant refusal of the opposition to accept another rigged election. They have demanded a recount, filed a protest with the Supreme Court, and asked for international solidarity with their cause. The Maduro government and its Cuban handlers have responded with the only thing they have left: violence.
Last week, opposition lawmakers were physically attacked on the floor of the National Assembly after they protested a move to silence them. Before that, Venezuelans were attacked in the street by government-armed thugs as they protested the election result.
Given the ongoing turmoil, the Obama administration has taken a principled stand in not recognizing the outcome until the opposition's grievances are dealt with in some satisfactory way. During his trip to the region this past weekend, President Obama addressed the controversy:
"I think that the entire hemisphere has been watching the violence, the protests, the crackdowns on the opposition. I think our general view has been that it's up to the people of Venezuela to choose their leaders in legitimate elections. Our approach to the entire hemisphere is not ideological. It's not rooted back in the Cold War. It's based on the notion of our basic principles of human rights and democracy and freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Are those being observed? There are reports that they have not been fully observed post-election. I think our only interest at this point is making sure that the people of Venezuela are able to determine their own destiny free from the kinds of practices that the entire hemisphere generally has moved away from."
Right on the money, Mr. President. Let's hope someone is listening in Georgia.
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There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama's Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:
1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush's Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons -- such as the failure to find WMD -- but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.
Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough -- the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush's Iraq policy during the war's darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public's overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost -- and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war -- it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.
Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.
Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead's advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP's foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice -- usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger -- I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party's capacity for strategic thought.
The fundamental flaw in President Obama's grand strategy lies in its origins -- a view of America's role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton's time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc.
As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.
In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton's Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment's basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine ... so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.
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It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
If readers of ForeignPolicy.com have detected a "West Coast" vibe to the website this week, that's because many of us regular contributors are currently attending the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. From Foreign Policy's ranks I've enjoyed seeing Dan Drezner, David Bosco, Steve Walt, and Peter Feaver, among others, in the halls and at different panels.
Today I spoke on a panel titled "Christian Realism in the White House? An Assessment of Reinhold Niebuhr's Influence on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Given the recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr, prompted in part by then-candidate Obama's own favorable comments about Niebuhr to David Brooks in 2007, I thought I would share the following summary of my remarks.
The first disclaimer is that we should not and cannot try to ascertain "what would Niebuhr say today about x or y issue," because to do so wrenches Niebuhr out of his own time and place. Niebuhr's own beliefs can be very elusive; his public career spanned roughly a half century that began with World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, Soviet communism, the nuclear age, two land wars in Asia, the birth of Israel, and multiple wars in the Middle East, just to mention a few. The very fact that he acted in history, in a particular time, place, and context, should caution and perhaps even chasten us against too readily attempting to appropriate him for our own 21st century purposes. To do so would be to do violence to his prophetic voice and to his own contingencies as a historical actor.
The second cautionary note follows from the first, and it is against the trap that Paul Elie memorably described as turning Niebuhr into "A Man for All Reasons," as various public personalities try to claim the mantle of Niebuhr for their own various ideologies or favored issues across the political spectrum. Niebuhr's thought has wisdom for all of us, but endorsements for none of us.
But historical context does not mean historical silence, and Niebuhr's body of ideas still has much to say of contemporary relevance. He is not so embalmed in the past that we cannot reflect on his principles for the world today. In that respect, I would apply four Niebuhrian themes to President Obama's foreign policy, two affirmations, and two critiques.
First, I see two Niebuhrian resonances in Obama's foreign policy:
1) American Limits. This is one of the most visible Niebuhrian themes in Obama's foreign policy -- an appreciation of the limits of American power. The Obama White House has made explicit that this is in part their reaction to the perceived excesses of the Bush administration's confidence in American power, and also to a realization of the constraints on American action in an era of severe fiscal austerity and extended military deployments. This notion of limits pervades Niebuhr's thought and is especially pronounced in the Irony of American History. To take just one illustrative quote from this book, written in 1952 in the midst of one of America's most dominant positions in the international system, "our own nation ... is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy."
2) "Dirty Hands." To the surprise of most of his supporters and detractors alike, President Obama has been very aggressive in his use of force against terrorists, terrorism supporters, and those suspected of terrorist intentions. These tactics, most especially the drone campaign, are morally ambiguous across multiple dimensions, including the questions of preventive action, noncombatant immunity, and executive authority. Yet this willingness to wield force, to get "dirty hands" in the quest for proximate justice and to defeat a greater evil, is a classic Niebuhrian theme. As Niebuhr once wrote of American nuclear policy in the early Cold War "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization."
Two other Niebuhrian themes are critical of Obama's foreign policy:
3) Ideological Lassitude: The Obama administration has done little to articulate the ideological stakes in the conflict with militant Islamism, either to define what we seek to defend or what we fight against. Obama speaks occasionally of a "war against al Qaeda and associated groups" but has done little to develop and articulate either an analysis of the ideological comprehension of al Qaeda or of the ideological distinctiveness of the United States and allies and partners fighting against this foe. Such a neglect of the ideational dimension of a conflict is alien to Niebuhrian thought. Much of his life's intellectual work can be considered an extended defense of democratic civilization, exemplified by The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, even as he was also one of the most persistent critics of democratic illusions and propensities to self-righteousness. Niebuhr also devoted considerable intellectual energies to probing the ideological nature of America's mid-century foes, be they German Nazism or Soviet Communism. Of the former, Niebuhr as early as June 1933 denounced Hitler for imposing a "totalitarian" government in Germany that deified the state, and when he later resigned from the Socialist Party over his support for American entry into World War II, he wrote that "if Hitler is defeated in the end it will be because the crisis has awakened in us the will to preserve a civilization in which justice and freedom are realities, and given us the knowledge that ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history." Of Soviet communism, volumes could be devoted to Niebuhr's sustained critique, which included identifying it as a "monstrous evil" and "false religion" that deified both the state and the historical dialectic as the author of history, dangerously monopolized power, embodied utopian illusions, and embraced a materialist view of reality. In short, his advocacy for a robust American confrontation with the Soviet Union was based on a highly ideological understanding of the conflict.
This is not to imply that President Obama is not committed to democratic values or does not understand the ideological dimension of the conflict, but rather that he seems curiously reluctant to explain these themes to the American people and our allies. Just as the Obama administration's drone war takes place in the shadows, so also is the Obama administration's ideological rationale for the conflict confined to the shadows.
4) Unrealistic Pragmatism: The most extensive and sympathetic treatment of President Obama's thought comes from Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, whose book Reading Obama identifies Obama as a philosophical pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey. Niebuhr, however, criticized pragmatism as a flawed account of human nature and reality and regarded Dewey as one of his primary intellectual adversaries. In Niebuhr's mind, pragmatism was fundamentally unrealistic.
Niebuhrian principles would be suspicious of Obama's pragmatism, seeing in it both an undue confidence in his own reason and an unwarranted optimism about the possibilities of human nature and social organization. In other words, while Obama may appreciate the limits of American power, he seems less mindful of the limits on his own wisdom and virtue. This was perhaps revealed by his naïve offers of unconditional negotiation with rogue regimes in his first term, or his resistance to accountability for the drone campaign. In foreign policy terms, Niebuhrianism would also regard pragmatism as a cause of "muddling through," as experimentation unmoored from a broader set of strategic principles and foundational values. Such pragmatism is leery of democracy promotion and thus lacks a strategic framework to detect opportunities such as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. This might help explain the Obama administration's tentative and erratic response to the Arab Awakening, with a half-hearted intervention in Libya, vacillations on Egypt, and negligence on Syria. In philosophical terms, pragmatism perhaps marks Obama's most significant deviation from Niebuhrianism.
North Korea's recent saber-rattling raises troubling new questions about the bipartisan failure of American policy to limit Pyongyang's armed recklessness and to manage its growing threat to the United States and our allies. Over the past few years, North Korea has walked across previous "red lines" -- attacking South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean naval vessel, abrogating the armed truce that has governed the peninsula for six decades, directly threatening the United States and our allies with attack, repeatedly testing nuclear weapons, and testing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory -- all with impunity. Is it time for Washington and its allies to implement a more robust containment policy to counter the erosion of Northeast Asian security caused by Pyongyang's dangerous provocations?
To sketch out such a policy is not to endorse it, for it entails considerable risks. But the risks attending the current status quo appear to be growing and unsustainable. Indeed, on current trends, America and its allies may be on a collision course with North Korea unless we consider a new approach that deprives Pyongyang of the strategic initiative that is keeping the Asia-Pacific democracies off-balance. Such an approach would be most effective if coordinated between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo with support from other regional powers. It might also help change China's calculations about whether and to what extent to support an "ally" that has become an acute strategic liability.
An aggressive containment strategy would tighten existing financial sanctions on North Korea by penalizing any third-country bank or firm doing business with it. In particular, Chinese entities would be faced with a choice: Do business with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, or with North Korea -- but not both.
On the military side, an intensified containment strategy would interdict all ship-borne traffic heading to North Korea in international waters to inspect it for contraband, including WMD components. Rather than passively observing and measuring the success of North Korean missile launches, a containment strategy with juice would have the United States and Japan jointly shoot down those missiles, depriving Pyongyang of the propaganda victories it claims following each test. In cyberspace, the United States and its allies could pursue a tit-for-tat approach to North Korean provocations, turning out the lights in Pyongyang when its leaders threaten us and our allies.
Using its soft power of attraction rather than relying purely on the hard power of its sophisticated military capabilities, South Korea could offer to open its borders to any North Korean able to escape their gulag of a country by land or sea, in a sort of "tear-down-this wall" policy that would complicate North Korea's ability to police its borders -- and undercut the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime by demonstrating to the world how many of its citizens are desperate to leave it behind.
In his 1999 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Senator John McCain urged the United States to stop playing "prevent defense" when it came to North Korea, moving instead to a policy of "rogue-state rollback" that targeted the legitimacy and power of the regime itself. The question for leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is whether they are ready to move to a more active policy that chips away at the foundations of a Pyongyang regime that directly threatens their people and their interests -- not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, where Iran's budding nuclear weapons program benefits from North Korean assistance. For China's new leaders, the question is whether the albatross of North Korea now so threatens stability in Northeast Asia that cutting it off is actually less risky than continuing to underwrite it.
The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" may soon need to give way to a policy of "strategic initiative" that prevents the people of the United States and our closest Asian allies from being held hostage to the whims of the tyrant in Pyongyang.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Korea had in recent years sunk a South Korean submarine. In fact, the North sank a corvette belonging to the South and not a submarine.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.
Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.
Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land."
Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope."
Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.
Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.
At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.
Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Saturday's New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama's most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration's presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak's exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes' policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House's negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration's posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House's denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon's deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss's policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation's paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House's failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes' public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
The Beltway fascination of the past week has been President Obama's efforts to reach across the aisle. It is probable that his collapsing approval ratings are behind some of the efforts, and the president has taken some heat for it, from both Democrats and Republicans.
This does seem to be something of a dramatic departure from the swagger that characterized the initial weeks of Obama's second term. But since I called for more outreach, I think Republicans should welcome the presidential outreach.
Indeed, the outreach should be expanded. The media has focused on the photo-opy and gimmicky aspects. That is understandable and perhaps unavoidable. The Bush administration had a similar experience, as when we brought all of the living secretaries of state and defense in for briefings on Iraq and Iran. However, those high-profile efforts were matched by more extensive outreach at the principal and especially the sub-principal level. Perhaps the Obama White House is expanding beyond the top-level, photo-op outreach, too.
If so, it is not coming too soon. I was at the FP-RAND discussion on Iraq that FP has started to tease. More will come later, but my takeaway, especially from the sidebars that did not make it onto the official transcript (one hopes) was just how pessimistic everyone was about the Obama administration's various foreign policy trajectories. The room was probably evenly divided in terms of votes on Election Day, but there were precious few defenses of Obama foreign policy.
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The quarter-century-old debate about America's grand strategy grinds on. Will and Dan both commented favorably on a report by the Project for a United and Strong America called "Setting Priorities for American Leadership," which styles itself a sort of Shadow National Security Strategy. The report is a restatement of a sort of muscular liberal internationalism, a half-way point between Robert Kagan and G. John Ikenberry. As such, I generally agree with it.
Which makes it a useful case for criticism. If "Setting Priorities" is the most recent attempt to argue for a more coherent internationalist grand strategy -- a worthy endeavor -- then whatever weaknesses it has might throw into relief some broader problems of U.S. foreign policy. So, with great respect for, and in broad agreement with, the authors of that report, here's everything they got wrong:
1. The missing link between ideals and interests. The report rightly claims that American security and global democracy are linked. However, the report simply asserts this claim with little reasoning or evidence and implies the connection is straightforward and obvious. But I sense American voters are wary of sweeping claims about the goodness of democracy because it reminds them of what they feel was the oversell on democracy promotion by the Bush administration. It would be helpful to spell out the logic tying American security to global democracy -- namely, the democratic peace and related ideas. Constitutional, liberal democracies tend not to fight one another, sponsor terrorism, export refugees, or have famines. They do tend to trade together, cooperate in international efforts, work for a rules-based international order, and be sources of innovation and prosperity. America should foster democracy abroad not because we are a missionary nation out to convert the world to our theory of justice, but out of a stone-cold calculation that democracy is the cheapest way to keep the peace. Making this case is crucial to persuading Americans weary of the burdens of international leadership that it is worth the cost.
2. A weak threat analysis. The report rightly claims that we face a "full spectrum of security threats," but its list of threats is almost entirely limited to unconventional threats, like terrorists, drug trafficking, and cyber threats. The missing end of the spectrum is rival great powers and nuclear states, all of whom have been underestimated since the end of the Cold War. The report follows the bad example of much of the field of security studies in overemphasizing the new, trendy, fashionable topics -- partly, I sense, because that is where the research money has gone for two decades. The report mentions the rise of China and North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons not under its threat analysis but as examples of "the rise of Asia," that is "transform[ing] the geopolitical landscape." That's either the triumph of tact over clarity or the result of committee writing gone awry. Later the report says more directly that we need a military to "deter any potential military rival and defeat any potential adversary," but, thanks to the apparent absence of major rivals and adversaries in the threat analysis, the report paradoxically implies that we really don't need much of a military -- at least for conventional purposes -- after all.
3. The self-licking Leadership ice-cream cone. Praising American strength and leadership is something of a mantra -- not to say mania -- for a certain corner of foreign policy wonks. I count about three dozen uses of the words "strong," "strength," or "leadership" in the report (not counting the title, which emphasizes the need for a "Strong America"). Sometimes it seems like we demand that American be a strong leader in order to protect America's role as a strong leader, so that American can go on being strong and exercising leadership in the service of our strength and our leadership...and so on. It's circular reasoning, a self-justifying policy of infinite regress. I fear I may be labeled a heretic for asking what we need to be a leader for? Where are we leading people to? The report says the United States "must play an active, day-to-day role in shaping events" to "shape common action on a global agenda." I agree that global cooperation happens more effectively with American involvement, but the report treats "the global agenda" as an intrinsic good. The only intrinsic good of American foreign policy is American security. I'd like to see "the global agenda" and America's burden of leadership justified by how it contributes to American interests, not vice versa. We lead to secure interests; we don't have interests to secure our leadership. (The British occasionally tried a policy of "masterly inactivity," and they didn't have a bad run of hegemony). I broadly agree with pretty much all the specific examples the report gives of where American leadership is needed; rather, I am taking issue with the principle of the matter more than its application. I'm not arguing that we should "lead from behind" or retrench or anything of the sort. I am pleading that we treat strength and leadership as a means, not an end, of foreign policy.
4. Just a List of Stuff. The report gets most specific in its penultimate section on "Challenges and Opportunities." But because of the lack of prior conceptual clarity, these challenges and opportunities are presented as just a list of things to worry about with little explicit connection to the threats or interests spelled out earlier in the report. That makes the list vulnerable to an easy critique by those who would downplay the threats to American security. I agree with the list of challenges, but it reads like the agenda of a chaotic NSC meeting rather than a strategic tour d'horizon.
5. Not a strategy. Finally, the report-like all "national security strategies" published by every administration since Congress mandated the document in 1987-is less a "strategy" document than a list of aspirations and goals. A strategy would go further and specify the resources, tools, and instruments of national power to be employed to achieve each specific goal. That may be too much to ask of a 20-page report (but then again NSC-68 was only 25,000 words).
Notably, many of these weaknesses are common to almost all attempts at articulating a grand strategy from across the ideological spectrum. There are some other, more specific faults (the section on Pakistan) and some exceptionally good parts (the language on foreign aid and the paragraphs on Afghanistan and India). But lest I be misunderstood, I mean this critique to be a compliment -- the report is good enough to merit close attention. I always scribble more comments on my best students' papers because they have the most potential. The papers with no ink on them are too hopeless to bother with. (Having said that, I still plan to ink up the Obama administration's next national security strategy, no matter how good or bad it is). And I am painfully aware that it is far easier to criticize than to create. My own humble attempt to articulate an American grand strategy for the 21st century came in a pair of articles for Survival last year (here and here). Critiques welcome.
The Obama administration's minimalist foreign policy, animated by domestic political expediency and a cramped view of America's responsibilities to uphold the liberal international order from which it has benefited so richly, can lead observers to forget what a more traditionally engaged foreign policy even looks like. The new national security strategy developed by a bipartisan group under the aegis of the Project for a United and Strong America fills that gap. It maps out a robust vision of a foreign policy guided by the belief that the United States is not "the dispensable nation" but in fact has a singular role to play in sustaining a world safe for the values and interests of free peoples.
As attested by the bipartisan constitution of the group that produced the report -- chaired by Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute and Jim Goldgeier of American University and drafted by Ash Jain of the German Marshall Fund -- this is not a Republican or Democratic vision. It is an American internationalist ambition that pays tribute to the legacies of Truman and Reagan. It is also a potent antidote to the policies of retrenchment and buck-passing that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2009.
As the report argues, America's power, reach, network, and example are, in fact, exceptional:
The United States remains the single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world. It has a unique ability to mobilize actions by allies and friends and to project force and influence on a global scale. Through its own commitment to democratic values, its protection of human rights, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice, and its capacity for adaptation and renewal, the United States continues to inspire efforts to realize these values in societies around the world. For years to come, no other nation can play this role.
Nor can the United States simply retreat from the world's trouble spots and assume that its position and interests will be unaffected:
The world is not a passive and neutral playing field, but one in which competing views and interests are constantly being pressed. U.S. interests are continually being challenged.... In this environment, a lack of active U.S. leadership can lead to a steady erosion of U.S. interests. The United States not only has the unique ability to lead, but an imperative to do so -- for the protection of its own national interests and values, as well as for the advancement of democratic values, human development, and security around the world. The protection of these values in turn reinforces the long-term security and well-being of the United States.
What is wrong with a foreign policy that brings American forces home from hot spots like Afghanistan, stays out of messy civil wars like that in Syria, largely leaves allies like Israel and Japan to their own devices, and engages vital parts of the Islamic world mainly through long-distance drone strikes?
[T]he distinguishing feature of America's global role since its founding has been its broad-based conception of national security -- the belief that the advancement of an open, rules-based international order that promotes universal values of liberty, democracy, human dignity, and economic freedom is essential to the security and economic vitality of the United States.
To put American foreign policy back on a more traditional footing of values-based engagement with the world, the report recommends a strategy guided by:
Acknowledging limited resources in an age of debt and deficits, it calls for cost-effective investments in our core capacities of economic vitality, preeminent military power, and foreign assistance, while pursuing smarter public diplomacy and more effectively leveraging the capabilities America's many allies and partners offer in support of our joint objectives.
Beyond managing near-term challenges posed by Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, global terrorism, and economic weakness in the Eurozone, the report wisely calls for a set of longer-term, strategic investments to reinforce American security and prosperity for coming generations. These include:
As the report concludes:
What is essential is that facing limited resources, the United States must make choices and engage strategically. The issues identified above represent either those crisis areas where the United States has no choice but to engage, or alternatively, where it can make strategic investments to help shape the global playing field long into the future. A national security strategy that focuses on these critical challenges and investments -- while based on the core principles of advancing a liberal democratic order and a proactive American global leadership role -- offers the best opportunity to assure the long-term security and prosperity of the United States, its citizens, and the global democratic community.
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A couple months ago, the New Yorker posted a story and wonderful online video about a master pickpocket. This person was willing to demonstrate his art on camera. Even so, he moved so quickly that it can take multiple viewings to see just how he relived his target of his possessions. The key to it, of course, is misdirection. The pickpocket makes sure your attention is directed somewhere other than where the action is taking place.
This came to mind when reading Dan Drezner's rejoicing about recent polls showing improved U.S. public sentiment about trade. I welcome a new public receptiveness to trade as much as anyone, but Dan, in his euphoria, concludes:
"The spike in public enthusiasm from last year is politically significant. At a minimum, it suggests that President Obama won't face gale-force headwinds in trying to negotiate trade deals. Which means I could win my bet with Shadow Government's Phil Levy. Which is the only thing that matters."
Nor was Dan the only one to wax optimistic about trade prospects this past week. Mike Green thought things had gone rather well with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's summit meetings with President Obama in Washington.
"Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye.... The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks..."
This, too, is promising. Peter Feaver had it exactly right when he noted that engagement with Japan could be an essential part of delivering on Obama administration promises of attention to Asia.
So, as far as public wisdom and the Asian pivot are concerned, these are both healthy developments. Yet, when it comes to prospects for trade policy accomplishments over the remainder of President Obama's term, anyone laying odds or taking wagers should pay close attention to where the action is. To that end, here are four questions to help maintain focus:
1. What will Japan's entry do for TPP prospects?
Japanese entry into the TPP, if it happens, will be a good thing. It will dramatically increase the economic significance of the TPP, and it will establish the agreement as the premier accord governing trade liberalization and economic rules in the Asia-Pacific region.
If Japan does not join, we have problems. The administration had previously suggested that Japan could enter in the next round, after this version of TPP concludes. That, however, would pose serious difficulties. Japan is no small economy able to sign on to an agreement with a few innocuous accession talks. If the TPP reaches a successful conclusion soon, after four or more years of negotiation, will there really be an eagerness to reopen the deal in the near future? But the size and complication of Japan's economic relations also mean that the task of concluding the TPP just got much harder. One former USTR recently opined at a conference that if Japan joins the talks the TPP will not be concluded in President Obama's term.
2. What do key interest groups think?
While it does not hurt to have the public embracing trade, U.S. agreements are not decided by referendum. I will leave it to all the political scientists buzzing around this site to provide details, but a more sophisticated approach would focus on the dynamics of the Congress. A more sophisticated approach would still think about the relations with key constituencies, such as organized labor. From the time President Obama first took office, it appeared clear that he had the votes in Congress to pass the pending FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Yet he did not put them forward until late in 2011, despite loud complaints from the business community. This at least suggests that there was something more than vote counting going on.
Along these lines, there was an alarming bit of news in the Hill recently. One promising feature of a trade deal with Europe was that it would seem immune from divisive questions about labor standards that had plagued FTAs with developing countries such as Colombia. The Hill, however, reported that "unions want to use negotiations on a U.S.-European Union (EU) trade deal as leverage to win stronger labor laws here in the United States."
If so, this does not bode well. Those are among the worst trade fears of Republicans on the Hill -- the prospect that labor legislation that could not pass a straight vote could instead be slipped in through the back door of a trade deal.
3. How are Congressional relations these days?
Per the constitution, trade is Congress' domain. Congress can try to delegate some of the negotiating power to the executive branch but ultimately must approve of any deal that is struck. If this is to work through periods of detailed negotiations, there must be good, open communication between the Hill and the White House. In particular, the committees that deal with trade -- House Ways and Means and Senate Finance -- must be on board. As it happens, these are the same committees that deal with the sort of taxation issues that have been a recent struggle. I'll leave it to the reader to grade the degree of comity between branches.
One less subjective measure, however, is whether Congress grants the executive trade negotiating authority (known as TPA -- trade promotion authority). The administration has also been saying for years that the idea of TPA is a reasonable one, but the time is not ripe. In the 2013 trade agenda, released today, the administration said it would work with Congress on obtaining such authority. That will be a contentious fight, since it will raise issues such as the permissible scope of labor provisions in an accord. The document does not set a date.
4. Who's your USTR?
It is also helpful, when negotiating complex trade agreements, to have a representative who will go forth and conduct the negotiations. The incumbent USTR, Ambassador Ron Kirk, reportedly just held his going-away party. Though there have been rumors, the administration has not yet named a new USTR, much less confirmed one. That could prove an obstacle to racing ahead with complex agreements.
So I see the trade policy landscape a little differently than Dan Drezner does. He may want to keep in mind that, if you don't keep your eye on where the action really is, someone may take your lunch money.
The Congress has consented, allowing Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense, but not without badly bruising him along the way. It must also be said, however, that he bruised himself during the confirmation process. The odds now are slim that he will become a strong and capable secretary. In order to boost the odds of his success, he quickly needs to send signals throughout the organization that he can command respect. Here are some suggestions:
Learn to salute. If the picture accompanying Dov's post is indicative, Hagel's lost the knack since the days when he owed salutes. A crisp salute is a small but totemic thing. It conveys that you understand the culture and the institution. Despite his prior service, there are grave doubts about whether Hagel actually gets it. Because people are watching carefully and taking measure of the new boss, small gestures early on set the tone for a secretary. Les Aspin famously dismissed the ceremonial guard outside his office (which was about respect, not protection), kept people waiting, and his transition team told the military that "there's a new sheriff in town," instead of co-opting Colin Powell's Joint Staff. The first day of Bill Perry's tenure he ran meetings on time that concluded with decisions and applicable guidance that helped people predict the secretary's future judgments, and you could feel the building relax after the erratic and undisciplined tenure of Les Aspin. After Hagel's bungling performance during confirmation, little gestures of competence would send a valuable message to the institution.
Treat it like a business. DOD is a $600 billion a year operation with a highly-valued brand, a platform on which other businesses rely, and a deadly serious purpose. The administration did Hagel no favors installing him as secretary just before its budget is submitted. After alienating so much of the Congress, he will have to defend a budget he didn't put together. Even someone much more substantive than he would have a difficult time quickly mastering that brief and disciplining the building to keep a common front as significant cuts are imposed. If he cannot do so, the damage will be irreparable. The administration has given the impression it cares more about social issues in the military than it does about the core business of winning the country's wars, and that makes it harder to manage the military on other issues. Putting the nuts and bolts of effective management at the center of his early efforts would send a calming signal and buy him the benefit of the doubt for later.
Repair relations with members of Congress. It is an often overlooked fact that Congress really runs American defense policy. The Senate has abrogated its responsibilities to authorize and appropriate money for the past three years, and 41 members of the Senate did not consent to his appointment; those are strong headwinds. He needs to win them over, otherwise he cannot make a success of his tenure. He needs them to give him money, latitude to reprogram, to enact policies, to side with him over the chiefs when they make end-runs to the Hill. All the time-honored tactics should be employed: breakfast every week with the Big Four appropriators and authorizers, travel with him to their districts and to places that give them campaign fodder, phone calls to share news before it breaks, jobs for members of their staffs, naming anything that needs naming after them. As the secretary with the greatest Senate opposition to his appointment in the history of his position, he needs to do it more, better, and faster than other secretaries have.
Get the chiefs out of the budget fight. One of the most interesting things about this round of budget squabbles is that the active involvement of the chiefs does not appear to have changed a single vote in Congress. They are impotent to affect attitudes on a major national security issue. The chiefs loudly telling Congress that the cuts will be destructive has been seen not as our protectors sounding the alarm, but as shameless pandering by an over-fed bureaucracy that is exposing itself for the president's benefit. It goes without saying that this is terrible for the military's standing in society. President Obama is importantly to blame for this. During the election he ridiculed Mitt Romney for wanting to increase defense spending, repeatedly insisting that his opponent "would throw money at the chiefs they don't even want!" That created a sense in the broader public that our defense is well-funded. As a result, the chiefs arguments now that the saying the sky is falling seem politicized. If the chiefs credibility is that low, the secretary should disengage them from the fight. He should instead become the lead advocate, making their arguments and shielding them from direct involvement while they engage privately with legislators.
Get out of Washington. Visiting the war zones, visiting bases, visiting troops engaged in training other militaries is part of the secretary's job -- outreach to his constituents and being close to their concerns. The importance of fights in Washington will seem paramount (as they always do), but Hagel is unlikely to be the difference between a policy being adopted or not. First, because he clearly shares the President's views. Second, because the administration has already made its major policy decisions. And third, because he's hardly the towering presence of a Hillary Clinton on Bob Gates that must be taken into account. That frees him up to get out of Washington and see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world view our choices -- two elements the discussion in Washington too often lacks. Plus, it will remind him of the everyday goodness of the young men and women who choose to put themselves in harm's way for our country. That cannot help but strengthen any secretary.
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I have been ruminating on the closing lines in Peter Feaver's post below, suggesting that "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda." I worry that Peter is correct.
The similarities are striking. A president dogmatically focused on his domestic agenda who willfully disregards systemic and appalling bloodshed in a faraway land. A president haunted by the disappointments of recent U.S. interventions (in Clinton's case, Somalia; in Obama's case, Iraq and Afghanistan) who misapplies the "lessons" of this history into paralysis and inaction. A situation where the costs of action initially appear daunting -- until they are weighed against the costs of inaction, which turn out to be even more damaging.
In several ways, however, Obama's passivity on Syria is even worse than Clinton's passivity on Rwanda. First, the Assad regime in Syria also embodies a number of strategic equities that Rwanda did not, including possessing a large stock of chemical weapons, being the main regional ally for Iran, being a state sponsor of terrorism, and now being a breeding ground for jihadists, many of whom harbor hostile intentions toward the United States. Bringing this regime to an end is a fundamental American interest and should be seen as such even by those not moved to moral outrage at the over 70,000 Syrians (and perhaps many more) murdered by their own government. Second, the Rwandan genocide took place over three months -- time enough for the U.S. to have acted, to be sure, but still a relatively narrow window. But the bloodshed in Syria has been occurring for almost two years now. Third, many foreign policy experts in the Democratic party (including many currently serving in the Obama Administration) realize that the president's policy is a failure -- and those not in government are saying so publicly. Or in the case of courageous voices like Anne Marie Slaughter have been saying so for a long time now.
Yet at this point all we get are carefully crafted leaks from the administration on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with skeptical Syrian rebel leaders that consideration is being given to supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, such as body armor. This would have been helpful two years ago when the first peaceful protests began. But it is pathetically insufficient in the face of Assad's Scud missile attacks on civilian populations.
As I and many others have pointed out before, one perverse irony of the Obama administration's neglect of Syria is that now, two years into the war, the costs of action are much higher and the options much fewer. Many of the downside risks that purportedly deterred greater American support for the rebels 18 months ago -- such as sectarian strife, radicalization, regional instability, and resentment towards the United States -- have now come to pass anyway, in part because of American inaction. Yet this does not mean that even at this point nothing can or should be done.
In the crucible of policymaking, officials should ask themselves more often how they will look back on the decisions they made while in power. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in Rwanda. As Obama and the senior members of his national security team consider the memoirs they will inevitably write and the speeches they will invariably give after leaving office, they might reflect now on what they will later say about their greatest regrets. At or near the top of that list will likely be "Syria." So why not do something about it now, before Syria becomes permanently mentioned in historical ignominy alongside Rwanda?
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Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
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Mike Green's interesting post on the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe illustrates an important but oft-ignored principle of foreign policy: It takes two to tango. Too often, analysts focus on just one of the players, usually the president, and score the resulting foreign policy for good or ill based solely on that perspective. But as U.S.-Japan relations dramatize, the same president can have greater or lesser success pursuing much the same lines of policy with the same country depending on who is the counterpart. The Bush administration had fraught relations with France and Germany under Chirac and Schroeder respectively and most of the mainstream U.S. media laid the blame at President George W. Bush's feet. Yet the same Bush had excellent and cooperative relations with France and Germany under Sarkozy and Merkel. Likewise, Bush had excellent relations with Japan under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and for a while looked set to reprise that with Abe. Relations with Japan have suffered during Obama's tenure, but this is as much due to the problems inside Japan as to specific failings of the Obama administration.
Now, with Abe back in power, Green makes a compelling case that there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to regain lost ground. Abe's "Japan is Back" speech was an ironic double-joke that was not lost on insiders. First, it was an obvious homage to Green's own "Japan is Back" article in Foreign Affairs, which analyzed Abe's foreign policy the last time Abe was in power. Second, it was a gesture to the oft-repeated boast by Obama administration officials that the United States was "back in Asia." Of course, Abe and his team knew what team Obama has been reluctant to admit: The United States never left Asia, and Obama inherited a strong Asia strategy with bipartisan support and significant momentum behind it and and upon which, after some stumbles, they have managed to build with new initiatives.
But perhaps Abe and his team are worried by what they might consider drift in Obama's Asia strategy. The much-ballyhooed Asia pivot has been looking more and more like an Asian pirouette of late. Secretary of State John Kerry has bent over backwards to underscore the differences between him and his predecessor, and the easiest contrast to draw thus far has been his prioritization of Europe and the Middle East over Asia. The top Asia hands have left government, and the departure of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in particular deprives the administration of someone whose stature in the region could compensate for the unintended side-effects of a perception that Kerry is preoccupied with other regions. Campbell spoke to my program at Duke last week and argued persuasively that the Obama administration should redouble its efforts in Asia in the second term and somewhat less persuasively that they will.
In Abe, the Obama Administration has a promising Asian partner. Will they hear the music and dance?
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In 2007, I published a review essay in Foreign Affairs explaining how then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was compensating for Japan's relative economic decline by reducing anachronistic constraints on the Japanese self-defense forces and aligning more closely with other maritime democracies, beginning with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Unfortunately for Japan -- and the shelf life of my piece -- Abe abruptly resigned a few months later after a sudden wave of missteps, political bad luck, and failing health. Over the next five years Japan suffered through multiple leadership transitions, with two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers and three Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prime ministers all stumbling at the starting line because they were unable to make any headway with Japan's stagnant economy. Abe, meanwhile, kept a low profile.
But as China upped the pressure on Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands, the LDP turned to the hawkish former prime minister last year to help them retake the government and restore Japan's self-confidence. Learning from his past errors, Abe has focused his early months on jump-starting the economy through "Abenomics" -- a combination of quantitative easing, stimulus spending, and promises of structural reform to increase productivity. Thus far it has worked: The markets and business confidence are up and Abe is the first prime minister in memory to see his personal support rate actually rise in office (now at 75% in some polls). In an energetic speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, he declared to the audience that "Japan is back."
Abe's return seemed initially to confuse the Obama administration. His values-based, balance of power approach resonated much more with George W. Bush's second inaugural than the minimalist and risk-averse foreign policy vision President Obama has put forth for his second term. The administration also appeared spooked by Abe's intemperate campaign comments about the need to revisit Japan's previous official apologies to China and Korea. Numerous stories emerged before his visit to Washington citing unnamed senior U.S. officials promising to publicly shame Japan if the Abe administration went too far with historical revisionism. The pattern looked eerily reminiscent of what happened between the Obama administration and Bibi Netanyahu in the first term. For its part, the Japanese side was equally uncertain about seeming wobbliness in U.S. declaratory policy on the Senkaku issue since Hillary Clinton's departure and by John Kerry's promise in his confirmation hearings to "grow the rebalance towards Beijing" (it did not help that Chinese official editorials praised Kerry for having the wisdom not to "meddle" in Far Eastern affairs the way his predecessor had).
In the end, though, the Abe-Obama summit on Feb. 22 was a success for both sides. Since coming to office, Abe has moderated his stance on history issues and was firm but gracious towards China and especially South Korea in his CSIS speech. In the Oval Office press availability, President Obama reaffirmed that Japan is the "central foundation" of U.S. security policy toward the Pacific (though he sounded like he was searching for a teleprompter when he said it). The two leaders echoed each other on the need for a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution to deal with North Korea's recent nuclear test and there was little outward sign of frustration over the usual irritants on Okinawa base realignment. Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye. In a skillfully worded joint statement on Japan's possible participation in TPP, the U.S. side reaffirmed its position that all sectors had to be on the table and Abe restated the LDP campaign pledge that Japan would not commit to opening all sectors. That little piece of kabuki now allows Abe to state that he will seek to protect the rice market in negotiations and the administration to claim that all sectors will indeed be subject to negotiation. The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks, slowing down mainly to accommodate the administration's need to line up support on its side (though Abe will have his own challenges within the LDP, to be sure). While the U.S. press was generally confused by the language on TPP, Congressional opponents of free trade knew what the joint statement meant right away, expressing their alarm within hours of the bilateral summit.
Abe has a lot to deliver still, and he knows it. "Abenomics" will run out of steam without real deregulation and reform (hence the Japanese business community and bureaucracy's enthusiasm for TPP as an action-forcing agreement). He also has to win the Upper House election scheduled for July, since failure to control both houses of the Diet has done in every prime minister since Koizumi. But Abe has begun to build up a head of steam. I have sat across the table from the last six Japanese prime ministers, and I always watch the faces of the political aides and senior bureaucrats behind them. I haven't seen such confident expressions since Koizumi was in the job.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is pleased to run thus post from guest-blogger, Mark Kennedy, a former member of congress and former key advisor on trade issues in the Bush Administration. He is currently Director of the Graduate School of Political management at George Washington University.
President Obama's surprise announcement in his State of the Union address that he plans to start talks on a free trade deal between the United States and the European Union could serve as a boon to the nation's economy or a bust for the nation's competitiveness. Though reaching any sort of deal will be difficult, leaders in the United States should avoid a proposal that could make American markets more like their European counterparts and should instead seek a plan that helps introduce the best of the American labor markets to the EU in order to boost growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
A successful free trade agreement (FTA) will achieve the following: expand U.S./EU trade, renew the Atlantic political/economic alliance, improve competitiveness in both markets, and set a benchmark for future trade accords.
In order to walk across the finish line together, the United States and the EU must effectively resolve their differences on two key economic policies.
The EU has several long-standing regulations preventing many U.S. agricultural products from coming to market. America has long argued that European demonization of genetically modified (GMO) crops as "Frankenfood" is not grounded in science. With the pressing need to meet the nutritional needs of a growing planet, the potential of GMO crops should not be set aside so quickly.
The United States' previous treatment of food controversies in free trade agreements can serve as a benchmark in this respect. The terms of the South Korean free trade agreement provided a timeline for when U.S. beef would gain access to Korean markets. A similar time-delayed structure with the EU would allow for officials to adjudicate the safety of American agriculture and for producers to make adjustments necessary to compete in a more open market. Allowing scare tactics to dominate what should be an economic and scientific debate is a loser for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A common stumbling block for free trade agreements concern the differences between nations' labor regulations. American labor unions often balk at FTAs with the countries from the developing world because they fear that their members will be unable to compete with the emerging market's low-wage employees. This time around the shoe is on the other foot.
According to the World Economic Forum's 2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report, the United States' approach to labor flexibility is among the best in the world. EU nations tend to take a more populist and protectionist approach, which can limit productivity and harm young workers. Those protectionist policies have lead to high youth unemployment and unrest in EU nations like Greece and Spain. A final deal should recognize that and center labor arrangements around the idea that a growing economy can provide more job security than government rules.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned at a press conference recently that the EU would not compromise on its "basic legislation" in trade talks.
Rather than approaching these trade discussions in a defensive posture, leaders on both sides should aggressively pursue outcomes that would be highly beneficial to their citizens and the world:
It is critical that those who support lower economic barriers stay engaged in support of a joint accord, but one that fosters openness rather than protectionism. A successful deal will expand Atlantic trade, strengthen the Atlantic alliance, improve competitiveness on both continents, and set a standard that stimulates expanded trade agreements with other regions
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It is customary for beltway types to snicker when a senior official in the government indicates that he or she is stepping away from power in order to "spend more time with my family." I think that attitude is unfortunate and regret having done my fair share of snickering in the past. The truth is that service at the highest-most levels of government can be exceptionally demanding, and it is usually the family that pays the biggest price. So I now have a rule of thumb that presumes any such claim is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
That is how I reacted to the news that will General Allen turn down a possible assignment to be SACEUR. General Allen's explanation -- that after multiple combat tours he needs to spend more time with an ailing wife -- rings true to me. And after checking with some people who are in a better position to know, I am even more confident of this judgment.
Some critics have charged that General Allen was forced to step away, raising questions about a growing politicization of the military engendered by a hyper-partisan White House. The White House did do something like that with respect to General James Mattis, so the allegation was not wildly implausible. But in Allen's case, I do not think it was correct.
The Obama Administration has enough real civil-military challenges to manage. It does not need to be distracted by fake ones. General Allen's departure should not become such a distraction.
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For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
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The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?
On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.
On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."
Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now. Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.
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When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way:
"The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.
Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."
This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine. Here is the relevant section from Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy (itself quoting from the earlier and controversial articulation in the 2002 National Security Strategy):
If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions.
Of course, the Bush Administration was excoriated for framing the issue that way, and there arose a lively cottage industry devoted to attacking this aspect of the Bush doctrine. While Obama has tended to get away with things his predecessors could not, I suspect that even he will face some tough questioning now that the overlap with the controversial Bush doctrine is so unmistakable.
The issue is a difficult one, for the applicability of the self-defense principle depends crucially on context. Everyone agrees that if someone is attacking you with a knife, you do not have to wait for the blade to puncture your skin before you can strike at the assailant. And everyone agrees that it is not self-defense to attack someone just because you think there is a dim and distant possibility that one day that person might decide that he wants to attack you even though there is no evidence of such intent today. In the real world of national security policymaking, however, there are abundant hard cases in between those easy calls and those hard cases are what policymakers -- as distinct from pundits -- can't avoid.
The memo reveals the Obama Administration wrestling with these problems and coming to conclusions strikingly similar to those of the Bush Administration. I wonder if Team Obama will be more successful than the Bush Administration was in arguing the merits and logic of the preemption doctrine.
The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:
Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.
Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.
"Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front?
Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington. It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.
Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.
A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.
President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.
This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .
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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.