Ever since Julian Assange sought the diplomatic protection of the government of Rafael Correa in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June, there has been much commentary on the seemingly odd political pairing of a supposed champion of government transparency with an erratic president mostly known for his horrendous record of press abuse at home.
I have written previously that Assange's embrace of Correa exposes the former computer hacker as a fraud and that his reckless exposure of U.S. confidential documents was no blow for freedom of information. Instead, that his real agenda was to try and harm the United States' attempts to play a leadership role in ensuring the security of the prevailing global system.
For Correa's part, many have speculated his association with Assange is meant to expressly counter his (well-deserved) international image as intolerant of a free and independent media. Others see him embracing the Assange cause as an audition to replace an ailing Hugo Chávez of Venezuela as the leader of South America's perpetually angry Left.
It is certainly all that, but also more. And President Correa pretty much summed it up in comments this week: "This is not a about patching up systems that have not worked for centuries," he said. "It is about changing the systems, and that is why we are clashing with national and international powers that want things to stay as they are."
Thus, his granting of political asylum to Assange is meant as a direct provocation and challenge to long-established roots of international order and accepted behavior. Painstakingly built up by the United States and its allies over the last century, this interlocking system of institutions and largely accepted international norms has helped not only to maintain a remarkable level of global stability in recent decades, but has irrefutably created the conditions for unprecedented global economic growth that has pulled billions out of poverty.
Is the system perfect? Of course not. But as Robert Kagan has pointed out in his recent book, The World America Made, the alternatives are not very appealing.
But you will always have the outliers, the self-alienated who feel compelled to act out against the system for whatever reason - historical, cultural, or just plain personal. This is precisely what Assange and Correa are all about: tearing down what has gone before, motivated by no more than spite.
As the old Midwestern saying goes, "Any jackass can kick down a barn." In other words, destruction is easy. Where the credit for human progress lies is with the builders and creators - and those who carry the burden of protecting environments where builders and creators can thrive.
Granting political asylum to someone wanted in Sweden (of all places!) for questioning on allegations of sexual assault is by any measure a gross abuse of accepted standards of behavior (no matter what outlandish conspiracies theories people think lie behind the charges).
Thus, the central question in London is this, will established rules and norms prevail or are we prepared to allow the Assanges and Correas of the world to begin rewriting them as we go along?
For my money, the future most certainly should not be allowed to lie in the hands of these two pied pipers of anarchy.
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Bashir al Assad's government killed another 90 civilians on Saturday, firing artillery shells into a village and following up with gunshot-to-the-temple executions. At least 32 children under the age of 10 were among the victims. If you have the stomach to bear witness to the Syrian people's grief, most major news outlets have posted pictures.
The reaction of the Free World's leaders reads like a parody of fecklessness, but here are the actual quotes from the New York Times article:
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the "vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood."
"Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account," she said in a statement. "And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end."
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria's government of committing "new massacres" and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an "urgent" session of the United Nations Security Council "in the coming days."
The New York Times explains that the Obama administration is working with Russia to ease Assad out of power, and that "Mr. Obama, administration officials said, will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month...." But it also reveals that Obama administration National Security Advisor Tom Donilon raised the same proposals in Moscow more than three weeks ago. The massacre in Houla is what we have to show for it.
Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both.
After Qaddafi's fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. power more effectively than previous administrations, something an advisor subsequently branded as a "lead from behind" approach. Even though Libya is still an unfinished project, if you talk to enough Obamaphiles as I do, sooner or later the Libya model will be touted again, especially the dramatic comparison of how low cost Libya was compared to Iraq.
It was low cost, at least for the United States, but as for a model, it may be a precedent for doing nothing in the future -- at least that is the impression one gets from the latest reporting on Syria. Apparently, the White House has told Syrian rebels that they are on their own, that the United States will not be assisting them further, and so Assad may be on track to accomplish what Qaddafi could not: kill enough of his own citizens fast enough to defeat the rebellion before outsiders can intervene to tip the balance in favor of the "right side of history."
In this, the Obama administration may be following the Libyan precedent to the letter. The problem with "leading from behind" is that it really means "following another leader." In the Libyan case, the real leaders were the Europeans, especially the French and British. They led, Obama followed, and Qaddafi fell.
On Syria, no one is leading, not yet anyway. Perhaps the cross-border violence will finally prod Turkey into leading and, if so, perhaps the "Libyan model" will lead the Obama administration into acting. But until then, the Libyan lesson may simply be this: When no one leads, no one follows, and when no one follows, the international community does not act.
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I've just returned from a week of fishing at a remote lake in Canada, blissfully disconnected from just about every other concern in life except for what the fish were biting on. (For any fellow anglers among our readers, the answers are: not much action from the elusive muskie, but lots of action on Cisco Kids for northern pike including a 20-pounder I landed, Yamamoto Senko worms did well for smallmouth bass, and the reliable jig and minnow produced a limit every day of walleye). Our meals were the opposite of the Singaporean haute cuisine that Peter Feaver indulged in during his own recent trip, but for my money it's hard to beat the traditional "shore lunch" we enjoyed of fresh-caught fried walleye, fried potatoes, and fried onions, all cooked over an open fire on a deserted island.
After that northern idyll, my return this week to the United States was jarred by a litany of grim headlines: plummeting stock markets, an unprecedented credit-rating downgrade, yet another round of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe that further imperil the Eurozone, and violent rioting throughout the United Kingdom. Herewith a few thoughts.
The credit rating downgrade puts a painfully vivid exclamation point on my observation a couple of weeks ago about the Obama administration presiding over an America in decline. Like "leading from behind," there's just no way to put a positive spin on the word "downgrade." Yet the downgrade is but the latest symptom -- along with unemployment, growing debt and deficits, and declining markets -- of a more fundamental problem: President Obama has consistently failed to articulate a persuasive account of what drives economic growth. Even more than different priorities over issues like tax rates and loopholes, spending cuts, and entitlement reform, this failure is emblematic of the economy's persistent weakness throughout his presidency. As Jeb Bush and Kevin Warsh lay out in this compelling WSJ op-ed, the Obama administration appears completely devoid of any strategy for economic growth. More pointedly, President Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation for the essential role of business in capital formation and wealth creation. He seems to see the business community as an unfamiliar entity whose primary purpose is to generate revenues for the government, rather than an engine of job creation and improving living standards for American citizens. This is why so many commercial leaders -- from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business owners -- fundamentally mistrust this administration. After all, why trust a White House that fails to appreciate your indispensable role in economic growth, and repeatedly threatens you with higher taxes and increased regulations?
Yet at least Americans are not violently rioting in the streets and looting small and large businesses alike, which has sadly been the case in the United Kingdom. Back during his campaign, David Cameron often lamented what he described as Britain's "broken society" of fractured families, endemic welfare dependency, growing violent crime, and a burgeoning cultural coarseness and dissolution of order and moral standards. It was a grim diagnosis that generated agreement among the likes of Daily Mail readers but snide dismissal as Eton moralizing from other quarters. I observed much of this decline firsthand during my recent years of living in London, where traditional British order and decorum persisted in some pockets but was too often eclipsed by endemic social breakdown and national decline. The riots now display this to the world. On one level they are simply opportunistic hooliganism amplified by social media. But on a deeper level they are a toxic display of the nihilism and pathologies of the Broken Society. Scotland Yard, already reeling from its unseemly role in the recent phone-hacking scandal, has performed ambivalently in this much bigger test that cuts to the core of its legitimacy as the protector of order and safety. Meanwhile the Cameron government, which has always been perched awkwardly between its emphasis of a "new brand" of compassionate Toryism and its traditional role as the law and order party, now faces its own crisis of governance and identity. As the perpetually insightful Tim Montgomerie observes, after some shaky first steps the prime minister seems to have reasserted authority yet now faces a series of new battles that will do much to define his premiership.
Some quick thoughts on the bombing in Stockholm last weekend that injured two and killed the suicide bomber:
First, this attack, like so many that have occurred over the past two years, shows the interconnectedness of the Salafi jihadist groups. The Stockholm bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, was radicalized in Britain; almost certainly travelled to Iraq and Jordan for jihad training; explicitly carried out his attack in the name of the Islamic State (of Iraq); and was encouraged to do so by a Swedish jihadist in Somalia.
Second, the radicalization of Abdaly confirms that Britain's reputation for creating extremists is well-deserved. Before 2001, al-Abdaly had led the normal life of a Swedish young man -- his friends commented on his Israeli girlfriend, his beer-drinking, and his partying while in high school. All this changed once he arrived in Luton, Britain, which has become infamous as a center for radical Islam. Abdaly was transformed into an extremist over the course of the next few years, perhaps by the preaching of al-Muhajiroun, a radical group whose former leader, Anjem Choudary, has said that the suicide bombing should be seen as a "severe warning" and "should not come as a surprise."
Third, arguments that involvement in the Iraq war or the fighting in Afghanistan is what truly angers the extremists no longer ring true. In his martyrdom statement sent to Swedish law enforcement and media, Abdaly accused the Swedes of failing to sufficiently condemn the drawings of Lars Vilks and of having any presence at all in Afghanistan (however peaceful their participation). If ordinary Swedes can be singled out as worthy of death for these policies, then no one is safe from suicide bombing.
Finally, Iraqi officials have just warned that more attacks are on the way: Abdaly's attempt, captured insurgents have said, is just the first of many more plots planned for the Christmas season in both Europe and the United States.
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One of the more interesting aspects of my recent two-year sojourn in London was getting to know British conservatism firsthand. The word "Conservative" in the British context is ambiguous in that it can refer to the party ("Conservative" with a capital "C"), the movement, or the ideological persuasion -- or sometimes two of the above, or sometimes all three at once. The commonalities between British and U.S. conservatism are many, and these shared convictions can also be found among conservatives across the Anglosphere, such as in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. These include commitments to free markets, limited government, the family and other mediating institutions in civil society, personal responsibility, robust national defense, and respect for tradition.
Yet on other issues, American conservatism is exceptional. There is very little in the way of a pro-life movement in Britain, for example, and even the most right-wing British Tory wags their heads in bemusement at the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Of course the exceptions and curiosities go both ways; there is little prospect of a grassroots movement emerging in the United States on behalf of fox-hunting, which still finds impassioned advocates in Britain, especially among Tories.
Amidst the commonalities to be found with conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, there are diversities as well, not only between but among them. For example, there are vigorous debates within conservative camps in both Britain and the United States on numerous foreign-policy and national security issues, such as democracy and human rights promotion (a worthy endeavor or a fool's errand?), defense budgets (increase or curtail?), the Afghan war (vital national interest or quagmire?), and the rise of China (looming security threat or lucrative new market?). Regular readers of Shadow Government have likely noticed some of these debates being played out on our pages among our contributors.
In Britain, arguably the single most important website for British conservatives is the aptly-named ConservativeHome. Under the able leadership of Tim Montgomerie and his crack team, ConservativeHome played an essential role in the resurgence of the Tories in recent years. Combining original content, article aggregation, bespoke polling data, and candidate profiles, the site became a unique forum for debating conservative ideas while advancing the conservative cause. It continues to be an influential voice, and is regularly read by Parliament, Whitehall, 10 Downing Street, and in the British media and think-tanks. And yes, ConservativeHome has the exquisite good taste to link on occasion to Shadow Government posts, thus helping expand our readership in Britain
Following in the tradition of the Beatles, Monty Python, and David Beckham, ConservativeHome is now the latest in a distinguished line of British exports to arrive on U.S. shores. The U.S. version of the site was launched this week, and I encourage all Shadow Government readers to check it out. Its British roots notwithstanding, ConservativeHome USA is ably overseen by Ryan Streeter, a red-blooded American patriot living and working in the heart of the heartland, Indiana. (In full disclosure, Ryan is also a close friend and former White House colleague of mine, as is deputy editor Natalie Gonnella). It promises to be a vital new voice in the pantheon of U.S. conservative websites, and will be an important venue for airing (sometimes diverse) views on domestic and foreign policy, as well as serve as a platform for profiling prospective congressional and White House candidates.
Moreover, ConservativeHome will provide an ongoing link between American conservatism and kindred movements across the Anglosphere. All have much to learn from each other. For example, Tuesday's features will include some thoughts from British Chancellor George Osborne on lessons learned thus far from the ambitious British deficit reduction program. This might be of particular interest to the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Other upcoming features this week will include articles by Peter Feaver and yours truly highlighting front-burner national security issues that will confront the new Congress and prospective GOP presidential candidates -- and there will be references to recent Shadow Government posts that offer insight on these issue.
The Shadow Government team extends a warm welcome and congratulations to ConservativeHomeUSA on its launch and maiden week. Do take a look.
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Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other's happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain's application for the European Economic Community -- not just once but twice. But yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a treaty that will bind their defense establishments tightly together for the coming fifty years.
The treaty commits the countries to cooperation in nuclear stockpile stewardship, development of a 10,000 troop expeditionary force, and sharing of aircraft carriers. The agreement will see Britain's second carrier capable of landing French (as well as American) fighters, and swapping crews. They will jointly purchase transport aircraft and develop UAVs and future attack submarines.
Cameron was at pains to emphasize the agreement's strengths in terms of Britain's ability to fight unilaterally, saying it will "increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity." Sarkozy reassured that France would not balk at participating in Britain's wars -- a crucial argument after the Falklands and Iraq wars.
France and Britain have fought mostly on the same side in their wars of the past century, they've been committed to the others defense through NATO since 1949, as well as have Europe's only nuclear arsenals and its most powerful conventional militaries. They also have political cultures in which the use of military force is still generally accepted as a central element of statecraft.
It has long made sense for Britain and France to cooperate more closely on defense issues. The Blair government took a major step forward with the St Malo agreements in the late 1990s; but France remaining outside the NATO integrated military command since 1967 created both practical difficulties and suspicion in the United States about European cooperation.
France has been warming to NATO for nearly a decade, acknowledging advances other militaries were making as the result of close cooperation with U.S. military transformation. France returned to NATO military staffs last year, removing major obstacles to the kind of relationship Britain has been seeking.
Both countries showed unexpected compromise. Britain has accepted in defense the "two speed Europe" it fought so stridently against in EU councils. France was ambitious for an EU defense in ways that have not materialized; the agreement with Britain can be seen as both countries conceding the EU is incapable of providing the basis for closer practical cooperation. The United States should understand it also as a vote of no confidence that NATO can provide that basis (although the Cameron government would surely deny that, given how much rhetoric about NATO the defense review contains).
The Cameron government managed this all very shrewdly, rolling out their national security strategy, then their defense review, then their budget, and only then signing the U.K.-France treaty. Different sequencing would have increased the outcry in Britain that the budget cuts were damaging to Britain's security. Setting the context as they did, the optics are good European politics (a novelty for a Tory government), good transatlantic politics, and innovative ways to keep costs down.
When Great Britain and France were melding their militaries together to fight The Great War (as World War I was called before there was World War II), the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Foch, worriedly asked his British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, how many casualties it would take before Britain were fully committed to winning the war. Haig imperiously answered "it would take but the death of a single British soldier," to which Foch irritatedly replied, "then assign him to my staff and I'll shoot him myself the first day of the war." With the new Cameron-Sarkozy agreements, the French may finally have their casualty.
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There's nothing like a sojourn on the beach in Mexico to catch up on the reading list, and my vacation this past week in Ixtapa provided a welcome occasion to read Tony Blair's new memoir. The book has already attracted much comment and generally favorable reviews, and for good reason. It is a thoughtful and engaging read, as far as political memoirs go. Though the writing is not terribly elegant, it is conversational and clear, and blessed with some nice turns of phrase.
On substance, the book provides a compelling account of the ten years that Blair led Britain, a decade of consequence that included military intervention in Sierra Leone, and wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His accounts are often defensive, but then considering the criticism that Blair has endured, what might seem defensive can also be seen as a needful, well, defense of the record.
Even Christopher Hitchens, no naïf when it comes to detecting guile, finds the book a persuasive testament to the sincerity of Blair's convictions. Especially his aversion to tyranny and commitment to promoting liberty as a universal value. This may be credible to most U.S. readers, but it will meet with much more skepticism in Britain, where Blair does not enjoy the esteem that he is held in the United States. Many Brits still regard him with a jaundiced eye, a product largely of lingering hard feelings over the Iraq War.
The book's release last month generated headlines in Britain. There was the obligatory tut-tutting over Blair's accounts of his conversations and interactions with the Royal Family. But the real focus was on the plight of the Labour Party, particularly Blair's tortured relationship with Gordon Brown, and the ongoing existential anguish afflicting the party's search for identity (e.g. "are we New Labour, or Old Labour, or Reformed Labour, or Unapologetic Labour, or… ?"). Blair's deep and abiding commitment to his "New Labour" project pervades the book -- and this, as much as personality clashes or conflicting ambitions, accounts for his rivalry with Brown. Unfortunately, now that Labour has chosen as its new leader Ed Miliband (the Brown protégé) over his brother David (the Blair protégé), the New Labour project faces an uncertain future at best.
Perhaps most interesting for the U.S. audience is Blair's take on the U.S.-British relationship. He writes unapologetically of his clear commitment, even conviction, on the strategic priority of the alliance with the United States. It is always revealing to see the United States through another world leader's eyes, and in Blair's account, America really is indispensable, evidenced vividly by his entreaties to enlist President Clinton behind the Kosovo bombing campaign and eventually the credible threat of introducing ground troops.
Yet the relationship went both ways, and no world leader stood more firmly onside the U.S. during our day of need than Blair. It is bracing to read his remarks to the British people on the evening of September 11th: "We… stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from the world." Lofty rhetoric, to be sure, but rhetoric that Blair backed up with actions, even at considerable sacrifice by his nation and political cost to himself.
As he says in the book, "I believed in the alliance with America, I thought its maintenance and enhancement a core objective of British policy, and I knew that alliances are only truly fashioned at times of challenge, not in times of comfort." Blair also rejects the frequent charge that Britain's alliance with the United States has hurt its interests and global standing: "… our alliance with the US gave Britain a huge position. Those who thought our closeness with America was a problem in the rest of the world could not have been further from the mark. On the contrary, it gave us immediate purchase."
Yet as much as Blair makes a persuasive case for the shared interests and values that form the structural foundation of the U.S.-British alliance, his tenure in office also demonstrates the ineluctable role of personal leadership. The alliance flourishes under leaders committed to it, such as Clinton, Blair, and Bush. Absent such leadership, it drifts. Just look at the diminishing of U.S.-British relations under Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama, or the continuing questions it faces under Cameron and Obama. As Hitchens points out, most previous British prime ministers believed they faced a zero-sum choice between either closer ties with the United States or with Europe; Blair demonstrated that it was possible to maintain strong ties with both.
The book has its flaws. Perhaps the most significant is Blair's rather blithe treatment of the massive growth in Britain's domestic spending under his government. Yes, his New Labour brought some needed market-based reforms, more choice and competition to some areas of government. But it also oversaw an expansion of annual government spending on an unsustainable scale, from £243 billion to £403 billion.
This reckless trajectory continued under Gordon Brown, until the economic recession choked off the tax revenues from the embattled private sector, leaving Britain with crippling deficits. Now as the Cameron government tries to balance the nation's books with profound cuts in government spending, the already- stretched defense budget is not being spared, as announced last week (for two thoughtful takes, see these posts by my Shadow Government colleagues Kori Schake and Tom Mahnken).
These cuts unfortunately hinder Britain's ability to be a robust security partner for the United States. It would be a regrettable irony of the Blair legacy if his government's bloated domestic spending came to undermine his visionary commitment to the U.S. alliance.
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As part of the developed world's most dramatic effort to put its public finances on solid footing, the Conservative Liberal Democratic government in Britain announced significant reductions to its defense program yesterday. Their review is a fearless example to others, including the United States.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government put health care and (somewhat oddly) development assistance off limits, subjecting most departments to a reduction of 25 percent from their current budgets. Defense was reduced only around eight percent across four years. An equivalent reduction in U.S. defense spending would clip $56 billion dollars (the entirety of the British defense budget) in the same time frame. By contrast, Sec. Robert Gates is seeking to keep U.S. defense spending increasing by one percent per year.
And what did they cut? Most importantly, they did not reduce their commitment to the wars we are fighting, although they plan to significantly reduce their forces as their commitments wind down. They are reducing their civilian defense workforce by 25,000 and their uniformed military by 17,000. The army will take the smallest reduction, appropriately, given their tempo of operations through 2015 (the period of cuts).
The reductions will make Britain less able to fight continuously, as we and they have been doing since 2001. But they have preserved the ability to project 30,000 troops to a fight, a feat no other country except us could likely achieve. They even added funding for additional helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles important to operations in Afghanistan.
The British cut by 40 percent their tanks and artillery, betting they will be less valuable in future wars than capabilities currently employed in the war in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that's true, but it's not an unreasonable view -- in fact, it is also Secretary Gates's rubric for U.S. forces.
The cuts do mean Britain will be even less able to fight wars unless they are fighting alongside the United States, but they gave that option up in the 1998 Defense Review. The further diminution is of degree, not type. It will be most prevalent in Britain's air and maritime operations. Four frigates will be decommissioned. Both the navy and air force will be reduced by 5,000 people each.
Harrier jets, MRA4 reconnaissance aircraft, and R1 battlefield surveillance aircraft will be eliminated; C-130J airlifters will be retired a decade early. As currently envisioned, it will create a gap in carrier air through 2019. This could be attenuated by a faster shift to unmanned airframes (that is not in the spending plan) or greater cooperation with France and other power-projection countries (although it is heresy to say so on Trafalgar Day, the French could, for example, deploy fighters on British carriers and vice versa).
They have kept crucial niches of excellence valuable to remaining a first-tier military, including:
But Britain's value as a strategic ally of the United States is not just the quantity or quality of their military forces. Their value is crucially dependant on their willingness to fight. And here, Britain really is different and better than most other potential allies of the United States. Britain losing the will to fight is a subject very much worrying U.S. defense experts; these defense reductions to not call into doubt that fundamental sensibility.
Britain's reductions are substantial, and one wishes they had not been necessary. But the Cameron government deserves an awful lot of credit for facing Britain's debt crisis and making hard choices that accept risk in the near term to put their country on stronger strategic footing. The British set sensible priorities and programmed to them, making cuts that do not damage their ability to protect and advance their interests. Lots of other countries are set to make reductions in defense spending, including the United States; probably none -- including us -- will do as proficient a job as Defense Minister Liam Fox and the British defense establishment have done.
The politics of debt reduction will drive the severity of budget cuts; we Republicans should be actively building intellectual capital to make smart choices at different budget top lines. We would be much better positioned had Secretary Gates's instruction for the Quadrennial Defense Review been to design sensible defense programs at several different baseline budget levels (say, varying by $50 billion dollars a year). That would have permitted a debate -- and given the elected leadership a real choice -- over where to accept risk, which is the essential question.
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On Monday, Britain's coalition government released its National Security Strategy, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty. On Tuesday, it released its Strategic Defense and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty. On Wednesday, it announced around $130 billion in government spending cuts over the next five years, the most severe cuts in government spending since World War II.
The National Security Strategy is a well-crafted document -- one that articulates enduring interests, identifies and evaluates risks, and sets clear priorities. In the process, Britain's new National Security Council examined a range of potential contingencies and decided that the gravest threats facing Britain are those posed by terrorism, cyber warfare, foreign military crises, and natural disasters.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government is to be commended for cutting government spending to rein in Britain's ballooning deficit. However, the British experience provides a cautionary tale of how social spending can crowd out defense. Cameron's campaign pledge to fence off Britain's hugely expensive and inefficient National Health Service (NHS) meant that other parts of the government, including the armed forces, were forced to bear the brunt of cuts. As a consequence, 42,000 British servicemen and defense civilians will lose their jobs so that thousands of NHS bureaucrats can keep theirs.
As severe as the cuts are, they could have been worse -- and still could be. Defense received an eight percent cut, while other parts of the British government were slashed by as much as 25 percent. Although the Royal Navy will scrap its flagship aircraft carrier and forfeit the ability to launch aircraft from sea until at least the end of the decade, Britain will launch a new carrier, one that will be equipped with a catapult to allow it to launch the naval variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If Britain follows through with the plan, it will acquire a carrier that is more interoperable with the U.S. Navy than its current carrier. The Cameron government also committed itself to modernizing Britain's sea-based nuclear deterrent, but will reduce the number of launch tubes on the submarines as well as the number of warheads they will carry.
Still, one can't help but feel that the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) are further evidence of a diminution of Britain's role. They represent but the most recent sign of the Europeanization of Britain -- the emergence of a Britain that not only focuses closer to home, but also one that increasingly emulates Continental habits.
The SDSR notes that even with the cuts in the British defense budget, Britain will still meet NATO's target of devoting two percent of GNP to defense. That Britain now judges itself by that standard is disconcerting; Britain is, or should be, more than a super-sized Belgium.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government continues to push forward with a program of spending cuts almost unprecedented in its audacity. To be sure, it is an audacity born of necessity. The Sceptered Isle is in dire budgetary straits, with a deficit at 12 percent of GDP and national debt at 56 percent of GDP. In a fiscal policy twist on Samuel Johnson's aphorism, nothing "concentrates the mind wonderfully" like the prospect of a national credit rating downgrade and punishment from the bond markets. Britain's massive increases in domestic spending over the past decade and a half were possible only as long as tax revenues from a booming financial sector were able to fund it. With the economic crisis and the collapse in private-sector growth, a new fiscal reality has set in.
Against this backdrop, the Cameron government is conducting its Comprehensive Spending Review across all government budgets, as well as the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) of the national security accounts. Beyond the green eyeshades of these reviews, on a deeper level Britain as a nation is undergoing a traumatic yet healthy debate about the proper size and scope of government -- not only on how much or little government should spend but also on what government should and should not do. In the domestic sphere this is exemplified by Cameron's vague-but-appealing notion of a "Big Society" where citizens and communities take on larger roles in self-governance, and more particularly by initiatives such as Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's ambitious welfare-to-work reforms.
In the realm of national security, the debate is about whether Britain should continue to be a global power or should downgrade itself to regional power status. Here the divides are not between small and big government advocates, but between different visions for the Britain's role in the world. Even limited government conservatives believe that a fundamental responsibility of the state is providing for national defense, which is beyond the competence or jurisdiction of the private sector. Only a strong military can defend the nation against the "Queen's enemies." Likewise with diplomacy; only the Foreign Office can represent the nation in affairs of state and advance its values and interests abroad.
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A year ago I speculated on what a Tory foreign policy might look like. One thing that I didn't anticipate is that it might look so much like David Cameron himself. That is, not content to delegate the national security portfolio to capable ministers such as William Hague and Liam Fox, Cameron has emerged as a major foreign policy player in his own right. Whether a distinctive "Cameron Doctrine" in British foreign policy might emerge remains to be seen. What appears so far is an effort to reassert the U.K.'s posture on the global stage through building new alliances, repairing old ones, bolstering British commerce, and generating headlines through "straight talk."
Cameron's first weeks in office were heavy on domestic policy, marked by his proposed dramatic budget cuts and decentralizing National Health Service reforms. Although evoking outrage from the usual interest groups (especially public sector unions), such measures will be indispensable for returning the U.K. to fiscal solvency, restoring broad-based economic growth, and reigniting the U.K.'s moribund entrepreneurial sector. More recently, Cameron's global travels from the U.S. to Turkey to India have been marked by a series of brash statements. Whether confident assertions of national interest (defending BP in Washington), shameless pandering (criticizing Israel in Turkey), or impolitic yet true criticisms (denouncing Pakistan's ties to terror groups in India), Cameron is serving notice that he intends to be the main voice of British foreign policy.
Less noticed but equally interesting has been Foreign Secretary William Hague's tenure. Hague and Cameron seem well-aligned on policy though divergent on style. True to form, Hague has been systematically laying out a vision for the U.K.'s role in what he calls the "networked world" through a series of thoughtful speeches. Fortunately Hague seems to have eschewed his previous declinist rhetoric about the U.K.'s global posture; perhaps with the responsibilities of office comes a renewed commitment to U.K. leadership.
Herewith a few questions and question marks on the Cameron government's foreign policy:
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An Oval Office Address to the
Nation (OOAN -- to coin a new acronym) is a "big gun" presidential communication
tool -- perhaps only a special address to a joint session of Congress is bigger.
All administrations keep the OOAN powder dry for an emergency, but few
have husbanded it as carefully as has the Obama administration. This will be
the first Obama OOAN, but he has previously conducted at least three addresses
to a joint session of Congress, not counting the annual State of the Union
With the president's polling numbers falling and domestic and international problems mounting, the time is fairly ripe for Obama to deliver his first OOAN. Fairly ripe, but not fully ripe, because the usual peg for an OOAN is missing: either a) A recent tragedy or b) A recent potentially pivotal development in an ongoing challenge or c) an announcement of an abrupt change of course. (Technically, this last one was not an OOAN because it came not from the Oval but from the Library, so it was a LAN.)
By contrast, President Obama will deliver his OOAN: a) on day 57 of a slow motion crisis, that b) has not just had an on-the-ground pivot (on the contrary, the most recent development, a lightning strike igniting a fire on a recovery vessel seems like an almost Biblical piling-on of trouble), and c) apparently without any dramatic change of course to announce.
I could be wrong about a dramatic policy announcement, of course, but I don't think so because the pre-speech spinning by White House advisors has emphasized how President Obama, simply by virtue of giving his first address, can rhetorically deliver a pivot in the story. He will apparently use the address to reinforce some old talking points ("We have been on the job since Day One") that have not sold well and to refocus attention on old energy proposals that have been stuck in Congress. He will make news simply by giving the speech, but it seems unlikely that the news will be about new policies that will produce a pivot in the Gulf or on the shores.
All of this is domestic policy, of course, so why raise it in a blog devoted to foreign policy? Several reasons:
For our country's sake, I hope tonight's OOAN does represent a pivot point in this crisis. Obama has famously risen to the occasion, especially when the occasion is a "big speech." By rolling out their long-saved big gun, the White House has indicated they think this is the President's biggest speech thus far, so he may once again deliver on his promise.
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What does the ongoing BP oil spill imbroglio in the Gulf have to do with the war in Afghanistan? Probably not much, from the vantage point in the United States. But here in London this week, the two issues are being linked in some ways that should be worrisome for the Obama administration.
Two particular stories have featured in headlines in the major U.K. newspapers this week: BP's plummeting share price from President Obama's rhetorical attacks, and the London visit by Secretary Gates and General Petraeus urging a continued strong U.K. troop commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan (followed by Prime Minister David Cameron's surprise visit to Afghanistan today). Separate though they may be, the two stories are combining to produce one narrative in the minds of many British citizens: the Obama administration is attacking a pillar of our economy while urging us to sacrifice even more blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
BP of course bears the most blame for the catastrophic spill, as well as responsibility for stopping it and remedying the damage. And in the first few weeks after the rig exploded, there was little sympathy for BP even here in the United Kingdom. Most U.K. media coverage initially focused on the horrific environmental damage being wrought as well as the Obama Administration's apparent insouciance as the oil continued to gush.
But now that attacking BP (or "British Petroleum" as Obama calls it, even though that has not been the company's name since 1998) has emerged as a core tactic in the Obama Administration's scramble to arrest their own falling political fortunes, they risk doing real damage to relations with a key ally and the largest non-U.S. troop contributor to Afghanistan.
As recently as two months ago, BP was Britain's largest company by market cap, and is a core holding of most British pension funds. In other words, it is not just BP executives or investors in the City who take a hit when BP's share price plummets, but also every average Brit who has any type of stake in a retirement fund. Which is most of the country -- many of whom have also grown weary and skeptical of their nation's military role in Afghanistan.
Last week had already demonstrated one unintended consequences of the administration's intensifying campaign against BP: the vocal attacks that drive the share price down also erode billions of dollars in market value and diminishes the resources BP will have available to pay for the damage, clean-up, and compensation. The White House needs to be mindful of not going too far and triggering a second unintended consequence of further eroding British support for their force posture in Afghanistan. Fortunately at the U.K. end, Prime Minister Cameron, at least up to this point, is trying deftly to strike a balance and not further escalate tensions with the United States either over BP or over Afghanistan.
Pursuing a unified grand strategy is always a hard task, but this situation shows even more acutely the challenges of linking domestic and foreign policy such as the Obama administration's National Security Strategy attempts to do. Last week it was American strategic interests in Asia that got short shrift, as Obama cancelled (again) his Australia/Indonesia trip to focus on the BP spill. This week it is the U.S.-U.K. relationship that is suffering, as a beleaguered White House tries to shore up its domestic political standing at the expense of relations with a key ally.
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As Britain is now into its fourth day of a hung parliament, some of the gallows humor here in London is asking whether the country is in fact the world's newest ungoverned state. Not that Britain is at any risk of becoming the Somalia of the North Sea, especially since the negotiating process thus far between David Cameron's Tory team and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats has been calibrated to send positive, reassuring signals to the British public and (perhaps even more importantly) global markets. A range of outcomes remains possible, but as the very well-informed Tim Montgomerie points out, a Cameron-led minority government (with LibDem support) seems most likely at this point, rather than a formal Con-LibDem coalition government that elicits much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the bases of both parties.
But considering that the last hung parliament dates back to 1974, this is almost unprecedented territory. And a possible Labour role in forming a government even lurks in the background, as the hapless Gordon Brown clings to the doorway at 10 Downing Street while dispatching Labour emissaries for covert overtures to the LibDems.
Still, it is very likely that within a matter of days (or perhaps even hours), some type of deal will make David Cameron the newest British prime minister. He will preside over a hung parliament and unstable government, and likely have to call a new round of nationwide elections within a year. Consistent with the no-one-really-knows-what-will-happen theme, herewith four reasons why the U.K.'s hung parliament is a bad outcome -- and two reasons why it could be a good thing.
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The final frenetic 24 hours of campaigning are kicking in before tomorrow's elections here in the United Kingdom. And there is a tenuous yet palpable sense that momentum has shifted in favor of David Cameron and the Conservatives. Whether this late surge will be enough to overcome a hung parliament and produce a Tory governing majority remains anyone's guess.
Five factors all broke in the Conservatives' favor over the past week. First, the feckless Gordon Brown made his open microphone "bigoted" voter gaffe -- and in one fell swoop further demoralized his Labour base while reinforcing the concerns of undecided voters that he is just another calculating politician whose public pandering belies a private condescension towards the populace. Second, Cameron acquitted himself well and by most accounts won the third (and most important) television debate. Third, because Brown's "oops, is this mic on?" moment highlighted voter concerns over unchecked immigration, it also shined an unfavorable spotlight on the Liberal Democrat platform's support for an immigration amnesty -- just when Nick Clegg's burst of fame was starting to lose its luster. (And you know you have an immigration problem when even immigrants themselves are complaining about excessive immigration). Fourth, already leading with their chin on immigration, the LibDems took another punch courtesy of the week's headlines about Greece's economic travails. The LibDem platform's support for Britain joining the Eurozone, already unpopular, looks even less appealing to voters reading about a 110 billion euro bailout of the profligate Greeks. Fifth, the Tories enjoyed almost a clean sweep in media endorsements, which still carry a lot of weight here. Besides the expected support of the Telegraph, the Sun, and the Daily Mail, the Conservatives picked up some pleasant surprises in backing from the Times, Financial Times, Daily Express, and the Economist.
The Economist is especially bracing on the dire state of the British economy:
But in this British election the overwhelming necessity of reforming the public sector stands out. It is not just that the budget deficit is a terrifying 11.6% of GDP, a figure that makes tax rises and spending cuts inevitable. Government now accounts for over half the economy, rising to 70% in Northern Ireland. For Britain to thrive, this liberty-destroying Leviathan has to be tackled. The Conservatives, for all their shortcomings, are keenest to do that; and that is the main reason why we would cast our vote for them.
As my colleague Alan McCormick points out in today's Wall Street Journal Europe, the UK's only prospect for a sustainable economic recovery will come from empowering private sector entrepreneurs, not further expansion of government. And it is here that prospects of a hung parliament -- and its accompanying gridlock, credit rating downgrades, weakened pound, and stagnation on economic reform -- may have chastened voters into staying with the Tories rather than flirting with a protest vote for the LibDems. Sometimes wishing "a pox on all their houses" can bring, well, a pox on all houses including one's own.
Yet even with these five favorable breaks, polls are still tight and the Conservatives may not run the tables they need in enough marginal seats to snag a majority. Thursday night will be a very late night indeed as the UK, and the world, watches the returns come in.
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Last night's British election debate, the second of three televised face-offs between David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg, was ostensibly focused on foreign policy. But the fact that the "foreign policy" portion included disquisitions on the personal commuting habits of each candidate and whether the Pope should be banned from visiting Britain in September (as Dave Barry would say, no I am not making this up), show just how little national security issues matter in this election. Which is unfortunate, since there are serious questions at stake about Britain's role in the world, transatlantic relations, the European Union, and Britain's own security challenges.
Ironically the most forceful statement on national security last night came from the otherwise ponderous Gordon Brown. After some vapid hand-wringing by Nick Clegg on the question of upgrading Britain's nuclear deterrent, Brown took Clegg to the woodshed with an emphatic "I say to you Nick -- Get real! Get real about the dangers we face..." At which point Cameron astutely realized that piling on Clegg further might be overkill, and instead chimed in that "I never thought I would utter these words: I agree with Gordon."
Britain's relationship with the United States received only passing reference, which is perhaps telling about the anemic state of the Special Relationship. At least the reference came in an exchange in which Clegg tried to defend himself against Brown's charge of being "anti-American," hopefully showing that being perceived as anti-American isn't an automatic vote-getter.
Clegg himself remains somewhat enigmatic and unformed on foreign policy. On the one hand, as Nile Gardiner has shown, Clegg and his LibDem platform have served up an abundance of muddleheaded or downright disconcerting statements on a host of national security issues. (And this is a guy who once interned at the Nation). But a seasoned Conservative MP who knows Clegg describes him privately as someone who actually hasn't paid much attention to foreign policy until now, and who would act more responsibly as he learns the issues or actually takes power.
The prospect of a "Prime Minister Clegg" still remains somewhere between far-fetched and inconceivable, just based on the realities of the electoral map, though the prospect of a hung parliament has gone from far-fetched to very possible. Judging from the immediate post-debate polls, last night's contest gave a slight edge to Cameron and Clegg, leaving Brown to just moil along. But judging from newspaper headlines today anointing Cameron the winner and headlines earlier in the week attacking Clegg, the fickle British media has now turned against Clegg (last week's media star) and is taking off his varnish with a vengeance. Close elections sell papers, and there will be a lot of papers sold in Britain between now and May 6.
Still, it is not clear if the debate will move the needle on the polls very much. In a more sober-minded assessment, a senior Tory told me today that, "tactically the debate was a draw, but strategically it was a defeat for us" because by not scoring a clear win, Cameron missed an opportunity to regain the initiative and recapture his erstwhile strong lead. Only two weeks remain until election day. That is a very short window by any political standard, but then considering how much tumult this race has experienced in the last week alone, almost anything is possible.
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It is a good day to be a Liberal Democrat. Now before loyal Shadow Government readers think that we've completely jumped the shark, let me clarify: we are not throwing our lot in with the McGoverns, Dukakises, and Boxers of the world. Rather, it is a good day for the Liberal Democrats here in the U.K., a party generally unknown to Americans but which raised its profile in a big way with leader Nick Clegg's performance in last night's first-ever televised U.K. election debate.
The LibDems are a curious amalgam of a party with no precise analogy in the American context. The best I can come up with is a mix of Blue Dog Democrats, 1990s Perotistas, a twist of Ralph Nader, a dash of Ron Paul, hints of Dennis Kucinich and John Anderson, and a family tree going back to the Democrat-Republicans of the early 19th century. They are in general more economically centrist than Labour, but also to the left of Labour on other issues such as European integration and civil liberties. Though created just two decades ago in a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, in at least some strains they trace their roots back to Gladstone.
The rough consensus here in London today is that Clegg -- who is also known to Josh Keating's readers as "Christopher Hitchens's former intern" -- outperformed frontrunners Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (For an indispensable overview of coverage and commentary, check out ConservativeHome. And for those readers on coffee break who want to view a quick summary for themselves, check out this cheeky but, in a way, accurate 60-second version of the debate). Part of the story is that, as Stephan Shakespeare put it, Clegg won just by being there alongside the two main candidates. The visual effect was of three equally viable contenders. Clegg capitalized on this rhetorically by dismissing Brown and Cameron as "these two" and presenting his party as the untainted, fresh face of reform.
Yet while there are few if any plausible scenarios in which, even in a hung parliament, Clegg would actually become Prime Minister, his performance last night served notice that the LibDems will be a force in this election and might even be able to leverage some important Cabinet posts. Both Labour and the Conservatives have lost much of the initiative, and now need to reckon with LibDem arguments and candidates. Look for the Tories to even more vigorously dust off their slogan from the 1992 elections that "a vote for the LibDems is a vote for Labour." And look for David Cameron especially to target Clegg as much as Brown in the next debate on Thursday.
None of this is to say that either Cameron or Brown actually "lost" the debate last night. Both turned in respectable performances, and Cameron in particular had some strong moments, especially in his opening and closing statements. As a colleague of mine put it, the real winner is the British electorate, as this inaugural TV debate seems to have sparked renewed interest in the election and added a new dimension for the voters to evaluate. With two more debates to come (one on foreign policy, one on the economy), this story is just beginning.
What does all of this mean for the May 6 elections? Hard to say. Most polls continue to show a narrow but consistent Conservative lead. The big unknown is voter motivation and turnout. Overall voter cynicism and apathy still remains high, a result of the Parliamentary expenses scandal, economic malaise, and failure of any candidate to develop a truly compelling message. Some of Cameron's advisors will counsel him to tack even more to the center and toss some artful "me toos" in Clegg's direction. But as the sagacious Nick Wood argues, Cameron's better shot at victory will be to lump Clegg and Brown together and draw a clear distinction for the Conservative message. Last week's story of Tory opposition to Brown's proposed National Health System tax hike was a good start, and helped elicit strong support from the business community.
One of the U.K.'s top pollsters told me this week that voter motivation and likely turnout levels remain unusually hard to decipher even at this juncture. Will Labour's traditional bases in the industrial north be motivated to show up at the polls? Will Conservative voters, energized by a fresh slate of candidates and fed up with being out of power since 1997, stay hungry enough to win? The pollster said that not until the polling numbers of early next week come out -- reflecting weekend campaigning as well as any enduring debate effect -- will we see an accurate picture of the playing field.
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As if the embattled "special relationship" between America and Britain needed any more drama, along comes this report from the U.K. Parliament saying that the Special Relationship doesn't (or at least shouldn't) even exist anymore. According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee:
The use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."
Well. If this is intended to help Labour in the upcoming elections, it is just silly. But if this in fact heralds a substantive change in U.K. policy, it is both troubling and foolish. Without the United States, the United Kingdom's only other viable option for a distinctive international partner is the European Union. Yet Brussels will continue punching way below its bureaucratic weight in foreign and defense policy -- if it can even develop a coherent foreign and defense policy.
Thankfully, it does not seem that the U.K. Foreign Office agreed with the report. The Foreign Ministry press office, in a head-scratching case of trying to change "happy" to "glad," gamely asserted that if the relationship isn't "special," at least it is "unique." According to their spokeswoman:
It doesn't really matter whether someone calls it the 'special relationship' or not. What matters is that theUK's relationship with the US is unique, and uniquely important to protecting our national security and promoting our national interest."
To give the benefit of the doubt to the press officer, her statement tries to maintain some manner of distinction about the U.S.-U.K. alliance. But whether it is called "special" or "unique," it is undeniably in trouble.
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What if -- perish the thought -- a Shadow Government contributor made a policy suggestion that turns out not to work? In the interest of self-scrutiny and blogosphere accountability, that just might be the case with this recommendation by yours truly from a couple months ago that President Obama build a close relationship with soon-to-be-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron. A recommendation I still stand by -- but only if Cameron actually does get elected. Which is now by no means certain, as the May 6th election date looms and UK voters begin to tune in. A spate of polls here in the UK in the last couple of weeks show the Conservative lead dwindling to the point of discomfort. Yes, the Tories are still ahead, but margins as low as 4 points are nothing like the steady lead of about 15 points that they had enjoyed for much of the past year -- numbers that it seems were driven more by voter disdain for Labour and Gordon Brown than by a genuine embrace of the Tories. And given that the electoral map is heavily biased towards Labour, as Gerald Warner points out the Conservatives probably need to win 41 per cent to Labour's 29 per cent to ensure an effective majority. Put another way, David Cameron needs to get 2 million more votes than Gordon Brown merely to draw even in Parliamentary seats.
Add to this the unprecedented television debates scheduled between Cameron and Brown which introduce a whole new wild card -- surprisingly, such televised campaign face-offs haven't ever before been done here in the land of Prime Minister's Question Time. While popular expectations are that the deft Cameron will have the upper hand, Brown might be able to play the underdog role to his advantage and pleasantly surprise just enough viewing voters to tip the scales. And playing (to put it in American terms) the Ross Perot-Ralph Nader-spoiler role, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats just might win enough seats to be king-makers in a coalition government (though don't take the comparison too far -- Clegg is a more credible leader than Perot or Nader, and the Lib Dems are a viable third party). With all of this electoral uncertainty, even talk of a possible "hung Parliament" is becoming commonplace.
Even as President Obama's future British counterpart remains unclear, the overall U.S.-U.K. relationship is in rocky straits. Existing strains in the alliance were worsened by Secretary Clinton's awkward remarks about the recent Falklands imbroglio. Her words may have caused hardly a blip in the United States but dominated headlines here in London, and provoked another bout of British hand-wringing over alleged American disdain and the perilous state of the Special Relationship. Yet just when U.S.-U.K. ties are in serious need of sustained attention from each nation's respective head of government, on both sides of the Atlantic domestic issues are consuming all of the oxygen (e.g. the health care debate in the United States; elections and the economy in the United Kingdom).
Letting this drift continue will only harm vital U.S. interests. Many of the front-burner international issues that the Obama administration faces -- such as Afghanistan, Iran, energy security, and the fragile global economy -- cannot be addressed without active European involvement, and the U.K. still remains the key linchpin for US ties with NATO and the EU. Not to mention that President Obama still needs to forge a real friendship with at least one and preferably several world leaders. His delayed-but-upcoming trip to Indonesia and Australia offers a chance to connect with, respectively, SBY and Kevin Rudd. The White House should add to this list the U.K. Prime Minister who emerges on May 6 -- whoever he is -- and sit down with him very soon thereafter for fish and chips, a pint of bitter, and a nice long talk.
Peter Macdiarmid/WPA Pool/Getty Images
One disappointing lesson for the Obama administration from its first year in office is that stratospheric personal popularity in Europe does not necessarily translate into specific policy achievements. Whether the issue was major increases in NATO contributions of combat forces to Afghanistan, resettling Guantanamo detainees, the Copenhagen climate change summit, or even Copenhagen's "talk to the hand" rejection of the Chicago Olympics bid, in Europe Obama's poll ratings were high but achievements were low.
Part of the administration's challenge is that while public opinion can indirectly help shape a policy environment, it is political leaders who directly make policy choices. And in this regard, President Obama has yet to find a reliable European counterpart. Nicolas Sarkozy has at times been outright critical of him, Angela Merkel has been cool, and Silvio Berlusconi is, well, Berlusconi. Then there is Gordon Brown, whose strained relationship with Obama never really recovered from its initial awkwardness.
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By Dov S. Zakheim
Kabul has changed in many ways since I was last here in early 2004. Traffic is impossible at rush hour; there are many more signs in English; more shops are open. And the city has become a military citadel -- the military bases have grown, security precautions have been ramped up significantly. Parts of the city look like an expanded bunker.
Troop morale, including among allied forces I spoke to, remains high. There weren't many among the troops here who heard the speech -- there is a nine and one half (yes, one-half) hour difference with DC time. All agree, however, that President Obama made the right decision regarding an additional troop surge. As one officer put it, it was important that the president supported the commander on the ground, as, it appears, most troops here do.
But some of those I spoke with, military personnel and police trainers, both Americans
and allies, men and women, are deeply troubled by Obama's announcement that troops would withdraw
by July 2011.
A Canadian and Brit (female) both felt that the announcement could undermine their mission. A young American soldier (male) could not stop talking about the negative impact of the announcement. Two American officers, one male and one female, both agreed that the Taliban now have an incentive to "wait us out."
I have no doubt that unless the administration clarifies what it means by its statement regarding withdrawal, the announcement will have a serious, and negative, impact on morale here. And that would be unfortunate. Our forces, and those of our friends and allies, do not expect to "transform" this poor backward country. But they are determined to leave this place only when Afghanistan is safe and stable and not a moment sooner. They need to be reassured that this mission is intact and that their political masters intend to see it through.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
By Will Inboden
The leaked cables from U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry this week add a new wrinkle to President Obama's protracted decision-making over his Afghanistan strategy. Eikenberry's cables apparently urge against increasing the US troop posture because of his concerns about Afghan President Karzai's corruption, competence, and legitimacy. Eikenberry and Karzai have long had a poor relationship, so while Eikenberry's concerns are no surprise, the public airing of them at this juncture is. The timing of the cables as well as their leak this late in the process is curious, given that Gen. McChrystal's request for more troops has been known since August, the senior Obama team's deliberations have been going on for a couple of months, and by many accounts the Administration plans to announce its decision within weeks. The cables and the leaks might represent some new front in the administration's internal battles, although there are hints that they might also reflect Obama's own search for an exit strategy.
This is a further negative side effect of Obama's prolonged and increasingly public indecision on Afghanistan: it exacerbates internal administration divisions as they become more visible and thus less easy to gloss over or repair. It is also fraying relations with allies, especially America's most important NATO partner in the mission, as British leaders experience growing frustration with Obama's delays while facing declining public support for their own troop deployment.
But the greatest damage may be in Kabul where the Obama administration has taken their Karzai challenge -- the difficulty of working with an erratic and corrupt leader -- and turned it into their Karzai crisis, as the Afghan president becomes increasingly uncooperative and increasingly vocal in his criticisms of American intentions. Criticisms which, as Jackson Diehl notes, may just be reflecting some of Obama's own words. Which is why the White House needs to remember that Obama's rhetoric on Afghanistan has at least four important yet different audiences: the American public; leaders in allied nations; American troops deployed to Afghanistan; and the Afghan people and government. His rhetorical efforts to assuage American domestic anxieties about the Afghan mission might inadvertently also signal lack of resolve to allied leaders and U.S. troops, and needlessly alienate Karzai even further.
If there is one overriding lesson from Iraq, it is that security precedes political progress. As Peter Feaver observed, the Bush administration faced similar acute concerns about Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. But then (as now in Afghanistan) it was neither right nor feasible for the United States to forcibly install another leader. And as important, the Bush administration realized that the first step needed in Iraq was to restore basic security with a new counterinsurgency strategy and troop surge. This eventually created the space for political progress and substantially improved performance by Maliki. The parallels with Afghanistan are hardly exact, but the principle remains the same: The first step towards a more honest and effective Afghan government will be protecting the Afghan population and defeating the Taliban.
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By Will Inboden
A default conversation starter in political and media circles here in London goes something like "So, what will the Conservatives actually do once they take power next June?" (the assumption being that victory is inevitable; at the least very likely). For all of David Cameron and the Conservatives' political success in becoming poised to win nationwide elections, their policy priorities remain elusively vague. This is certainly true on domestic policy, but even more so on foreign policy, which remains an enigma to many British observers. The politics of this are understandable. Why spell out specific policies which might elicit criticism and turn off some voters, especially when Gordon Brown's manifest governing failures make almost any opposition party look good in comparison?
Yet how Cameron and his team will actually conduct British foreign policy will do much to define their governing success or failure. Moreover, the UK remains America's most important ally, and what kind of partner a Cameron government would make is (or should be) of considerable interest to the Obama administration. Here are some observations on a potential Tory foreign policy:
1. No Sudden Moves. The main thing that jumps out about a Tory foreign policy is that nothing jumps out. The Conservatives have not spelled out any substantial changes of course from the current UK global posture and priorities: stay close to the US; cautious linkage with Europe; rhetorical homage to multilateral institutions; a wariness towards Russia; ambivalence about Afghanistan; a polite increase in economic pressure on Iran; and general encomiums about development, democracy and human rights, and free trade. Not much here that Gordon Brown's government would disagree with. The Tories even want to avoid giving rhetorical offense, hence their description of their foreign policy as "liberal Conservative." A phrase which, to American ears, sounds as incoherent as "free market socialist", but is at least plausible when Cameron explains it: affirming universal rights and freedoms yet mindful of human frailty and skeptical of utopianism.
2. What about the Great Powers and Grand Strategy? Tory statements on the great powers and grand strategy are thus far generally anemic. Take Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague's major foreign policy address last month on a Conservative foreign policy. A grand vision, and the great powers, were both either absent or at best at the margins. There was a discussion of bilateral irritants with Russia, and a nod towards improving ties with India, though little appreciation for India's dramatic trajectory as a democratic power in its own right. Elsewhere on Asia, Hague showed some ambivalence about China, and barely mentioned Japan -- a worrisome oversight of the world's second largest economy. Germany and France only show up in the context of reforming EU processes, not as powers in their own right. Also thus far lacking among Tory leaders is any substantial geo-strategic analysis of the state of the world. There are the usual platitudes about globalization, the challenge of failing states, balancing interests and ideals, etc. But there is little of sophistication said about the underlying shifts in balances of power, the tension between the nation-state and sub- and trans-national actors, the salience of ideology, or the tectonic forces of history.
3. Process, Process, Process. Perhaps the most specific Tory policy commitments are about administrative process, specifically to establish a National Security Council (based on the US model) to coordinate the activities of the various ministries, and to launch a national security review process modelled on the new US Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review. Both are sensible steps, especially since ineffective processes can easily derail sound policies. But the prominence of process reforms in Tory statements inadvertently reveals the paucity of other substantial new policy ideas.
4. Diminished Resources, Declining Power. Tory foreign policy statements include repeated acknowledgements, both implicit and explicit, that the UK is a declining power with diminishing resources and influence. In Hague's words, "looking a decade or two ahead, powerful forces of economics and geography elsewhere in the world will make it harder for us to maintain our influence... Britain stands to lose a good deal of its ability to shape world affairs." This comes from a combination of Britain's century-long decline from its global power status, and the more recent budget shocks caused by the economic crisis. Yet there is the risk that British decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an excuse for maintaining domestic welfare spending at the expense of national security needs, or for passivity in international politics. To his credit, Hague makes clear that the Conservatives will work to arrest this decline and try to maintain British power and influence, though with an inescapable sense that world forces are aligning elsewhere.
5. Ambivalent about Aid; Anemic on Trade. The recent Tory Green Paper on development reaffirms the dubious commitment to devote .7 percent of GDP to overseas development aid. "Dubious" because this number derives originally from a public relations campaign and not a strategy, smacks of the old and discredited massive budget transfers approach, when what is really needed is a combination of more effective aid giving and a more robust focus on business enterprise as the only sustainable driver of growth and enabler of human capital. Fortunately elsewhere the Green Paper does just that, and also focuses on making aid monies more accountable for results and more tied to governance reforms. On promoting free trade, the Tories need to show not just lip service but leadership, particularly against the prevailing global climate of protectionism.
6. What about jihadism? The Conservatives generally display a clear-eyed understanding and resolve about the jihadist threat. Cameron has spoken out eloquently in this regard. Yet perhaps the most bracing discussion of jihadism comes not from a foreign policy official but from Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, whose book Celsius 7/7 (the title a rebuttal to Michael Moore's scurrilous Fahrenheit 9-11) places Islamism alongside other totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism, and who may exert more influence on national security than one would expect from an education official. Cameron and his team will need to be more specific and more consistent in placing the Afghanistan mission in the context of the conflict with global jihadism, especially if it means bolstering their troop deployment amidst declining public support.
7. America (Still) Sets the Agenda. One gets the inescapable sense that British Conservatives (like Labour) still look to the United States to set much of the foreign policy agenda, irrespective of which president occupies the White House. On policy, Cameron and Hague peer towards American leadership on front-burner issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East Peace Process, as well as relations with China or strategic shifts such as the ill-fated "reset button" with Russia. While Cameron has made a clumsy effort to put some rhetorical distance between the US and UK with his call for a "solid but not slavish" relationship, all serious signs from the UK side are that the Anglo-American relationship would continue to flourish under Conservative leadership. How the Obama administration would respond remains to be seen; will Churchill be welcomed back into the Oval Office?
Even amidst the vagaries and uncertainties, in the overall measure the Tory foreign policy team, particularly Hague and Liam Fox, seem to possess wisdom and gravitas. Moreover, there are not any Tory leaders or policies that elicit significant concern -- there is nothing even close to a latter-day Lord Halifax in this Shadow Cabinet. Yet nor are there any Conservative ideas yet advanced that seem compelling in the face of the profound challenges of today's world, or that inspire hope for a landmark new era in British foreign policy. This may yet come -- often a leader's convictions and capabilities do not emerge until in the crucible of power, and it is events still unforeseen that will define the Tory tenure. For now, one hopes that Conservative leaders are studying up and thinking carefully about Britain's role in the world, even if they are not saying much.
By Will Inboden
As an American living in London, I took particular notice of this recent news item that President Obama has removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and returned it to the British Government. It is hard to think of any good reason for this curious gesture, which has sparked understandable consternation among conservative commentators and understandable heartburn among British diplomats as well.
Of course the Churchill bust was originally presented by Tony Blair to President Bush -- and to the American people -- shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. While it is one thing for a new president to change the carpet and dress code in the Oval Office, it is another thing altogether to summarily dismiss such a poignant symbol of the Special Relationship. Even allowing that overall, Americans probably revere Churchill more than the Brits themselves do, he is still regarded in the UK as among their greatest of leaders.
Besides leaving an empty shelf in the Oval Office (never mind President Obama's reported rationale that the Churchill bust was "replaced" by one of Lincoln, as a Lincoln bust was already on display from Bush's time), this puts Gordon Brown in a further predicament when he becomes the first European leader to visit the Obama White House. What other former British leader's likeness should Brown bring as a gift to replace Churchill in the Oval Office?
We can hope that Brown will present a bust of an inspiring notable such as a Thatcher, Lloyd George, Gladstone, or Disraeli. But then Brown has not distinguished himself as very politically adroit or attuned to the ingredients of greatness. And he does have at least a few bad options to consider. Here are three former British prime ministers whom I hope Brown will not present to Obama for display in the Oval Office:
1. Jim Callaghan, the British Jimmy Carter, who presided over the disastrous recession, stagflation, labor strife, and all-around misery of the late 1970s, and whose failure to undertake the needed free market reforms paved the way for Thatcher's rise to power.
2. Lord Frederick North, who led the way in raising taxes on the American people. Yes, on Americans. Lord North governed from 1770-1782.
3. And of course, Neville Chamberlain, who made good on his promise to engage in dialogue without preconditions with the foremost tyrant of the day.
I invite readers and others to put forward their own suggestions. But then again, maybe it isn't too late to ask the British government if the Churchill bust can be returned to the Oval Office after all.
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.