Peter Feaver raises a very interesting issue in his recent post on choosing an optimal policy for Syria. He suggests that we should not dwell on policies that would require a vigorous wartime leader, since he doubts President Barack Obama's ability to play that role.
At one level, this seems an eminently pragmatic suggestion. Different leaders have different strengths. As a nation, Americans just made a leadership choice -- why not recognize the constraints that choice may pose and limit the policy discussion accordingly?
And yet ... this line of argument puts me in mind of the summer of 2008. Friends who worked for the Treasury Department or White House at that time have told me that they could see the signs of economic trouble on the horizon and knew they did not have tools adequate to the task. Recall that a major reason George W. Bush's administration did not bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was that it did not think it had the authority to do so.
But there was advance warning of the economic crisis that exploded that fall. Bear Stearns had failed in the spring of that year, six months before Lehman broke. Bear and Lehman had been two institutions noted for their very high leverage ratios. When the first went, there were more than a few hints that the second might follow.
So, if Bush administration officials felt themselves ill-equipped, why did they not seek greater authority from Congress that summer?
The answer I've gotten is that it seemed futile to make the request. The Congress of that time was controlled by Democrats who were in no mood to expand Bush's authority. The president's public standing and political capital were at low ebb. So the administration took a pragmatic approach of the sort Feaver advocates and did not bother to ask for additional tools. They took their constraints as given.
That was likely a disastrous decision for the Republican Party. It may have cost the 2008 election and thus, in turn, the 2012 election. Had the Bush administration yelled that danger was approaching and had Congress subsequently refused a well-thought-out request to act, there might have been a very different narrative in the fall of 2008. Instead of "reckless Bush administration deregulation driving the economy into a ditch," it could have been "farsighted Bush administration stymied by petty Congress."
Perhaps that's fantasy. It would have required an objective media, for example. Proposed financial legislation may not have been enough to quell the tingling in the legs of the media we actually had. But it's hard to believe that it wouldn't have been better to push Congress to do the right thing, rather than sitting quietly and looking inept and culpable.
I wonder whether there's an analogy with Syria. If we all sit around and accept that we're at a constrained optimum and the constraints bind, we effectively excuse leadership failure. Doing that can have long-run repercussions, particularly when we next make choices about our leaders.
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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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This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history.
The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq.
All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.
Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.
Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."
Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:
First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication.
Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?
What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case.
I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.
Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all.
Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq.
None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.
Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.
Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap.
A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that.
Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.
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While America's attention has been drawn to last week's terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December.
Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond -- particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.
The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration's zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama's team scrapped the Bush administration's missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB.
Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient. The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:
"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.
Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.
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One of the many caricatures that has arisen in the years since 9/11 is the charge that President Bush's primary exhortation to the American people in the aftermath of the tragedy was simply to "go shopping." I have heard this charge countless times, usually offered as a laugh line, in the manner of a snarky late-night comedian's monologue about "how dumb can someone be to think that shopping is a response to terrorism?"
In some of his early remarks after 9/11, President Bush did urge not to be afraid to "go shopping for their families," as part of a general appeal not to be intimidated from an ordinary daily routine. And he even encouraged Americans to "go to Disneyworld," as part of broader appeal to renew confidence in the safety of air travel.
Of course, he also made it clear that the struggle against terrorists would involve many other sacrifices and, over the years, much more was asked of the American people. But President Bush also made it clear that the terrorists would like to intimidate us out of normal living and that if we give into that fear we can compound the damage inflicted by the terrorists. So part of a comprehensive response that mobilized all elements of national power -- military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and psychological -- would involve ordinary Americans refusing to surrender to fear of terrorists.
I am reminded of this when I hear President Obama praise the way Bostonians have refused to be cowed or when I see Thomas Friedman suggest that a rational response to the Boston terror attack is to "schedule another Boston Marathon as soon as possible." Friedman is not alone in responding this way, and some even argue that embracing resilience in the face of terror is as important as trying to prevent or avenge the terror.
I think resilience -- including the psychological resilience with which a society refuses to give into terrorist intimidation -- is indeed an important response. For most Americans it may be their most tangible and practical way to connect their own daily lives to the broader societal challenge.
I do wonder, however, whether the current reasonable response will get caricatured as did Bush's reasonable response.
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.
My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):
1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.
2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.
3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.
4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.
And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:
5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.
Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.
I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.
Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:
1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?
2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.
3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?
4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?
5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?
The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.
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Here on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how long it will be before we can discuss the war free from the contamination of myths. It may be sooner than many myth-purveyors expect. Just listen to this lecture by Mel Leffler, one of the leading historians of American diplomacy. He has been a harsh critic of Bush-era diplomacy and his speech does accept some of the conventional critique (specifically about the "hubris" of the Bush administration), but his analysis is far more balanced than the conventional wisdom on the topic. All in all, Leffler's analysis is a promising example of myth-busting.
For my part, the myths that get thrown at me most often have to do with why the war happened in the first place. Here are five of the most pervasive myths:
1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration did explore the possibility that Hussein might have collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney (along with some officials in the secretary of defense's office) in particular believed this hypothesis had some merit, and in the early months gave considerable weight to some tantalizing evidence that seemed to support it. However, by the fall of 2002 when the administration was in fact selling the policy of confronting Hussein, the question of a specific link to 9/11 was abandoned and Cheney instead emphasized the larger possibility of collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. We now know that those fears were reasonable and supported by the evidence captured in Iraq after the invasion. This has been documented extensively through the work of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which examined the captured files of the Hussein regime. A 2012 International Studies Association panel sponsored by the CRRC on "Saddam and Terrorism" was devoted to this topic and spent quite a bit of time demonstrating how those who insist that there were no links whatsoever simply rely on a poorly worded sentence referencing "no smoking gun" of a "direct connection" in the executive summary of the 2007 "Iraqi Perspectives Project - Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Documents" report and ignore the evidence of links and attempted connections uncovered in the report itself as well as subsequent work by the project.
2. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it wanted to forcibly democratize Iraq. The administration was, in the end, committed to using force to defend the democratization project in Iraq but this myth has the logical sequence out of order. The correct sequence, as Leffler and myriad memoirs and contemporaneous reporting demonstrate, is this: (1) Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD); (2) Bush was also committed not to making the mistake of Desert Storm, namely stopping the war with Hussein still in power and concluded that confronting Hussein must end with either full capitulation by Hussein or regime change through war; (3) given regime change, the best option for the new Iraq was one based on pluralism and representative government rather than a "man on horseback" new dictator to take Hussein's place. To be sure, the Bush administration greatly underestimated the difficulty of the democratization path, but democratization was not the prime motivation -- confronting the WMD threat was. Democratization was the consequence of that prime motivation.
3. The "real" motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush. These conspiracy theories are ubiquitous on the far left (and right) fringes, and some of them were endorsed by mainstream figures such as President Obama himself. All of them seem impervious to argument, evidence, and reason. The absence of evidence is taken as proof of the strength of the conspiracy. Contrary evidence -- eg., that Israel was more concerned about the threat from Iran than the threat from Iraq -- is dismissed. Mel Leffler's lecture on Iraq is a bracing tonic of reason that rebuts many of these nutty charges, but I suppose true believers will never be convinced.
4. What Frank Harvey calls the "neoconism" myth -- that the Iraq war was forced upon the country by a cabal of neoconservatives, who by virtue of their political skill and ruthless disregard for truth were able to "manipulate the preferences, perceptions and priorities of so many other intelligent people..." who otherwise would never have supported the Iraq war. Frank Harvey painstakingly reconstructs the decision process in 2002 and documents all of the ways that the Bush administration took steps contrary to the "neoconism" thesis -- eg., working through the United Nations and seeking Congressional authorization rather than adopting the unilateralist/executive-only approach many Iraq hawks were urging. (Leffler makes similar points in his lecture). Harvey goes on to make an intriguing case that had Al Gore won the election in 2000, he would have likely authorized the Iraq war just as Bush did. Harvey has not fully convinced me of the latter, but he usefully rebuts much sloppy mythologizing about Gore's foreign policy views, documenting how Gore was, in fact, the most hawkish of officials on Iraq in the Clinton administration. At a minimum, Harvey proves that the Iraq war owed more to the Clinton perspective than it did to then-candidate George W. Bush's worldview as expressed during the 2000 campaign. The neoconism myth serves a politically useful function of fixing all blame on a specific group of Republicans, but, as Harvey shows, the truth is not quite so simplistic.
5. Bush "lied" in making the case for war. I have addressed this myth before. It is a staple of the anti-Iraq/anti-Bush commentary -- and not just of the pseudonymous trolls in blog comment sections. John Mearsheimer, one of the most influential security studies academics, has written a book built around the claim that leaders regularly lie and that Bush in particular lied about Iraq. Mearsheimer claims "four key lies," each one carefully rebutted by Mel Leffler.
When one examines the historical record more fairly, as Leffler does, the "lying" myth collapses. This doesn't absolve the Bush administration of blame, but it does mean that those who allege "lying" are themselves as mistaken as are the targets of their critique.
All of these myths add up to the uber-myth: That the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were all wrong and the arguments made against the Iraq war were all right. Sometimes this is recast as "those who supported the Iraq war were always wrong and those who opposed the Iraq war were always right." Of course, many of the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were wrong. Hussein had not yet made by 2002 the progress in reviving his WMD programs that most intelligence services thought he had made. Many specific claims about specific WMD programs turned out to be not true.
On the other hand, many of the arguments made by those who opposed the Iraq war turned out not to be correct, either. For instance, Steve Walt cites favorably a New York Times advertisement paid for by a group of academics (virtually all of whom I consider to be friends, by the way). Some of their arguments were prescient, more prescient than the contrary claims by war supporters -- the warning about the need to occupy Iraq for many years, for example -- but others not so much. It turns out, for instance, that there is considerable evidence of Iraq-al Qaeda overtures and attempted coordination, precisely what the Bush administration worried about. Likewise, contrary to what the war critics warned, neither Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons nor their skill at urban warfare posed much of an obstacle to the invasion -- of course, insurgency tactics such as urban warfare did pose serious obstacles to the occupation and reconstruction phase of the conflict.
Moreover, Walt and the others he cites favorably almost to a person opposed the surge in 2007, and while some of them now admit that they were wrong about this others still cling to the thoroughly rebutted view that the surge was irrelevant to the change in Iraq's security trajectory. (Ironically, the debate over the surge may be where the grip of mythology lingers the longest. See how Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in an otherwise sensible piece of myth-busting, makes the error of claiming that it is a myth to believe that the surge worked. I have already answered the argument put forward by Chandrasekaran and others and so won't take the time to do it again.)
The point is not that Walt and others were fools or crazy to doubt that the surge would work -- on the contrary, they were squarely within the mainstream of conventional wisdom at the time. Rather, the point is that neither side in the Iraq debate has had a monopoly on wisdom.
I know I haven't had a monopoly on wisdom either and, indeed, my own personal views on Iraq have evolved over time. I opposed putting the Iraq issue on the front-burner in the 2001-2002 time frame and refused to sign a petition arguing for that because I thought the higher priority involved chasing AQ out of ungoverned areas. When the Bush administration did put the Iraq issue on the front-burner over the summer of 2002, I found the arguments of Bush opponents to be over-drawn and unconvincing -- in particular, the anti-Bush position seemed not to take seriously enough the fact that the U.N. inspections regime had collapsed nor that the sanctions regime was in the process of collapsing -- and so I found myself often critiquing the critics. I found the Bush argument that Hussein was gaming the sanctions and poised to redouble his WMD efforts when the sanctions finally collapsed to be a more plausible account of where things were heading absent a confrontation (and as we now know from the interviews with Hussein after his capture that was exactly what he was planning to do).
However, as the march to war accelerated in February 2003, I was one of those who recommended to the administration that the deadline be extended in the hopes of getting yet another UNSC resolution, one that would provide a united international front at the outset of the war. The administration rejected that course, and, in retrospect, I doubt whether what I was calling for was achievable.
Since the war started, I have had my fair share of criticisms for how the war has been handled, but I have always supported the position that having invaded, we now had to succeed. I supported the surge, and I opposed the Obama administration's decision to walk away from the commitment for a small stay-behind force that would be a makeweight in internal and regional balances of power.
I feel more confident about the positions I took on Iraq later in the war than the ones at the outset. But more importantly, I am increasingly confident that the judgment of history will be more nuanced and less simplistic than the judgment of contemporary critics of the war. And, hopefully, less contaminated by myth.
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Elliott Abrams' new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration's efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider's account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else -- it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors' motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy's sake.
Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams' work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort. Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn't help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being.
Abrams' treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration -- and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State -- with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before -- unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat's widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone's agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats -- as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans -- decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter.
What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats' to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy's sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that.
In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams' very good recounting.
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While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States."
Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today's Washington Post. President Obama's posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy -- from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."
In other words, the Obama administration's hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq."
This does not mean that a more assertive American role -- whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures -- would have been cost-free or even successful. Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken. We can't know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome. But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration's approach has been disastrous.
What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present -- in other words, don't assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don't just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear.
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First the good:
1) The Obama administration has stopped calling its efforts to focus on Asia the "pivot" which implies turning your back on other crucial parts of the world.
2) The Obama administration is building upon diplomatic and strategic efforts of its predecessors and has dropped the White House adolescent trash-talking of "we are back" in Asia.
3) These efforts include serious attempts to build the free trade area of the Pacific first envisioned by the George H.W. Bush administration; upgrading relations with Taiwan and Japan begun by the Clinton administration; and the breakthrough in relations with India, the creation of "mini-laterals" such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia, and the movement of more forces into the Pacific that was the work of the George W. Bush administration.
4) For its part the Obama administration has started a relationship with Burma, tightened relations in South East Asia, and increased the tempo of U.S. military presence in the region.
Now the bad:
1) There is a danger of overpromising. The new defense guidelines were released in January 2012 at same time as talk of a "pivot" began. Concurrently, details of a new operational concept called Air Sea Battle were released, that despite protestations to the contrary, is more or less about how to defeat China in a conflict. This coincidence of events has regional allies believing that the U.S. has carefully developed some new "secret sauce" to keep the peace in Asia. The reality so far is two Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, some good speeches in Vietnam, and some marines in Australia.
2) The administration is making critical strategic choices that will affect its posture in Asia. One choice is to slash the defense budget. It already did so in 2009 to the tune of about $400 billion. This year the Budget Control Act will kick in lopping off hundreds of billions more. The president has every right to choose the salvaging of and creation of more social welfare programs over the defense that is needed in Asia, but it is dangerous to misalign your stated strategic goals and your resources -- this is the famous "Lippman Gap."
3) The defense cuts badly affect the forces we need in Asia. The stealthy F-35 program has taken a big hit. The navy has said it needs anywhere from 500 to 313 ships in its fleet. It will end up with around 285 total ships by the end of the next five year defense program. The much touted next generation long-range bomber is underfunded -- by 2017 it is unlikely that we will have more than an industrial competition to build it, which means years before it comes on line. The list goes on: missile defense takes a hit, as does most certainly the workhorse of any Asian contingency -- attack submarines.
4) India. There is simply no way to check China's power if Afghanistan descends into chaos and India has to respond. In the rough and tumble of international politics it is very difficult to get regions to conform with U.S. government flow charts. India can only fully integrate into East Asia if there is some semblance of security along its land borders.
5) It is also unrealistic to think we can spend less time on the Middle East in order to spend more time in Asia for two reasons. First, the Chinese are competing with us in that critical region to mostly bad effect. Second, our allies depend on the stability we provide in the Middle East for oil.
Now the ugly:
1) Things with China will get ugly. Our talk of rebalancing is a response to Chinese power and provocations. The competition is intensifying. We repeat the mantra that our efforts in Asia are not about China as if saying it makes it true. In reality, politics, like physics, has an action-reaction cycle. While we are doing the right thing, China certainly views our actions as hostile. We should expect China to up its game militarily.
2) Related to the above, we need presidential leadership to explain to a war-weary public the need to maintain the power advantage in our competition with China. The public will ask understandable questions like why die for Taipei, or Manila or even Seoul and Tokyo? (Remember the questions "why die for Danzig or Berlin?") The debate will arise and could get ugly. It would be better to start this public education campaign now. We seek no conflict or quarrel, rather the commitments we are making are to maintain our position in a critical part of the world.
The best course is not to cut down commitments at this dangerous time, but rather to bring resources in line with those commitments. Any other course will not lead to a "peaceful retrenchment." Rather, if the U.S. stopped playing the role of benign hegemon in Asia chaos would ensue. No one would lead efforts to further build upon a economically vital region, stem proliferation, or keep great power peace. Deterrence is expensive, chaos more so. The president should explain to the public what he means to do in Asia and why.
The Obama administration's two major weekend summits, the G-8 gathering at Camp David and the ongoing NATO meeting in Chicago, happen to be occurring as the U.S. presidential campaign gets underway. That coincidence of timing presumably helps explain an otherwise baffling statement by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon posted over at the Cable previewing the meetings:
Look for the Obama team to drive home the argument this weekend that the G-8 and the NATO summit are a testament to Obama's ability to repair alliances frayed during the George W. Bush administration.
"It had been an exhausting period leading up to 2009, and the president set about reinvigorating -- indeed, one of the first sets of instructions that we got during the transition, at the beginning of the administration, was to set about really building out and refurbishing, revitalizing our alliances," Donilon said.
"No other nation in the world has the set of global alliances that the United States does... And alliances, I will tell you from experience, are a wholly different qualitative set of relationships than coalitions of the willing."
The best explanation I can muster for this is that Donilon is channeling David Axelrod and indulging in some spin for the campaign "silly season." One hopes that the Obama administration doesn't actually believe that its record on alliances is so exemplary, because to do so means that the notorious White House-bubble must be even thicker than usual. Yet I suppose that as long as the media gives a free pass on these kinds of claims, they will be made. Even the Humble Cable-Guy, normally vigilant to call out any manner of fluff, spin, or distortion, seems to have missed this one.
Campaign spin notwithstanding, the reality is different.
First, taking Donilon's own timeline, the Obama administration inherited a set of alliances in solid shape. When Obama took office the Bush administration had largely repaired bilateral relationships that had been admittedly frayed during its first term. Gone were the "old Europe/new Europe" lines, the feuds with Chirac and Schroeder, etc. By 2008, America had very solid relationships with allies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, as well as emerging partners such as India. Expanding these partnerships and inviting rising powers to the high table of international politics, Bush had even convened the first-ever G-20 summit in Washington to deal with the eruption of the global financial crisis.
Second, the Obama administration's record on relations with U.S. allies is wanting, to say the least. American allies and friends on almost every continent have been neglected or undercut by the Obama administration. These include specific countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, and Colombia. While the specific issues may have varied -- whether neglected and re-litigated free trade agreements, abandoned missile defense commitments, cancellations of state visits, shirking of defense needs, rebuffs on energy cooperation, dithering on multilateral interventions, hectoring on fiscal policy, or just thoroughgoing neglect -- all of these nations, among them America's most important allies and partners, have suffered poor treatment at the hands of the Obama administration. Anecdotally, one can hardly visit a European capital without hearing private complaints from European diplomats over the neglect they feel from the Obama administration.
Third, Donilon's sanctimonious dig contrasting "alliances" with "coalitions of the willing" was unflattering as well -- to the Obama administration. After all, this White House has, for justifiable reasons, made frequent use of coalitions of the willing on its most significant foreign policy initiatives, such as the Libya War (which included non-NATO members such as Sweden, Qatar, Jordan, and UAE), the P-5 Plus One coalition on Iran, the "Friends of Syria" Group, and the Afghanistan War (forty non-NATO participants).
The Obama administration's efforts to keep blaming Bush have an almost perfunctory quality. If anything, they reveal this White House's own anemic record to base re-election on [insert obligatory "three envelopes" joke here]. I have some sympathy for the administration in that working with allies in practice is much harder than campaign rhetoric would indicate. But here the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is significant.
Obama campaigned claiming he would improve America's global image, but his treatment of allies has undermined our nation's credibility. In a way, Obama's international reputation seems to mirror his domestic reputation. At both home and abroad, personal affection for him far exceeds approval for his policies. He has been successful at cultivating his personal image in the world, but in the process America's standing has been diminished. In terms I hope our Anglosphere allies will appreciate, this White House may talk like Ringo Starr, but too often it has acted like Mike Reno.
Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
A growing chorus in Washington seems convinced that those of us who served in the George W. Bush administration oversold the benefits of the U.S.-India strategic partnership forged from 2005 to 2008. The centerpiece of that partnership was the bilateral defense agreement of 2005 and a civilian-nuclear agreement ratified by both countries' parliaments and blessed by the international community in 2008. Many critics are drawn from the non-proliferation community that largely opposed the civ-nuke deal because of India's original sin of developing nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to which India is not a signatory -- and even though it has a clean proliferation record. Their case has legs today less because they were right about the civ-nuke deal -- they were not -- than because the Obama administration has presided over a period of drift in Indo-U.S. relations that has been matched by drift in Delhi on India's reform agenda. The result has been a benign sense of disappointment in each country, despite the compelling structural and ideational logic that continues to push the relationship forward.
Several of us recently debated the question of whether U.S.-India relations were "oversold" at the American Enterprise Institute. Today's Financial Times charges that U.S.-India relations are "wilting" in light of various policy spats between the two countries that belie the mutual optimism of 2008. These claims need to be put in perspective. This is the first of several posts that will try to take the long view by highlighting how extraordinary the transformation of U.S.-India relations actually has been in light of their complicated history -- and why the U.S. strategic bet on India, and India's on America, remains smart policy for the long term, despite short-term disappointments.
Recall the context in which U.S. and Indian officials, nearly 15 years ago, sought to forge a new relationship. For half a century, the American and Indian governments were alienated by India's refusal to sign on as one of Washington's Cold War allies; by the U.S. military alliance with Indian rival Pakistan, forged in 1954; and later by America's tacit alliance with Indian rival China, countered by India's tacit alliance with Moscow. Following wars with both Pakistan and China, India launched a covert nuclear weapons program, leading the United States to muster its allies to impose sweeping sanctions on technology trade with India -- further stifling its development after state socialism had already undercut India's growth potential. Even after the Cold War, Washington and New Delhi spent the 1990s feuding over proliferation, culminating in the imposition of even more U.S. sanctions following India's1998 nuclear weapons test.
It was Indian, not American, leaders who then suggested that India and the United States should break from a half-century of discord to transform their relations for a new era. According to its leaders, India had tested nuclear weapons in response to existential threats from China and the ally it had helped to develop nuclear weapons, Pakistan. India was the world's largest democracy, and its people had friendly views towards the United States. Converging threat perceptions and common values meant that India and the United States were in fact "natural allies," according to then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They should forge a partnership to manage the dangers of the 21st century and to amplify the strengths of the world's biggest open and pluralistic societies. President Clinton's unprecedented support for India over Pakistan in their near-war of 1999, followed by his 2000 trip to India in which he echoed Vajpayee's call for an alliance of interests and values, made possible the breakthroughs that came later.
India's change of administrations in 2004 did not change New Delhi's support for developing a new partnership with the United States. Nonetheless, Bush administration officials who worked with both Indian governments faced a stark challenge. Not only did the Indian and U.S. bureaucracies have no tradition of working together, but the international sanctions regime the United States had put in place following India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion remained in place. Then-State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow called this legacy the "Gordian knot" which statesmen in Washington and New Delhi somehow had to untie in order to forge an enduring foundation for a transformed partnership.
The answer was the 2005 U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. Under its terms, India would separate its civilian and its military nuclear reactors, submit the former to international monitoring, make a series of binding commitments not to proliferate nuclear materials or technologies, and in return secure the support of the U.S.-led international cartel governing trade in civilian nuclear components for India's access to these materials on the international market. The judgment of not just the Bush administration but of the United States Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group was that the nuclear non-proliferation regime would be stronger if India were a part of it on these terms -- rather than remaining excluded and untethered as a nuclear weapons state not bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For all the attention garnered by the civilian-nuclear agreement, the first long-term partnership agreement between Washington and New Delhi was actually a 10-year defense cooperation agreement signed in June 2005. Most countries without a long history of partnership begin their engagement with trade and diplomatic agreements and only after building trust move on to military cooperation. The opposite held true between the United States and India, in part because of the compelling security threats -- from China, Pakistan, and terrorism -- that drew them together. The defense agreement was a particularly radical step for India to take -- having allied with the United States' primary competitor during the Cold War and condemned America's military primacy in the international system throughout the 1990s, Indian leaders decided by the mid-2000s that the United States was the partner of choice in helping to modernize the Indian military and supply the needs of the world' biggest arms importer.
The success of U.S. and Indian policy from 1998-2008 lay in creating a transformed basis for relations between the world's largest democracies for the new century. The United States would secure not an ally but an independent partner that could help anchor an Asian balance of power otherwise at risk from growing Chinese strength. Washington would be able to point to India's model of democratic development as an alternative to the "Beijing consensus" of authoritarian development that otherwise might appeal to swathes of the developing world. The complementarities between America's hi-tech economy and India's rich human capital would spur growth in both countries. India would secure as a sponsor for its rise and development the international system's predominant power. This seemed like a good bargain from the vantage point of 2008. It remains one today, despite the fact that both India and America have disappointed each other on several key issues over the past three years. These will be the subject of my next post.
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Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has distinguished himself once again, this time claiming that the Obama administration's refusal to send the 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea shows that President Obama is tougher than President Bush. It's amazing the White House is reduced to juvenile boasts of this sort in an effort to burnish their foreign policy achievements; even more amazing is that the deputy national security advisor seems innocent of awareness that the policy he extols is both (a) a repeat of the Bush administration; and (b) a departure from candidate Obama's promises of a brighter American foreign policy.
The article sounds like an Onion parody, but is worth reading to get a full sense of just how contorted is the logic associated with President Obama's claims.
Rhodes says "what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past." Wrong. What this administration has done is to exactly repeat the cycle of hoping to lure the North Korean government into cooperative behavior and then withholding our promised assistance when the North Korean regime proceeds with its nuclear and missile programs. The North Koreans claim bad faith, just as they did when the Bush administration withheld fuel oil after an earlier test.
President Obama came to office promising a new era of American foreign policy, an era of hope and change, in which we would reach out to our enemies, practice a new kind of positive engagement to attenuate the image of America as arrogant and overpowering. But the deputy national security advisor now celebrates the Obama administration withholding humanitarian assistance to badly malnourished people because of the provocative actions of an authoritarian regime. "Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," he said, as though it were a major foreign policy achievement.
He also criticized the Bush administration for having removed North Korea from the terrorism list, and for continuing to negotiate with the North Korean government to try and walk back its nuclear program. But note that the Obama administration has not taken any action to return North Korea to the terrorism list, nor has it broken off negotiations with North Korea. Last time I checked, the Obama administration favored negotiations and had limiting nuclear proliferation as a major foreign policy objective.
Not only has the administration returned to the policy of its predecessor, it has done so while claiming that policy was unduly lenient. Savor that for a minute: the same Obama who held an outstretched hand to the evil and erratic leader of North Korea is now claiming special foreign policy prowess for adopting the policy he condemns in his predecessor.
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A great hero for our time, Andrei Sannikov, was freed on Saturday afternoon.
For readers of Shadow Government who don't follow Belarus, this is very important. Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe, run by Alexander Lukashenko. Strategically located among Russia, Poland, and Ukraine -- Belarus has its own history but has been basically a Russian satellite since Lukashenko was elected in 1994. The only European country to be thrown out of the OSCE, Belarus has become more repressive with time. The December 2010 elections were considered farcical by all accounts. Andrei Sannikov, a former Deputy Foreign Minister and diplomat, was the most prominent opponent to challenge Lukashenko in those elections.
Lukashenko runs the country as a puppet state based on the worst instincts and whims of Vladimir Putin. One problem has been that Belarus is politically oppressed but has enjoyed relatively benign economic times, which many speculate is due to subsidized Russian energy that Russia provides Belarus and that runs to Western Europe through Belarus. Lukashenko enjoys some political support but that has dropped over time and he remains in power illegitimately using harsher and harsher tactics.
After the rigged elections, Sannikov was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and Amnesty International listed him as a prisoner of conscience. He was beaten while in custody and his life was in very serious danger as his health deteriorated. His four-year-old son was threatened with being removed from the custody of his family and put into a foster home. A key aid of Sannikov's died under very suspicious circumstances. In short, the regime has put incredible pressure on Sannikov and his family. He has kept faith and risked his life for a free Belarus.
The United States and Europe have maintained sanctions on Belarus for several years. Europe has been divided on Belarus and the U.S. especially under George W. Bush was particularly vocal against the bad actions of the Belarus government. The Obama administration has maintained sanctions, but is perceived to be less animated about seeing the end of the Lukashenko regime. The German Marshall Fund with offices in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere maintained Belarus on the agenda in ways that others could not, as sanctions require a transatlantic approach in order to work.
It is possible that Lukashenko is using the Sannikov release as an opening gambit to try to have the sanctions lifted. A free Belarus would likely want a foreign and economic policy similar to Kazakhstan -- with the ability to engage and balance among Europe, the U.S., and Russia on a free basis -- not operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia. The best medium-term outcome would be for Lukashenko to not seek another term in 2014, seek a cold exile in Moscow, and allow for democratic elections in Belarus. A free Belarus would be a big win for the United State and Europe. In the meantime, this weekend is a moment of relief and joy.
Yesterday the United States and North Korea issued separate and conflicting statements regarding a way forward in the Six Party Talks. While this should come as no surprise, the most notable policy change is the administration's willingness to move forward with 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea.
Linking humanitarian assistance to progress or even the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent and until recently the Obama administration and the State Department have never stated this new position publicly. Many would say that this would be an attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.
During the Bush administration the U.S. and other six party member states agreed to provide assistance in the form of Heavy Fuel Oil as a condition for North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and missile tests. While this created some controversy, there was no link to the humanitarian needs of North Korea.
Until now, the United States has always assessed the delivery of humanitarian assistance on the basis of need, not politics. This is not to say that we blindly give assistance to rogue governments. The U.S. Agency for International Development is well versed in navigating this sensitive subject. Experienced teams will put conditions on humanitarian aid, taking extraordinary steps to assure what commodities are needed most and what areas of a country have been most affected. USAID will then elaborate on how it can best respond to humanitarian emergencies.
The Obama administration has been assessing the food situation in North Korea and deliberating on what to do for almost a year. This delay and the statements released by both governments will fuel speculation that the Obama administration decided to wait until now and use humanitarian assistance as leverage on Kim Jong-un's new regime to get them back to the negotiations table.
There were signs earlier this week when, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, linked humanitarian food assistance to the stalled six party talks aimed at North Korea's de-nuclearization.
Admiral Willard said, "In terms of these negotiations that have been ongoing, I have been supportive of them, with regard to the United States' proposals for conditional food aid into North Korea and the preconditions that have come with it, which now include discussions of cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing."
I experienced the reality of negotiating with the North Koreans firsthand in late 2007 and early 2008 on three trips to Pyongyang as the lead American negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid where each of these meetings was chaired by First Vice Minister, Kim Kye-gwan. These discussions were done entirely separate from the six party negotiations.
The United States reached an agreement with North Korea to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework ensuring food would reach the North Korean people who needed it most.
This agreement remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues. The North Koreans agreed to improved access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, to allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit American and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.
This program came to an abrupt halt in March 2009 with the expulsion of U.S. NGOs who were in-country monitoring the distribution shortly before the regime conducted another round of nuclear tests and long-range missiles.
The subject of food assistance should have been brought up separately during the meeting between the United States and North Korea. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is well versed in both sides of these negotiations as noted by North Korea's claim that the U.S. has "promised" to offer 240,000 metric tons of food assistance with the prospect of increasing the amount.
What will the Obama administration do when North Korea breaks its promises yet again and humanitarian assistance is now linked directly to the six party talks? One wonders if there was ever a clear strategy within the administration in its attempt to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.
Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images
Given how many times Newt Gingrich rose from the proverbial electoral grave to become campaign-relevant again, I will not join the chorus claiming the fight for the Republican nomination is over. However, I will endorse another cliché: the primary season is at an important turning point, or at least it should be. It is high time the candidates focused on providing a compelling alternative to President Obama rather than providing a litany of reasons for detesting the other Republicans in the race.
The urgency is especially acute in foreign policy and national security. I have been fretting about this for some time now and I concede that the worst of my fears have not been realized; there won't be a crack-up within the party over foreign policy. Moreover, I endorse the conventional wisdom that the election will be won or lost on domestic policy and the economy.
However, that is no reason to settle for sloppy critiques and platforms in the area of foreign policy. Republicans must come to terms with the fact that this will be the strongest Democrat incumbent on national security and foreign policy they have faced in decades. This has more than a whiff of damnation with faint praise, since both President Clinton and especially President Carter were hobbled with substantial national security baggage during their reelection campaign. But for precisely that reason, I think Republicans have sometimes settled for an intellectually lazy critique because, given how weak the opposing party's record is, that seems to have sufficed.
Not this time. Obama has serious national security weaknesses and a record that warrants critique, but it is immune to superficial sound bite attacks. Soft on protecting America? The SEALs bought Obama immunity on that one when they took down Bin Laden. Naïve about the Iranian threat? Candidate Obama was demonstrably naïve about Iran and governed that way for the first half of his term, but since then has talked tough and marshaled strong sanctions.
Even issues where he has made bigger mistakes, like the failure to secure an agreement for stay-behind forces in Iraq, he may not be as politically vulnerable because they have been popular mistakes. The Iraq case illustrates my larger point well. Obama's hands-off approach to Iraq merits criticism (and I have supplied some here, here, and here, but it is hard to present the argument in a fashion that is brief enough to engage but fair enough to withstand administration rebuttals). Thus, Obama may have been hands-off personally, but the administration was not; Vice-President Biden devoted considerable time to the Iraq file, and with Ambassador Crocker on the ground, the administration had a good team in place. Moreover, the lion's share of the blame for the failure rests with the Iraqi leadership. I think reasonable people can question the way Obama handled the Iraq file, but it requires a nuanced line to explain how the administration missed the mark. Offer a sloppy critique, and the administration and its allies in the media swat it down with "But Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement" -- and all too often the discussion ends there.
The Obama team's rare invocation of a Bush policy in the defense suggests two fruitful lines of contrast that the Republican nominee should develop:
1. Obama's foreign policy successes have come when he has followed Bush policies; his failures have come when he has struck out on his own. I have made this point before, but it bears reemphasis. Republicans need not fear giving Obama credit for his successes because to a remarkable extent they have come where he has governed like a Republican not like candidate Obama.
2. Obama has made relatively effective use of the tools and instruments of power that he inherited from his predecessor -- it raises the question, what new tools and instruments of power is Obama bequeathing to his successor? The SOF capabilities that produced the successful hunt for Bin Laden were honed on his predecessor's watch, especially by General McChrystal in Iraq. Likewise with tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with drone strikes. The financial levers that are squeezing Iran today were perfected by the Bush team. The key elements of Obama's Asia strategy -- the ones that have the best chance of yielding positive results -- were built under Bush and expanded under Obama. (Of course, in each of these areas, the Bush team took capabilities that were at an even more embryonic stage under Clinton's watch, so there is plenty of credit to be shared on both sides of the aisle. By the way, this is precisely how things transpired during the first Cold War, as the history of key programs like stealth technology demonstrate.) In some of these cases, Obama wisely kept many of the same architects who did the innovative work under Bush and expanded their influence and authority. So, the Republican nominee should ask, in what ways will Obama's successor have a larger and more powerful toolbox than the one Obama got to use?
Framing Obama's national security successes this way cuts sharply against the triumphalism that characterizes the White House communications operation. And, as the saying goes, it has the additional virtue of being true.
Republicans do not need to fear an accurate and fair evaluation of the record. But they will have to do the hard work of supplying it. Careless sound bites won't cut it this time around.
Update: When I said Ryan Crocker above of course I meant James Jeffrey. Crocker was an able Ambassador to Iraq under Bush and is now an able Ambassador to Afghanistan. James Jeffrey replaced Chris Hill in 2010 and, by all accounts, has worked assiduously to advance U.S. interests in Iraq.
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Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.
But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.
This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.
The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.
This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.
Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.
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Two separate stories throw in sharp relief the art form known as "first-draft-of-history" journalism. Two of the most commercially successful practitioners of this art form are in the news in ways that point to the limits of the art form.
In the bigger story, the Obama administration is fighting back against a damaging account of policy dysfunction, as recounted in Ron Suskind's latest book, Confidence Men. Suskind previously was a darling of Democrats for his earlier work attacking the Bush White House. For nearly a decade, Suskind was quoted as an authoritative source, especially for juicy anecdotes that seemed to legitimize caricatures of a megalomaniac Bush administration. Now it is Obama's turn, and the sauce for the goose seems to taste more bitter than it did for the gander.
Supporters of Obama are hard-pressed to distinguish between the Bush and Obama era books, especially when Suskind makes clear in the titles that he sees them as paired chapters in a longer narrative about American politics: notice how the tagline of the subtitle of the Obama book, "...the Education of a President" echoes the Bush book "...the Education of Paul O'Neill." And the administration's attempts to discredit Suskind have an added obstacle to overcome: Obama gave Suskind extensive authorized access to White House players, including a long on-the-record interview with President Obama himself. Despite all of this, the White House push-back has been especially vigorous, with several of the people who supplied the most damning quotes denying on-the-record that they said what Suskind claims they said.
For my part, I have some sympathy for the White House line in this dispute. While I have quoted Suskind's earlier Bush reporting myself from time to time, I have always done so with more than a grain of salt. One of my hobbies during my days in the Bush White House was trying to track down the facticity of the more prominent critiques of the Bush administration, the sort of critiques that were accepted uncritically as gospel truth by my academic colleagues. Some of the critiques had merit -- Vice President Cheney's influence really was hard to determine because he kept his counsel in large group meetings and no one had read-outs from his private meetings with the president -- but for many more I could find no strong factual basis. In particular, I could not verify some of the more sensationalized claims by Suskind. I came away from that exercise with a healthy dose of skepticism that I wished other consumers of his work shared.
Perhaps now they will. Consider one of the juicier Suskind quotes, Anita Dunn's claim that "This place would be in court for a hostile workplace ... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women." Here is what Anita Dunn told Politico about that quote: "This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn't true." In other words, what Politico calls a "flat denial" coupled with a claim that Suskind fabricated a quote.
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It's incredibly discouraging to see former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney vituperatively reopen disputes from George W. Bush's administration. His scorched-earth excoriation of critics makes little distinction between those who would recklessly endanger America and those who also had the country's -- and the president's -- best interests as their motivation. This cannot assist the conservative cause; in fact, it serves to remind us how much the vice president's actions have impeded acceptance of the very policies he advocates.
By his own testimony, Cheney supported, and continues to support, all the policies that most incensed the administration's critics and even some of its supporters: "enhanced interrogation techniques," the Guantánamo prison, politicization of intelligence, assertion of executive authority, sharp-edged uses of military might, and support for Iraqi expatriates as a government-in-waiting after the 2003 invasion. He denigrated both the policies (diplomatic engagement, working through international institutions) and the people (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) that argued his approach was unduly driving up the cost of achieving the president's aims.
Give Cheney his due: Many of these policies were and are essential to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The proof of which is Barack Obama himself -- a candidate who ran for president on opposition to those policies, but then adopted nearly all of them once in office, including indefinite detention and trial by military tribunal.
But if Cheney deserves credit for staunchly advocating necessary policies, he also deserves considerable blame for crafting and enacting those policies in ways that increased the cost to the president for adopting them, and made them more difficult to sustain.
The most damaging example was Cheney's vociferous support for reclaiming executive authority instead of working with congressional leaders to pass legislation that would demonstrate broad political support and establish the basis for judicial review. It freighted terrorism policies with the added requirement of subordinating the other branches of government. As Ben Wittes (whose blog Lawfare is essential reading on these issues) has often argued, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress -- as the authorizations for the use of military force showed -- and much that needed to be achieved could have been achieved with skillful engagement of the machinery of American democracy.
Executive privilege had consequences beyond setting solid foundations for sustaining the policies, too. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor powerfully argued at West Point in 2005, it left the U.S. military in the unfair position of being both "our combatants and our conscience," because the executive and legislative branches of government failed to provide them the proper framework for their actions.
But Cheney displays a contempt for Congress and those who don't agree with him to an extent that is unhealthy in a free society. The former vice president is now a private citizen. Conservatives who are public citizens, engaged in running for office and crafting policies, would do well to remember how much Cheney's approach hurt both the president he served and the causes he sought to advance. Having the right answer isn't good enough. The president and his cabinet must also engage the levers of democracy to build a broad base of support, especially when the policies have few good alternatives. His legacy has made it more difficult for conservatives to support and enact the very policies he advocated.
Like my colleague Peter Feaver, I found Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes' interview with FP's Josh Rogin troubling. I share Peter's concern that the Obama Administration is early to the party of claiming credit and is disrespectful to the commitments and sacrifices our allies have made in other wars. But even beyond the unseemliness of claiming credit where others have fought and died, the Obama Administration's strategy of regime change neither encourages regime change nor addresses the hard cases where American national interests are threatened.
It is absolutely true that if local forces rebel and receive sufficient external support, they can change their countries, and that change has the greatest domestic legitimacy and can be achieved at a very low price to the United States. But it also means that we will not actually change regimes; we will advocate insurgencies against governments and assist at the margins. That is a legitimate strategy. It is not, however, one in which we should be claiming credit for the outcome. We have been marginal players in Libya, and our efforts do not merit the accolades the Administration is giving itself.
President Barack Obama's model of regime change is letting others do the work while we take credit for what they achieve. It's a cost-effective way to shape the international order, provided that local forces and other countries are willing to undertake the hard work. But do we think the experience Britain and France have had with the United States in Libya operations is likely to inspire them to the forefront of other regime changes? Do we think rebel forces in Syria or North Korea believe this model of regime change assists their cause? It is a strategy that depends fundamentally on others to create change, and accepts that we will not force a change of government -- no matter how evil or threatening to our interests that government is -- unless the conditions of domestic insurgency and multinational effort are in place.
Rhodes' approach remains innocent of consideration that it solves the easy problems, not the hard ones. Would Afghanistan have overthrown the Taliban or Iraqis overthrown Saddam Hussein on that model? Would the "growing international chorus of condemnation" that Secretary Clinton applauds for getting us "where we need to be" on Syria coalesce to undertake missions that demanding? In fact, we know the answer: it is not changing the regime in Syria, because that's too hard.
Which is to say that the Obama Administration's regime change strategy is actually not comparable to the Bush Administration's, because it isn't dealing with the hard cases. Before they can claim the laurel of a superior approach, the Obama Administration ought to have to answer how they would have dealt with Saddam Hussein remaining in violation of 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, whose behavior toward U.N. weapons inspectors strongly suggested progress on nuclear weapons, who not only had chemical weapons and had used them on an enemy in war but had also used them on its own population, and all in the frightening aftermath of attacks on the United States. Nor is it clear from Ben Rhodes' self-congratulatory complacency how they would have dealt with the government of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there wasn't a rebel force or the capacity in other countries to undertake the necessary military operations.
The Obama Administration's regime change strategy suggests highly unsatisfactory outcomes for cases in which the United States has actual national security interests in the conflict.
What role will national security issues play in the 2012 presidential campaign? Probably a small one, at most. All current signs point to both the primary and general elections turning on the economy -- especially jobs, the deficit and debt, and ObamaCare. Yet even if foreign policy is stuck at the back of the campaign bus, it won't be entirely absent. One of the leadership intangibles that voters will be assessing includes who they trust as president to have his or her "finger on the button," i.e., to fulfill the roles of commander-in-chief and diplomat-in-chief. Moreover, a foreign policy crisis -- such as an Iranian nuclear breakthrough, a terrorist attack, or any other unforeseen headline event -- could thrust national security back into the forefront of campaign debate.
As the GOP primary field takes shape, the candidates are spending most of their time figuring out how to distinguish themselves from each other. But it is not too early to begin thinking about how they should be distinguishing themselves from President Obama. Herewith a few foreign policy themes that GOP presidential candidates should consider highlighting as challenges to the Obama administration:
Diminished American power. America's economic woes are also a foreign policy concern. Historically, our nation's global strength has come from our economic prosperity, our values, and our military. The Obama administration's economic record of high unemployment, low growth, and crippling debt hurts most at home but also weakens our standing abroad. Yet in foreign policy terms, the White House seems to be acquiescent in this diminishing of American power. In the now infamous New Yorker article on the Obama administration's foreign policy, author Ryan Lizza portrays the White House holding the strategic assumption that American decline is a current reality and an inevitable future. The administration's embrace of this risks making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. During his final weeks as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates raised his own pointed concerns about American decline:
I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
The Obama administration has presided over declining American power in specific ways such as Pentagon budget cuts, a burgeoning national debt, and new lows in American soft power in key regions such as the Middle East. Even more fundamentally, as Ryan Streeter laments over at the indispensable ConservativeHomeUSA, under Obama the United States seems to be losing its character as an aspirational nation and global model.
Declining American leadership. Rarely in the annals of American diplomacy has an unattributed quote from a "senior White House official" become an instant headline, persisted as an unflattering tagline for the Obama Doctrine, and offered campaign fodder for every possible GOP candidate. But that's exactly what "leading from behind" has become, following its appearance in the aforementioned New Yorker article. No doubt the official who uttered it at the time thought that he/she was coming up with a clever formulation to satisfy multiple constituencies while displaying the administration's strategic acumen. When it reality what it did is distill and confirm the worst suspicions of many observers of this administration's foreign policy: the White House is uncomfortable displaying American leadership in the world. This is manifest in ways including France and Britain's leadership of the Libya campaign and continued frustration over American passivity, in the White House's reluctance to provide visible support for dissidents in Iran and Syria, and in the worries from our Asian partner nations such as India and Japan about the strength of America's commitments. Yet a world without American leadership will be a less secure, less prosperous, less peaceful, and less free world.
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The president of the United States makes almost unprecedented assertions of executive authority and launches a controversial war of choice* in the Middle East, targeting for regime change a dictator accused of committing atrocities against his own citizens, producing weapons of mass destruction, and sponsoring international terrorism. Amid the White House's promises of a quick victory, a compliant Congress initially goes along with the war, but months later disgruntlement sets in and Capitol Hill begins to raise concerns.
The preceding paragraph might sound like the standard left-wing critique of the Bush administration's Iraq War, of the type that was often written during the Bush years by any number of commentators. But observant readers no doubt realize that here it instead describes the Obama administration's ongoing war -- and yes, it is a war -- in Libya. These are strange times we are in. From the administration's strained interpretation of "hostilities" to contend that the War Powers Act does not apply, to last Friday's conflicting and conflicted votes in the House of Representatives, in which a bill to defund the war failed but a separate bill denying authorization of the war passed, few of our customary political categories apply. (For some expert yet accessible discussions of the legal issues involved, check out the indispensable Lawfare blog coedited by my Strauss Center colleague Bobby Chesney).
The administration sought to spin the House vote as a win because the measure to cut off war funding did not succeed. But as Josh Rogin notes, a majority of the House in fact opposes funding the war. And the power of the purse, as Peter Feaver has pointed out, is the indisputable tool granted by the constitution to Congress to express its will on matters of war-making -- and to bear the political consequences.
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President Obama delivered an excellent speech today. The outstanding question is whether his administration's deeds will follow his eloquent words. Still, as overdue as it was, he at last placed the United States firmly on the side of freedom in the Middle East. Even as the "Arab Spring" has shown signs of faltering in recent weeks, President Obama's remarks today have the potential to provide new support and momentum for the reformers of the region who are facing the challenges of disorderly transition in Egypt, setbacks in Bahrain, an impasse in Yemen, and sadistic violence in Syria.
Make no mistake about just how dramatic today's speech is. In his remarks today, President Obama also found his "inner George W. Bush" -- and effectively departed from the first 2 ½ years of his own administration's foreign policy. Though not mentioned by name in the speech, the strategic logic of the Bush Doctrine loomed large. It was Bush who in a November 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy declared:
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results.
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When Texas governor George W. Bush began to gather his network of informal national security and foreign policy advisors around him in 1999, neither he nor they initially had much to say about nation building. Bush himself certainly seemed disinclined to raze enemy countries and then spend decades and billions reshaping them. Rather, he spoke of a more "modest" and humble American stance in the world. Condoleezza Rice, who led the small team of advisors whom she had dubbed the Vulcans, went further when she articulated a decidedly negative view of nation building in a major article that appeared in the January 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs.
I was a Vulcan. I was, in other words, one of the original members of a group of eight who advised Bush on foreign and national security policy issues as he made his first run for the White House.
Read the rest of the article here.
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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met today with President Obama at the White House to end an impasse blocking adoption of a trade agreement first concluded in November of 2006. The Colombian government has agreed to rewrite parts of their labor law to U.S. specifications.
The resolution came after mounting calls for movement from Capitol Hill. House Republicans had been particularly vocal about the need to advance the pending Colombia and Panama agreements alongside the South Korean accord after years of delay. Of late, though, the calls had grown bipartisan. On Monday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) published a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal describing the Colombia pact as an important spur to employment:
Each day we fail to act costs American jobs and sales-and sends them elsewhere.
So, 1,091 days after the Bush administration submitted the Colombia FTA to Congress, the Obama administration has found a path to move forward. The plaudits for this move have been rolling in since it was announced yesterday. Not only does the Colombia FTA offer its own array of benefits, but the move has the potential to unblock U.S. trade policy more broadly. To lever the administration into action on the pending FTAs, Republicans had linked the passage of the Korean FTA, renewal of trade adjustment assistance programs, trade preference programs, and even confirmation of a new commerce secretary. It is not clear that all of the timing issues have been worked out between House Republicans and the White House, but the agreement with Colombia significantly enhances prospects for movement on a trade agenda this summer.
Lest there be excessive rejoicing, though, it is worth keeping in mind that passage of the three agreements would partially complete the trade agenda of 2007, and there was a cost to the dithering. The pending FTAs offered benefits in two important dimensions: access to the markets for American exporters and stronger diplomatic ties. On the economic front, this access was originally set to grant American businesses and farmers preferential access to the Korean and Colombian markets, ahead of global competitors. Now, there is a scramble just to keep U.S. exporters on an even footing. While the agreements were stymied by domestic political fights in the United States, our partner countries reached other agreements to open their markets to the world. A prime motivation for the mid-summer deadline on passing the Korea-U.S. FTA is the looming passage into force of Korea's FTA with the European Union.
On the diplomatic front, the FTAs were meant to send a signal of friendship and allegiance. While the partner countries certainly welcome passage now, that signal has been somewhat diminished by years of slapping them around through public criticism.
There is a pending, post-2007 trade agenda out there. The eternal but deeply-troubled global trade talks (the Doha Round) are in desperate need of American leadership. The WTO's director-general, Pascal Lamy, sounded the alarm to members last week:
Now is the time for all of you, and in particular those among you who bear the largest responsibility in the system, to reflect on the consequences of failure ... to think about the consequences of the non-Round to the multilateral trading system which we have so patiently built over the last 70 years. It is the time to think hard about multilateralism, which your leaders, yourselves and myself preach at every occasion. In politics, as in life, there is always a moment when intentions and reality face the test of truth. We are nearly there today.
Then there are the Bush-launched, Obama-embraced talks to expand the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A number of the participants in those talks are earnestly shooting for a conclusion this November, when the United States hosts the APEC meetings in Hawaii. This seems implausible, since the administration has not yet broached the question of trade negotiating authority for those talks with the Congress. And if labor and human rights issues with Colombia stirred controversy, wait until we start discussing Vietnam, a TPP participant.
The biggest question surrounding this week's breakthrough on the Colombia FTA is where it leaves relations between the White House and the American labor movement, which has been the most outspoken opponent of recent trade agreements. The administration made some inroads with labor through its reworking of the Korea-U.S. FTA at the end of last year. That won the support of the United Auto Workers, though that support did not extend beyond Korea. The AFL-CIO has remained opposed to all of the pending FTAs. Yesterday, it released a statement:
We are deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has signaled that it will move forward to submit the proposed U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement to Congress for a vote in the near future ... on the basis of the information provided to us at this time, we remain strongly opposed to the Colombia trade agreement.
It remains to be seen whether this opposition will be vigorous or muted. The Obama administration will also need to decide whether, on trade issues, it has now cast its lot with a coalition of pro-trade Republicans and internationalist Democrats, or whether it has pushed its labor allies as far as it dares.
Those are questions for another day, though. Today, Presidents Obama and Santos had cause to celebrate.
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A number of folks have pressed me to respond to Tom Ricks' critique) of my civil-military surge article with some variant of the joke: with friends like that, who needs enemies? They were struck, I gather, by the dollops of snark that Ricks ladled onto his hit-piece.
For my part, I am struck by how little there is really in terms of fundamental disagreement. I know the etiquette of blogwars calls for a blistering response, but I think my friend has simply misunderstood what my piece argues. So my reply will not live up (or down) to the standard he has set.
The core of my article concerned some key civil-military relations matters, which Ricks completely ignores: "What is the proper division of labor for strategic supreme command decisions during war?" I describe a debate between "professional supremacists" and "civilian supremacists" and argue that the surge case undercuts the former without fully vindicating the latter.
Ricks disregards all of that, and focuses on one claim I make on pp 113-114: I note "...the extent to which the new strategy was conceived in Washington as opposed to in theater" and "The strategic-level decisions...were pushed and made in the White house." Here is how I summed up the point: "President Bush, who for years had emphasized that he was relying on the advice of his senior military leaders to determine the way forward in Iraq, had decided that his military leaders were recommending the wrong course. The president shifted, and persuaded his military leader to endorse the strategic shift."
Ricks dismisses my account -- "...yep, I am sure this is what he thinks happened"-- and insists I am wrongly crediting Bush at the expense of Petraeus and Odierno. But since I already credit Petraeus and Odierno with playing decisive roles, the disagreement with Ricks, if there is one, is surely only on what Bush's role was.
Consider what I explicitly credit Petraeus and Odierno with:
That ain't beanbag. Indeed, I am willing to go further and say that what Odierno and Petraeus implemented largely consisted of what they hoped to implement when Bush was deciding what to do. In fact, the only way in which I draw a limit to their role is this:
Neither Odierno nor Petraeus, however, devised a strategic shift and then convinced reluctant civilians and the president to adopt it. Rather, their views were leveraged by pro-surge civilians already determined to try another strategy and dissatisfied with the one being advocated by the top military leadership."
This is the heart of the matter: while the surge may have been what Odierno was hoping to implement, as Ricks reports, Ricks fails to realize that it was not what Odierno was going to implement in 2007, if Bush hadn't made the decision for the surge. The Iraq strategy was on one trajectory, even with Odierno in place as MNC-I. It took a big strategic shift to move it to a different trajectory. Neither Odierno (nor Petraeus) made that strategic shift, nor could they have without the President.
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A word about Lebanon. Given everything else happening in the Middle East, it's easy to lose track of that country's plight. The last time most Americans tuned in back in January, Hezbollah -- backed by Syria and Iran -- had successfully engineered a bloodless coup, using threats of violence and intimidation to collapse the democratically-elected government of Saad Hariri and nominate its own candidate for prime minister. The fact that they chose to do so at precisely the moment that the pro-Western Hariri was being hosted in the Oval Office by President Obama only underscored the extent to which the maneuver was not simply an assault on Lebanon's democracy and independence, but a calculated effort to undermine U.S. interests and power in the Levant. For many, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising in 2005 that ended three decades of Syrian military occupation and brought Hariri's March 14th coalition to power. Lebanon, it appeared, had truly gone dark.
But not so fast. Bloodied and bruised, March 14th is not yet cowed. In mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing that killed his legendary father, Hariri strongly denounced Hezbollah's coup and declared that March 14th would re-constitute itself as a full-fledged opposition to the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah project in Lebanon. He vowed to fight their effort to derail the international tribunal investigating his father's murder, which is widely expected to unveil indictments in the near future fingering Hezbollah's central role in the conspiracy. Even more daringly, Hariri recently doubled down when he announced that the disarmament of Hezbollah would be resurrected as the centerpiece of March 14th's political program to save Lebanon's democracy, sovereignty, and independence. True to his word, March 14th yesterday released "Independence 2011," a new political manifesto aimed at securing Lebanon's freedom by bringing Hezbollah's arms under state control and bringing Hariri-père's killers to justice.
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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.