Reasonable people can disagree about what military action, if any, the United States should take on Libya. But if we are going to have a reasonable debate, we will need to avoid some sloppy thinking. Here are three especially sloppy notions that are beginning to appear in the national conversation:
Whatever we do, it mustn't be "unilateral" like the Iraq invasion. The Iraq invasion may or may not have been wise, but it sure wasn't "unilateral." As Pete Wehner reminds us, this "unilateral" action involved contributions from "the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and 17 other countries that committed troops to Iraq." If the Obama administration ever does find itself intervening militarily in Libya, it will be hard-pressed to match the multilateralism of that "unilateral" action.
Defenders of military action must answer tough questions but defenders of military inaction don't need to. Doves are right to raise tough questions about any proposed military action in the Libyan crisis. But many similar tough questions need to be asked about the policy of inaction. The Obama administration has already taken sides in the Libyan civil war, is it willing to see "its side" lose? Is there a scale of humanitarian disaster that is intolerable and, if so, what is it and what will the United States do if that point is reached? With Obama's own top intelligence officer predicting that Qaddafi will prevail absent military efforts to shore up the rebels, what is the plan to deal with post-rebellion Libya?
Military action makes us morally responsible but military inaction allows us to avoid moral responsibility. Many defenders of military inaction reach their point of view by way of a skewed cost-benefit calculation that assumes the worst about military action and assumes the best about inaction. Every untoward development that happens or is speculated to happen after military intervention is blamed on the intervener, but every untoward development that happens in the absence of military intervention is left out of the calculus entirely. Thus ideologues who bemoan American "militarism" count up all of the casualties in wars the U.S. intervened in and utterly disregard all of the casualties in conflicts the U.S. let fester without acting.
Let me be clear, more rigorous analysis might still yield a conclusion against U.S. intervening militarily. There has been rigorous debate right here amongst the Shadow Government contributors (see here vs. here). In particular, I find Kori Schake's warning about President Obama's obvious reluctance to intervene to be a wise cautionary. As Rumsfeld might put it, one goes to war with the commander-in-chief one has and so doubt about Obama's resolve on this matter is a reasonable factor to weigh in the balance. But if we do opt for military inaction, it had better be the result of a tough-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of all of the alternatives and not simply the sloppy embrace of inertia.
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Calls are now ranging far and wide for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the government from continuing to use air power to attack rebel forces fighting to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. In addition to our domestic debate, Libyan ministers until recently part of the Qaddafi government (including their former interior minister and deputy U.N. ambassador) are urgently calling for it, the Gulf Cooperation Council supported it, the British and French have drafted and are pushing a U.N. Security Council resolution, and the Arab League ambassador in Washington has even suggested that organization will endorse a no-fly zone within a week.
If the Obama administration decides a no-fly zone needs doing, it ought not to jump from there to the United States establishing and enforcing it. Instead of taking up the call to provide the military force, the United States should instead pull together a coalition to undertake the work, one in which we play a minor operational role but undertake to recruit, organize, and manage the force necessary to do the job successfully. Such a role is consistent with our interests and has the potential to share broadly the burden such operations entail.
The coalition build will be complicated by the unlikelihood of getting a U.N. Security Council mandate -- and there will be a certain irony in the Obama administration orchestrating a coalition of the willing after their condemnation of the practice in the George W. Bush administration. But it appears there will be plenty of countries willing to advocate the undertaking.
The administration should do more than have their support, it should have their participation. It ought to seek a formal mandate from the Arab League sanctioning the operation, which would be a first for that organization working with the U.S. and support the administration's National Security Strategy vision for strengthening multilateral institutions.
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The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has committed itself to a policy of regime change in Libya and is now publicly contemplating military action, "The administration [has] declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power." The talk is of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, which may sound like an incremental and moderate step. Defense Secretary Gates helpfully clarified to Congress that a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." It is an act of war.
On first glance, the move appears to represent a dramatic departure for the Obama administration and, indeed, U.S. foreign policy. Until now the United States did not have a policy of overthrowing governments solely because they violated human rights. If we did, we would be at war with half the world, starting with China. Not even the neoconservatives at their most bellicose had such grand ambitions.
In reality, Obama probably does not either. More likely, Obama is moving against Libya because Qaddafi's actions have shocked the world's conscience and Obama felt the United States, as leader of the free world, ought to act.
In other words, his attempt to overthrow the Libyan government is not a principled stand for liberty; it is an opportunistic attempt to stay in the good graces of world opinion. It is otherwise unclear what U.S. interests Obama thinks are at stake in North Africa that would justify military force and regime change. It cannot be human rights: nothing in the administration's record would suggest it values human rights highly enough that their violation would prompt the overthrow of a government.
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International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war between the United States and China is unlikely. Why? Because besides Taiwan, Sino-U.S. interests are compatible.
Parting company with other "pessimistic" realists who believe that "power transitions" -- the historic condition of a rising power challenging the existing hegemon -- more often than not lead to war, Glaser believes that this time it is different. The security dilemma (in pursuing our security we take steps which decrease their security which leads them to take steps which decrease our security, a process that can end in conflict) in the Sino-U.S. case. The task for Beijing and Washington (but mostly Washington) is to trust that each country just wants security, not domination.
For example, the United States should not fear China's nuclear build-up because of Beijing's limited ability to strike the U.S. homeland. According to this logic, the United States should forego temptations to increase its own nuclear arsenal in response to China's own increases. All China is doing is increasing its security with a second strike capability. In turn, China should not fear U.S. conventional capabilities because most are resident across the Pacific.
But ultimately, the argument goes, it is up to the United States and not China, to make adjustments to its security posture and not exaggerate threats that China poses. The United States is safe because China will never have the means to destroy its deterrent.
Glaser concedes that this theory overlooks the fact that U.S. security alliances could seem threatening to China. Here we get to the nub of his argument. The United States must ask itself how important its security alliances are. Unlike "Neo-isolationists," Glaser, an advocate of "selective engagement," believes that the alliances with South Korea and Japan are important. And the United States could defend those alliances without creating a debilitating arms race if it provides just enough conventional deterrence, plus the threat of nuclear retaliation should those countries come under attack.
To Glaser, Taiwan is different. China's belief that Taiwan is part of it is non-negotiable, and Beijing and Washington have very different views of what constitutes the status quo across the Strait. The Taiwan dispute has no diplomatic solution and the risks of nuclear war are getting too high, particularly with China's advancing second strike capability. His answer is for the United States to make the necessary "adjustments" and abandon Taiwan.
He acknowledges potential critics who may say appeasement usually whets the appetite of the appeased. But, says Glaser, not all adversaries are Hitler, and China has limited territorial goals. Even if China has more expansive territorial claims, the United States can remediate any military imbalance through a greater conventional presence.
In the end, the real danger is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a failure by the United States to realize that its basic goals are compatible with China's. Glaser fears that this is already happening -- the United States is taking a much more competitive military stance because its ability to operate along China's periphery is in danger. According to Glaser, this dilemma has two solutions. The first is for Washington to realize that U.S. interests are changing -- Taiwan is not really vital. And second, the United States should forego the kind of nuclear superiority that could counter China's second strike capability. Problem solved.
This is a fairly conventional international theory argument about the relative stability of Sino-American relations. Glaser is essentially taking a side in an old debate. His innovation is the abandonment of Taiwan, a necessary step to decrease the security dilemma and reveal China's truly limited aims.
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It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.
So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.
I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.
The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.
The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.
As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.
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When drama fills the headlines, reason deserts the pundits. Here are just a few thoughts:
1. Egypt says nothing about Obama. The United States had no control over events in Egypt. It is silly to proclaim that events in Egypt proved Obama either feckless or brilliant in his foreign policy. All he could do is watch, make carefully-moderated public statements, and place a few private phone calls. Making that a test of his foreign policy acumen is like judging the Super Bowl by the coin toss. Obama's foreign policy mettle is tested on issues in which he actually has a role to play, like the war in Afghanistan.
2. If Obama gets any credit, so does Bush. Obama rightly sided (albeit cautiously) with the protesters. His pro-democracy rhetoric would have been stupendously hypocritical and opportunistic if George W. Bush hadn't given Obama legs to stand on. Bush reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by publicly criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their political oppression. Obama sounded more plausible as a result when he threw Mubarak under the bus and reached out a hand to the protesters.
3. Despite the basic goodness of people rallying against autocracy and corruption, their movement won't seamlessly usher in a golden age of good governance. Recent pro-democracy movements across the developing world are largely discouraging about the long-term effects of such popular outbursts.
4. Be careful what you ask for. Every day I expected The Onion to run the headline, "Egyptians Demand Military Rule," because that, for now, is exactly what they have got. Democracy is possible, contrary to cultural determinists who think Arabs are barred by the laws of history from self-government -- but neither is it inevitable, or even particularly easy. The eventual emergence of good government and democratic elections would be a better test of Obama's handling of Egypt than parsing his utterances of the last month.
5. No one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood will react, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Elections have a track record of blunting the hard edge of some revolutionary, illiberal movements (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and empowering others (the Nazis). The Brotherhood's greater freedom of action in the post-Mubarak Egypt is something to watch closely. The Brotherhood's choices in the coming months and years will be more important to Egypt and the Middle East than the toppling of one autocrat. They may be a bellwether for political Islamist movements across the world.
6. James Clapper should resign.
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Last October, Ambassador Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush Administration, exposed Hugo Chávez's efforts to aid and abet Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program, including its efforts to obtain strategic minerals such as uranium and to evade international sanctions.
Documentary evidence now suggests that Hugo Chavez's junior partner in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, is apparently forging his own dangerous alliance with the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, raising troubling questions about whether Iran continues to expand its global efforts to obtain uranium and other strategic minerals that are critical to Teheran's rogue nuclear program.
According to sensitive official documents provided to me by knowledgeable sources in Ecuador and other countries and published here for the first time, Iran and Ecuador have concluded a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador that appears to lay the groundwork for future extractive activities. The deal, which was apparently finalized in December 2009, "expresses the interest of the President of the Republic [of Ecuador] and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology."
The deal calls for the establishment of a jointly run Chemical-Geotechnical-Metallurgical Research Center in Ecuador [Laboratorio Químico-Geotécnico-Metalurgico] and "to jointly implement a comprehensive study and topographic and cartographic analysis of [Ecuadorean territory]."
What is most concerning about developing Ecuadorean-Iranian ties in the mining sector is that, like Venezuela, Ecuador is known to possess deposits of uranium. In August 2009, Russia and Ecuador signed a nuclear agreement that included joint geological research and development of uranium fields, as well as building nuclear power plants and research reactors. In March 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency also unveiled plans to help Ecuador explore for uranium and study the possibility of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
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To further Peter's thoughts in his recent post, I agree that the Obama administration is right to reject China's call for more talks with North Korea, and to refuse any further negotiations with the DPRK until Kim Jong Il's regime changes its behavior. Yet one can't escape the irony that the Obama administration is following the same policy of refusing to negotiate that brought much self-righteous criticism from many commentators against former President George W. Bush. And as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama made the centerpiece of his foreign policy a pledge to do just the opposite, specifically offering to talk without preconditions to hostile regimes.
Let me be clear -- I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the "partisan mind" at work.
It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other's positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic "negotiate or not" rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal. They are not a neutral tool, as the act of negotiating inherently incurs potential risks (such as the other side using it to play a delay and dissemble game while still pursuing a nuclear program) along with potential rewards. And it is a fact that negotiating, especially if public, does confer some sense of legitimacy and political capital to the other side. Think of the debates in the 1980s over whether the odious apartheid regime in South Africa should be "isolated" or "engaged," and many critics rightfully pointed out that engagement would give the government a degree of legitimacy that it craved but did not deserve.
A realistic approach to negotiating must include leverage. For the United States, the most effective entry point for negotiating with an adversarial regime begins with assessing what kind of leverage we can bring to the negotiating table, and what kind of negotiating posture it would give us. Such a leveraged posture could include inducements we possess that the other side desires, or coercive instruments that are either in place and the other side wants lifted, or that haven't been triggered yet and the other side wants to avoid. If a careful "leverage assessment" reveals a weak hand, then it is usually best not to enter into unconditional negotiations, especially because in those cases the best type of leverage might actually be the prospect of negotiations, desired by the other side.
In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il's $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea's behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea's (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime's leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China's cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.
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With former President George W. Bush's memoir being released today, Steve Walt yesterday launched a preemptive strike against the Bush record. In this article, my fellow Foreign Policy blogger attempts to blame Bush for just about everything that went wrong in the last decade, while crediting Bush with nothing that went right. One suspects that Walt might even hold Bush responsible for the Texas Rangers' recent loss in the World Series -- according to Walt, as owner of the Rangers, Bush "wasn't particularly good at that job either."
Walt offers up a 14-point indictment against Bush (perhaps it's a sign of how animated some Bush opponents get that even the realists start imitating Woodrow Wilson, at least when it comes to writing 14-point documents). The more spurious accusations merit responses -- and the omissions bear noting as well:
And what of Walt's omissions? Well, any fair assessment of President Bush's record also needs to take into account his robust support for free trade (including the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and increasing the number of bilateral FTAs from three to 14); his multilateral efforts to combat WMD proliferation through the Proliferation Security Initiative; his landmark development policies such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the $15 billion committed to HIV/AIDS relief, and indispensable support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and especially Bush's successful management of great power relations such that the United States pulled off two delicate trifectas of solid relations with Asian powers Japan, China, and India, and (by his second term) with European power centers France, Germany, and Britain.
Perhaps most telling is a fact that Walt concedes, and laments: the significant number of Bush administration policies and strategies that the Obama administration has adopted. If this continues to be the case, then critics of the Bush administration record will have to shift their critique to U.S. foreign policy in general.
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One of Bob Woodward's previous books, Bush at War, told how President George W. Bush and his advisors formulated policy towards Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, details how President Barack Obama's administration formulated its Afghanistan policy in 2009-2010 (see here for earlier thoughts of mine in response to Woodward's book.) A casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that there was no U.S. policy towards Afghanistan in between.
That view is wrong. From 2003 to 2008 officials in the Bush administration struggled mightily to grapple with the growing challenges in Afghanistan, fighting (with modest success) to get more time, attention, and resources for a war overshadowed by the larger and bloodier one in Iraq. They started moving U.S. policy in the right direction, but only slowly and with small steps. This fight has important lessons that Woodward -- and, I fear, the Obama administration -- neglected in his latest chapter.
Here's a review of the Afghanistan timeline:
A cynic might read this history as proof that Afghanistan cannot be fixed. Every few years we reevaluate Afghanistan, determine that it is not working, and try to fix it with more money and more troops. It never works, so we should stop trying.
I read the history differently. It doesn't prove that Afghanistan can't be fixed, it proves that we've never really tried. At no point did Bush (or Obama) fully implement the reviews' recommendations. Time and time again the interagency consensus was that Afghanistan needed massively more resources and faced considerably more challenges than anyone fully appreciated. Time and time again, Afghanistan was not a priority; funds were limited, troops were scarce, and thus Afghanistan was given what was available, not what the mission required. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen famously told Congress in 2007, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." That was the guiding principle of U.S. policy to Afghanistan. When the policy predictably failed to show results, the interagency ground out another strategy review. While it is a myth that the Bush administration simply ignored Afghanistan, the truth is still not very flattering.
But as Woodward's book shows, Obama may be following in his predecessor's footsteps. Obama and his advisors have likely bought into the myth that Bush ignored Afghanistan and thus believe they have already improved matters by merely paying attention. But Woodward's account shows the president more concerned with amounts of time, money, and troops than with -- dare to use the word -- "victory." Rather, it shows the president redefining "victory" downward until it is achievable with the resources he was willing to commit. Obama rightly committed more troops to Afghanistan, but he is restricting the one resource the troops now need the most of -- time. Obama, like Bush, is tailoring the mission to meet the resources rather than the other way around. That's how the president should treat secondary efforts, not his top foreign policy priority or a shooting war in which U.S. vital interests are at stake.
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The presidential candidate campaigned on a variety of
themes: change, a persona that rose above partisan politics, and a
commitment to restore a country exhausted by crises at home and abroad. Even
though the predecessor was not on the ballot, he was so unpopular by the time
of the election that his shadow seemed to dominate the campaign. The
winner won in part because he was seen as his predecessor's antithesis.
In foreign policy, the contrast was sharp. The country was mired in a bloody stalemate, the result, apparently, of initial intelligence errors compounded by gross mismanagement and toxic civil-military discord. Of greater concern, this war seemed a side-show from the larger conflict, which the challenger also claimed had been mismanaged so severely that the United States was now generally thought to be falling further behind, far less secure even than when the conflict began. The winning candidate promised to end the stalemate in the "side-show" quickly, and refocus on the larger conflict, putting the United States back on the offensive and rolling back the gains of the enemy with a bold new strategy that would restore American credibility throughout the world.
Once elected, the new president went about his business methodically. He commissioned a major review and devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and his senior staff's time to considering a range of apparently sharply drawn options. Prominent in the review was the budgetary concern: the United States simply could not afford to continue to spend money on national security at the rate it had been without piling up a crushing debt. However, as the review unfolded, the various clear-cut alternatives got blurred, and in the end the president chose a compromise option even though his staff argued, not unpersuasively, that the president was blending mutually exclusive alternatives in an incoherent strategy. There was also an embarrassing inconvenient truth: while there were enough new features to be able to spin it as a new look, in fact the new strategy resembled more the strategy of the predecessor than anything touted during the campaign.
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I agree with Peter Beinart's basic conclusion that the Obama administration's foreign policy is unsuccessful, but I think his description of what would have made it successful is wildly off the mark, and would have landed the administration in an even worse position than it has played itself into.
Beinart argues that the administration has failed because of a lack of "fresh strategic thinking," and a foreign policy team that is too establishment. But the analysis operates in a vacuum where a thinly-credentialed president would pay no political price for departures from establishment thinking. Beinart would bring to Obama's foreign policy the very mistake that has been so politically costly to the president domestically: misreading his election victory as a clarion call for dramatically different policies.
Candidate Obama had one big departure from the establishment foreign policy idea: end the Iraq war. It was the making of his presidential candidacy, and it has driven the administration's agenda. In order to fend off attacks that he is soft on national security, candidate Obama took a hard line on Afghanistan. Emphasizing that the Bush administration had turned its attention from "the good war" because of Iraq allowed candidate Obama to sound tough while still being against the war in Iraq. It was shrewd politics, but bad policy.
It also illustrates why I think the administration's foreign policy is unsuccessful:
These are basic strategic errors, not the type of thing one needs to be outside the foreign policy establishment to appreciate.
Moreover, the people Beinart cites as mistakes to leave out are hardly dramatic departures from the establishment. I like and admire Ken Pollack and Mike O'Hanlon. O'Hanlon is the best defense analyst in the country and Pollack understood both the importance and the risks associated with Iraq more clearly and earlier than anyone. The administration -- any administration -- would undoubtedly be stronger with their talents. They were both redlined because they supported the Iraq surge, and expressed the opinion that it was succeeding even while candidate and then President Obama insisted it was not. Which is one more reason the administration's foreign policy isn't more successful: they aren't listening to people who want them to succeed but disagree with their policies.
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Peter Feaver and Dov Zakheim have both already highlighted many of the manifest flaws in Jacob Heilbrunn's article on the purported extinction of establishment Republican internationalism. Normally I'd resist any further piling on, but Heilbrunn's article is so unserious that it merits thorough refutation.
Hence this question: What do Condi Rice, Steve Hadley, Rich Armitage, Bob Zoellick, Hank Paulson, Bob Kimmitt, John Negroponte, Gordon England, Andrew Natsios, and Henrietta Fore all have in common? At least three things: They all served in very senior foreign policy-related positions (at either the principal or deputy-level) in the George W. Bush administration. All fit comfortably in the internationalist camp of the Republican Party. And not one of them is mentioned even once in Heilbrunn's article.
There are many more Bush administration foreign policy alumni from the under- or assistant-secretary level who would also fit the bill for the three factors above. Moreover, many of the above continue to be influential in policy circles and will be courted by GOP contenders for the White House in 2012, as campaign advisors and potentially as presidential appointees. How Heilbrunn could write an article ostensibly assessing the state of GOP foreign policy discourse while ignoring so many senior policy-makers from a Republican administration that left office just one and a half years ago is a head-scratcher, to say the least.
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The last time I checked, George Shultz and Jim Baker were both Reagan Republicans. And they certainly were not shy about their views at the White House meetings I attended in those days. For his part, Henry Kissinger led a special commission for Reagan, working closely with my former boss, the "Reaganaut" Fred Ikle. George Shultz was also an early, and strong, supporter of George W. Bush. And both Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft advised the Governor of Texas as he was on the road to winning the Presidency (I write as an eyewitness on that score). Moreover, many of the people about whom Jacob Heilbrunn waxes nostalgic, the Joe Alsop crowd, would have had little time for Kissinger in particular -- something about his background perhaps, or, just maybe, the accent.
And, what, exactly, was wrong with Reagan's muscular approach to foreign
policy? Did it not convince Gorbachev that the Cold War was futile? Did it not
deter Muammar Qaddafi after the Gulf of
Sidra operation? Did it not convince the Ayatollahs to remain quiescent? Reagan
was no neo-con; he may have had Richard Perle on his team, but Baker, and
Shultz were both far more senior. And on certain key issues -- including
relations with the Soviets, Reagan sided consistently with the pragmatists.
As it happens, quite a few moderate Republicans have problems with the START Treaty -- in particular, its not-too-muffled hints about a potential end to the American missile defense program. The Russians, notably Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have unilaterally stated that this is the case, and while the administration refutes their assertion -- the Treaty would not otherwise have a hope of winning Senate approval -- it only does so sotto voce.
Oh, and one more item for Mr. Heilbrunn to consider: if he were to bother to look around on Capitol Hill in particular, he would find many young Republicans, twenty- and thirty- somethings, who are not at all committed to the kind of international noblesse oblige that Woodrow Wilson shared with Rudyard Kipling, and instead simply feel strongly about what they perceive as the erosion of our national security posture. Were I their age, I would certainly count myself among them.
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The flap over Michael Steele's comments on Afghanistan has got me thinking about the challenge of being a responsible opposition in wartime. How can we hold the administration accountable and fairly evaluate administration policies yet do so in a way that does not worsen U.S. prospects in the war?
Debates about foreign policy will not and should not be suspended just because the country is at war. Nor will the broader partisan political process go on hiatus. The question is not whether there will be debate and disagreement. The question is whether or not it will be done responsibly.
I would offer a few easy-to-declare-but-hard-to-live-up-to standards for evaluating the responsibility of the opposition:
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President Obama has at long last announced his nominee to be ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. After an almost unpardonable delay of one and a half years, the news that the White House has tapped the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook for the position is welcome but curious. As many others have observed, conspicuously absent from her background as a minister and motivational speaker is any experience in foreign policy or human rights advocacy -- qualifications which would normally be considered prerequisites for such a senior State Department position.
Nevertheless, once she is in office, Rev. Johnson Cook will be evaluated not on her resume but on her performance. Her past accomplishments show that she will likely bring an entrepreneurial spirit and considerable energy and devotion to the job, as well as an existential understanding of how religious belief functions in the lives of individuals and communities. All of which are attributes that will serve her well. And as my former State Department colleague Tom Farr has noted, once in office she will have the support of religious freedom advocates who are relieved to finally have a champion for the cause, both within the State Department bureaucracy and around the world.
Before Rev. Johnson Cook can be sworn in, the world's greatest deliberative body will first have its say. In the Senate confirmation process, it would be prudent for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ask some specific questions. Note that raising these questions need not be seen as acts of antagonism towards Rev. Johnson Cook, but as appropriate measures of legislative oversight, particularly in probing whether the executive branch is faithfully implementing the International Religious Freedom Act that Congress passed unanimously in 1998. Moreover, Senators raising such questions can also help strengthen Rev. Johnson Cook's position at the State Department and her role as America's chief religious freedom diplomat, by requiring the administration to provide satisfactory answers. Herewith some suggested questions the Senate might ask:
1. Will your position be listed on the State Department's organizational chart, and will you attend Secretary Clinton's morning senior staff meetings?
In an inauspicious sign of its (lack of) priority at the State Department, the IRF ambassador position does not even exist on the State Department's organization chart -- unlike every other ambassador-at-large. Participation in the secretary's morning staff meetings is essential for functioning effectively as a senior official in the department.
2. Will you have an official role in helping administer the Human Rights and Democracy Fund? How will you advocate for religious freedom programming in that fund?
The Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) is one of the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor's most effective initiatives, yet religious freedom has generally not been a priority in it and has sometimes been ignored altogether.
The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to
assess how well President
Obama's "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment:
not as well as I might have hoped.
Recall that Obama's foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program).
Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel's? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don't you do more to help us on Iran?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
If President Obama wants to solve America's immigration dilemma, he should avoid mixed messages. On May 19, he naively sided with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón who complained that Arizona's new immigration control law could lead to racial profiling. This last week, he ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border and requested an additional $500 million from Congress to step up border enforcement.
While his words may have pleased undocumented migrants (a potential constituency) and immigration lawyers, his deeds seemed too much like bait for Republican votes on upcoming reform legislation. In both cases, he forgot to do his homework.
For starters, he was too quick to criticize the Arizona law. It hardly differs from federal statute that penalizes illegal entry, or a 2007 Prince William County, Virginia ordinance that allows police to check the immigration status of detainees. As amended, the Prince William law ensured that the status of all detainees would be reviewed, not just those who looked like migrants. Fears of profiling abated. With similar tweaking, worries over the Arizona law are likely to recede.
Obama also backed up his Mexican counterpart without knowing the history behind his remarks. President Calderón (an otherwise fine leader and good friend of the United States) carps at our immigration policies to satisfy Mexican voters -- including entrenched elites who resist land tenure and market reforms that would end monopolies and expand jobs at home. His predecessor Vicente Fox felt compelled to do so and now it seems to have become a ritual.
The roll-out of President Obama's National Security Strategy tries to frame the strategy as a repudiation of his predecessor's. But the reality is that the new strategy is best characterized as "Bush Lite", a slightly watered down but basically plausible remake of President Bush's National Security Strategy. If you only read the Obama Team's talking points, or only read the mainstream media coverage, which amounts to the same thing, this assessment may come as a big surprise. But if you actually read the Obama's NSS released today, and President Bush's most recent NSS released in 2006, the conclusion is pretty obvious.
Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead. This was an important theme of Bush's NSS. Effective action depended on American leadership - "the international community is most engaged in such action when the United States leads." The conclusion of the 2006 NSS hammered home the point:
The challenges America faces are great, yet we have enormous power and influence to address those challenges. The times require an ambitious national security strategy, yet one recognizing the limits to what even a nation as powerful as the United States can achieve by itself. Our national security strategy is idealistic about goals, and realistic about means. There was a time when two oceans seemed to provide protection from problems in other lands, leaving America to lead by example alone. That time has long since passed. America cannot know peace, security, and prosperity by retreating from the world. America must lead by deed as well as by example."
Obama's NSS similarly emphasizes America's "global leadership" and "steering those currents [of international cooperation] in the direction of liberty and justice" and "shap[ing] and international order" because " global security depends upon strong and responsible American leadership." Leadership goes beyond seeing the world as it is and includes transforming the world according to America's interests and values or, as Obama puts it: "In the past, the United States has thrived when both our nation and our national security policy have adapted to shape change instead of being shaped by it." Even the extra focus on rebuilding America at home (what the NSS deems "renewal") is justified not merely as an end in itself (which it surely is) but also as a means to another end of expanding America's global influence. To those who hoped Obama would embrace American decline, this NSS should come as something of a shock.
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President Obama's West Point speech on Saturday provides a great example of the structural continuities in American foreign policy. As president and commander-in-chief, Obama now embraces and owns policies that he previously eschewed. For example, after running his campaign denouncing the Iraq War and doubting the surge, he is now essentially declaring Iraq a victory ("this is what success looks like: an Iraq that provides no safe-haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.") After spending much of his first year in office downplaying if not ignoring democracy and human rights promotion, he is now making democracy and human rights promotion one of the four pillars of his national security strategy. After previously rhetorically distancing himself from American exceptionalism, he now says that a "fundamental part of our strategy is America's support for those universal rights that formed the creed of our founding."
In short, through a combination of the burdens and responsibilities of office, prevailing geopolitical realities, the deep cultural currents of U.S. foreign policy, the bureaucratic systems that reinforce those cultural currents, and the crucible of learning that takes place every day in the toughest job in the world, the President Obama of today acts and sounds considerably different than the one elected in November 2008. (John Hinderaker over at Powerline -- a site never hesitant to criticize the Obama administration -- makes a similar favorable observation about the speech and its essential continuity with U.S. foreign policy). This is not at all to say that his foreign policy is identical to that of his predecessors -- in important ways it does differ, and as I have written elsewhere, often not for the better -- but only to point out that truly profound structural changes in American foreign policy are very rare. And generally for good reason.
Some media coverage, such as Peter Baker's New York Times article, attempts to portray the speech as a "repudiation" or at least distancing from the Bush administration's grand strategy, and makes much of the fact that he did not emphasize "unilateral American power" or affirm "pre-emption" or "prevention." Baker is one of the very best, and best-sourced, White House correspondents around, so it may be that his article reflects some additional background conversations with Obama administration staff attempting to advance a particular message. But at least when it comes to the text of the speech, here I think Baker's article overshoots.
For example, in the midst of discussing the importance of international cooperation, Obama described American leadership in "steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice" -- in other words, a polite way of saying that American power and influence will continue to shape the international order. Or the fact that President Obama did not explicitly affirm the possibility of the preemptive use of force does not mean that his Administration actually rejects it. As historian John Gaddis has shown, since the days of John Quincy Adams (while Secretary of State to James Monroe), American presidents have reserved, and sometimes used, the right to take action against looming threats. Unless President Obama were to explicitly reject the possibility of ever using force in a preemptive or preventive manner to protect the nation (highly unlikely), it will remain an option within American national security doctrine.
In his speech, President Obama also previewed his soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy, ostensibly built around the four pillars of connecting renewal at home with strength abroad, integrating diplomacy and development, building international cooperation and international institutions, and promoting human rights and democracy. As basic principles, these are sound. Whether they will amount to a coherent strategy (which needs to identify end goals, identify threats or obstacles to those goals, and explain how and why the tenets of the strategy will defeat those threats and overcome those obstacles) remains to be seen, once the NSS document itself is released.
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Now that administration officials have announced that the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) were behind the recent attempted bombing of Times Square, we can turn to the question of why there have been so many threatened and actual attacks on the United States inspired by, or actually emanating from, places where the United States is not involved in an active war. A look at arrests in the United States from May 2009 to the present shows dozens of such cases -- many involving multiple suspects -- linked to places like Somalia, Yemen, and of course Pakistan. Four of the plotters (Abulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Yemen), Nidal Malik Hasan (Yemen), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Yemen), and Faisal Shahzad (Pakistan) managed to carry out attacks, although only two were "successful."
One can see how exceptional this is by looking at previous years. In 2008 there was only one such case -- Bryant Neal Vinas -- and he was caught before he could carry out his planned attack. The previous year saw about two dozen cases, but many can be traced back to Iraq or Afghanistan and, as in 2008, none led to actual attacks. The questions are: Why has there been such a spike in cases this past year, and why were four of them able to advance beyond planning to attacks? This second question might be beyond the scope of anyone outside the government, but it is worth asking, in any case. The first question, however, does have some public data points that might help to answer it.
The New York Times believes that targeting Taliban figures led directly to the attacks on the United States, as anger over the deaths of Pakistani jihadist leaders like Baytullah Mehsud have spilled over into the United States. While there seems to be something to this assertion, there must be other factors at play as well. This was, after all, the strategy followed by the Bush administration, but only now has it led to a spike in plots against the American homeland from not only the Pakistani Taliban, but other jihadist groups worldwide.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
I have been struck by how the various sides in the war on terror debate have all found justification for their prior positions in the unfolding drama of the Times Square terrorist. Advocates of treating terrorism primarily as a law enforcement problem praise the rapid forensics that caught the suspect (albeit, just barely). Critics point to the near-misses and other troubling details and renew their complaints about the Obama-Holder approach to terrorism.
So far, everyone seems pretty sure that their prior convictions were sound. Alas, I am no exception. It seems to me that the following four points, all of which I already believed, are supported by this case:
It is possible that these and other similar points are merely evidence that I am a victim of confirmation bias, seeing in a new case only those things that confirm what I already believed. If so, I am probably in very good company. At least I am willing to ask: what in this case disproves these four points?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
History does not repeat itself but it rhymes. I am
reminded of this cliché as I watch the Obama administration strive
mightily to build a rhetorical cordon to prevent the off-shore oil spill
from becoming their "Katrina Moment." The vigorous push-back was necessary
because the Obama administration's early reaction to the oil spill was uneven
-- as was the Bush administration's early reaction to Katrina -- and even pro-administration
media outlets were forced
to admit as much.
There is never a good time politically for an environmental disaster of this scope, but the timing is especially delicate for the administration. Not only does it come just a few weeks after the president made a much-ballyhooed compromise to allow off-shore drilling -- a move that dismayed this leftwing base -- but it is also comes in the same news cycle as two other bad stories: another near-miss attempted terrorist strike on U.S. soil and the visit to American soil of the Iranian troublemaker President Ahmadinejad. With all of this toxicity heading towards the U.S. homeland at the same time, the administration can be forgiven if their spin sounds a bit defensive.
Katrina arrived at a similarly bad time politically for the Bush administration. It came on the heels of a bruising political fight over Social Security reform culminating in August's cable news faux-crisis of Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside the president's ranch in Crawford. And shortly after Katrina, the administration got bogged down in a politically costly battle over a Supreme Court nomination (yet another eerie parallel to present day with Obama's next Supreme Court pick looming?). Many political veterans of the Bush administration view Katrina and the political damage that ensued as the pivot point in the presidency.
It is too soon to say whether the oil spill will be become Obama's "Katrina Moment." President Obama has advantages that President Bush did not have, the most important of which are competent state and local leaders. But these advantages will be sorely tested if the damage from the oil spill approximates the worst-case estimates. Likewise, as my new Shadow Government colleague Mary Habeck notes, it is scary to think what would have happened in Times Square if the President's luck had run out and the car bomb had detonated as the perpetrators had hoped. If the threats emanating from Hakimullah Mehsud, the terrorist who survived a U.S. drone strike several months ago, are credible, this is another sore test that will play out in the coming weeks and months. And Ahmadinejad's visit is an untimely reminder that the Iranian nuclear forecast remains bleak and getting bleaker by the day.
This would be a lot to handle even for Jack Bauer who can count on his scriptwriters to rescue him at just the right moment. President Obama, however, is writing his own script and so these next several months may prove to be pivotal ones for his presidency.
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Tom Donnelly, blogging over at AEI's Center for Defense Studies has an interesting reaction to my earlier post on Obama's NSS. Donnelly is a good friend and, despite harboring deep-seated suspicions about academic political science (or, as he would insist, because he harbors those suspicions), he always has something interesting and important to say.
He notes, for instance, that the drafters of Obama's NSS can draw on two very different streams of Obama rhetoric, one that seems to celebrate exceptional America's role in the world and another that seems to be bothered by that role. The tone of Obama's NSS could change dramatically, depending on which stream dominates.
I found some of Donnelly's other points less convincing. He claims, for instance, that speechwriters had the pen in the drafting of the Clinton and Bush NSS's. That is not true for Clinton's first, nor for either of Bush's two NSS's. Of course, speechwriters had some influence, if only because the president's existing body of spoken text on foreign policy is some of the source material for an NSS. But the drafting, for better or worse, was in the hands of strategists, not speechwriters. Whether this has been the case for Obama has not been reported yet, but here I suspect Donnelly might be on firmer ground, given the prominence of speechwriter Ben Rhodes in recent weeks.
But where he really loses me is his proposal to give the Senate a formal role in ratifying the NSS. Donnelly despairs that the NSS is not sufficiently strategic and is too oriented to political communication. Then he recommends something that would exacerbate those very problems. Indeed, it would be hard to identify a proposal that would make the NSS even less strategic in orientation and more oriented to political theater than to give the U.S. Congress a formal role in approving the document. "There are too many cooks watering down the stew, let's add 100 more and, by the way, let's make sure each of them considers themselves to be a principal whose vote is co-equal with the President's." The mind boggles at the potential for Cornhusker Kickback and Louisiana Purchase mischief.
This idea is so manifestly wrong-headed that I suspect Donnelly may have a more devious strategy in mind. Perhaps his goal is to kill off the NSS once and for all as an act of (note to editor: stand by for gratuitous abstruse academic reference) Schumpeterian creative destruction. Perhaps Donnelly hopes that out of the wreckage of his proposal would come new, more strategic modes of planning.
I prefer to reform the NSS process on the margins. Bolster the strategic planning offices, especially at the White House. Give them more resources and authority to monitor implementation and to trigger ad hoc strategic reviews (such as the one that produced President Bush's Iraq surge strategy). Give the NSC a greater role in OMB budget review. Bolster strategic planning capabilities at State and other non-defense players.
I do think the strategic planning process could be improved, but I don't think the process is as dysfunctional as Donnelly does. In fact, I have a question back over to him: what great or near-great power has done better strategic planning in the post-Cold War era, and, for that matter, when was the golden era of U.S. strategic planning?
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The murmurings are that the Obama administration may soon release its long-anticipated National Security Strategy. When the NSS comes out, the ranks here at Shadow Government will no doubt have plenty of comment. But this article by Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect on "The Obama Doctrine, Revisited" may serve as a possible preview of some of the Obama administration's emerging foreign policy themes. And it certainly serves as a revealing window into the administration's complicated relationship with its left-wing base.
Overall, Ackerman offers a sympathetic take on the international results of the Administration's first year and a half. (One might even say his take is downright credulous, considering that the only person he interviewed is NSC speechwriter Ben Rhodes -- with nary a quote from a single independent analyst, let alone a Republican). Ackerman identifies two main pillars of the Obama Doctrine: global "dignity promotion" and overcoming the alleged "politics of fear" from the Bush years. Yet as he attempts to describe what is meant by "dignity promotion", it quickly becomes clear that he is just putting a new label on some of the main tenets of the -- you guessed it -- Bush administration. Namely, promotion of human rights and democracy, economic development based on incentives rather than handouts (e.g. Millennium Challenge Corporation), innovative new humanitarian efforts (e.g. HIV/AIDS relief), and economic integration through free trade. Ackerman even cites in this regard the elevation of the G-20 as the primary multilateral economic organization, conveniently neglecting to mention that the first gathering of G-20 heads of state was convened by the Bush White House in response to the global economic crisis.
Yet having re-labeled this part of the Bush Doctrine as Obama's "dignity promotion," Ackerman struggles to identify many unique or concrete results from it. He wants to credit President Obama's approach with significant progress, yet many of his examples come across more as wishful thinking than real accomplishment. He twice claims the "reset" has made Russia more "open" or willing to "consider" tightened sanctions on Iran, despite the fact that this alleged Russian openness has led to zero concrete action; Obama's insipid China visit in November is oddly described as garnering "rave reviews" (?!? well in Beijing, perhaps); Obama's anemic support last year for Iran's (now weakened) Green Movement is chalked up as a success, and so on. Ackerman places tremendous weight on the pledge of NATO countries to contribute another 10,000 troops to Afghanistan, not mentioning that over 30,000 (non-U.S.) NATO troops had already been deployed there through the end of the Bush administration. And he skates over the failed Copenhagen Climate Change summit, and disregards the reluctance of the rest of the world to resettle more than a trickle of Guantanamo detainees.
Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
As Politico has pointed out, the Obama administration has a tendency to describe their every action as "unprecedented." In the case of the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, this is actually true. Theoretically, the treaty agreed to by the Obama administration limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons. In practice, it will allow least 200 nuclear weapons in excess of the U.S. and Russian stockpiles permitted under the 2002 treaty signed by the Bush administration. The administration is laying claim to a 30 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons while actually permitting an increase in the force. This is unprecedented.
The discrepancy comes from what each treaty actually limits. The earliest treaties (SALT I and II) limited but did not reduce stockpiles, and established "counting rules" on the basis of how many warheads each system could deliver. The 1992 START Treaty was structured to give the Russians incentives to shift from fast-flying missiles to bombers. In the theology of nuclear deterrence, it is believed that "slow-flying" bombers are more stabilizing because a leader could reconsider the decision after launching, and the target country would have greater warning of an impending attack. So the 1992 Treaty gave generous discounts to bombers, counting the newer B-1 and B-2 bombers as a single weapon although they have the capacity to carry up to 20 warheads. The older B-52s that carry air-launched cruise missiles were counted at half their true capacity, so tallied as 10 warheads each. The Obama administration's new START treaty counts all bombers as a single nuclear weapon, leading the Federation of American Scientists to conclude that 450 U.S. warheads and 860 Russian warheads will be excluded from the count.
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Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story
about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.
The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:
I was especially drawn to one further point in the story, a point that has not
been contradicted in anything I have read or seen first-hand: the pace is
grueling and it takes a personal toll on the national security and White House
staff. This is not unique to the Obama administration and is something of
a hardy perennial in Washington. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point,
however, and the system has run at breakneck speed ever since. Even
though President Obama has been more focused on domestic policy over the last
year, the pace for the national security staff has not eased.
A recent trip to Washington with the dual purpose of attending a reception honoring my former boss, Steve Hadley, and separately meeting with current national security officials put this issue in sharp relief for me. My friends from the Bush era, looking much better rested and healthier than I remember them appearing before, swapped stories of our time in the fox-hole. And my friends from the Obama era shared eerily similar stories with some of the very same complaints: outsiders just don't get it or get distracted by secondary trivialities. One current insider confided to me that when he reads outsider critiques of the Obama team, he is reminded of similar critiques he offered of the Bush team when he was in the shadow government. He thought some of my own analysis missed the boat and conceded that perhaps the same was true for some his earlier analysis of Bush decisionmaking.
That is a wise cautionary to remember. Those of us in the loyal opposition may have a better understanding than most about the travails and triumphs of the current team, but our perspective is limited. We should not be surprised to read internally contradictory accounts of what is going on behind the scenes. And we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt from time to time.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes in a preview of President Obama's upcoming Asia trip. Absent? Like on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement that President Bush signed and President Obama has declined to send to Congress? Like on trade more generally, where the words "Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific" haven't been uttered since President Bush left the Oval Office? Like on the U.S.-Japan alliance, which President Bush leveraged to make possible historic Japanese deployments to theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan before U.S.-Japan relations under Obama became embroiled in a dispute over U.S. basing rights that some believe threatens the foundations of the alliance? Like on U.S. relations with India, utterly transformed under President Bush but now characterized by U.S. neglect and Indian disappointment that President Obama doesn't treat it as the strategic partner Bush elevated it to be? Like in Southeast Asia, where every regional power improved its relations with America over the course of the Bush administration with a wary eye on China? (Burma may be the exception -- though Obama's engagement policy hasn't worked out too well.)
And speaking of relations with China, is Rhodes suggesting that Bush, who after a rough start oversaw the most stable period in U.S.-China relations since the 1970s, has an inferior record to Obama -- for whom China has become his biggest great-power headache, with Beijing daily testing the limits of American patience on matters from trade to currency to human rights to internet freedoms to Iran sanctions to Taiwan arms sales? Perhaps Rhodes is talking about North Korea, where Obama has pursued the same policy of engagement as President Bush did in his second term -- with equally little to show for it. Or maybe Rhodes is speaking of Asian public opinion; in this case he may want to have a look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' 2008 survey showing the surprisingly wide and deep extent of American soft power in Asia at the end of the Bush presidency.
This administration has an outstanding Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the form of the State Department's Kurt Campbell, and other talented officials at the White House, Department of Defense, and Treasury. Asia policy isn't partisan, which is why it's such a shame when non-Asia policy officials make it out to be. Nonetheless, Peter Feaver's point last week is apt: U.S. relations with every major power in the international system (with the possible and dubious distinction of Russia) have deteriorated since Obama took office. This is unquestionably true in Asia. As Jackson Diehl wrote with regard to President Obama's relationships with his foreign counterparts, "In foreign as well as domestic affairs, coolness has its cost." When it comes to Asia, perhaps serving administration officials should spend less time slamming their predecessors' record and more time studying up on it.
GUANG NIU/AFP/Getty Images
Karl Rove is back in the news with his memoirs
doing something that he claims the Bush administration did not do
vigorously enough: re-litigating the past. I will have more to say when
I finish reading the book, but for now I want to talk about one of the
highlights flagged in several interviews:
Rove's claim that if the administration had known the true extent of
Iraq's WMD stockpile and programs it would not have pushed the use of
force resolution in October 2002 and invaded in 2003.
This claim leapt out at me because I remember President Bush giving a somewhat different answer a few years ago. For instance, in December 2005 Bush was asked more or less this exact same question and he gave this response:
HUME: Can you say today that if you had known then what you know now about the weapons, that you would have made the same decision.
BUSH: I said it today, and I said it at the last speech I gave. And I've said it throughout the campaign to the American people. I said I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision.
HUME: Now if you had this -- if the weapons had been out of the equation, because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?
In a valedictory interview, he was asked this question again and his answer was less dogmatic:
GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.
At some level, of course, this is an impossible hypothetical counter-factual and so there is nothing sinister in the fact that one of Bush's key advisors would give a different answer from the president nor even in the fact that the President would give a different answer at different times. Bush is at work on his own memoirs and so doubtless he is wrestling with this very issue himself and so his views may evolve still further.
And we should not exaggerate the contradictions in these various answers. Both Bush and Rove say that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and both would say that if Iraq continues on the basically positive trajectory it has been on since the surge decision the war will have been "worth it."
I think Rove's point is important and basically right. There were good
reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it.
But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq
in 2002 hinged on Iraq's WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to
expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited)
and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected
and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final
collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush
administration, the president's national security team would have
pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it
been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such
strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the
major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004
presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they
agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal
and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more
widely in the international community, the argument with our allies
would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over
the best strategy for dealing with it.
There were a few iconoclasts who guessed more accurately the truth about the Iraqi WMD program in 2002, but they were outliers -- not unlike the outliers today who claim that Iran has no nuclear weapons ambitions whatsoever. Then, as now, it would seem quite a gamble to base an entire security strategy on an iconoclastic view that, if wrong, would be disastrously wrong. And, of course, we only know these truths because the Duelfer report provided the intrusive fact-finding that was impossible while Hussein was in power. The situation in mid-2002 was one of a non-existent inspection regime and a collapsing sanctions regime; those and other dots pointed to the consensus that formed the basis of the Bush policy.
Rove's point is important in one further respect -- it rebuts a core tenet of the most fervent Bush-haters, those who believe that Bush wanted war in Iraq for any number of reasons, none of them having to do with the threat Bush claimed Iraqi WMD posed to the national interest of the United States. Those who think the Iraq war was about some Freudian impulse to best the father, or about seizing Iraqi oil, or about boosting Halliburton's profits, or what-have-you must believe that Rove is wrong -- that Bush would have figured out some other way to generate a war. These canards live on and, in some circles, may even enjoy the status of conventional wisdom. Given those circumstances, Rove is right to litigate the matter again.
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After a fairly quiet year of retirement, former President Bush was back in the news this week after being asked to assist the Obama administration in Northern Ireland. This intervention may have surprised many of the president's critics, but not those of us who had worked with President Bush on this issue.
President Bush was heavily involved in the details of the peace process, knowing not only the major actors like John Hume, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and of course Gerry Adams, but also the relatively less powerful political leaders from the other parties in the North.
In the annual St. Patrick's Day ritual at the White House that came to be known as the "stations of the cross," the president would meet in turn with the leadership of each party as he made his way around the room. He had mastered the alphabet soup of acronyms designating the myriad political parties, and would discuss with each group its political prospects and major challenges.
All relatively minor stuff, critics might sniff. But this was more than just the nuts-and-bolts responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. These moments revealed the president's deep respect for the everyday political courage and physical bravery of these men and women who risked their lives in the cause of peace.
This was most clearly demonstrated when I invited the McCartney family to the White House for the St. Patrick's Day that immediately followed the brutal murder of their brother, Robert, by IRA thugs outside a Belfast pub. The president was deeply moved by their story and listened with compassion to the hardship they had suffered and their quest for justice (a quest that sadly remains unfulfilled to this day).
This was the same president who would subsequently overrule his NSC staff in late 2006 when he believed that it would enhance the chances for peace if Gerry Adams was allowed to visit the United States, a policy I supported because Adams had fulfilled his promise to move his constituency to support the rule of law. The decision also showed that Bush would reflexively favor no particular religious, ethnic, or political group (even when it might have been advantageous to do so for domestic political reasons). What mattered most was advancing the cause of peace.
It is therefore no surprise that the Obama administration has reached out to the former president for his assistance. And the Bush's prompt assistance should remind everyone that the Northern Ireland peace process has been a bipartisan effort for decades, and the better for it.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
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.