By Otto J. Reich and Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger
Seventy-one years ago this week, on December 7, 1941, the United States changed forever. What began as a tranquil day in a country that thought it could avoid the violence wracking the rest of the world ended with a bloody and unprovoked surprise attack. That "day that shall live in infamy" -- in President Franklin Roosevelt's famous words -- saw our country transformed from a growing but isolated nation into the military, technological and economic superpower that routed a vicious totalitarian Axis, then a brutal communist empire, and that has ensured peace and democracy in the world ever since.
On December 7, 2012, the people of Argentina will wake up to a different assault. The attack on its freedoms will not be a surprise and it will not come from a foreign empire. It will be a pre-announced offensive on freedom of expression, the most fundamental liberty of any democracy, and it will come from the increasingly despotic regime headed by Cristina Kirchner, a left-wing populist that, like most authoritarians, cannot abide an independent press.
It is often said that Argentines only protest when the economy hurts their pockets. If so, last November 8, was an exception to this rule. On that day about a million people across that country took to the streets with a clear message: Argentina wants more freedom, an independent judiciary, free press, and an end to widespread corruption. Unlike previous protests, this time the Argentines rallied not for better pay but for the basic principles that a democracy requires to function.
In the last year, after winning re-election with over 54 percent of the vote, Mrs. Kirchner apparently felt that an electoral majority allowed her to crudely grab all remaining power and move aggressively against every sector of society that she saw as a threat.
Motivated by Kirchner's removal of her democratic face mask, the protesters carried signs and placards denouncing many policies of the government, including violations of the constitutional separation of powers (e.g, threats, blackmail and extortion against judges); corruption scandals at the highest levels of government such as with the sitting vice-president; resumption of close diplomatic relations with Iran, with the concomitant somber foreign policy implications; and arbitrary restrictions on private enterprise, such as blocking access to foreign currency for commercial transactions and obstacles to importation of goods from abroad.
But the biggest immediate challenge facing the country, and the largest target of popular discontent, are the threats to press freedom coming from Kirchner. Many of the other indignations described above would not have been known but for the existence of an independent press that the government is trying to silence. And among the most professional and hard-hitting journalistic reporting is that by the largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarin.
Two years ago, Mrs. Kirchner saw to it that the Congress pass a new media law that seeks to break up the Grupo Clarin, a move that in the opinion of many jurists is unconstitutional. After several judicial processes, in which the government tried to maliciously influence the judges' decisions, the President announced that on December 7 Grupo Clarin will shed many of its properties. If this occurs, it could spell the beginning of the end of press freedom in the Argentina, since Clarin is a trial balloon to be followed by Government attacks on smaller news organizations less able to defend themselves.
But not only is press freedom threatened. If the government is able to neutralize Grupo Clarin, representative democracy itself will be tested. Without the independent media's courage to expose the abuses and scandals of the government, President Kirchner will have eliminated the largest obstacle in her path toward the "constitutional reform" that would allow her to remain in power for an unprecedented third term, or perhaps indefinitely.
Argentina is once again at a crossroads. On November 8, its people arose and demanded the President respect basic principles. On December 7, Argentines will face their own "Pearl Harbor," seeing one of its most illustrious institutions shatter. If, on the other hand, they stand and defend their Constitution and freedoms, they will put a stop to Kirchner's plans for autocratic government and avoid the self-destructive path followed by the Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and other left-wing hemispheric governments.
The U.S. and other Western governments have a responsibility to defend the people of Argentina. Just as on December 7, 1941 the U.S. was bloodied but not broken, so will the people of Argentina recover their freedoms, sometime in the future, probably after a fierce but non-violent struggle, but one that must count with the support of the free world.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
After giving the Obama team a pass for the first couple weeks on the likely al Qaeda 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, the media is finally asking tough questions. And what they are finding raises troubling questions about what the Obama administration did before, during, and after the al Qaeda anniversary attacks.
Republicans risk over-reacting to this evolving storyline, particularly with the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme that is rising in certain sectors of the pundit world.
We may find evidence that Obama or his spokespeople lied -- that is, said things that they knew at the time were not true -- but I haven't seen convincing evidence of that yet. And, frankly, I would be surprised if that were the case. Most often, what partisans call "lies" are actually something far less sinister: inferential errors and wishful thinking. Since Democrats have peddled for years their own Big Myth about the Bush Administration "lying" about Iraqi WMD, the desire to pin that same tale/tail on the donkey is understandable. But Republicans should hold themselves to the higher standard they wish Democrats would meet rather than sink down to the level of their partisan attackers.
Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:
Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:
Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.
Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.
Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks.
This is all very
understandable, and I just don't have much patience for the view that pretends
to be genuinely shocked that the Obama team has been playing politics with
national security at this stage in the campaign.
Perhaps we also shouldn't be shocked that the media let them get away with it for so long. The political game of footsie I outline above was only viable if the media played along, which they were willing to do for a while but no longer. The media was willing to play along because they are biased, even when they do not want to be. They find it easier to understand people like themselves, Democrats, and have to work harder to understand people not like themselves, Republicans. They are as prone to reading events through pre-established filters -- for instance, the filter that says Romney is gaffe-prone on national security and Obama has a strong record on terrorism -- as everyone else. And they must work in the hostile environment of the White House's "Chicago rules," which punishes reporters who challenge the administration. The better reporters overcome this, and we can see the fruits of their labors in the new scrutiny and skepticism of recent stories.
Campaigns should certainly point out and push back against biased media coverage, but campaigns should also understand that media bias is a given, rather like the Electoral College, and strategize accordingly.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
Amidst Congressional calls for special prosecutors to investigate leaks of classified information, bipartisan concern about President Obama's team revealing sensitive intelligence details in order to make the president look like a stalwart commander-in-chief, and Mitt Romney giving a major speech (to the Veterans of Foreign Wars) castigating the president for condoning those leaks, the White House has once again subordinated national security to national campaigning.
In an article titled "Insight: Cautious on Syria, Obama Moves to Help Rebels," current and former Obama White House officials reveal that the White House drafted "a highly classified authorization for covert activity" allowing greater assistance to the Syrian rebels. They evidently assuage concern about revealing classified information by declining to say whether the president has actually signed the finding. So the White House wants us to believe the president is moving forward on the basis of a staff document they will not confirm he supports. Such is the politicization of these issues by the Obama White House and the Obama presidential campaign, between which there seems to be no distinction.
The story reveals that the U.S. has sent encrypted radios to the rebels, contradicts itself by confirming that the classified directive has been for some time languishing in the National Security Advisor's inbox, and also quotes an anonymous senior administration official assuring us that "no policy decision like this languishes at the White House."
The article states that "Obama made his boldest known move in the Syria crisis cautiously, underscoring his preference for diplomacy and coalition-building. Nearly a year ago, he called on Assad to step aside." Administration officials then recount the contents, and even the date, of President Obama's telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan about Syria. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes chimes in to explain how difficult and how significant a step President Obama took in removing his support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The White House account makes the Turkish president sound like an apologist for Assad, which "President (Obama) countered point by point." Either the White House believes this negative portrait of an important American ally is advantageous to both political leaders, or they are unconcerned about the effect it has on the president's counterparts. Some of those enterprising White House officials who trumpet the president's decisiveness for having a staff that drafts and leaks a classified intelligence finding ought to ask the government of Turkey how satisfied they are with the White House characterizing their head of state's views this way in public. If other world leaders believe they can have no private conversations with an American president, they are likely to only tell our president things they wouldn't mind reading in American newspapers. That cannot be advantageous to our national interests.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein asserted last week that the White House was the source of leaks of classified material. She later backtracked to say only that she shouldn't have speculated -- not to recant that she believes the White House is the source. This latest in a long line of White House releases of classified material just proved her case. Obama campaign surrogate Michele Flournoy recently tried to defend the administration's record on leaks, saying "there's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one." Evidently it's only permissible for President Obama's messaging machine to release classified information.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Some thoughts on the security team shuffle:
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Obama gave his first, but hopefully not the last, major address on events in Libya (with a gesture or two to the broader Middle East). The text was solid, not soaring, which befitted the occasion. The delivery was fine, even passionate at points. The speech was serviceable in laying out Obama's rationale and why he is convinced he picked the absolute goldilocks position between various "false choice" (his words) extremes that he rejected.
Asking myself the questions I posed, I come away with mixed answers:
1. The president talked plainly and persuasively about the inputs and why he ordered them. But he avoided talking about outcomes. He said the administration has "fulfilled the pledge" it made to the American people. And he reiterated the point "So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do." (Note to research assistants: who in the world doubted the U.S. capacity? I heard many doubts about will, but I can't imagine there is anyone who has even the faintest familiarity with American military power who doubted our capacity to do what we have done, namely establish air supremacy over Libya and conduct precision strikes against vehicles.) But these are all the inputs. He is right to note that we deserve credit for delivering on the inputs, but strategy is about accomplishing outcomes. No one expects the outcomes to be achieved already, but I did expect more discussion about what outcomes the military must achieve for him to declare mission accomplished.
2. Alas, the president only talked about optimistic scenarios. The obligatory gestures about a "difficult task" -- "Libya will remain dangerous..."; "Forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions" -- barely scratched the surface of what could go wrong here. I did not expect the president to run down the "dirty dozen" list of bad things that might happen. That is the work of strategic planning shops. But I did expect more steeling of the American public for possible adverse developments. And I did expect more discussion of why not intervene in other cases that looked, on the surface, like they might match the Libyan case on the atrocity scale.
But this short report in today's Washington Post reminds us that there are also ample signs of China's weakness. And there can be many ways in which a weak China could be just as vexing as a strong one.
The Post reports that state censors interrupted the Obama-Hu news conference and substituted a black screen for Hu's response to questions from a reporter about China's human rights record. Hu's response was hardly revelatory, though he did acknowledge that China's record was not perfect and that more progress needed to be made -- a statement so banal that it could be said about every country, indeed President Obama has said much the same thing about the United States.
A regime that will not allow its own leader's banal public remarks to be broadcast at home is a regime that is so insecure it doubts its own legitimacy. Remember, these are remarks that were playing live to the entire world, yet Chinese propagandists were apparently afraid to let their own public hear them.
So while signs of Chinese growing strength should not be ignored, neither should we ignore signs of lingering, and perhaps deepening, weakness. Indeed, the two can combine to pose special challenges for U.S. foreign policy, producing the very bellicose hypernationalism and overconfident adventurism that we have seen in the past year.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
In a column again lamenting the benighted state of the United States, Thomas Friedman criticizes China's treatment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu is a political prisoner serving an 11-year sentence for subverting state power. Of course, just a bit more than a year ago, Friedman was comparing the U.S. government with China's -- unfavorably!
On Sept. 8, 2009 he wrote, "[I]t is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."
Friedman went on to note approvingly Beijing's ability to command orderly entry into the clean technology industry, versus the United States' reliance on chaotic markets.
Of course, Milton Friedman understood, but Thomas Friedman apparently does not, that over the long haul, capitalism and freedom work together, and that they are not separable from each other. The Beijing government's powers to throw a human rights activist in jail and to command massive economic projects are of a piece. They are antithetical to representative democracy and rule of law.
It is understandable that in these tough times people will question how well our system is working, but some perspective is necessary. The past 100 years of U.S. economic performance are unmatched in human history. The engine of the U.S. economy powered enormous improvements in the health, welfare, and living standards of hundreds of millions of people. The political and economic freedoms guaranteed by our system of government made such prosperity, innovation, and achievement possible.
Twenty-five years ago, the passing intellectual fancy was the United States' decline relative to another rising Asian power, Japan, because of Tokyo's ability to plan economic growth and manage private sector investment. Such predictions look silly today.
Warren Buffett, who has the true perspective of a long term investor, has observed, "In the 20th Century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497."
As we consider what is next for the United States, rather than turning to the coercive power of centralized planning, as Thomas Friedman seems to consider, we should affirm our confidence in the values that have brought us so far -- capitalism and freedom -- as Milton Friedman knew. Nobody ever made money for long by selling America or American values short.
Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI
In 1998 the United States fired cruise missiles at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan to try to decapitate the group after it bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. The United States knew about bin Laden and the whereabouts of his camps because, according to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, "the National Security Agency had tapped into bin Laden's satellite telephone and kept track of his international conversations."
After the missile strike, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, a prominent newspaper revealed the United States' knowledge about bin Laden's phone. As a result, "al Qaeda's senior leadership ... stopped using [the satellite phones] almost immediately. ... This made it much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conversations." U.S. intelligence lost its most valuable source for tracking the world's most dangerous terrorist.*
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, emphatically could have been prevented if the United States was able to protect classified information. The newspapers' complicity in divulging classified information helped murder some 2,977 people.
I make this point now in response to those who believe the protection of classified information is unjust. There is an anonymous movement now among anarchist hackers to attack government and corporate websites to protest the prosecution of Julian Assange and defend WikiLeaks. Judging from the responses to my last post, in which I advocated the passage of a Secrecy Act, some readers of Foreign Policy would sympathize with the hackers.
The most common argument is that protecting information, and prosecuting offenders, is a violation of free speech. That is simply not true. The Supreme Court has never upheld First Amendment absolutism. There are legal and reasonable restrictions on what people are allowed to say, print, or broadcast. It is illegal to incite a mob to violence. It is illegal to libel others. It is illegal to make false claims in advertising about a product. It is illegal to utter profanity on broadcast television or radio. And it is, in fact, illegal to reveal information that would cause immediate harm to U.S. national security. This was uncontroversial during World War II, when sailors and their families were routinely trained that "loose lips sink ships."
You may quibble with the application of these rules (the rule about profanity seems more and more anachronistic), but it is flatly untrue that citizens or the press have the right to say absolutely anything, anytime, in any medium. Few should disagree with the principle that there are restrictions on speech; the debate is really where the line ought to be drawn and how to enforce it. I argue that we should actually try to enforce the principle at least a little when it comes to protecting classified information, which would be a significant change from our current habit of not enforcing it at all.
Once again, it goes without saying that the Obama administration needs appropriate oversight and accountability, which is why we have the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, among other organs. No doubt they need to work better. And perhaps there ought to be a standing body charged with reviewing the government's classification decisions. But the need to protect classified information is as obvious as our government's failure to do so.
*(Some newspapers have tried to debunk this story by claiming there was no specific leak of the information about bin Laden's phone, or that it had been leaked previously to no effect. Of course the newspapers have an interest in exonerating themselves. Their efforts are unconvincing. If their claims are true, it is actually more damning that the information about bin Laden's satellite phone stemmed not from a specific leak but from a general culture of impunity among the media to disclose intelligence sources and methods. And the August 1998 reporting plainly had an effect on bin Laden, even if the information had been reported earlier. Both the 9/11 Commission and Clinton-era NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote in The Age of Sacred Terror, bin Laden stopped using his phone "instantly" after the publication of the story.)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The latest dump of classified information stolen from the U.S. government is extraordinarily damaging to U.S. national security, but not in the way that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, apparently intended. (If the summer leak was a gusher what does that make this latest round, a tsunami?)
Assange is a garden-variety anti-American who believes that the United States is a malevolent actor which engages in all sorts of shameful secret activities that, if revealed, would discredit all aspects of American power. Prior to earlier dumps of classified material, Assange claimed that the secret files would document massive war crimes by the United States. They did not.
Based on the depictions of the cables in the media (the New York Times coverage begins here, the Guardian coverage begins here, and Der Spiegel's coverage begins here, it appears the same thing is true for this latest batch. The media apparently found no instances of shameful behavior -- I am assuming that if they had done so, they would have led with those stories. Instead, the cables document that American diplomats have been doing what they are supposed to be doing: collecting information, reporting their opinions and insights back to headquarters, and trying to build international cooperation in pursuit of core American foreign-policy goals.
The cables document that diplomats often relay information that would be, well, undiplomatic to say publicly. Diplomats often get foreign interlocutors to be more candid when they believe their discussions will remain confidential. Diplomats also opine on a range of topics -- the limitations of current lines of U.S. policy or the weaknesses of allies -- that would compromise an administration's effectiveness if shared with a general audience, but not because the views were dishonorable, or indicated that the United States was engaged in reprehensible behavior.
Assange's damage to the United States is not in what he discovered about the past, but rather in the peril he has placed our diplomats, our friends and partners, and our policies in the future. The massive security breach has made every bilateral relationship more difficult and likely lowered the quality of diplomatic reporting. Will our interlocutors be as candid now that they have seen what happens? Ironically, Assange's attack on our diplomats has meant that our statecraft may be more dependent on cruder instruments of state power, especially brute force. (Elsewhere on FP, Dan Drezner reads the situation just as I do and notes one further likely result: an uptick in intelligence failures as the bureaucracy responds by stove piping information to prevent future espionage of this sort.)
If WikiLeaks had uncovered evidence of gross misdeeds, I suppose reasonable people could debate the balance of interests the dump might have served. Outlandish claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the leaks have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they have damaged the United States and in doing so achieved no higher purpose than the damage they have done. To fervent anti-Americans, weakening the United States is an end unto itself.
In wartime, we should expect enemies to seek to damage us in this way. How will President Obama respond to an enemy attack of this sort?
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
One of the more interesting aspects of my recent two-year sojourn in London was getting to know British conservatism firsthand. The word "Conservative" in the British context is ambiguous in that it can refer to the party ("Conservative" with a capital "C"), the movement, or the ideological persuasion -- or sometimes two of the above, or sometimes all three at once. The commonalities between British and U.S. conservatism are many, and these shared convictions can also be found among conservatives across the Anglosphere, such as in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. These include commitments to free markets, limited government, the family and other mediating institutions in civil society, personal responsibility, robust national defense, and respect for tradition.
Yet on other issues, American conservatism is exceptional. There is very little in the way of a pro-life movement in Britain, for example, and even the most right-wing British Tory wags their heads in bemusement at the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Of course the exceptions and curiosities go both ways; there is little prospect of a grassroots movement emerging in the United States on behalf of fox-hunting, which still finds impassioned advocates in Britain, especially among Tories.
Amidst the commonalities to be found with conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, there are diversities as well, not only between but among them. For example, there are vigorous debates within conservative camps in both Britain and the United States on numerous foreign-policy and national security issues, such as democracy and human rights promotion (a worthy endeavor or a fool's errand?), defense budgets (increase or curtail?), the Afghan war (vital national interest or quagmire?), and the rise of China (looming security threat or lucrative new market?). Regular readers of Shadow Government have likely noticed some of these debates being played out on our pages among our contributors.
In Britain, arguably the single most important website for British conservatives is the aptly-named ConservativeHome. Under the able leadership of Tim Montgomerie and his crack team, ConservativeHome played an essential role in the resurgence of the Tories in recent years. Combining original content, article aggregation, bespoke polling data, and candidate profiles, the site became a unique forum for debating conservative ideas while advancing the conservative cause. It continues to be an influential voice, and is regularly read by Parliament, Whitehall, 10 Downing Street, and in the British media and think-tanks. And yes, ConservativeHome has the exquisite good taste to link on occasion to Shadow Government posts, thus helping expand our readership in Britain
Following in the tradition of the Beatles, Monty Python, and David Beckham, ConservativeHome is now the latest in a distinguished line of British exports to arrive on U.S. shores. The U.S. version of the site was launched this week, and I encourage all Shadow Government readers to check it out. Its British roots notwithstanding, ConservativeHome USA is ably overseen by Ryan Streeter, a red-blooded American patriot living and working in the heart of the heartland, Indiana. (In full disclosure, Ryan is also a close friend and former White House colleague of mine, as is deputy editor Natalie Gonnella). It promises to be a vital new voice in the pantheon of U.S. conservative websites, and will be an important venue for airing (sometimes diverse) views on domestic and foreign policy, as well as serve as a platform for profiling prospective congressional and White House candidates.
Moreover, ConservativeHome will provide an ongoing link between American conservatism and kindred movements across the Anglosphere. All have much to learn from each other. For example, Tuesday's features will include some thoughts from British Chancellor George Osborne on lessons learned thus far from the ambitious British deficit reduction program. This might be of particular interest to the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Other upcoming features this week will include articles by Peter Feaver and yours truly highlighting front-burner national security issues that will confront the new Congress and prospective GOP presidential candidates -- and there will be references to recent Shadow Government posts that offer insight on these issue.
The Shadow Government team extends a warm welcome and congratulations to ConservativeHomeUSA on its launch and maiden week. Do take a look.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The 9/11 anniversary is a traditional time for taking stock of the war on terror, and the conventional wisdom has issued its verdict: the United States "over-reacted." The evidence the pundits offer includes the following: (a) the United States spent a great deal of money; (b) thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives; (c) the anti-terror bureaucracy is much larger than it was before; (d) policy favored the national security end of the long-standing continuum running from unfettered civil-liberties to absolute national security; and (e) al Qaeda has not launched another successful 9/11 sized attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden is on the run and has become a marginalized figure.
The conventional wisdom would be more persuasive if the pundits engaged systematically and critically with the hypothesis that (a) plus (b) plus (c) plus (d) contributed to (e). As far as I can tell, they simply ignore that possibility.
However, the conventional wisdom does get one thing right: With a national security challenge of the magnitude posed by the 9/11 attacks, it is likely that U.S. strategists got some things wrong (and some things right... that part seems to have eluded the pundits). Strategy has an unavoidable trial-and-error element to it, and anniversaries are good moments for stock-taking.
I won't pretend to offer a complete list, but here are two I would flag in each column.
Two things we got wrong in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
Two things we got right in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
In sum, the record is mixed, but hardly as negative as the conventional wisdom paints.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
So what to make of the WikiLeaks story? First of all, it covers a period of several years; and there is no doubt that the United States and NATO didn't get everything right in all of those years, especially from 2004 to 2007. The two big stories -- ISI's fishing in troubled Afghan waters, and the deaths of civilians -- are not really news at all.
If the Department of Defense's leadership is to be believed -- and I for one, believe them -- Pakistan has put a lid on ISI. No doubt the Pakistani experience with its own Taliban gave the military and intelligence community something to think about. Equally, the Karzai government has gone out of its way to work with Islamabad, often to the chagrin of New Delhi. And no one denies that civilian loss of life, a by-product of every war ever fought, has diminished since General McChrystal issued new rules of engagement that themselves have frustrated many in the military (proving yet again that one cannot satisfy everyone -- would WikiLeaks have leaked disgruntlement with the new ROE's? I doubt it.)
The people behind WikiLeaks make no secret of their opposition to the Afghan war. Some would like to see American troops prosecuted as war criminals. WikiLeaks sees itself as providing the world with the Pentagon Papers Redux, though no one in his or her right mind could compare the Gulf of Tonkin incident that prompted the Vietnam War buildup with the destruction of the World Trade Center. That says more about the WikiLeaks crowd than about the sins their papers purport to reveal.
At the end of the day, the WikiLeaks papers will change few opinions. Those who want us out of Afghanistan will cite them ad nauseum; those who recognize the stakes for what they are -- the need to preclude that country from once again serving as a breeding ground for al Qaeda and their copycats -- will give them short shrift. What matters more is whether General Petraeus can affect the turnaround that made him a war hero in Iraq. If he does, the WikiLeaks papers will make good grist for historians' footnotes, and nothing more.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Another week, and another Big
Bombshell Story in the national security press, this time a series of
stories based on the leak by Wikileaks of over 90,000 classified cables and
reports from the Afghan theater. (A sidebar: The word "leak" just doesn't seem
adequate for a data dump and security breach of this magnitude. This is not so
much a leak as a gusher.)
After reading the stories, my reaction is similar to FP colleague Tom Ricks: There does not appear to be any bombshell revelation here. Perhaps the more interesting and damning revelations are to come, but presumably the newspapers led with their best stuff.
If so, I would go a step further: The bombshell is that, with 90,000 classified documents from which to cherry-pick, the reporters were obliged to conclude, "Over all, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war." That is pretty significant, given the layers of distrust and skeptical reporting that have accumulated over the years. (By contrast, a few days of reporting from a very different kind of data dump, the archives of JournoList, seems to have generated far more damning revelations.)
In other words, the general understanding of the overall arc
of the Afghan war thus far that an attentive public audience would develop by
staying abreast of the information already in the public domain is what one
would glean if one digested 90,000 classified documents from the same period. That
is a big story, but it is not the one the editors are hyping.
Instead, they are hyping a few items that seem less significant upon closer inspection:
But,as anyone who has read tactical reports knows, there are always contradictions and uncertainties in raw reports. If the newspapers had evidence that the chain of command ignored these reports and did not investigate them further, that would be a story. But that is not what is reported (not yet, anyway). Rather, what is reported is that there are a few tactical sitreps that differ from the official/public account. That may indicate that the original tactical reports did not prove out under further investigation. Given the way the New York Times downplays the issue, I suspect that may be what happened here.
Of course, this doesn't mean the leaks are without consequence. As Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued, the leaks further undermine the classification system on which sensitive national security collection, analysis, and decision-making depends. Moreover, the leaks -- and especially the hyped air-of-scandal coverage (see especially the way the sensationalized British press are covering the story) -- fuel public despair about the war and provide fodder for well-established anti-war arguments. This appears to be the reason why anti-war activists collected and disseminated the classified documents in the first place.
The leaked documents may even have put in jeopardy coalition troops and military missions. The editors at the New York Times assure us that they took every necessary step to ensure that the safety of the troops and their missions were not compromised by this leak. President Obama's National Security Advisor says otherwise, warning that the leaks could "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."
One doesn't have to be a knee-jerk partisan supporter of the Obama administration to think that it is a better judge of how to preserve American national security than newspaper editors and anti-war activists.
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
There are two breathless stories today that are hyped as shock and awe assaults
on the national security establishment. I have read both and tried several
times to muster the requisite emotion, but both struck me as the analytical equivalent
The first and biggest, is the Washington Post's long-awaited investigative series on the growth of the national security establishment. Taking its cue from British tabloids, the Post has breathlessly promoted this series with its own brand -- "Top Secret America" -- sensational headlines -- "A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control" -- and extravagant but somewhat unprovable claims -- such as the charge that the intelligence community failed to connect the dots in a timely manner on the recent terrorist attempts because of the redundant nature of the system. Its most innovative aspect is a series of nifty interactive features that allow tailored searches and graphics-rich displays of two basic (and I would have thought, well-established) facts: (1) that the national security world is complex and (2) that defense spending has grown in the last decade. Bottom line: This is a very glossy website that so far seems to try a bit too hard to shock viewers with how much gambling is going on in the casino.
The series has just begun and perhaps future installments will offer more bombshell revelations, but the first installment leaves me wondering what the fuss was about. The major claim that the complexity of the intelligence community has made it hard to manage in a centralized fashion is neither new nor proven in a novel way. I am sympathetic to the charge -- anyone who has worked in government understands how complex the national security establishment is and can probably name a publication or an organization that, in one person's humble opinion, could be dropped without fatally wounding national security. The difficulty is that when you aggregate across a variety of experienced perspectives, you do not come up with a common list of things to axe. One man's meat is another man's fluff, and vice-versa. You need look no further than this very series to establish this fact. The Washington Post team have spent two years talking with scores of people and compile all of the complaints without producing (yet, yet ... perhaps the best is yet to come) any coherent and viable set of reforms.
The two leads, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, have a wealth of experience bringing obscure matters to a more general audience (full disclosure: Bill and I co-moderated a discussion group at washingtonpost.com called Planet War for a time). I would like to think that some of the purple prose got foisted upon them by editors desperate to generate traffic to the website. So perhaps the series will develop in a more constructive direction.
I have less high hopes for Jacob Heilbrunn's crocodile tears complaint about the waning of establishment Republicans on foreign policy. He begins with the hook that one of the leading Republican contenders for 2012, Mitt Romney, came out opposed to the new START treaty with Moscow, a treaty supported with varying degrees of enthusiasm by several senior Republican wise men. But debates among Republicans about the wisdom of specific compromises on specific nuclear arms control treaties is as old as, well, nuclear arms control. Indeed, because Heilbrunn explicitly avoids taking up the merits of the case either way, he does not demonstrate that this new debate is especially shallow or even especially vigorous.
Alas, the piece goes downhill from there and quickly reaches farce by the fourth paragraph, which reads:
Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama's domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele's comment that Afghanistan is "Obama's war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America's defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama's "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world.
I have read this paragraph several times and I still can't make sense of it.
Republicans have not reflexively criticized Obama's foreign policies. The
"stoning" of Michael Steele by other Republicans was actually a defense
of one set of Obama's foreign policies regarding Afghanistan. Bill Kristol has
been one of the loudest supporters of Obama on the foreign policy in question.
And so on.
But beyond mere sloppy editing, the paragraph and the entire piece betrays a more fundamental wrong-headedness. It wants to claim that there is a new Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy, and, of course, that the new orthodoxy is flawed and a rejection of the old Republican establishment. But the evidence it presents actually reveals something else: a rich panoply of debate among Republicans today and throughout the Cold War. Doubtless some of those positions were flawed and some of them are flawed today (put it this way, George Will and Bill Kristol cannot both be right about Afghanistan). But there is no orthodoxy and it is certainly not reflexively opposed to everything the Obama administration has attempted to do on national security. And, of course, neither is it reflexively anti-establishment. Even a casual reader of the Shadow Government blog will find a range of opinion, and we are hardly the full spectrum of Republican foreign policy specialists.
I can imagine an interesting piece doing the intellectual geography of mapping out various Republican debates. But I haven't read that piece yet, and somehow I doubt it will begin with the premise that Republican intellectuals have sold out to the barbarians.
Two big pieces, both worth reading, but count me just poked, not provoked.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
General Stanley McChrystal is in hot water for a profile of him in the coming issue of Rolling Stone. That it's titled "The Runaway General" gives a pretty good indication of the slant of the article, which also describes the Marja offensive as "doomed."
I certainly agree with Peter's post -- McChrystal didn't do himself any favors and his staff sure didn't serve him well allowing the reporter to hear their rough talk. He says numerous impolitic things, including evidently telling the reporter he voted for President Obama (it's practically an article of faith in the American military to keep one's votes to one's self), and laughing when a staffer says something demeaning about Vice President Joe Biden.
But McChrystal also didn't commit treason, which is what the political backlash makes it sound like. He didn't disobey an order. He didn't go outside his chain of command to undercut the president. He didn't say he knew better than his elected leadership what needed to be done. He didn't even criticize the president other than to say he'd looked uncomfortable the first time he met the military leadership. This is not "his MacArthur moment," as commentators are suggesting.
The particular animus for Biden is unbecoming, but not unwarranted, for reasons the article itself makes clear (although it does not recognize). When told the Kandahar offensive will have to be postponed, the vice president crows that this validates his CT-plus approach. Not only is that petty score-keeping, it's substantively wrong. The "rising tide" operational approach to Kandahar is even further from the stand-off strikes approach Biden is reported to have advocated in the Afghanistan policy review.
The article does give the war's critics a rallying cry to call for the resignation of someone whose strategy they disagree with. This was McChrystal's real blunder: giving his opponents something to use against his position. Those who oppose our deepening involvement in Afghanistan are calling for his resignation. But the president would be stupid to fire McChrystal.
First of all, the president fired McChrystal's predecessor for being insufficiently creative in counterinsurgency, and no one doubts that McChrystal's approach is superior to any other, given what the president says our objectives are in Afghanistan. The president himself endorsed the administration's second Afghan policy review.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
This week the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on threats to press freedom in the Americas. It could not have been timelier.
Latin America has never been a particularly accommodating environment for journalists, with threats stemming mostly from criminality (primarily of the narcotrafficking kind) and corruption, as practitioners of those dark arts are all too willing to eliminate anyone that dares to ask impertinent questions about their enterprises.
But things have taken a turn for the worse of late. More governments are starting to get into the act. These radical populists, which include Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, are so determined to smash their respective ancien régimes and "refound" their countries that no opposition is brooked, and any media outlets not sufficiently supportive of their efforts must be put out of business -- always under a patina of "legality," mind you.
Not surprisingly, the primary culprit and ringleader in this regard is Hugo Chavez. On the very day of the subcommittee hearing, the owner of Venezuela's last opposition television station was fleeing the country ahead of a government warrant for his arrest.
Guillermo Zuloaga of Globovisión has long been a target (he was briefly arrested in March for saying publicly that Venezuela lacked freedom of expression) because he has refused to knuckle under to Chavez's pressure to broadcast only pro-government propaganda. In 2007, Chavez drove another independent station, RCTV, off the air by ordering that its license not be renewed. Since then, the few remaining outlets not controlled by the government have toned down any criticism of Chavez lest they meet the same fate.
Journalist support groups around the world have decried Chavez's latest ham-handed attempt to silence his domestic critics, and the Obama administration weighed in with its own riposte: "We are seriously concerned in Venezuela about the arrest order for Guillermo Zuloaga," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said this week. "This is the latest example of the government of Venezuela's continuing assault on the freedom of the press."
Chavez has responded vociferously to the administration's criticisms (including those by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent swing through the region), claiming it is the Obama administration's interventionist attitude that makes it impossible to have good bilateral relations, thereby placing it in the same position as -- horror of horrors -- the Bush administration.
So far, there is no indication the Obama administration is falling for this silly ploy. And that is a good thing. International affairs of state are not popularity contests, nor does one have to crawl down into the sewer with the likes of Hugo Chavez to get one's point across, defend our interests, and stand with those who share our values. If the consequences weren't so tragic for the Venezuelan people, one could almost thank Chavez for proving again those essential points.
THOMAS COEX/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.
YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images
I find Fareed Zakaria always intriguing even, or perhaps especially, when I am not fully persuaded by his argument. Today, he writes:
President Obama gets much credit for changing America's image in the world -- he was probably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. But even devoted fans would probably say it is too soon to cite a specific foreign policy achievement. In fact, there is a place -- crucial to U.S. national security -- where Obama's foreign policy is working: Pakistan.
I agree more or less with all four claims in that opening paragraph: Obama
deserves credit for improving America's image; image is the only plausible
justification for giving Obama the Nobel prize; Obama's foreign policy
achievements have been sparse thus far; and the results and prospects in
Pakistan are less gloomy than one might have predicted a year ago. However, the Pakistan claim is the dodgiest of those claims and I am only
partially persuaded by Zakaria's reasoning.
Zakaria argues that success (so far) in Pakistan is due to four factors, three of which he credits to the Obama team:
1) Obama properly recognized that prospects in Afghanistan are
linked to Pakistan and dramatized this fact by referring to the problem as the
2) Obama used sticks and carrots to pressure Pakistan: sticks in the form of outreach to Pakistan's rival, India; carrots in the form of massive aid.
3) Obama has put in time and effort, specifically a "whole of government" approach to Pakistan.
4) Obama got lucky because the militants over-reached in Pakistan with their brutality.
My problem with this argument is that all of these factors, except perhaps the "AfPak" label and luck (!), pre-date the Obama administration by some margin.
It is possible that Obama has
tweaked the mix of these policies just right and this has produced better
results. It is more possible that simply the steady accumulation of
continuing basically the same things has produced more progress. And it
is perhaps most possible that the critical ingredients distinguishing between
progress and reversals is the adoption of the McChrystal surge strategy in
Afghanistan, good luck, and circumstance.
Consider this: if the situation in Pakistan was worsening, there would be plenty of explanatory factors available to blame. First, just as Bush was stuck with the compromised Musharraf regime as partner, Obama is stuck the equally but differently compromised Zardari regime as partner. Second, numerous bureaucratic snafus have largely hobbled the "whole of government" effort. Third, the way the Pakistani aid package was, well, packaged produced a sharp backlash in Pakistan -- it is hard to know whether to code this a carrot or a stick or a poisoned carrot. Fourth, the tortuous Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and the botched roll-out provided as much confusion as clarification in the region, at least initially.
In short, it seems it would be no harder to explain a lack of progress as it is to explain progress. Under the circumstances, a modified version of the old Scot verdict, "not yet proven," seems warranted.
To be fair, Zakaria duly caveats the Pakistan argument. One cannot accuse him of naïve boosterism on this issue. Indeed, he closes with a warning against naïve optimism on Pakistan and warns the Obama administration that relations with Pakistan are like running on a treadmill: "If you stop, you move backward -- and most likely fall down." He may be more right than he realized: it could be like running on a treadmill in that you can be doing the right things for a very long time and at great effort and still not appear to be any closer to your final objective.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation has posted an interesting assessment of the Defense Department's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, on his blog. The essay, by Liu Shuisheng of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, deserves to be read in full. It portrays the 2010 QDR as a sign of "strategic contraction" by the United States. In the author's analysis, the United States's focus on the Middle East will "further chip away at the United States' strength, aggravate its strategic adversity, and increasingly narrow the room for maneuvers on other issues."
The essay is fresh evidence that Asians see a United States whose attention is elsewhere. As Jim Hoagland wrote in Sunday's Washington Post, America's allies and friends in the region are increasingly hedging their bets. In the case of the Chinese, one justifiable concern is that Beijing will attempt to take advantage of the United States' preoccupation elsewhere.
As the world's sole superpower, the United States must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Asian states appear to have their doubts.
Disturbing leaks keep flowing from
the once-tight Obama national security ship of state. The latest is in
York Times, which publishes the complete text of the
cable sent by Ambassador Eikenberry, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, last fall
at the height of the administration's Afghan
Strategy Review 2.0.
The gist of the Eikenberry memo has been known for a long time because of the numerous leaks during the review. We already knew that Eikenberry was skeptical about the surge option and tried to derail it late in the review process. But the leak of the complete cable itself is nonetheless a dramatic step in the evolving Afghan story, and its timing and content is revealing.
First, the timing and provenance of the leak is telling. The NYT story claims that the leaker was motivated only in fleshing out the historical record:
The official said it was important for the historical record that Mr. Eikenberry's detailed assessments be made public, given that they were among the most important documents produced during the debate that led to the troop buildup."
This is a highly implausible rationale -- it is far more likely that the leak is an indication that the internal debate over Afghanistan is ongoing. The roll-out of the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 revealed serious confusion at the highest levels: Had the president committed himself to an irrevocable withdrawal timeline or had he committed himself to a conditions-based withdrawal schedule? Was the United States doing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan or were we doing something else? More recently there have been additional leaks attacking Gen. McChrystal for the pace of the surge and suggesting that the president's team members are not all pulling on the oars in the same direction. Against this backdrop and on the eve of the president's State of the Union address, today's leak of a months-old Eikenberry cable is more likely just another volley in the circular firing squad. It may even be a bit of the "Chicago payback" that Obama advisors reportedly threatened to inflict on the military for prevailing in the internal debate. Bottom line: From the administration's point of view, leaks are never opportune, but this one is especially poorly timed and indicates serious problems within the national security team.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Most over-reported story: I agree with my wing-man, Will Inboden: the "restoration" of America's soft power has been reported more often than it has been accomplished. To be sure, we have seen a rapid re-inflation of soft-power assets, but it has had all the markings of a soft-power asset bubble. The president is still struggling to figure out how to translate his enormous global popularity into tangible gains for American national interest.
Under-appreciated story: The decline of American relations with the other great powers. The flip-side of over-reporting the popularity of the President is a failure to see that, down the line, our relations with the other great powers have eroded from where they were a few years ago. In some cases, say Japan or China, this cannot be blamed entirely on President Obama or his team's diplomatic efforts. The new Japanese government would be a tough nut for any national security team to crack, and President Bush's remarkably warm partnership with Koizumi probably represented an artificially high level. Similarly, China and India are especially tricky relationships that have changed dramatically since the last time the Obama team's Asia hands were in positions of power; they are learning that crafting a decent Asia strategy that balances both the bilateral and the multilateral relationships is a bit harder than simply claiming that "American is back." In other areas, such as relations with the United Kingdom or even France, self-inflicted diplomatic wounds seem more consequential. Devoted Obama-philes would claim that relations with Russia have improved markedly over the past year, but the more important question is whether this has come at the expense of surrendering key American interests.
Most over-reported story: America's global image being improved by the election of President Obama. Sure, America's "brand" got a big boost in opinion polling in Europe. But America's improved image has not yet translated into a single significant foreign policy accomplishment. From European reluctance to resettle Guantanamo detainees, or contribute substantial new combat forces to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, or support robust sanctions on Iran, or even to award Chicago the Olympics, the gap between popularity ratings and policy achievements is huge -- as is the gap between the voluminous media coverage on America's image and the actual impact on important policies.
Under-appreciated story: The continuation of President Bush's policies by the Obama administration. Yes, the Obama administration has engaged in rhetorical distancing and stylistic changes, and on some key areas has changed course from Bush administration policies (often for the worse, such as promotion of human rights and democracy, or promotion of free trade). But what hardly gets noticed in the media, and which the Obama administration rarely shows the grace to admit, in many areas they are continuing the same broad policies they inherited from the Bush Administration. From Iran (work with the P-5 plus 1 for toughened sanctions while holding out incentives to Tehran), to North Korea (combination of sanctions and negotiations within the 6-party talks framework), Afghanistan (increase troops for a counterinsurgency strategy as urged in the 2008 strategy review), Iraq (gradual troop drawdown while increasing training of Iraqi forces and encouraging political process), Africa (link development assistance to governance reforms, maintain generous funding for HIV/AIDS), and Asia (maintain cooperative relations with China and Japan while working to strengthen ties with India), many Obama administration policies look very similar to Bush administration policies.
Most over-reported story: The replacement of the G-8 with the G-20. The Obama administration has heralded this as a major foreign policy achievement, reordering the world power structure to recognize the emergence of major developing economies such as Brazil, India, and China. If either the G-8 or the G-20 were very effective, the administration might deserve the big pat on the back it has given itself. They are not.
Under-appreciated story: The perilous state of the European Union. On the face of it, with the advance of the Lisbon Treaty and a new head of state and a high representative for foreign affairs, the EU might seem stronger than ever. But its economic underpinnings are quavering. All along the periphery of Europe, from Greece to Spain to Ireland, countries are facing serious financial problems. Markets seem to be betting that one or all of these countries will default on their debts. It is not clear exactly what this would mean for the euro, but none of the possible interpretations are good.
Most over-reported story: The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy review. The president has the responsibility to establish the objectives for which the nation uses force. He also has the right to review and reassess those objectives and the strategy to achieve them when he sees fit. But the way in which the Obama administration conducted its review -- through seemingly interminable National Security Council meetings, immediately reported in great detail on the front pages of newspapers -- hurt the credibility of the United States in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Under-appreciated story: The worsening of relations between the United States and its close allies and friends. The Obama administration came to office promising to "repair" America's standing in the world. Nearly a year later, U.S. relations with a number of our allies (Great Britain, Canada, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic) and friends (Israel and India) are worse than they were when Obama took office. The reasons for this slide differ. In some cases, such as that of Japan, it has largely been due to developments out of the control of the U.S. government. In most other cases, however, the wounds have been self-inflicted and all too often unnecessary.
Under-appreciated story: In contrast to the much-discussed impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, progress on the ground in the West Bank has gone relatively unnoticed. Under Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel has taken major steps to ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank, and under Salam Fayyad, the Palestinians have made significant strides on security reform and state-building. So important are these seemingly mundane steps that they led the IMF to forecast the first growth in West Bank standards of living since 2005. These developments are not enough for real progress toward peace -- barriers to FDI in the West Bank, continued Iranian financial and military support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the breakdown of peace talks must be addressed, among other things. Nevertheless, they represent an important opening that should be seized and built upon.
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
It is not every day that one gets a chance to rattle the cage of the boss, so when I read the contribution from ForeignPolicy.com czarina Susan Glasser to the Washington Post's compilation of "worst ideas of the decade" I knew I had to respond -- even if it means I can kiss my year-end bonus good-bye.
Glasser's argument is the conventional wisdom, painstakingly assembled over
years of partisan arm-chair generalship: if only the United States had deployed
more ground troops into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, we may have killed or
captured the al Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora. Grumbling about the Tora
Bora mission could be heard within hours of the battle, but got much louder
during the 2004 campaign when Senator Kerry made it a standard attack line.
The failure to tamp down violence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam served
to further fan the flames of this critique -- too-light-a-footprint caused us
troubles in Iraq and that "proves" we had too light a footprint in Afghanistan.
This fall, the critique got revived when Senator Kerry's committee
published a report which purports to validate the argument.
My problem with the Tora Bora critique -- both its generalized form and the particular form advanced by Glasser -- is that it conveniently forgets that the reason bin Laden was "trapped" in Tora Bora in the first place is that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks and CIA Director George Tenet defied both the conventional war plans and the conventional wisdom to mount the very light-footprint campaign that Glasser et al. are complaining about. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had used the conventional warplan that involved a heavy U.S. ground presence instead of the rapidly deployable light-footprint that Glasser denounces, the invasion of Afghanistan would have happened some time in 2002, if then. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had listened to the conventional wisdom during the early weeks when the light-footprint approach appeared to be faltering, they would have abandoned the Afghan effort long before the battle in Tora Bora.
The Rumsfeld/Franks/Tenet approach was an innovative gamble that performed much better than anyone, especially bin Laden, expected. For this reason, and for this reason alone, there was a chance to capture/kill bin Laden at Tora Bora.
Pushed to its logical conclusion, the Tora Bora critique reduces to the claim made by Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere. The Tora Bora critics assure us in hindsight that they would have approved every pass that was successful and all the aspects of the game plan that worked, but they also would have known not to throw the pass that got blocked and they would have changed the game plan at exactly the right moment.
It is unfortunate that bin Laden escaped. It may even be the case that redeploying the U.S. Rangers that were on the ground in a different fashion might have produced a different result. And I am certainly not going to defend every decision made by Rumsfeld or every scintilla of spin advanced by the Pentagon press shop. But before I am going to take seriously the conspiracy theory that we "allowed Osama to escape" just to prove a light-footprint theory of warfare, I want to hear the critics acknowledge that we had bin Laden within reach at Tora Bora precisely because we were willing to try the very light-footprint approach they denounce.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
By Will Inboden
My fellow FP blogger Steve Walt has taken note of the praise of President Obama's Oslo speech for its "Christian realism" from the likes of David Brooks, George Packer, and Andrew Sullivan -- and Walt begs to differ. He points out numerous ways that Obama's speech departs from the tenets of traditional realism. On those I would tend to agree with Walt.
But where Walt errs is in his conflation of "Christian realism" with "realism," and here his critique of Brooks, Packer, Sullivan et al for praising the Niebuhrian spirit in Obama's speech misses the mark. "Realism" seems to come in all manner of shapes, sizes, and flavors these days, and the point here is not to plumb those endless murky depths but rather to highlight the distinctives of Christian realism.
So while Walt's expertise on academic realism is formidable, the Christian realism developed most prominently by Reinhold Niebuhr is in important ways a different kettle of fish. If Obama's Oslo speech may not have been "realistic" in the conventional academic sense, its themes were largely consistent with the traditions of Christian realism.
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images
A story out of Pakistan today shows that the rhetorical/policy trimming that marred President Obama's Afghan escalation speech has done some damage to the prospects for the policy. The bottom line: the Pakistanis are not doing what we need them to do because they interpreted the escalation-plus-timeline as an indication of Obama's irresolution. Or, as the reporter put it:
The core reason for Pakistan's imperviousness is its scant faith in the Obama troop surge, and what Pakistan sees as the need to position itself for a regional realignment in Afghanistan once American forces begin to leave."
This story provides a timely, if unfortunate, rebuttal to the president's own
efforts at post-speech spin control. Obama went on "60 Minutes" on Sunday to
offer a vigorous defense
of the West Pont speech.
What struck me was this exchange recorded in the transcript:
KROFT: The West Point speech was greeted it was a great deal of confusion.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I disagree with that statement.
KROFT: You do?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I absolutely do. 40 million people watched it. And I think a whole bunch of people understood what we intend to do.
KROFT: But it raised a lot of questions. Some people thought it was contradictory. That's a fair criticism.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don't think it's a fair criticism. The situation in Afghanistan is complex, and so people who are looking for simple black and white answers won't get them. And the speech wasn't designed to give those black and white answers.
Part of my job here, I believe, is to make sure that the American people understand what we're getting into. What we where we've been and where we're going. And they're not simple. I think that what you may be referring to is the fact that on the one hand I said, "We're gonna be sending in additional troops now." On the other hand, "By July 2011, we're gonna move into a transition phase where we're drawing out troops down."
The alternative is to stand pat where we are, in which you never have a stable Afghan security force. And we are potentially signed up for being in Afghanistan for the next decade.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There shouldn't be anything confusing about that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, that's something that we did in Iraq. And we executed over the last two years in Iraq. So, I think the American people are familiar with the idea of a surge.
In terms of the rationale for doing it, we don't have an Afghan military right now, security force, that can stabilize the country. If we are effective over the next two years, by putting in these additional troops -- clearing enough space and time for the Afghan security forces to get set up in an effective way -- that then frees us up to transition into a place where we can start drawing down.
This is remarkable and a bit scary, because Obama's defense is so fundamentally
misleading. It is, if you will forgive the historical reference, a moment
when President Obama channels the predecessor he usually avoids talking about,
the one who answered a direct question with the memorable line: "It depends on
what the meaning of the word is is."
For let's concede at the outset that President Obama, like President Clinton, may be technically correct. Because so many people watched the speech, and even more heard about the speech, it is almost a statistical certainty that "a whole bunch of people understood what [the Obama administration] intended to do," especially if we accept a conventional interpretation of "whole bunch" to be in the hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousands.
But Kroft's leading question is more honest than Obama's response was, because the confusion arising out of Obama's "deadline" was far, far more consequential than the statistical probability that some fraction of the audience got it. For days after the speech, administration officials offered contradictory clarifications, with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen clearly suggesting that the deadline was a token target that would not drive the withdrawal schedule and spokesman Gibbs talking about the deadline as "etched in stone."
The policy compromise embodied in the speech and the underlying policy decision was in fact intended to square a number of circles. It was an escalation-with-a-prearranged-deadline-for-beginning-a-withdrawal-but-vagueness-about-how-fast-and-the-conditions-under-which-the-subsequent-withdrawal-would-happen sort of compromise.
It was designed to let administration hawks say we are in this war to win it and administration doves to say that we are not making an open-ended commitment to win this war.
It was designed to split Obama's
opposition so that, as has happened, some Republicans praised the escalation
part and other Republicans excoriated the artificial deadline part, and some
anti-war Democrats bit their tongues over the escalation and clung bitterly to
the artificial deadline while others saw the artificial deadline as a fiction
and loudly denounced the escalation.
It was designed to confuse domestic political enemies and it achieved that goal. An unintended consequence was that it also confused international allies, as the Pakistan story makes clear. Reasonable people can debate whether President Obama had better options that were less confusing. Reasonable people can debate whether the benefits of the confusion outweigh the costs of the confusion. Reasonable people will conclude -- and I am one of them -- that on balance the speech and the underlying policy position were worth supporting.
But -- and here is the absolutely crucial part -- no reality-based observer can pretend that the speech and the underlying policy was not confusing. To pretend otherwise is either to peddle absurd spin or, worse, to be so infected with a bunker mentality that one is operating in a bubble.
As a general rule, I don't like media interpretations that reduce to "the president and the White House team are in a fantasy world bubble." In my experience, that allegation has been leveled many times when I know for a fact that it has been untrue. But if the administration really believes that the "deadline" that is not really a deadline has not produced confusion at home and abroad, then I am hard-pressed to come up with explanations that do not mention bubbles.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
The daily news clippings continue to tantalize with tidbits on the intersection between politics and national security. The tidbits fall into a variety of three baskets -- good news, bad news, and ambivalent news -- rather than accumulating only on one side of the ledger for President Obama and the prospects for his policy.
In the good news basket, I would put this op-ed from Senator Webb. At first glance, it is a strong cautionary note because it is full of tough skeptical questions for Obama's policy. It is clear that Webb dislikes the policy and in the op-ed he promises that in the coming weeks he will be kicking many rocks and will doubtless turn some of them over to expose a bit of awkwardness underneath. But I code it good news because of this closing paragraph:
On the personnel front, our active-duty military has been deployed repeatedly for combat operations since 2001. Guard and reserve components also have deployed at levels not envisioned when the all-volunteer force was introduced. We are in uncharted territory in terms of the long-term effects these deployments are having on the well-being of our men and women in uniform, especially the Army and Marine Corps. I introduced dwell-time legislation nearly three years ago to ensure that we achieved a better balance in deployment cycles with a minimum interval before follow-on deployments. The new commitment of some 30,000 U.S. troops will put additional strains on our forces and their families. I plan to press the administration on this point to ensure that we are more vigilant in safeguarding the welfare of our men and women in uniform.
Read the bolded parts carefully. Back in 2007, Webb was a key figure in the Democrats' "slow bleed strategy" to hobble the Iraq surge by setting reasonable-sounding-but-in-design-and-practice-debilitating restrictions on the implementation of the surge strategy. It was a clever and deliberate plan to stop the surge and, if a few more Republicans had gone along with the scheme, it might have succeeded. In the last sentence, Webb explicitly stops well short of threatening to do the same to Obama. He will ask awkward questions, but he will not seek to hobble Obama the way he tried to hobble Bush. In other words, Webb is signaling what I believe will be the dominant approach of the anti-war faction in Congress: sound and fury but nothing tangible to block the Obama team from implementing the strategy. (As a postscript, I would add that just because President Obama channeled President Bush to produce his own surge does not mean that Republicans in Congress should channel their opposite number of a few years back to produce their own "strangle-the-policy-in-the-cradle" anti-surge. Those who urged Obama to give McChrystal what he asked for must line up in support of the president today, even if he dithered and tinkered with the request. The best thing Republicans in Congress can provide is a demonstration of how a responsible opposition party acts and that involves giving Obama's surge time and support to succeed.) This is good news for Obama and means that his job of building the political support he needs to wage the war successfully is well within his means.
In the bad news basket, I would put this snippet from Joe Klein's story on the Afghanistan decision:
But, you might reasonably ask, did the strategy review really have to take so long and be so public? Obama had no choice about the public part of the program; he is privately furious about the leaks, especially those from the military. "We will deal with that situation in time," an Obama adviser told me.
If Klein's reporting is accurate, this is an ominous sign that some Chicago politics payback is in the offing. Of course, every administration complains (rightly) about leaks. But this White House is unusually politicized (they describe their own White House team as a bunch of "campaign hacks"), and so while other White House's complained about it, one gets the sense that this team means actually to do something about it (cue the plumbers?) Their target appears not to be the White House leakers but rather the military leakers. This is fully appropriate and consistent with civilian control. But it is a risky business to declare war on one's own military in the midst of a larger war. The military is not without ammunition of its own. So far, the on-the-record statements by the senior brass could not be more helpful to or respectful of Obama and the new strategy. If the leak-plumbing turns into witch-hunting, the civil-military fall-out could be profound.
Already, the left has edged a bit closer to the "General Betray-us" type of attacks on the military that characterized some of their opposition to the Iraq surge. How else to code the curious commentary that called the West Point venue "enemy territory" or that mocked Obama's military advisors as petulant 12-year-olds? It would not take much to fan these embers into a real civil-military fire.
Obama's leadership of this process was the source of some amazement by those who participated in it. He was all business. Unlike Bill Clinton, he didn't allow the conversations to ramble; unlike George W. Bush, he ran the meetings himself. He asked sharp, Socratic questions of everyone in the Situation Room. He would notice when an adviser wasn't participating, even in an area that wasn't his or her expertise, and ask, What do you think about this, Hillary? Or Bob, or Jim. He encouraged argument among those who disagreed — most notably General David Petraeus and Vice President Joe Biden. He was undaunted by the military. Indeed, the greatest cause of delay was Obama's constant pressure on his commanders to justify every unit and find some way to speed the troops' arrival. The final deployment includes only three combat brigades and one training brigade -- about 20,000 troops -- augmented by 10,000 enablers: medics, mechanics, intelligence analysts, strategic-communications (that is, propaganda) experts. (See pictures from a photographer's personal journey through war.)
The real haggle was over speed of deployment. The military plans carefully, in five- to 10-year increments, and moves with the speed of a supertanker. A good part of the reason the troops were sent to Helmand instead of Kandahar, even though it violated the prevailing counterinsurgency strategy, was that the fortifications already had been built in Helmand; it seemed too late to turn the supertanker around. Obama kept sending plans back to the Pentagon, seeking a faster launch for his "extended surge." The military still isn't entirely sure that it'll be able to move 30,000 troops to Afghanistan by August. "We'll push in every way possible to get the forces on the ground ASAP," a senior military official told me. But the President clearly believes that the speed and vehemence of the new offensive will be its greatest assets.
From a civil-military relations theory point of view, Obama is well within his rights to delve into operational details like this. The military may resent this as micro-management, but it is more legitimate than the conventional wisdom claims. It is, however, more of the risky business stuff -- just ask Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. What Obama did (if Klein's reporting is accurate) is precisely what Secretary Rumsfeld did: tinkering with the time-phased force and deployment data (TPFDD) that determines the sequence, flow, and pace by which troops and war material get into theater. This is among the most complex aspects of military operations, interweaving the constraints of logistics, OPSTEMPO, and PERSTEMPO.
Our most experienced Secretary of Defense in modern times, Donald Rumsfeld, found it fascinating but one could say that it became his own personal Waterloo. Lots of reporters got rich writing books consisting primarily of assembling assorted complaints about how Rumsfeld's tinkering in general but especially with the TPFDD -- shaving a unit here, delaying a unit there, making it lighter and faster -- allegedly contributed to the problems coalition forces confronted in the unfolding in Iraq. And here we have news that the least experienced commander in chief in modern times has similarly dipped his toe in these same waters. Of course, President Obama has well-qualified expert advisors (as did Secretary Rumsfeld) and from this distant perch, and at this stage in the process, it is impossible to say whether the changes Obama wrought strengthened or weakened the plan. What is possible to say here and now is that Obama has irrevocably made Afghanistan his war -- his war to win or to lose.
Perhaps these three baskets will merge? Will Congress start investigating civilian micro-management of the war? Will we start to get retaliatory leaking about micro-management that proved dysfunctional? I hope not. But the national security team seems to have lost a bit of its no-drama-Obama quality and so I would not bet against it.
By Peter Feaver
The post-Afghan-announcement spin has been almost as interesting as the
announcement itself. Over on our sister blog, Tom Ricks raps my knuckles for finding fault with Obama's rhetoric and assures us that the speech was
likely effective with its intended audience: Obama supporters.
Color me "still not persuaded." Mind you, I agree that Obama aimed the speech at his supporters, especially his supporters who like to think that all of Obama's problems can be blamed on his predecessor (supporters like Tom, for instance). I further agree that the policy compromise, particularly the promise to begin the withdrawal in 18 months, was aimed at his supporters. I just don't think the speech was effective at doing so. Mine is not a partisan observation, since folks who have drunk far more Kool-Aid than Tom, folks like Chris Matthews, for instance, also found the speech ineffective.
But what matters is not the relative artfulness vs. artlessness of the speech. What will have lingering impact is the 3-month review, not the 30-some
minute speech. And here I believe, the case is fairly dispositive.
Despite the spin coming out of the White House, this review, and its general untidiness,
almost certainly did more damage to public/political support for the war than
it helped. Several dedicated Obama supporters have tried to persuade me
that Obama has been masterful throughout this process and their case just does
not withstand careful scrutiny.
To make the case that this was masterful, one has to make a far-fetched counterfactual argument that the (declining) support we see today is somehow stronger (and much, much stronger) than it would have been in early September if the president had made the decision in a timely manner. Further, one must argue that going forward the president is better poised to keep that support shored up despite all of the other damage (such as to our NATO and regional allies) that has been done in the intervening 3 months.
But Obama did not use the three month interval to shore up domestic support for the war and, on the contrary, it is likely that domestic support for his policy is lower today than it would have been had he conducted the review in a less clumsy fashion. Instead of spending the time reassuring wobbly Democrats, the team spent their time doing a near-Diem on Karzai, upbraiding the military brass, and, of course, complaining about how the previous team never ever asked any hard questions. This gave both time and material to strengthen the anti-war sentiment at home (to be sure it is not a juggernaut, but it is undeniably stronger on Dec. 3 than it was on Sept. 3, as the three month slide in poll numbers makes clear), to re-cement in Pakistan's mind that the United States is an unreliable ally, to undermine the utility of the two principal civilian players in the Afghan mission (Holbrooke and Eikenberry), to convince the major NATO allies that they were right to start edging to the door, and to sow all sorts of doubts in the minds of the U.S. military.
Now the policy compromise itself is indeed intended to shore up that support (buying Dem acquiescence with an arbitrary commitment to give a "mission accomplished" speech in July 2011) while doing the least amount of damage to the actual policy (give McChrystal close to what he asked for, give himself enough wiggle room to keep waging the war after his 2011 "mission accomplished speech"). But it did not take him 3 months of painstaking review to find that that compromise. It was available to him all along. So far, the Obama team has not leaked any evidence to suggest that the arbitrary date was derived from careful analysis of what is actually doable on the ground in Afghanistan: eg. How fast can we really stand up the ANA or how fast can we really strike a mortal blow at the Taliban. In the absence of that sort of analysis, it is more likely that the target date was arrived at by analysis of two other fixed calendars -- calendars that were known long ago: the troop PERSTEMPO schedule and the 2012 presidential primary calendar. If so, that Solomonic compromise was fully discernible from the beginning and Obama could have announced it to roughly the same level of cheers and jeers in early September.
So the long review was not really about buying time to shore up public or political support for the war. That does not mean that the delay served no political purpose. It may be that the long delayed review served two other political goals, one successfully and the other less so.
First, the delay bought time and freed up legislative/political bandwidth to
pass Obamacare. Had Obama announced the Afghanistan decision in
September, he would have greatly complicated the politics of health care. Having angered his left-wing base on Afghanistan, he might have felt
obliged to tilt even further to the left (and sooner) on health care. As
it is, he still faces a fight in the Senate, but health care looks to be in far
better shape today than it did in early September. In that respect,
this is a very close analog to President Johnson's 1964-1965 strategic
calculation: dither on national security policy long enough to get the higher
priority domestic programs through.
Second, the delay bought time and freed up political space to do a full-court press to mobilize base turnout in the off-year elections. This domestic objective was not successfully reached, but it was not for lack of trying on the part of the White House who deployed Obama to an extraordinary degree in an effort to win both New Jersey and Virginia. Given how desperate both candidates were for a strong turn-out of the left-wing base in the election, it would be only natural for the political advisors who played such an integral role in Obama's Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 to want to delay any policy decision that would anger the base until after the election.
Mind you, I am not sure that these domestic political calculations were the primary factors dictating the pace of the review. It may very well be the case that the dithering was largely due to Obama's own discomfort with the decision. However, I am pretty sure that the delay was not primarily or even secondarily about doing the ground work necessary to reassure Obama supporters that the president had done due diligence before ordering an escalation for a war that only a few months earlier all of those people were championing as the good and necessary war.
There is one final way in which the 3-month delay might linger. One theme emerged fairly consistently from all of the leaking and sniping: Please give Obama credit for doing the kind of serious analysis and question-asking and military-request-heeding that you-know-who never did. This was a natural extension of the permanent political campaign and, while tiresome, might at least be defensible if it were true and well-aimed. But it has been neither. The key charges have been shown to be false (for instance, see here and here).
But perhaps worse than repeatedly leveling false charges, the attacks are poorly aimed: whether intended or not, the folks hit by these attacks are members of Obama's own Afghanistan security team. The people who "failed" to do the serious analysis, question-asking, and military-request-heeding, as the president's spokesman Gibbs makes clear, were the folks in charge throughout 2008. The problem is that they happen to include some of the same people on whom Obama now relies, including his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his White House Afghan war czar General Doug Lute. One could argue that since the attacks are false to begin with, there is no damage done and the people hit with those attacks are not going to get upset. Yet, when Secretary Gates goes to some lengths to explain that what the president said last night about deadlines was really not much of a deadline, one cannot help but wonder whether he is showing that he can dish it out as well as take it. And when the White House hits back within the same news cycle one cannot help but wonder whether we are heading into a stormy patch personnel-wise on national security.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
File this away under "who will guard the guardians", subfile "who will fact-check the fact-checkers." Media Matters, the leftist advocacy group that "fact checks" the media for alleged pro-conservative, pro-Republican bias, complained about a recent Politico story. They took special exception to a point I made.
The Politico story
was about all the ways that President Obama seems to be getting away
with activity that would have sent critics (critics like Media Matters,
for instance) around the bend if President Bush had tried it. In the
Politico story, the reporter quoted me saying that critics would have
howled if Karl Rove and other political/communicator types had been as
prominently featured in the strategy review that led to the Iraq surge
as David Axelrod and the other Obama communicators are featured in
Obama's current (second) Afghanistan strategy review. I told the
reporter I was worried that this would give the appearance that Obama was viewing
Afghanistan narrowly through a partisan political lens and it would
complicate an already delicate civil-military situation.
Up gotchas Media Matters to claim that Karl Rove really did participate in national security strategy reviews, citing a Washington Post story about the the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which included Rove, Karen Hughes, and other communicators, as well as policy people such as Condoleeza Rice and Steve Hadley.
The problem with the Media
Matters claim is that the WHIG was not involved in deciding national
security strategy -- what to do in Iraq (or Afghanistan) to protect our
national security interests. Rather it was involved in deciding
national security communications strategy -- i.e., how best to explain to
Congress, to the American public, and to the world what and why the
President had decided regarding the national security strategy. In
other words, the policy team advised the president on what should be
done and the communications/political team advised the President on how
to persuade the American people that he had decided correctly.
Both functions are appropriate and necessary, but under President Bush the policy came first and drove the communications/politics, rather than vice-versa. In short, Karl Rove did not sit in on the national security strategy meetings. If Media Matters has additional evidence, I would be interested in seeing it, but if all they can point to is the WHIG, then they need better internal fact checkers (and perhaps not trust everything they read or hear in the media).
Now a more interesting critique would claim President Bush had the political-military balance wrong. Perhaps President Obama is recognizing that his decision on Afghanistan is inescapably a political one, and that the choice of the right national security strategy hinges crucially on an assessment of what America's domestic political system will support. In that case, it might make sense that Obama's political team has a seat at the table.
I think there is something to this line of reasoning, but at least in the Iraq case I don't think it would have altered the course of history much. I don't think having the political team at the table during the Iraq surge debate would have changed the outcome -- except, perhaps, to have hastened the surge decision slightly. According to Bob Woodward's account of the surge, some of those who opposed it did so out of concerns for its political doability (would Congress support the surge and would the American people stand for it?). Perhaps having the political team to weigh in on that question would have settled the matter more quickly. Such hypotheticals are hard to pin down with certainty.
But some things seem pretty certain to me. If the Bush political team had been as prominently involved, the critics would have howled at the time. And because President Obama has involved his political team, he will have to answer the question: to what extent was this decision - whatever it turns out to be-- driven by political considerations, especially election and re-election considerations?
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
I had some sympathy for the Obama folks when I read this newspaper account of yesterday's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Apparently, it was a solid, business-oriented meeting. And since President Obama has reportedly stopped holding regular video-teleconferencing with Maliki (a staple of US-Iraqi relations under the last Administration), this meeting was especially important.
What caught my eye was President Obama's comment at the end of the story: ""Overall," Obama said, "we have been very encouraged by the progress that has been made."
This statement struck me as both honest and misleading. Honest, because if you start with a January 2007 frame of reference -- say then-candidate Obama's claim that surge was going to have no impact on violence -- then the progress has been remarkable and very encouraging. But it also struck me as misleading in the sense that it did not also say that the recent spike in violence, and even more the recent flare-up of Arab-Kurdish tensions, is undoubtedly discouraging, and I would be surprised if the Obama team did not feel the same. Of course, as the Post story related, Obama also acknowledged that there are "tough days ahead" in Iraq. But the overall message was one of progress, a word he invoked 6 times in the prepared remarks and 3 times in the answer to the first question and that is the lede for the story.
That got me wondering: would those folks (say the mainstream Bob Woodward or Tom Ricks, let alone other people in the nuttier fringes of the Bush-bashing chorus) who established a cottage industry lambasting Bush Administration rhetoric as "happy talk" rise up and start calling a foul on President Obama? President Bush regularly caveated his statements of progress with reminders that there were "tough days ahead" and, if memory serves, Rumsfeld was the guy who coined "long, hard slog." In their coverage of Bush, sometimes the reporters would include mention of the caveats and qualify their lede accordingly; sometimes the reporters would include mention of the caveats and yet stick to a "happy talk" lede; and sometimes the reporters would simply omit any mention of the caveats, perhaps the better to advance the "happy talk" lede. Regardless of how many times President Bush presented carefully caveated assessments, the Bush-bashers could always rest their indictment on one or two off-the-cuff uncaveated remarks.
At what point will Obama's rhetoric on Iraq suffer this same fate? I hope never and, even more, I hope it never deserves to. It is appropriate for President Obama to balance "if it bleeds, it leads" coverage with mention of developments that are not getting as much press attention. And it is appropriate for President Obama in public to exhort the Iraqis towards greater progress by emphasizing the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. In fact, President Obama has talked so little in public about Iraq I would welcome virtually anything he said. Of course, I also hope that President Obama is as candid and clear-eyed about the challenges in private as his predecessor was, and I hope he continues to offer appropriate caveats even if he is stressing a publicly optimistic message. If the "happy talk police" give him the free pass they never gave his predecessor, so be it. The Iraqi challenge is hard enough without having to duck "police" brutality, even if it is only rhetorical.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
I cannot resist making another point about the media coverage. I require my students to read the New York Times (and encourage them also to read the Washington Post) because these papers of record are the best resource for learning what is happening in the world. But I also teach my students to be wise and critical readers of the paper.
Peter Baker's story today in the Times about the scope of President Obama's involvement in the daily affairs of the nation provides exactly the sort of teaching moment professors love to exploit. The story is billed as a "news analysis," which means it is not driven by a new discovery or new piece of reporting, but rather driven by people's (either the editor's, or the reporter's, or just other informed commentators') reactions to a recent big news story.
If spring semester classes weren't done, I might draw my students' attention to this story to make three points:
First, beware the unreliability of headlines and the danger of dodgy editors. Headlines are written by editors, not by reporters. In my experience, reporters are often blamed for the mistakes or boneheadedness of editors. The headline given the story -- "Obama Brings a Hands-on Style to Details, Grand and Mundane" -- is the most positive possible spin to give to the story and spins it in a misleading fashion. The underlying account is really about the vast expansion of government penetration into daily affairs and the dangers associated with that expansion. Baker observes that President Obama seems to relish this expansion, and he also observes that Republicans warned he would do this during the campaign. He does not show that Obama is actually micro-managing the policy, but he does show that Obama is willing to engage in exhortations that sound maternalistic. I can think of many headlines that convey the story better than the one the editors gave, and all of them are a bit less flattering to Obama. That is skew -- the editor's skew, not Baker's.
Second, notice how Baker, to his credit, draws the oft-ignored parallel between President Bush's exhortation for Americans to resume shopping after the 9/11 attacks and Obama's exhortation for Americans to keep their tires properly inflated and to keep their hands properly washed. Baker obliquely suggests that these exhortations may come back to haunt Obama the way they haunted Bush. But just drawing that connection raises the obvious next question: why does the mainstream media mock Bush for what he said and not mock Obama for the same sort of thing?
Third, I would then ask students whether all of those presidential comments were not reasonable responses to the challenges. Bush was dealing with an economy already in recession and with immediate post-9/11 panic about follow-on attacks in malls, not to mention generalized uncertainty. If Americans hunkered down and stopped normal commerce, then the knock-on effects of 9/11 would be far more lasting than the attacks themselves. No serious observer can claim that Bush was saying this is the only thing we needed to do in response to 9/11. But it was a tangible thing that individual Americans (the people he was talking to) could do on their own.
I credit Obama with the same pragmatic realism. He doesn't think inflating tires is the only thing we need to do to deal with the energy crisis, and he doesn't think washing our hands is the only thing we need to do to deal with the swine flu burgeoning pandemic. Which only raises the second question once again: why does so much of the mainstream media treat Bush's remarks as contemptible and the others as unremarkable?
To be clear, there is nothing wrong in Baker's piece, at least not in the bits he wrote. He is a very good reporter. He was a tough, critical reporter of the White House under Bush, and he seems to be less afflicted with the Obama honeymoon syndrome than other reporters. (And he may believe that even this tempered praise from a former Bush official is a toxic embrace that does him more harm than good!)
It is a useful teaching device. If students read it thoroughly (and not just read the headlines), and if they read it with questioning and critical eyes, they will learn something and have their curiosity piqued to learn more. But some of what they learn will make them a bit more skeptical about media coverage in general.
By Will Inboden
On the theme raised by Peter and Chris below about media bias and distorted coverage, for yet more evidence see David Ignatius's column this week on National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Ignatius is usually an informed, insightful, and probing writer, which makes his credulous profile of Jones all the more puzzling. Jones (like almost any policymaker) not surprisingly will use the media to enhance his standing and advance his agenda. What is surprising is how a willing media plays along.
Whereas a few months ago Jones was eager to assert his authority to his cabinet
rivals, er, colleagues, now the agenda seems to be broadcasting a smooth and collegial management style with a balanced airing of views and decision-making consensus. Perhaps the biggest eyebrow-raiser was this sentence purporting to announce a new organizational innovation: "...and he's building a new strategic planning cell that can ‘look beyond the horizon to see what's coming at us.'"
Which is a curious claim, considering that Bush national security advisor Steve Hadley created just such a cell (which, in full disclosure, Peter Feaver and I helped staff for its first two years), and even codified its interagency function with a National Security Policy Directive in August 2008 that is presumably still in effect. Nor was this wholly a Bush administration innovation, as a similar office had existed on the Clinton administration NSC, though with more of a focus on communications.
Why Jones claims this "strategic planning cell" as a new initiative is a head-scratcher, as is the failure of Ignatius to ask the logical follow-up question of whether the office had existed before in the Bush White House or in previous NSC structures. I hope that Ignatius has not fallen prey to the affliction common among too many journalists of assuming that if an idea is sound than it could not possibly have come from the Bush administration.
For another example just this week, see this bizarre Defense News article which, in reporting on Under-Secretary Michele Flournoy's sensible and balanced speech on QDR principles, can't resist indulging in some editorializing and caricature of the Bush administration policies rather than acknowledging that many of the threats and principles Flournoy lays out are consistent with those identified by the Bush administration.
Then there is the Ignatius column's conclusion,
What comes across with Jones is a solid, experienced manager with a Marine's blunt approach to problems. Asked if he supported Obama's decision to release the torture memos, for example, Jones answered simply: "I did because I think it's the right thing to do. In my military experience, I came to believe that bad news doesn't improve with age. Better to put out bad news as you know it."
Except for the inconvenient truth that the political arm of the Obama White House seems to have seen the so-called "torture memos" as good news, not "bad news," and as an opportunity more than a "problem." Good news and an opportunity, at least, in the sense that their release of the memos served their political agenda of appeasing their left-wing base, casting further aspersions on the Bush administration, and advancing the Obama administration's narrative of itself as a paragon of virtue, transparency, and integrity. The White House communications team can be expected to peddle this type of theme; that is their job. But the media's eager compliance does not serve the marketplace of ideas or the health of the democratic system.
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.