Over the past six months, China and the United States have experienced political transitions that allow the leaders of both countries to focus on bilateral relations free from the pressures of domestic political campaigns. With political maneuvering among China's elites for spots on the Standing Committee of the Politburo finally over, the country's leaders can return to the business of governing the world's largest population. In the United States, President Obama's reelection has been accompanied by the appointment of a new team of foreign policy managers. But rather than freeing up Washington and Beijing to cooperate more fulsomely, the domestic political frictions produced by the bilateral relationship are, like the structural tensions between the established power and its rising challenger, intensifying.
On the one hand, changes in President Obama's second-term cabinet mean that U.S.-China relations are being handled by a more dovish set of managers than those who drove the first-term "rebalance" towards Asia. Ironically, this kind of shift traditionally has led to more discord in U.S.-China relations than when American leaders were clear and consistent in their policies toward China -- hence Mao Zedong's famous assertion to President Nixon that "I like rightists" and the stability of U.S.-China relations over the course of the George W. Bush administration.
For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing that he was not convinced of the need for the "increased military ramp-up" in Asia. Chinese observers reportedly believed that this signaled a diminishment of the U.S. commitment to the "pivot," which in their view ended when Hillary Clinton left Foggy Bottom. Kerry took his first foreign trip to the Middle East and seems to be spending most of his time trying to put in place a more credible strategy on Syria to replace the malign neglect that has characterized administration policy to date. Meanwhile, China is stepping up military coercion of neighbors who are U.S. friends and allies, most recently India.
Meanwhile, Leon Panetta, who had warned apocalyptically of the impact of sequester-related defense cuts on military readiness, has been replaced as secretary of defense by Chuck Hagel, who has maintained that the armed forces can absorb cuts of this magnitude. His comments have raised doubts about whether the United States will be able to resource its military rebalance from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is widely perceived to be more concerned with the politics of American foreign policy -- namely watching the president's back at home -- than with any grand strategic design abroad.
More broadly, however, American hopes that "engagement" of China through trade and membership in international institutions would turn it into a status quo power have faded. A new consensus has emerged among experts, officials, and many business executives that this is a fundamentally competitive relationship, encompassing everything from mercantilist Chinese trade practices to daily cyberattacks to China's buildup of offensive military power designed to target unique American vulnerabilities. Expectations that China would liberalize politically as a natural outgrowth of its economic success have given way to an understanding that China today is in many ways more politically repressive than it was in the 1980s -- even if Chinese people enjoy greater economic freedom than before.
In China, political maneuvering in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition led leading candidates for politburo seats to cultivate ties to ranking officials of the People's Liberation Army, the domestic security services, and the giant state-owned enterprises that still dominate much of the Chinese economy. As a result, these illiberal forces have arguably grown in power and influence even as China has become more prosperous and its internal politics more competitive.
At the same time, no Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping has enjoyed a highly personalized form of authority. China since the 1990s has been run by an oligopoly of men on the Standing Committee of the Politburo who exercise rule-by-committee and undertake their own Game of Thrones-style factional intrigues -- as demonstrated vividly by the downfall of then-Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai in his messianic quest to join that elite circle. As the authority of individual Chinese leaders has eroded, the domestic Chinese constituencies that either desire or help create greater friction in U.S.-China relations -- those who stand to gain politically by appealing to nationalist passions or likely to access to more state resources by painting the United States as an enemy -- have grown in influence and authority.
As a result, structural forces pitting the dominant United States against its rising peer competitor are in some ways being intensified by domestic pressures in both Washington and Beijing to take a harder bilateral line. These structural forces are compounded by the region's geography, in which China's territorial claims bump up directly against allies the United States is pledged to defend. This raises the risk of military confrontation.
There are, however, powerful countervailing factors that mitigate the likelihood of all-out conflict. These include the deep interdependence of the American and Chinese economies. Given its export dependency, shallow financial markets, and questionable domestic resiliency, any conflict would likely bankrupt China first.
Indeed, we have seen in China's own history how external conflicts have often led to internal rebellion and even revolution -- a prospect its rulers fear more than any other. Any actual decision by China's leaders to engage in direct military conflict with the United States would be very likely to lead to the downfall of the Communist regime that has governed the country since 1949. This link between the regime's external and internal insecurities is an Achilles' heel that gives the United States and other democracies facing military pressure from China -- Japan over the Senkakus, India over parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh -- a potentially decisive strategic advantage.
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It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force.
This is the second installment in a larger project -- last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product looking at the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to choosing presidents. (I blogged about that one too.)
The basic intuition undergirding the project is the recognition that the military has a distinctive role in American politics. On the one hand, by tradition, norms, and law, military institutions are supposed to be apolitical -- not involved in partisan politics and fulfilling an advisory role in the policymaking process. On the other hand, by virtue of the prominence of military tools in American foreign policy, the military's greater professional expertise, and the enormous trust the public has in the military (especially in comparison with civilian political institutions), the military may in fact play a larger role than theoreticians of normative civil-military relations would like to see.
Our approach is empirical. We are trying to answer what is the effect, which is a necessary part of any normative evaluation of what ought to be the effect or role. So far as we have been able to determine, there is not a lot of good systematic data available on these questions beyond the ones we collected for this project. Our data are pretty extensive: YouGov administered the survey via the Internet and conducted interviews with 5,500 Americans between May 31, 2012, and July 28, 2012. The 5,500 interviews in our database are a sample matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest to be representative of the general population, as determined by the 2007 American Community Survey. But we don't pretend this report offers the final word on the subject.
Our bottom line:
The results of our recent national survey show that military opposition reduces public support for the use of force abroad by 7 percentage points, whereas military support increases overall public support by 3 percentage points. These military cues are most influential among Republican respondents. Furthermore, military influence on public opinion is greatest when it opposes (rather than supports) interventions abroad.
Read it and tell me what you think we got right or wrong.
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The Obama administration's minimalist foreign policy, animated by domestic political expediency and a cramped view of America's responsibilities to uphold the liberal international order from which it has benefited so richly, can lead observers to forget what a more traditionally engaged foreign policy even looks like. The new national security strategy developed by a bipartisan group under the aegis of the Project for a United and Strong America fills that gap. It maps out a robust vision of a foreign policy guided by the belief that the United States is not "the dispensable nation" but in fact has a singular role to play in sustaining a world safe for the values and interests of free peoples.
As attested by the bipartisan constitution of the group that produced the report -- chaired by Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute and Jim Goldgeier of American University and drafted by Ash Jain of the German Marshall Fund -- this is not a Republican or Democratic vision. It is an American internationalist ambition that pays tribute to the legacies of Truman and Reagan. It is also a potent antidote to the policies of retrenchment and buck-passing that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2009.
As the report argues, America's power, reach, network, and example are, in fact, exceptional:
The United States remains the single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world. It has a unique ability to mobilize actions by allies and friends and to project force and influence on a global scale. Through its own commitment to democratic values, its protection of human rights, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice, and its capacity for adaptation and renewal, the United States continues to inspire efforts to realize these values in societies around the world. For years to come, no other nation can play this role.
Nor can the United States simply retreat from the world's trouble spots and assume that its position and interests will be unaffected:
The world is not a passive and neutral playing field, but one in which competing views and interests are constantly being pressed. U.S. interests are continually being challenged.... In this environment, a lack of active U.S. leadership can lead to a steady erosion of U.S. interests. The United States not only has the unique ability to lead, but an imperative to do so -- for the protection of its own national interests and values, as well as for the advancement of democratic values, human development, and security around the world. The protection of these values in turn reinforces the long-term security and well-being of the United States.
What is wrong with a foreign policy that brings American forces home from hot spots like Afghanistan, stays out of messy civil wars like that in Syria, largely leaves allies like Israel and Japan to their own devices, and engages vital parts of the Islamic world mainly through long-distance drone strikes?
[T]he distinguishing feature of America's global role since its founding has been its broad-based conception of national security -- the belief that the advancement of an open, rules-based international order that promotes universal values of liberty, democracy, human dignity, and economic freedom is essential to the security and economic vitality of the United States.
To put American foreign policy back on a more traditional footing of values-based engagement with the world, the report recommends a strategy guided by:
Acknowledging limited resources in an age of debt and deficits, it calls for cost-effective investments in our core capacities of economic vitality, preeminent military power, and foreign assistance, while pursuing smarter public diplomacy and more effectively leveraging the capabilities America's many allies and partners offer in support of our joint objectives.
Beyond managing near-term challenges posed by Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, global terrorism, and economic weakness in the Eurozone, the report wisely calls for a set of longer-term, strategic investments to reinforce American security and prosperity for coming generations. These include:
As the report concludes:
What is essential is that facing limited resources, the United States must make choices and engage strategically. The issues identified above represent either those crisis areas where the United States has no choice but to engage, or alternatively, where it can make strategic investments to help shape the global playing field long into the future. A national security strategy that focuses on these critical challenges and investments -- while based on the core principles of advancing a liberal democratic order and a proactive American global leadership role -- offers the best opportunity to assure the long-term security and prosperity of the United States, its citizens, and the global democratic community.
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It is customary for beltway types to snicker when a senior official in the government indicates that he or she is stepping away from power in order to "spend more time with my family." I think that attitude is unfortunate and regret having done my fair share of snickering in the past. The truth is that service at the highest-most levels of government can be exceptionally demanding, and it is usually the family that pays the biggest price. So I now have a rule of thumb that presumes any such claim is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
That is how I reacted to the news that will General Allen turn down a possible assignment to be SACEUR. General Allen's explanation -- that after multiple combat tours he needs to spend more time with an ailing wife -- rings true to me. And after checking with some people who are in a better position to know, I am even more confident of this judgment.
Some critics have charged that General Allen was forced to step away, raising questions about a growing politicization of the military engendered by a hyper-partisan White House. The White House did do something like that with respect to General James Mattis, so the allegation was not wildly implausible. But in Allen's case, I do not think it was correct.
The Obama Administration has enough real civil-military challenges to manage. It does not need to be distracted by fake ones. General Allen's departure should not become such a distraction.
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Over on The Daily Beast I have a piece, co-authored with my long-time comrade-in-scholarly-arms Chris Gelpi, looking at whether Senator Chuck Hagel's views about when and how to use force are out of step with the military rank and file.
Drawing on a book we published some time ago, we argue that Hagel's reluctance to intervene in Syria is fully in keeping with what might be called a "military dove" position. The military and veterans of the military like Hagel are particularly reluctant to intervene in humanitarian and nation-building missions, and this is fully in keeping with Hagel's oft-expressed opposition to such missions. Hagel's strong opposition to the Iraq surge and his tepid support-cum-skepticism regarding the Afghanistan surge less readily fits the military profile, for we found that the military tend to oppose interventions but favor higher levels of escalation once an intervention has occurred. That is, we found that in general the military favor what has been called the Powell Doctrine: Use force rarely but decisively. Non-veterans in the civilian elite, by contrast, were more willing to intervene, even in humanitarian scenarios, but also more willing to see those interventions constrained and at lower levels of escalation.
Of course, we are talking about general patterns and there are always important exceptions. Indeed, just last week General Dempsey indicated that he was more willing to see the U.S. intervene in the Syrian crisis, at least covertly. Dempsey's stated position on Syria does not seem to fit the Powell Doctrine and was at odds with the position of President Obama -- the most consequential non-veteran in the policymaking apparatus -- as well as Senator Hagel, the veteran Obama picked to be Dempsey's boss.
In other words, Hagel's views on whether and how to use force are within the mainstream of civil-military patterns that show up at the aggregate level, even though they may diverge somewhat from the particular constellation of choices he might confront should he be confirmed to lead the Pentagon.
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Last week's Senate hearing on Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon seems to have done a surprising amount of damage to Hagel's prospects. I say "surprising" because usually former Senators are accorded an extra measure of deference and latitude during confirmations by their erstwhile colleagues. And most observers had presumed that Hagel would have been prepared to make a more effective case for himself by assuaging critics and reassuring supporters.
Instead Hagel experienced one of the rougher confirmation days in the history of the Senate's "advice and consent." Part of the problem may stem from his lack of any political base of support. Most Republicans see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by denouncing his party while regularly supporting Democratic candidates. Most Democrats also see Hagel as an opportunist who has been all too eager to advance his own ambitions by disavowing his past positions when politically expedient. While the vast majority of Senate Democrats at this point seem likely to vote for Hagel's confirmation, they will do so more out of support for President Obama rather than any great enthusiasm for the nominee himself.
Hagel's critics have marshaled a troubling litany of his past statements and positions. Even in areas where Hagel should presumably have expertise, such as the defense budget or Middle East policy and history, a closer look shows some deficiencies, as Gary Schmitt and Mike Doran among others have demonstrated. Yet one of the most persuasive cases against Hagel is actually made by his supporters. Consider this sympathetic article by Bob Woodward a week ago. Based on Hagel's own recounting, Woodward describes how Hagel in 2009 met with President Obama and told the new president "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they" -- the military and diplomats -- "tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."
Sounds like good advice, right? Sure -- but only up to a limited point.
Yes, asking questions and challenging assumptions is an important skill for a policy leader. It is also an essential skill for being a journalist (like Woodward) or a professor (as Hagel has been at Georgetown for the last few years). There are many policy lines and strategic assumptions in American national security policy that should be questioned. But merely asking questions is comparatively easy. It is a posture that can also be the intellectual refuge of the person who isn't sure what should actually be done.
More important skills for the role of an executive branch national security official are the ability to decide, to act, and to implement. This is one of the most essential differences between the executive branch and the legislative branch. As a Senator, and more recently as a professor, Hagel enjoyed a platform to ask lots of questions about American foreign policy. But as secretary of defense, he would have to start providing answers -- and making decisions. Running the Pentagon is an entirely different challenge than running a Senate hearing or a graduate school seminar.
Or consider this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker endorsing Hagel's nomination. Crocker is one of America's finest diplomats with an incomparable record of service, and unparalleled knowledge of foreign policy. His recommendations should always carry much weight. Yet in this case his argument for Hagel amounts to recounting a series of trips that Hagel took to several difficult countries, and noting in each case that Hagel "understood" the complexities of the situation. Absent is any evidence of any substantive policy accomplishments by Hagel -- such as legislation that Hagel might have authored or policies he might have shaped. Rather, in this account Hagel comes across more like a dutiful student than a seasoned statesman.
To be clear, the congressional responsibility of asking the right questions, and forcing the executive branch to answer them in public is an essential role. It is constitutionally ordained and in practical terms will lead to better policy. While the executive branch bears the brunt of responsibility for past American foreign policy failures (such as many aspects of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), even a glance at that history reveals deficiencies in congressional oversight as well. And as I wrote just last week, Congress's national security role includes some policy creation and implementation responsibilities such as writing legislation and appropriating funding. I experienced this myself during several years of working as a congressional staff member, when Capitol Hill's scrutiny of the Clinton administration foreign policy revealed some deficient attention to international religious freedom and spurred the Congressional passage of legislation. But at the end of the day, it is still the executive branch that takes the lead on national security. It is not enough to ask hard questions. Executive decisions must be made and implemented, and the consequences of deciding on both action and inaction must be borne.
Perhaps the most telling verdict on Hagel's Senate hearing came, ironically, from a Democrat. Senator Claire McCaskill made the tart observation that "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them ... That's one bad habit I think you get into when you've been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."
Hagel has proven he can ask tough questions about policy. By confirming him, as seems likely, the Senate will be saying he can also answer tough questions and make tough decisions. For the sake of national security in these difficult times, I hope they are right.
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The weekend's reading in the Washington Post turned up two intriguing bits that could profitably be explored in Senator Hagel's forthcoming confirmation hearings. Neither is a game-changer or a show-stopper. I continue to believe he will be confirmed and I expect he will have plausible answers to both of these questions. But it would be revealing to hear those answers and the process of thinking them through might even help him be a better secretary of defense.
First, what does the Obama administration consider to be the necessary legal conditions for the use of force abroad? The question arises out of an interesting bit in Saturday's story about internal deliberations over whether and how much to assist the French in the Mali operation. There are numerous legal hurdles, including some domestic ones related to assisting governments after a coup (among its myriad troubles, Mali suffered a coup last year). But the part that interested me was this brief reference to other international legal hurdles:
"At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France's military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate."
Now, I well understand the political desirability of international mandates, and I also know what the UN Charter stipulates. Since the Mali government asked for aid -- no, begged for aid -- the self-defense exception of the UN charter would seem to be easily met. Perhaps there was some legal confusion regarding whether a post-coup Mali regime was more legitimate than the militant islamists attacking the government from the north? Or perhaps there was something else at work, with the Obama administration entertaining a more stringent standard than U.S. governments had hitherto required for military action? If the latter, that would seem to be quite newsworthy with profound implications for coercive diplomacy in other settings: does the Obama administration believe it has the requisite legal predicate for military action in Iran (setting aside the policy wisdom of such action), or would it require a new and specific UNSCR or NATO authorization? What are legal options if we have neither a new UNSCR nor NATO authorization?
Second, what specifically did Senator Hagel find lacking about civilian control of the military during the past 6 years? This question arises out of a quote attributed to Hagel from today's opinion piece by Bob Woodward: "'The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,' Hagel said privately in 2011."
Now Hagel's quote covers a lot of history, including the stormy 1990s when serious questions were raised about the quality of civilian control. While an historical disquisition on the evolution of civilian control since 1992 from the secretary-nominee would be fascinating, for the sake of time and focus I would encourage the Senators to ask Hagel to answer just with respect to the last several years, covering the tenure of Secretaries Gates and Panetta. In what ways does Hagel consider the Pentagon to have been out of "commander-in-chief control" during that period?
This second question might be the more important one. After all, Hagel is not the lawyer who will be deciding the Obama administration's interpretation of international law. His hearings do provide an important opportunity for Congress to ask such questions to key officials under oath, however, so it is worth asking.
But the second question goes to the very heart of Hagel's job. As secretary of defense, he will be the interface between the political White House and the uniformed military -- something like the ball-bearings or even the grease in the ball-bearings of civil-military relations. He will be the single most important civilian working 24-7 on the civilian control issue. Understanding his theory of civil-military relations is crucial for helping the Pentagon (both civilian and military tribes therein) prepare for his arrival. And I can think of few better ways to clarify his expectations than for him to explain how he believes Gates and Panetta failed to bring the Pentagon under "commander-in-chief control."
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For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).
This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.
The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.
Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.
Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.
It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)
But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.
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I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.
I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.
Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.
The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.
A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.
Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.
But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.
Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.
The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.
Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.
The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.
Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.
Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight: are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.
Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."
The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.
I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.
No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.
In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.
Note: this blog entry was originally posted at Patheos.com.
Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
As Eliot Cohen rightly pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, there is no correlation between military service and effectiveness as a senior government official. Cohen noted that neither Lincoln nor FDR had significant military experience, yet were great war leaders. One might add that Churchill's military experience in the Boer War had little to do with his later leadership of the military, except perhaps to convince him that he knew more than his generals, which no doubt was a factor in his urging the disastrous Gallipoli operation in World War I and his constant clashes with Alan Brooke, chief of the defense staff, in World War II. And then there is Jimmy Carter, whose naval background did not mitigate his mediocre performance as commander in chief during the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Chuck Hagel's ultimate record as SecDef likewise will have little to do with his service in Vietnam, distinguished though it was. If confirmed, Hagel will face some very tough challenges, even if the dreaded sequester does not come to pass, and it is on the basis of how he addresses those challenges, rather than his previous war record, that his performance as secretary will be judged.
It is all but certain that the cost of avoiding a sequester will be some level of additional defense cuts, beyond those already enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $487 billion in cuts over a 10-year period. These additional cuts could amount to some $15 billion, perhaps more. Hagel will have to decide where those cuts will be taken.
Hagel has asserted that the Pentagon budget is bloated, but has not explained exactly what he means. The administration has already signaled that it wishes to protect the personnel accounts, even if the sequester were to come into force, despite the fact that those accounts have been steadily eating into available resources for operations, research, and procurement. Will Hagel at least try to push for limits on the growth of the Defense Health Program, which is approaching an annual cost of $60 billion? He has said little on the subject and would have to face a Congress that has resisted any real changes to health benefits for the military and their families. Will Hagel throw his weight behind the new commission on military compensation and retirement, which will address not only the health program, but the entire gamut of military benefits? Again, his position on the commission is unknown.
Many analysts are assuming that Hagel really intends to reduce the size of the DOD acquisition accounts. He has not indicated which accounts might be his target. With its announcement of a "pivot" to Asia and with instability roiling the Middle East, the DOD will already be hard-pressed to meet its commitments in both of those vast regions. Will Hagel nevertheless seek to further shrink the Navy and Air Force, likely to be the most active and visible services in both areas? Would that mean a significantly smaller carrier force and the cancellation of the program for a new manned long-range bomber? Will he attempt to further reduce the size of the Army? As chairman of the board of the Atlantic Council, Hagel has been especially sensitive to relations with Europe, yet the administration has announced plans to reduce land-force presence in Europe by two brigades. Will Hagel seek to reverse that decision? And will Hagel realize Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream by drastically curtailing the U.S. missile defense program at a time when America's allies have finally come to realize its importance?
Finally, would a Secretary Hagel opt for a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which most observers feel would at best prompt a renewal of the civil war that only ended with the American response to the 9/11 bombings, and at worst hand it right back to the Taliban?
The foregoing are the known issues that a new secretary of defense will have to face. Then there are the "unknown unknowns" that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld frequently cited. He knew of what he spoke: On Sept. 10, 2001, Rumsfeld told his Pentagon staff that the biggest challenge to the Defense Department was its own cumbersome management system. A day later he, and all of America, were confronted by a far greater challenge that has yet to be overcome.
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The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department to Republican hands. But the president's priorities argue for a technically proficient executive that can intimidate the Department into compliance and the Congress into restraining spending and hobby horses -- a description neither Hagel nor the other preferred candidates fit.
If the president is simply looking to put the Pentagon into the hands of someone who shares his views on foreign policy, Chuck Hagel would achieve that aim, and with the sublime collateral damage of continuing Republican feuding. But it is unlikely to buy the White House congressional support on defense policy -- and that's crucial, given what the White House actually wants to achieve in the coming four years.
The national security community has a penchant for defense intellectuals, meaning people who work in DOD or NSC or think tank jobs creating and evaluating government policy. We are ennobled with the title "strategists." But very few of us are actually ever trained for or called on to match objectives to means. Just one small indicator is the paucity of defense experts who know anything about budgeting or think about the defense budget in the context of cost-effectiveness in spending -- its absence ought to be a disqualifying factor.
Moreover, the president doesn't need a defense strategy. Like it or not, he has one: winding down the wars and minimizing foreign entanglements, killing suspected terrorists by remote means, and training the military forces of other countries to handle their own problems. It is consistent with his broader national security strategy of investing in American domestic strength and rebalancing spending away from defense. If the president's strategy were actually implemented by the Defense Department, it would mean a genuinely revolutionary reduction in DOD spending and redistribution of spending among the military services, greatly to the advantage of the Navy and detriment of the active-duty Army.
But the president probably isn't going to force that revolution on the Pentagon. A hue and cry much greater than that which followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" would ensue (recall that the Rumsfeld revolution was achieved, to the extent to which it was achieved, by continuing to do almost everything the Services wanted while also increasing spending for "transformational" equipment and activities). Mostly what the president wants is all quiet on the defense front while he fights other battles, and that means a secretary of defense who can cut defense spending by at least $25 billion a year without a rebellion from either Congress or the military or activist groups like MOAA while also hedging against a catastrophic breakthrough in military capabilities by our potential adversaries.
If the trial balloon on Hagel is deemed insufficiently ascendant, the White House seems to have narrowed its fallback plan to two veterans of the Obama Pentagon, either Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.
Michele Flournoy is a genuinely wonderful human being. But her main achievements in defense policy are giving the president political cover for the "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq and keeping the Pentagon busy with a Quadrennial Defense Review that wasn't matched by Secretary Robert Gates' budget and has been repudiated by Secretary Leon Panetta's Strategic Guidance. Being a woman and holding a job ought not to count as an achievement.
Ashton Carter is a genuine defense intellectual -- a physicist and tenured professor of government at Harvard. He has the advantage of actually understanding the technologies in sophisticated weapons systems, did a solid job as the AT&L -- Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the mainstay business of running DOD -- and was a favorite of that superb former defense secretary, Bill Perry. He is the best choice if the White House is choosing from within the administration. He too has proved largely unpersuasive on Capitol Hill, however.
The pool of talent is so much larger than the White House is giving itself credit for. They have set implicit constraining criteria that narrow the field to people who've held defense jobs and are already known/trusted by the president. But the president needs a rainmaker, someone who will be so respected within the building that he or she can make substantial spending reductions and command the respect of a majority of Congress while running a $600-billion-a-year business. The White House would do well to relax its constraints and consider the following six potential secretaries:
Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford. Running the only Big Three car company that didn't take a bailout should endear him to conservatives. He successfully negotiated unions to reduced labor costs with a finesse that will be essential to reining in military entitlement programs, and he sold off nostalgia brands that no longer made sense for the company (take heed, manned fighter platforms). He's an aeronautical engineer with a business degree from MIT, and he knows the defense business, having run Boeing. Putting the man who returned Ford to profitability by cutting costs in charge of the Pentagon in a time of austerity gives the secretary the advantage of arguing he knows how to do something the defense experts and military do not.
Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary for acquisition and technology under Secretary Perry. He has advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from both MIT and Stanford, a military career distinguished by pushing forward technological innovations, and private-sector work experience in high-tech companies. He wrote a hugely perceptive study of emergent technologies, arguing for changes in our export controls that would allow us to capitalize on the work of foreign companies in crucial sectors of the next generation of innovations. If anyone can fix our procurement system and throw the red flag on underperforming or ill-aligned programs, it's Kaminski.
Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway. We have done too little value investing in defense and we are slow to identify the enemy's advantages and minimize our long-term vulnerabilities. His letters to investors are masterpieces of educating your raters, which portends well for managing Congress. Picking winners is the Sage of Omaha's genius, which could be an enormous advantage when turned on the defense industry, emergent technologies, wars, and military leadership; Napoleon promoted his generals by that criteria. And God knows the president owes Buffett.
John Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and current chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Hamre is a Republican from South Dakota who was deputy secretary in the Clinton Administration. He is a superb intellect who dispenses difficult ideas with the grace of a genial Lutheran pastor handing tuna casserole around -- and he comes by it honestly, since he studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to receiving a PhD from SAIS. Hamre was also ruthlessly effective as comptroller in "cutting off the oxygen" to those who wouldn't implement the secretary's priorities while still acting as a generous mentor to a legion of young government officials. He has Capitol Hill chops not only from a decade as a SASC staffer but also from the Congressional Budget Office.
Charles O'Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford School of Business. An expert on organizational renewal (with a BS in chemistry), he literally wrote the book on why successful organizations fail to innovate, which would be a hugely important perspective to bring to today's Pentagon. He advises companies on how to foster disruptive innovation and contributed to James Wolfensohn's efforts to do just that at the World Bank. A former soldier and great team-builder, his book Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) ought to be required reading for defense experts and would be the basis for DOD's rethinking of how to execute its missions in new ways.
Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. A rising star among conservatives, she's a tough former district attorney who could command respect within the building even though defense would be a new portfolio. Being a governor is actually better preparation for defense secretary (and many other managerial jobs) than being in Congress. She would bring a border perspective to challenge the "foreign wars" perspective of our defense establishment, which may lead to better integration of homeland security and defense, a long overdue synthesis. She grew up a Democrat and could therefore be emblematic of the center of our politics, and would buy the administration a defender of their policies who is respected among conservatives. And why not make the advocates of small government take a meat axe to their favorite government program? It would help Republicans too by showcasing on a national level the executive abilities of a potential presidential candidate.
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The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
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Former Afghan warlord Ismail Khan's recent call for the mujahedeen to rearm and reunite to defend Afghanistan against a post-2014 Taliban takeover is a reminder that the ongoing U.S. drawdown is changing the calculus not only of our adversaries but of our friends. Indeed, much of the behavior that undermines Afghan state-building (and therefore makes it harder for us to leave) -- the kleptocratic government, pervasive corruption, political infighting, and growing strains between President Karzai and Western capitals -- stems from the local belief that, with NATO forces soon to depart, our Afghan allies must seize every advantage they can. For Khan and other regional strongmen, this means arming and mobilizing their personal militias while the writ of Washington and Kabul still holds at least some sway in the provinces -- in preparation for a period when it may not.
Fans of the Game of Thrones novels have a useful guide to how regional strongmen able to raise their own armies rise to fill vacuums of power left by weak or illegitimate central authority. In the case of Afghanistan, a legitimate central government has lost much of its authority by virtue of its predatory relationship to its citizens and the sense that the private interests of top leaders trump the larger public interest. Sounds like a good reason for the U.S. to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans," right? Not quite. The sad truth is that the U.S. decision to "end the war" and walk away is more likely than any other external policy to reignite it.
We have seen the evidence for this in the surge of Taliban violence against Afghan institutions since President Obama made explicit the timeline for most U.S. forces to depart. We have also seen regional powers move in to fill what they perceive as an impending vacuum of power following the U.S. retreat. India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan; Pakistan has refused even to pretend to help Washington reach a political settlement with the Taliban, instead doubling down on its own Afghan assets. And now we are seeing the Afghan warlords -- including men like Marshal Fahim, who since late 2001 have viewed service in the president's cabinet and the Afghan National Army as their preferred vehicle for influence and power -- position themselves outside those institutions to reprise their former roles as leaders of ethnic armies.
President Obama's reelection gives him a mandate to reduce the American military footprint in Afghanistan. He has neither a mandate nor an interest, however, in seeing Afghanistan fall apart through a precipitous U.S. retreat that does not leave behind a long-term, stabilizing force on Afghan soil. The military and political Balkanization of Afghanistan would endanger core U.S. interests -- in securing the legacy of over a decade of war and development, preventing terrorists from using Afghan territory to plot against America, forestalling regional conflict of the kind that Syria is now generating in the Middle East, and preventing the destabilization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. It would demonstrate to U.S. friends and enemies alike that America does not stand by its allies.
Afghanistan's disintegration after 2014 -- both through a fully fledged Taliban assault on the state and the decision of more strongmen like Ismail Khan to fight back using private rather than public means -- would negate a national security record under President Obama that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden might wish to run on in 2016. It could further radicalize Arab extremists now vying to determine the future of their newly liberated societies, undercutting moderate forces in the Middle East and North Africa who seek long-term partnership with the West to promote democracy and development.
Nor would the Obama administration's ability to keep American enemies in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region off-balance through drone strikes remain viable should Afghanistan come apart in ways that precluded reliable U.S. basing rights there. For these many reasons, now that his reelection is secured and his governing horizon extends beyond 2014, President Obama may want to come up with a more sustainable policy on Afghanistan than the one on which he campaigned.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
There are two contradictory narratives about the last four years of Obama's stewardship of foreign policy.
One is advanced by Obama supporters, former and wannabe-future members of the administration along with sympathizers in the media and the academy. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been a foreign policy maestro, responsible for no consequential errors of commission or omission.
The other is advanced by Obama's most hardened detractors, and at times has included official statements from the Romney campaign. This narrative would have you believe that Obama has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster, responsible for the wholesale surrender of American interests around the globe.
The truth is somewhere in between. Obama has had some successes on the foreign policy front (chiefly when he has followed along a policy trajectory laid down by Republicans), but he has also presided over choices and actions that have hurt American interests. He has avoided the worst possible foreign policy blunders, but he has been responsible for many other decisions that were probably mistakes. He has erred on the side of taking the popular course rather than wise course, and this pattern means that his foreign policy spins today better than it will look in the years to come.
If Obama loses, there will be plenty of time for the historical record to balance itself and for the more reasonable mixed assessment to take root.
If Obama wins, however, there will be an urgent need for the Obama team to stop drinking their own bathwater and to do a sober self-assessment. The Bush administration did just that after winning reelection and the second term was, in some important respects, a distinct improvement over the first.
It is very difficult for any administration to do that, but I think the Obama team is especially challenged because they are so wedded to a distorted narrative about the first four years.
There is hope, however, in the form of insider voices calling for change. To that end, as the DC community hunkers down to endure Hurricane Sandy, my recommendation is that everyone involved with the foreign policy establishment read carefully two articles from FP.com, both by Rosa Brooks: "The Case for Intervention" and "You'll never eat lunch in this town again!"
The articles have already generated considerable controversy in certain circles, but I am surprised how little they have penetrated the mainstream media. I asked a very distinguished reporter who has specialized in reporting on the Obama national security process about them the other day and he indicated he had never read them, even though her article effectively rebuts one of his primary story-lines.
Nor do I consider Brooks' critique to be indisputable. For instance, I give Obama more credit for a strategic vision than she does and I think Obama has resisted Congressional pressure far more vigorously than she claims -- for instance, he resisted Congressional pressure to ramp up sanctions on Iran in 2009 and 2010 so as to preserve his preferred policy of offering unconditional bilateral talks.
Yet on balance her critique is persuasive, all the more so because she cannot be dismissed as a shill for Romney. Indeed, in prior and subsequent posts, she has made her loyalties to Obama unmistakable.
But when she writes about her personal experience inside the Obama national security team, and when that is supplemented with ample quotes from other insiders, her critique has a unique authority.
Brooks' two pieces combine to make up a compelling transition memo for those planning a possible Obama second term. Perhaps a Romney victory will preempt that planning. But just in case he wins a second term, we should all hope that Obama has a planning cell that gives greater credence to what the critics are saying than what the campaign is spinning.
One of the favorite canards that Obama activists and surrogates hurl at Mitt Romney is that he is surrounded by a group of wild-eyed George W. Bush neo-cons who cannot wait to bomb Iran and bring America into yet another Middle Eastern conflict, even before the war in Afghanistan has come to an end. A recent diatribe by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the November 8 edition of the staunchly left-wing New York Review of Books highlights the tone of these attacks. "Romney's bellicosity about Iran is not encouraging," he asserts. "Nor is the fact that he has turned for foreign policy advice to the architects and advocates of the Iraq War."
Appiah and his colleagues have it all wrong. None of the staunchest "architects and advocates" of the Iraq war, I repeat, none, is advising Governor Romney. Not Donald Rumsfeld. Not Dick Cheney. Not Paul Wolfowitz. Not Doug Feith. And none of their camp followers. None.
Admittedly, Romney has a few neo-cons advising him. But there are less than a handful of those -- Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, possibly Eliot Cohen, though he denies that he is a neo-con. Then there is John Bolton, whom Appiah singles out in his article. But apart from Bolton, none of these men was serving in the Bush administration when the decision was made to attack Iraq. Moreover, they are far outnumbered by so-called "realists" and other non-neo-cons who are advising the governor -- Ambassador Rich Williamson, Senator Jim Talent, Secretary John Lehman, former World Bank Chief Bob Zoellick, former Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriasnky, former Assistant Secretaries of State Kim Holmes and Chris Burnham, former Director of Policy Planning and State Mitchell Reiss, former Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey. Nor is it fair to term Eric Edelman a "neo-con" because he worked for Dick Cheney. Edelman is a career diplomat, a highly successful ambassador, and like the best of that group, he was a nonpareil advisor to whatever administration he served. And that is how it should be.
In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong in Governor Romney's having some neo-cons on his advisory team. Having everyone of the same mindset leads to mistakes of the first order. On the other hand, by allowing for the airing of different, indeed contradictory points of view, Romney is simply demonstrating that he is indeed a judicious leader, who is prepared to make choices rather than have them made for him. In his pathbreaking book, "Presidential Power," Richard Neustadt pointed out that FDR -- that liberal hero -- thrived on differences within his administration before making up his own mind. No one doubts that FDR was a great president; if Romney's decision-making process emulates FDR's, that is not a bad thing at all, the New York Review of Books notwithstanding.
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Greg Gause, an old grad student friend and one of the country's leading Middle East experts, takes a swing at me today over on FP's Middle East channel objecting to a piece I wrote about Biden's statements in the VP debate.
Gause is a good man (who was our only decent low-post threat on our grad basketball team) and is usually a thoughtful commentator, so I found his piece somewhat odd. Perhaps he unwittingly revealed his approach in his opening line: "When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent."
Switch the words incumbent and challenger in that sentence and you have Gause's blogpost in a nutshell, alas.
My original piece made three short claims:
1. Biden was wrong to mock Ryan for saying we would have been better off with a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allowed for a substantial stay-behind force since that was precisely what Biden was seeking to negotiate. The military was hoping Biden would secure that SOFA and, in mocking Ryan, Biden was antagonizing the military, giving them reason to believe that the Obama team never was serious about negotiations.
2. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the arbitrary withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan.
3. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the deep cuts to the defense budget.
My piece was about the civil-military challenges that arise when political leadership order the military to do things that the military has advised against and then hide behind the military's obedience rather than accept responsibility for their own decisions.
Gause engages none of that. He doesn't rebut me by arguing the military welcomed Biden's comments. He doesn't rebut me by arguing that Biden's claims were actually correct.
Instead of engaging that argument, Gause pretends my piece was a claim that the Iraqis were irrelevant to the negotiations or that it would have been easy for Maliki to deliver on the SoFA. Of course, I do not make either claim. Following in the footsteps of his champion, Gause creates a strawman version of my argument -- "Feaver says it is all about us" -- and in the process of rebutting that, appears to advance an extraordinary claim of his own, namely that the actions of the Obama team were irrelevant to what happened in Iraq.
Gause devotes considerable effort to arguing that once Maliki wrested sole power from Allawi in the 2010 election, the failure of the SOFA negotiations was a foregone conclusion.
Gause may be right about the counterfactual, though it is curious that Gause doesn't mention that Vice President Biden made precisely the opposite boast. According to Michael Gordon: "Mr. Biden also predicted that the Americans could work out a deal with a government led by Mr. Maliki. 'Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise,' Mr. Biden said. 'I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA' he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate."
Gause doesn't mention that because his piece is not about what Obama did or did not do. In Gause's world, only Iraqi actors matter (at least from 2008 on -- one wonders whether Gause would have considered U.S. actions before, say, 20 January 2009, to have consequence and therefore be worth analyzing and perhaps even critiquing.) The closest Gause comes to evaluating Obama's actions is one throwaway sentence: "One might criticize the Obama administration for not being more active in trying to broker an Allawi and Maliki coalition in the first place."
One might indeed, but Gause apparently is not one to do so.
Let me be clear: Gause may be right that once Maliki held on to the top spot in Iraq, there was little to no chance for a SOFA deal. But that doesn't justify Biden's mocking dismissal of the proposal for a stay behind force in Iraq in the VP debate. And it certainly does not excuse the raft of errors the administration made in 2009 and 2010 that perhaps contributed to the political stalemate we confronted in Iraq in 2011.
Over the last four years, I and my Shadow Government colleagues have documented many of these mistakes. I could not possibly list them all here, but a partial list I compiled for a different project would include:
Many of those pertain to the period of time before Maliki renewed his hold on the leadership post and so happened when even Gause appears to believe that the SOFA outcome was not a foregone conclusion.
But Gause does not address any of those (or other critiques) in his piece. Instead, he pretends that identifying any misstep by the Obama administration is tantamount to arguing that what happens in the Middle East is "all about us." Why is that?
Gause is a good man trying to make an impossible case. He seems bent on arguing that Obama has been perfect and has made no foreign policy missteps whatsoever, and anyone who points out an Obama misstep should be dismissed as a partisan hack.
As a friend of mine might say, if this were just the "lacuna in one academic's analysis, it would not be much interest." However, it appears to be a pattern with Obama supporters. Why are they unable to concede the possibility that there might be a situation in the world -- any situation -- that might be worse because of actions Obama took or did not take?
And why are they unwilling to candidly acknowledge the
civil-military challenges that their actions have deepened?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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Independent fact checkers are in a tough business. Unlike their partisan counterparts, who merrily use double standards to excuse their own whoppers and slam their opponents for the slightest infractions, independent fact checkers are supposed to apply the same standard scrupulously, letting the chips fall where they may.
The biggest no-no for a fact checker who covets a reputation for independence and fairness is to strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel.
Which brings me to two posts by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, the dean of political fact checkers. Kessler takes his job seriously and, I believe, works hard to earn a reputation for fairness. He has earned the benefit of my doubt by virtue of his repeated efforts to patrol both sides and, on occasion, to engage with his critics.
Today, I am one of those critics, because I cannot see how he swallowed the camel of Obama's claim that Romney "wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs even though the military's not asking for them," whilst straining at the gnat of Romney's claim: "The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916."
Kessler awards one Pinnochio to Obama's claim about what the military is seeking, which in his scale means "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." He awards Romney's claim about the Navy three Pinnochios, which means "Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions."
I do not see how, using the same standard, he arrives at these two codings.
For the World War I navy claim, Kessler concedes that the number of ships today approximates the size of the Navy before we entered WWI, but dings Romney for failing to note that the Navy reached an even slightly lower number in 2007 -- so, technically, "the trend line is up."
Yet Kessler understands that this sort of petty number parsing is not what varsity Fact Checking is about, and so spends most of his time dinging Romney for failing to credit the Navy with all of the qualitative improvements in technology since World War I. The most powerful ship today, an aircraft carrier, packs vastly more punch than the most powerful ship in 1916, a battleship, and so a 300 ship navy today is vastly more capable than a 300 ship navy in 1916.
Failing to contextualize the reference, Kessler concludes, makes it a "nonsense fact," even if it is technically mostly true on the surface. (So maybe it isn't a "significant factual error" then?)
One could devote a lengthy analysis to the context Kessler himself omits from his analysis. For instance, anti-ship technology has greatly improved since 1916 and so if the real underlying question is "How adequate is our naval modernization plans to confront the threats we are facing tomorrow?" then what matters is the net assessment of the ships we are planned to have tomorrow against the threats we are likely to face tomorrow. Comparing the capacity of today's ships with yesterday's ships, as Kessler does, is at least as much a "nonsense fact" as what he credits Romney with.
Moreover, as Joseph Stalin observed, it is not merely a matter of quality: "Quantity has a quality all its own." A qualitatively superior force can be defeated or at least thwarted by a quantitatively superior swarm. And, when the issue is regional coverage, even a qualitatively superior ship cannot be in two oceans at the same time.
Bottom line: Romney's underlying claim that Obama's defense budget does not adequately address the threats confronting the United States over the lifetime of the navy Obama has programmed is at least arguable. The World War I reference is suggestively supportive -- though not dispositive -- and probably merits at worst 1 Pinnochio.
Don't take my word for it. Simply apply the standards of reasoning Kessler applies to Obama's far more egregious claim about the military not asking for the programs Romney promises to include in his defense budget.
Kessler begins this fact-checking exercise with another careful parsing of the numbers and finds that Obama is engaging in a bit of hyperbole by worst-casing it and not crediting Romney for all of the caveats he has included -- but that is not the interesting (to me) part of the assignment since both sides agree that Romney is promising to spend more on defense than Obama is promising to spend.
What gives Obama's quote punch is not the precise dollar estimate but rather the claim that the military has not asked for the programs that Romney's extra spending would allow. This claim, if true, would make Romney's proposed spending frivolous and thus, in a time of fiscal constraint, beyond reckless.
Kessler, to his credit, partially investigates this part and finds several instances of Obama's own national security team asking for roughly the amount of spending Romney's proposals would entail. Yet Kessler does not consider this to be proof that Obama is dissembling because he also notes that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified on behalf of the president's budget in January 2012.
Kessler acknowledges that Dempsey may not have wanted Obama's downscaled budget but since he testified on its behalf, Kessler is not going to ding Obama about whether the military asked for it. Kessler gives Obama the barest slap on the wrist because his "phrasing is certainly carefully parsed."
The facticity of Obama's claim does not turn on the difference between want and ask, but rather on when you credit the military with asking.
What Kessler fails to adequately credit, but which I emphasized in my own analysis (which concluded there may not be "enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading" the Administration's position is), is that by the time of Dempsey's January 2012 testimony, the military had already been ordered to accept these cuts.
Obama decided on a cut to the defense topline, then ordered the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that topline, and then ordered the department to come up with a budget that fit that tailored strategy that fit that arbitrary topline. In order to reach that budget goal, the department had to cut many programs that just the year before they had asked for and defended as necessary for national security.
Its worse than that: Since the development of any given year's budget takes so long and Obama's cuts came relatively late in the game, the department had to cut things that they were preparing to ask for in that very budget year cycle. Kessler could have done some reporting to compare what the military had been asking for in the development of that fiscal year's defense budget with what the president permitted.
Obama wants to pick the latest possible time for assessing what the military is asking for: when the military testifies on behalf of the president's budget. But by that time, the military has been ordered to accept that budget. Their choice at that point is to accept or resign in protest. If they testify on behalf of it, what you can conclude is that they think they can live with this budget and are not willing to resign in protest over it. If you want to know what they asked for, look at the budget requests they submitted in the development of the budget process, before they were told what they would have to settle for.
Now it is true that the military services always ask for more than they get, so it hardly ends the debate over whether the spending is needed simply to note that at some point the military asked for that program. But, at the same time, the fact that they asked for it rather gives the lie to the claim that they didn't ask for it.
In my piece, I emphasized the damage to civil-military relations that the Obama administration was doing in peddling this partisan line. Kessler's in a different business, so I don't blame him for ignoring the damage to civil-military relations.
But he is in the fact-checking business, and he does claim
to want to avoid a double-standard.
So I asked him for his explanation, and he kindly gave me his answer:
"The Pinocchio ratings are the toughest part of my job, and I strive to be consistent in how I apply them. I evaluate statements on a case by case basis, and politicians have become quite clever at figuring out ways to avoid getting trapped by a fact checker. That's why Obama uses the word "ask" in his statement; it was clearly a carefully chosen word.
Readers of the column on the defense budget will note that I essentially took a pass on rating whether Obama was correct in the distinction between "ask" and "want," leaving the judgment up to the readers -- or defense analysts. So the One Pinocchio rating was essentially aimed at the claim of a $2 trillion increase in defense budget. I think it is fair to say I was dubious about the claim that the military did not want more money, and you certainly raise some good points about how they were ordered to shift course in the middle of the process."
I think he makes a good point for why he gave Obama some wiggle room, but, as Kessler himself might say, I leave it to the reader to determine whether he gave Romney the benefit of the same wiggle room. I am still not persuaded he did, but maybe I am the one straining at the gnat?
There was plenty of foreign policy fodder for Republicans in last night's Vice Presidential debate, particularly Vice President Biden's claims that the administration was unaware of requests for additional security in Benghazi. In terms of understanding policy differences between the candidates, however, the most significant (and so far largely unreported) moment, came in the exchange on Iran. In response to Chairman Ryan's point that Iran had made enormous progress enriching uranium under this administration, Biden said, "the Israelis and the United States -- our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close -- how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away."
Explaining why he was reassured about the Iranian timeline, Biden continued:
"When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about? ... We will not allow the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon. What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don't have a weapon to put it into. Let's all calm down a little bit here."
Biden, in other words, didn't contest Ryan's argument about Iran's rapidly growing enrichment capabilities, but said in essence that progress on enrichment was beside the point because Iran does not today have a nuclear device.
There are numerous problems with the vice president's comments, and they raise significant cause for concern about current U.S. strategy for ending Iran's nuclear weapons program.
To begin with, there is no dispute among nuclear experts that the most complicated challenge in developing a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material, not the process of developing the nuclear device itself. Enrichment is, as experts like to say, the "long pole in the tent." With sufficient weapons grade fuel, the Iranians would already be at the threshold of nuclear breakthrough. In fact, in 2009 the IAEA assessed that as early as 2004, Iran had developed the know-how to build a crude nuclear device that could be delivered by aircraft or ship.
Biden's focus on the development of the device itself, rather than the manufacture of weapons grade duel, suggests that the administration redline in Iran ("we'll stop them from getting a bomb") wouldn't kick in until Iran is on our 5 yard line.
Second, the vice president revealed a worrying overconfidence in the intelligence community's ability to detect nuclear weaponization activities, which are easily concealed. As most intelligence professionals will tell you, they aren't infallible; getting accurate intelligence on a nation's most closely guarded secrets and interpreting it correctly are notoriously difficult tasks.
Although the Vice President cited Israeli agreement with his point, the Israelis have steadfastly taken the opposite view. As PM Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech:
"For a country like Iran, it takes many, many years to enrich
uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem
in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they're
In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator -- the fuse -- in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months.
The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop, especially in Iran. That's a country that's bigger than France, Germany, Italy, and Britain combined.
The same is true for the small facility in which they could assemble a warhead or a nuclear device that could be placed in a container ship. Chances are you won't find that facility either.
So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb."
In fact, German, French, UK, and Israeli intelligence believe that the U.S. intelligence community is already missing evidence of Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponization capabilities, a point bolstered by the 2011 safeguards report on Iran from the IAEA in which detailed evidence is available here.
Biden's statement -- assuming it reflects the thinking of the administration broadly -- reveals a great deal about the administration's approach to Iran, none of it reassuring. It explains why the administration has been dismissive of Israeli concerns. It may also partly explain administration ambivalence about Congressional sanctions; if there is no urgency to the threat, there is a less compelling case in the administration's view for robust sanctions against foreign companies. And it tells us that the Obama administration may be naively betting U.S. and Israeli security on the assumption that our intelligence community has perfect insight into activities in Iran.
The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.
If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.
I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.
On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.
But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.
Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden's mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama's decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden's guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?
The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?
On Afghanistan, Biden's comments were even more troubling. Let's set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.
Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing -- we all are hearing -- but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.
That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.
This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.
Biden knows, or should know, that from the military's perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military's plan all along.
Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact....They made the recommendation first."
Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)
It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn't ask for' that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending -- in the previous year's budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.
I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.
And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don't seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.
Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military's idea.
An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden's remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.
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Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president.
Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."
Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want.
In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."
Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?
The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.
To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.
I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.
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The current crisis in North Africa has cast into sharp relief the decline of American sea power. According to press reports, the Pentagon has dispatched two destroyers (actual American destroyers, not the Russian warships displayed during the tribute to American veterans at last week's Democratic National Convention), to waters off Libya. Such a response is prudent. Indeed, it would scarcely be remarkable except for the fact that, according to press reports, those two destroyers constitute fully half of the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean. That is, with a civil war raging in Syria and unrest in Egypt and Libya, the United States has maintained only four destroyers near these hot spots.
Not too many years ago, the United States would have routinely deployed a much more powerful force in the Mediterranean, including a carrier strike group. Not too long ago, the Marines who have reportedly been dispatched to protect U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya would have deployed from nearby amphibious ships, not from places far away.
It is at times like this that the erosion of American sea power is most apparent. Today, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since 1916 and is stretched thin beyond prudence and good operational sense. We should all hope that the United States will not need to evacuate American citizens or use force to defend them, for if we do, we may very well regret the neglect of sea power.
From time to time, Josh Gerstein of Politico has observed that the mainstream media has glossed over things the Obama administration has done without subjecting it to the firestorm of protest that greeted a comparable (often less egregious) action by the Bush administration.
Some of the items are quite serious: the targeted drone strike on an American citizen or the creative interpretation of the UNSCR on Libya or the prominent role in sensitive national security policymaking given to domestic political advisors. Others are less so: the frequent gaffes like misspelling "Ohio" or the priority given to golf games or the record-breaking prominence of fund-raising.
The issue is not necessarily that President Obama deserves condemnation for any of this. Rather, the issue is that the Obama administration seems to have no idea how generous the media's double-standard is.
A recent report made me think that it is not only the Bush administration that is the victim of this double standard. The Clinton administration has some grounds for a complaint, too.
In a lengthy article exploring the extraordinary influence over policy wielded by Valerie Jarrett, the New York Times reports on an incident I have never heard about before:
"Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious -- at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter -- and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.
A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.
She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed." (emphasis added)
This is a remarkable anecdote, and it immediately called to mind one of the signature anecdotes from the Clinton White House. I wrote about it in my book because it took on iconic status as a symbol of the poor civil-military relations of the early Clinton era. Early on in the Clinton tenure, Lieutenant General McCaffrey was over at the White House for a meeting. As I described it:
"While there, he greeted a young Clinton staffer who allegedly replied, "I don't talk to the military." McCaffrey presumably related this back at the Pentagon, for the story quickly spread throughout the Beltway community as apparent confirmation that the new commander in chief -- who once wrote that he loathed the military -- was surrounding himself with advisors who were viscerally anti-military. The White House, which was already reeling from the backlash against the president's proposal to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military, quickly scrambled to undo the public relations damage of the petty snub. In a highly choreographed move, the president invited General McCaffrey to jog with him at a summit meeting, and the distinguished military officer agreed, thus graciously conferring absolution on his commander in chief."
Now civil-military experts can spend a lot of time in the bar debating how much of the McCaffrey story really happened the way it is usually reported, and if it did, how significant it really was. But there is no debate about how much attention the anecdote got (a google search on "I don't talk to the military" and clinton generates some 3,690,000 hits).
Is there any doubt that if George Stephanopoulos had confused a 4-star general with a waiter it would have gotten huge play? (Yes, I know there were also reports about the Clinton team asking the White House military aides to serve canapes and drinks at social functions. That, too, got lots of attention, and in some ways might seem a better analogue to the Jarrett incident. But those particular military aides were substantially more junior and, in fact, had social duties as an important part of their regular functions, in addition to their core mission of carrying the "nuclear football," so I give the Clinton White House more slack on that.)
The context is different. As Tom Ricks has noted, the Obama White House has very fraught relations with the military, but they are nowhere near as fraught as Clinton's were in 1993. Moreover, the Clinton-era snub seemed intentional whereas it was (apparently) only inadvertent in the Obama-era case.
Still, if the Jarrett anecdote gets no more commentary than the brief discussion I am giving it here, I think my fellow Clinton White House veterans can be excused if we start a new meme: "what if the Clinton White House had done this?"
Update: A friend who follows civil-military affairs just as closely as I do but with a better memory than mine, pointed out to me that the Jarrett incident was reported at the time. It is possible I saw one of those earlier reports and just forgot about it -- my 90-plus-year-old parents like to say that their forgettery overwhelms their memory, and perhaps I am heading into the same zone. But I think it is more likely that I didn't notice at the time and, certainly, the incident did not get extensive coverage the way the McCaffrey incident did.
In my post, I suggested two possible reasons for this, both of which I think are true. First, the McCaffrey anecdote was intrinsically more toxic and also fit more readily into an existing narrative of a President who "loathed" the military. Second, there is an undeniable double-standard, with the press giving the Obama Administration a pass for things they would have framed far more negatively in previous Administrations; as the Politico editor put it, the mainstream media is "quite smitten with the Obamas" and their coverage obviously reflects that fact.
My friend suggested yet a third reason: Gen Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army, whom Jarrett confused with a waiter, went out of his way to defuse the incident. I think this was an important factor, and perhaps co-equal with the other two. At least initially, the McCaffrey incident went viral (if that term applies to those early days of the internet) because someone spread the story back in the halls of the Pentagon. The most likely person to spread that story was General McCaffrey himself. After it became notorious, McCaffrey collaborated with the Clinton White House in tamping down the furor, but it is plausible that McCaffrey did less than Chiarelli did in the initial stages to minimize the incident.
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President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.
It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.
Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?
The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn't build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.
That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn't President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?
My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter's quote, alas.
Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness -- that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.
Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike -- even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).
Part of the answer is also that Obama's Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.
Part of the answer may also be that because Obama's war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.
And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won't (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don't like.
For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.
I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.
I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.
And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.
The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself -- and it doesn't appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.
Every year between Memorial Day and the 4th of July there is a flurry of interest in reviving the draft. I expect some of my FP colleagues will post seasonal items on the subject -- Josh Rogin already has.
This is the hardy perennial of American civil-military debates. And since I have the most parochial of interests in civil-military debates, who am I to complain about civil-military debates that will never end?
So I won't complain about the re-occurrence, but I do have a complaint about what is missing in the debate. Usually, the draft is presented as a way to close the gap between the military and American society. The gap arises because we ask a few to protect the many, and this creates the potential that each side will become alienated from the other, especially if the few becomes drawn ever more narrowly from a self-selected segment of American society. Sometimes, the draft is also presented as a way to make it more difficult to use the military in a cavalier fashion -- not merely to bind the military to American society, but to bind the military, period, or at least bind the hands of political leaders who have the authority to order the military into battle.
However, I have yet to read a compelling case for reviving the draft that is premised on making the military more effective -- more capable of defending American national interest, which is, after all, its primary purpose. The reason those arguments are not made in a compelling fashion is because the most likely result of a draft is a less capable military.
Today, the United States is protected by the best trained, best equipped, most capable fighting force in history. That boast has been made for the past two decades and it has been true every year. Indeed, the U.S. military of today is vastly more capable than the draft-era military.
Moreover, it is especially more capable at fighting the way American society has increasingly asked to fight, namely with exceeding care simultaneously to reduce our own casualties and civilian casualties on the battlefield. That is emphatically not how the draft-era militaries fought because they had neither the technology nor the training to do so.
I suspect many of the proponents of the draft would be content with the less capable U.S. military that would result because they believe that the higher goal is to limit the use of the American military. They believe American leaders have been too quick to intervene militarily, so this diminished capacity might not be a bug but a feature of the draft-based force. And given the controversial interventions of the past two decades, they have a point. But there have also been numerous controversial non-interventions (Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, etc.), which those proponents never seem to discuss much. More importantly, there is little evidence that U.S. political leaders have been cavalier about committing U.S. troops to battle. On the contrary, they have agonized about the decision, even in the controversial cases.
There is abundant evidence, however, that when committed, U.S. troops have been extraordinarily capable and proficient. Would that be lost if we reverted to a draft?
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How should the next president refine American Grand Strategy? That is the subject of a report released today by the Center for New American Security (CNAS). CNAS herded a bunch of us cats (including yours truly) in the hopes of starting a cat fight. You can judge for yourself, or come see the fur fly in person at the CNAS Annual Conference on June 13.
As I read the report, there is greater overlap among the competing perspectives than one might expect (perhaps even more than the CNAS cat-herders expected). Dick Betts calls for the greatest amount of change from the status quo grand strategy, but I wonder if that isn't because he pegs the status quo to somewhere around January 2003, at the high-water mark of what he would consider to be wrong-headed American military interventionist impulses. I call for the least amount of change to the status quo strategy, but that is because I consider the second-term Bush grand strategy, which Obama has largely tried to implement (whilst rhetorically repudiating), to be a reasonable exemplar of a post-Cold War approach that has been more successful than not. Bob Art has his own take, which I consider to be fairly compatible with what I call the "legacy grand strategy." And Anne-Marie Slaughter emphasizes the prevalence of networks, which, she argues, requires a fundamental rethink of grand strategy. I think she is right about the importance of networks, and I am all for a rethink of grand strategy. After doing that rethink, I end up more comfortable with the strategy that has hitherto guided us than she is, but I think the differences are a matter of nuance.
I am willing to bet that my FP colleagues who also blog on grand strategy from time to time will agree with me on this narrow point -- that the CNAS group has a lot more in common than in dispute -- even if they disagree profoundly with my own preferred strategy. Since the CNAS group does not include a true-believer in "off-shore balancing," or other such more-radical alternative retreats from American global leadership, it will be interesting to read a substantive critique-and-proposal along those lines.
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta leaves on Wednesday for a nine-day swing through Asia. After stopping in Hawaii at the Pacific Command, he travels on to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La dialogue among defense ministers, then to Hanoi for follow-up meetings with his counterparts on last year's defense cooperation memorandum, and finally India. The secretary's commitment to continue showing the flag at the Shangri-La dialogue is a good thing, but he had better be ready for three tough questions when he gets to the region.
Is the "pivot" to Asia hollow? The administration's much ballyhooed "pivot" out of Iraq and Afghanistan and "back" to Asia was initially well-received in the region (though not in Europe or the Middle East, unsurprisingly), particularly given Hillary Clinton's active Asia diplomacy and President Obama's first time participation in the East Asia Summit. However, as the klieg lights have cooled, friends and foes alike across Asia are asking where the beef is, particularly on defense capabilities. It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn't established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy. Plans for about $50 billion in annual defense cuts over the coming decade (equivalent to the size of Japan's defense budget each year) are perhaps still tolerable to our friends and cautionary to our foes. However, sequestration would double these cuts and gut our ability to sustain Asia strategy, let alone global commitments. It is well known in regional defense ministries that the U.S. navy wanted to cut one carrier out of the force even with current plans for defense cuts, until being rebuffed by an administration worried the move would clash with the "pivot." Sequestration would definitely remove carriers from the fleet (for starters), and Asia would notice. Initially, Secretary Panetta warned as much in testimony to the Congress. As the November election looms, he has been silent on the subject, but he should be prepared for tough questions on whether the U.S. is committed to leadership in Asia beyond attending multilateral meetings -- and hopefully he will begin pressing the case for a robust defense budget within the administration.
What will the United States do about Chinese pressure on the first and second island chains? China's "Near Sea" doctrine should leave little ambiguity about the PLA's intention to not only establish anti-access and area denial capabilities in the first island chain (connecting Okinawa down through the Philippines to the South China Sea), but eventually beyond the second island chain as well (stretching straight south from Japan through Guam). China has swarmed the Philippine Sea with fishing and paramilitary vessels in recent months to press claims against a virtually defenseless Philippines, with PLA-Navy surface action groups dwelling just over the horizon. Beijing has found considerable support within the administration and in Washington more generally for the narrative that Hanoi and Manila are to blame for all the trouble, even though the Philippines have one old U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the face of over 100 Chinese vessels just off their coast. Philippine President Aquino will visit Washington early next month, and Panetta will need to be unapologetic to the Chinese about our support for a beleaguered treaty ally, while making it clear that the United States remains neutral on the territorial questions and committed to confidence building with Beijing. It is a difficult balancing act, but the administration has been too coy with Beijing and would be far better off laying down a clear and unapologetic marker that recent aggressive Chinese maritime operations will pull the United States closer to friends and allies in the region. Of course, it would help if the sequestration shadow were not looming so large.
What is the secretary's strategic vision for India? After going gangbusters during the Bush administration, the U.S.-India defense relationship has hit headwinds. On the Indian side, the problem stems from the political weakness of the Manmahon Singh government and unrealistic expectations about American willingness to transfer technology to Indian industry in order to sell defense systems. The rejection of Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F-18 from the Indian Air Force's next generation fighter competition was particularly disappointing. But the Obama administration also shares some responsibility for the listlessness: the American defense bureaucracy is second only to India's in its intransigence and the Pentagon (not to mention the White House) have lacked senior champions for the relationship comparable to Steve Hadley, Nick Burns or Doug Feith in the previous decade. Delhi has also been profoundly disturbed by the consequences for Indian security of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Broad U.S. and Indian strategic interests align well in Asia, just as the two countries' bureaucracies naturally clash. That requires senior-most officials like Secretary Panetta to lay out a clear and forward-looking vision for a defense relationship that will be as important as it is sometimes frustrating.
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.