Few pieces could be more damaging to President Obama's claim to the mantle of a skilled war-time commander-in-chief than the New York Times' exposé on how his views on Afghanistan shifted from his hawkish campaign to his eager-to-withdraw presidency.
Obama reportedly did not consult with the military before announcing in July 2011 his plans to withdraw U.S. troops and end the combat mission in Afghanistan. "The generals were cut out entirely," according to the Times, confirming that the withdrawal is not dictated by military necessities.
Instead of taking military advice, Obama's policy was predicated on a false reading of history. "Mr. Obama concluded in his first year that the Bush-era dream of remaking Afghanistan was a fantasy." But Bush never had that dream. Bush invoked lofty rhetoric, but never seriously undertook the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A serious effort would have involved massively more money and personnel. Bush's administration was famous for doing nation-building on the cheap with a light-footprint. Nonetheless, Obama got sticker-shock by the price tag of the Afghan war and decided to lower the bar from the already-low starting point.
Funny thing: Afghanistan is the second-cheapest major war in U.S. history as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It seems odd to get sticker shock for a war that has accounted for about 1 percent of U.S. federal expenditures over the last decade. About 65 percent of federal expenditures over the last ten years have gone towards entitlements. By comparison, about 15 percent has gone towards national defense, excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq has cost three percent, and only about one percent has gone towards the war in Afghanistan (including the cost of ongoing military operations and all reconstruction and stabilization assistance combined), according to my analysis of figures from OMB (see table, below).
But Obama let neither fiscal nor military realities drive his policy. Instead, he began to doubt the importance and feasibility of the war. In probably the most damning passage, the Times writes:
[Obama] also began to reassess whether emerging victorious in Afghanistan was as necessary as he had once proclaimed. Ultimately, Obama agreed to double the size of the American force while training the Afghan armed forces, but famously insisted that, whether America was winning or losing, the drawdown would begin in just 18 months.
The president escalated the war while simultaneously doubting whether it was very important or even winnable. He came to believe that "progress was possible -- but not on the kind of timeline that [he] thought economically or politically affordable." I suspect Obama was going to get sticker shock no matter what the price tag, simply because he didn't want to pay for a war he no longer believed in.
If Obama sincerely believed the war was either unimportant or already lost, he had a moral responsibility to the soldiers under his command to order their immediate withdrawal; or, contrarily, if he believed the war was still important and winnable (which it is), he had a responsibility to go "all in" and give the troops everything they needed for victory. He did neither, seeking to do just enough to get credit for trying while avoiding an even larger commitment that would have dominated his presidency. Analogizing Vietnam is almost never appropriate, but here it seems irresistible.
"Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban," according to the Times. The easiest way for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to differentiate himself from Obama on Afghanistan would be to reverse Obama's temporizing and make the Taliban's defeat the goal of U.S. policy in South Asia. Such a policy makes sense because, as the Times concludes, under Obama's policy, "Left unclear is how America will respond if a Taliban resurgence takes over wide swathes of the country." Obama himself said in his speech in Kabul that stability in Afghanistan is a prerequisite to denying safe haven to al Qaeda. "Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more," he said. That's true: So why has he refused to take the steps necessary to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan? His failure to do so is his legacy.
Drudge is pushing poll results that show a surprising tilt in favor of Romney: a 46-44 advantage among women registered voters.
I am puzzled, however, by a different poll that shows something different but equally surprising: a tilt in favor of Obama, but this time among the "veteran vote." According to Reuters, "If the election were held today, Obama would win the veteran vote by as much as seven points over Romney, higher than his margin in the general population."
Part of the explanation is the way Reuters defines "veteran vote" to include not only the veteran but also "families." Adding in the families dilutes a demographic (male) that traditionally trends Republican with demographics (youth and women) that traditionally trend Democratic.
If adding in the family explains the gap, then there is not much of a story here. But if the Obama advantage extends to veterans and the military, that would really be something.
In previous elections, military and veteran (narrowly defined) voters have tended to vote Republican by margins bigger than what is seen in the civilian population. Of course, Democrats have worked very hard to overcome that gap. In 2002, they hugged the more popular Republican commander-in-chief. In 2004, they nominated a Silver Star winner as their standard-bearer who traveled the country with some of his fellow Vietnam vets and made a "reporting for duty" salute as his grand entrance at the national convention. In 2006, they ran on a "support the troops, bring them home from the front" platform. And in 2008, facing a war-hero and POW survivor, they tried to out-bid Republicans on pay and benefits for the troops and their families.
President Obama has assiduously courted the military along these same lines, and so I would not be surprised to see him outpoll his Democratic predecessors. But given other structural considerations between the two parties, I would be surprised to see him outpoll his Republican counterpart.
For one thing, in the same Reuters poll, Republicans have a 10 point advantage over Democrats among "veterans and their families" on the question: "In your opinion, which political party better serves the needs of veterans and their families." Republicans have a 5 point advantage over Democrats among the same group on "...which political party has a better plan, policy, or approach to the war on terror," a 6 point advantage on "...a better plan, policy or approach to Iran," and, for that matter, a 6 point advantage on "...the U.S. economy." Moreover, the veterans and their families are quite hawkish -- strongly opposing cuts to defense spending, tilting slightly in favor of something approximating unilateralism, and remarkably supportive of the use of force option to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (57 percent agree strongly or somewhat and only 17 percent disagree strongly or somewhat). If Obama has the advantage, it seems to derive more from a personal appeal than any across-the-board support for his platform.
For another thing, previous surveys of active duty and former military consistently show that military personnel tend to be conservative and tend to be more Republican than comparable demographic cohorts in the civilian world. Likewise, the regular survey of the Military Times readership -- which is not a representative sample of all veterans or all military, but is a useful sample of career military -- consistently has shown deep skepticism about President Obama as a leader.
For all those reasons and more, I still expect that Romney will "win" the military and veteran vote this time around.
Having said all that, however, I am not sure it is a good thing for civil-military relations that the campaigns vie for the military and veteran vote in this fashion. I understand why they do so -- it is a way of signaling that the party/candidate can be trusted on national security, and that is a legitimate thing to want to signal. But wooing the military/veteran vote can be corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The military have a distinctive position in American society. They are trusted with exceptional coercive power and a privileged access to our country's resources, but in exchange they are expected to be entirely subordinate to civilian authority.
We expect the military to salute and obey, even if they are not successfully wooed. President Obama is their legitimate commander-in-chief and has earned their respect and obedience by virtue of his success in persuading the entire electorate to support him, regardless of how he fared with the military themselves. Undue effort at wooing can contribute to a politicization of the military, making it that much more difficult for any commander-in-chief to exercise the constitutional role.
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A recent Cable item from the intrepid Josh Rogin tells me that one of the consequences of the era of declining defense budgets may well be a further shifting of civilian roles back on to defense shoulders.
That is not a typo.
For years pundits have complained about the "militarization" of foreign policy, referring to the way that foreign policy tasks get assigned to the military even if the tasks do not involve military expertise per se (i.e. blowing things up). For decades, the military has been deployed to do everything from disaster relief to rural development to local banking reform to post-conflict venture capital, and so on. High defense spending has bought remarkable capacity in our uniformed ranks, and that capacity has been utilized in the service of a broad range of foreign policy goals.
Critics have complained that these tasks are not inherently military and they could be, perhaps should be, done by civilians in the State Department and elsewhere. Letting civilians do civilian tasks would, the critics maintain, "demilitarize" American foreign policy. Hence, a big push to boost capacity outside of DoD.
That push enjoyed substantial rhetorical support from Secretary Rumsfeld, who despaired of the military being the bill-payer for tasks better assigned to State and elsewhere. It enjoyed even more substantial material and political support from Secretary Gates, who joined first with Secretary Rice and then with Secretary Clinton to beg Congress to boost the budget of the State Department so as to build civilian capacity.
I suspect that effort may have reached a turning point, however. The very same fiscal pressures that are forcing deep cuts in the defense budget will be operating on the budgets of the State Department and other departments and agencies that might otherwise be expected to prop up the civilian side of the civil-military balance. And in such a hostile fiscal environment, it is likely that the military will lose less than civilian agencies will. Or rather: Even if the military loses more in absolute terms (because their budget baseline is so high), in relative terms they can weather those losses better without losing minimum functioning capacity.
In short, the civil-military balance is likely to tip even further in the direction of the military.
This was the gist of a talk I gave last month to the Army War College's Annual Strategy Conference. I made several points, which the latest congressional action on the foreign operations and defense budgets have only reinforced:
Therefore, while it is fine to remain rhetorically committed to Plan A (improving State capacity), the military should train and equip for Plan B (State and other civilian agencies are no more and probably less capable than they were in 2008).
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The election may hinge on economic and domestic policy, but this past week the campaign was all about national security, specifically the president's role as commander in chief.
The prompt was the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden, which encouraged the Obama campaign to put out an extraordinary campaign advertisement praising the president for showing the courage to order the strike and suggesting that Romney would not have done so.
The critique of Romney was fundamentally dishonest in the way that campaign ads often are. The ad cherry-picked Romney quotes and deployed them out of context. The valid Romney observation that defeating al Qaeda would require a comprehensive strategy, not one limited to hunting down a single man, got distorted by the Obama scriptwriters into a hesitation to pursue Bin Laden. And the valid Romney observation that it was a mistake to boast in advance about conducting unilateral strikes against the territory of our Pakistani partner got distorted into an unwillingness to act in America's national interest.
Nevertheless, while the Obama campaign misrepresented Romney's position on the hunt for Bin Laden, the advertisement was (perhaps inadvertently) plausible in claiming not every president would have ordered the Abbottabad raid -- and, in this respect, it was odd to hear former President Clinton making this argument.
Others have commented on how unseemly it was for the former president to participate in a dishonest attack like this. Both former Presidents Bush have been scrupulous (thus far) about hewing to an elder-statesman, above-the-partisan-fray sort of role. It is unfortunate that former Presidents Carter and Clinton, for all the other good they have done after leaving office, have not been so scrupulous.
Still, the interesting thing about President Clinton's commentary was not how partisan but how ironic it was. Because of the last eight men who were the runners-up or winners of the office of president, the one least likely to have ordered the Abbottabad raid was President Clinton. Clinton was famously casualty phobic and uber-cautious in the use of force, for understandable reasons (as I have outlined at length elsewhere, including here and here.
And the Abbottabad raid required a commander in chief willing to take a risky bet. Consider the factors that might daunt an irresolute decider:
Under those circumstances, President George W. Bush probably still would have ordered the attack, as did President Obama. But is anyone confident that President Clinton would have?
The decision President Obama faced was a hard one and he took a gamble that paid off. He deserves credit for it -- credit that Americans of both parties have been reliably paying him. However, let's be honest that it is a decision that compares favorably not with Republicans but with other Democrats.
Islamabad is unhappy with the United States. As the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden approaches, Pakistani officials, and especially parliamentarians, are spewing even more venom against the United States than they usually do -- which is saying a lot. Pakistan is full of grievances. It is furious that the United States is launching drone attacks against al Qaeda terrorists on its territory. Pakistan has not yet reopened the logistics support line to Afghanistan through its territory, which it closed in retaliation against the previous spate of American drone attacks. The future of that line now appears to be in real jeopardy.
Pakistan wants $3 billion from the Coalition Support Fund as compensation for its operations in support of the American effort against terrorists operating from the Tribal Areas. Washington is prepared to reimburse about a third of that amount, and is not yet ready to pay even that.
Finally, Islamabad is uneasy with the Afghan-American agreement that commits Washington to a decade of support for Afghanistan once American and coalition troops withdraw in 2014. No one really knows how much American assistance will really be available. Ten years is a very long time, and American interests could lie elsewhere. But Pakistanis, ever seeking to render Afghanistan firmly within their sphere of influence -- and to prevent it from becoming part of India's sphere -- are uneasy about the thought of close American ties to Kabul for the foreseeable future.
There are those in Washington who persist in calling Pakistan an American ally. It is no such thing. The American-Pakistani relationship is a forced marriage of inconvenience. American-Pakistani relations are a shadow of the cooperation that had reached its zenith when Pervez Mussharraf committed himself to the fight against al Qaeda. Early in the past decade, Pakistan redirected its forces from the Indian border, and undertook serious operations against al Qaeda. Pakistan lost many troops in the effort, and the United States, recognizing Islamabad's contribution, established the Coalition Support Fund, which, at least when I was in charge of payments, covered over 80 percent of all Pakistani claims.
But times have changed. Pakistan's military has become increasingly radicalized, even as the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal continues to grow apace. The country's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has struggled with the military virtually since the day he took office. The Pakistani "street," whose history of hostility to the United States dates back at least to the 1979 burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, is even more violently anti-American today. The power and influence of the Imams, and of the students who graduate their madrasas, continues to grow unabated. And the possibility that the country will break apart, with Pashtu, Baluch, Sindhis, and Punjabis, each going their own way, is considered more real than ever before.
The United States cannot abandon Pakistan. To do so is to invite open Pakistani support for the likes of the Haqqanis, who probably are now America's most dangerous adversaries in Afghanistan. However bad the relationship with Pakistan's military might be, having no relationship would be even worse. After all, not all of Pakistan's generals are radical Muslims; many still retain a Western-oriented outlook.
Moreover, the only way to combat the influence of radical Islam in Pakistan is to fund schools that can compete with the madrasas, by offering both religious and secular studies, as well as the hot meals that impoverished students can obtain nowhere else. While reeling economically, only the United States, despite its own economic headaches, is still in a position to finance directly the creation and sustenance of such an educational system.
Finally, however uncomfortable the relationship with Pakistan may be today, a Pakistan that becomes even more radicalized, or worse still, breaks apart, will represent a true danger to American security. Washington is right to ignore Pakistani protests and once again to employ drones against those who seek to harm America. It is also right to withhold payments of Coalition Support Funding until the road to Afghanistan is once again re-opened. But America must do more, in other ways, particularly in developing a much more ambitious plan to support modern education in Pakistan's poorest areas -that would also encompass traditional Koranic studies. Perhaps direct American assistance will not be feasible -- Islamabad may prohibit such aid. In that case, indirect means will have to be found -- perhaps via international organizations. If the United States truly hopes for a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, it must do all it can to shed the light of modern education on the darker corners of that country's psyche. Nothing less will do, and no action at all would constitute a tragedy, for Pakistan, for the entire region, and for the United States as well.
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In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al Qaeda and terrorism experts (like Will McCants). Since then Seth Jones has published a piece that also argues al Qaeda is not dead, although he takes on different points of contention than I do.
At the center of the first three objections that I list -- and that lead directly to the fourth -- is a profound disagreement over what exactly al Qaeda is, how able "core" al Qaeda is to command and control its affiliates, and what the group can therefore hope to achieve (despite its boasts to far greater things). The objections also reflect a difference in opinion about the public statements made by al Qaeda's leaders, seen by many as expressing aspirational -- but unachievable -- goals, or as rhetoric designed to inspire terror attacks, but by me and others as official statements of the group's policy vision.
I've already discussed thoroughly the differing views of "what al Qaeda is" in this post, but would stress that I take al Qaeda's leadership at their word, and agree that the "core" is the high command of a global organization that includes many branches (as al Qaeda calls the affiliates) and that these branches are an integral part of al Qaeda. Their relationship is somewhat like that between the Pentagon and the Combatant Commanders, although more decentralized and with latitude for splintering and serious disagreement-as in any insurgency. The oath of obedience that binds leadership and forces in the field -- called "baya" -- is one piece of evidence that both "core" and branches are precisely the same thing and that there is a command and control function built into their relationship. In theory, baya operates in much the same way as a feudal oath of fealty. When joining al Qaeda, only the overall affiliate military commander -- and the head of shadow governance, if one exists -- swear loyalty to the al Qaeda high command, subordinate commanders swear loyalty to these leaders, and the ordinary foot soldiers swear loyalty to the subordinates. Just as with feudal oaths where the meanest peasant could not argue that he did not have to obey the ruler because he had not personally sworn an oath to him, so the local forces of al Qaeda -- through their oaths to their unit commander -- are bound to obey as well the orders of everyone above them in the chain of command. One recent example of this theoretical hierarchy in practice is the baya sworn by Shaykh Atom to the Amir of the Shabab in Somalia, an oath that made him -- and his men -- as much a part of al Qaeda as the Shabab.
But these oaths, while suggestive, do not prove that the "core" is really able to command and control the affiliates. Again, there is evidence that tells us they are, but in the same way that all insurgencies are under the command and control (C2) of often distant superiors. In regular militaries and regular wars, C2 is a rigidly defined issue, with strict rules about who obeys whom, daily reporting by subordinates to officers, constant oversight to make certain that orders are obeyed, and set penalties for insubordination or direct disobedience. Irregular wars -- such as insurgencies -- are very different, however, as a recent publication by the Department of Defense on the insurgency in Afghanistan makes clear. As in other insurgencies, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan provides broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command. Instead, tighter C2 is handled through the local shadow government and commanders on the ground, who report back to their distant superiors on a regular basis. This, in miniature, is how al Qaeda is controlling their forces in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. Captured documents from Iraq show in action both the strengths and limitations of this sort of guidance. Zarqawi was directly ordered by his superiors to stop cutting off heads in public, to refrain from ever attacking neighboring countries again, to create the foundations for an Islamic state in Iraq, and to try harder to win over Sunnis to his cause. All these orders he obeyed. He was also ordered to stop killing Shia and Sunnis in large numbers, but events seem to show that he ignored this demand. From their distant headquarters, al Qaeda could not do much about this insubordination, although his subsequent demotion to a lesser position within al Qaeda in Iraq is suggestive, and I'm sure they did not mourn his passing a few weeks later.
Another example of this sort of C2 should give pause to those who argue that the "core" does not really control the affiliates. In the summer of 2009, the official view of the U.S. was that the affiliates were focused solely on local concerns (i.e. overthrowing the rulers of their own countries). That June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the General Manager of al Qaeda, gave an interview in which he stated that the branches were an integral part of al Qaeda and that the leadership was ordering them to carry out attacks on the U.S. Six months later, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-assessed by the U.S. government as having purely local objectives-carried out an unsuccessful attack on the homeland. A few months later, Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani group tied to al Qaeda that was also viewed as having purely local concerns, attempted to blow up Times Square. Our failure to take seriously the "rhetoric" of al Qaeda leaders led to two near catastrophes.
This discussion also matters because the U.S. policy proposals that flow from these viewpoints are substantially different. If al Qaeda can be divided into a core leadership that has as its primary objective attacking the U.S. and affiliates that are not an integral part of that core (or at least not under real command and control), then it is possible to carry out a successful counter-terrorism (CT) strategy against the "core" and perhaps the leadership of the affiliates, while allowing regional partners to handle the local insurgencies of the affiliates themselves. If, however, al Qaeda is both core and affiliate, that is both high command and ground forces, and the leadership is able to exert real command and control functions, then CT methodologies -- and its foundation of attrition -- will not destroy al Qaeda or prevent its spread. The only method that we have for dealing with this sort of warfare is counterinsurgency.
In my next post, I'll expand on this assertion and give my take on how the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Ladin have affected al Qaeda.
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BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
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In previous posts (here, here, and here), I've looked at three important questions that we must answer if we are to assess how well the U.S. is doing in its war on al Qaeda: defining al Qaeda, naming the group's objectives, and then examining how well it is doing at achieving its goals. I've suggested that the U.S. comes to quite different conclusions than al Qaeda itself on all three of these issues. According to a majority of experts -- both within and outside government -- al Qaeda is primarily the small "core" located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan; the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns. The objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies and, because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11. If this version of the conflict is true, we have nearly won, and only need to kill or capture a few more members of the core before it disintegrates completely.
Al Qaeda's leadership, on the other hand, considers itself to be much more than just a core of terrorists, but rather the "high command" of a global organization. In their view, the affiliates (or branches), as well as many fighters in Afghanistan-Pakistan, are integral members of al Qaeda. They have publicly described expansive objectives that include overthrowing the rulers of every Muslim-majority country (whether part of an earlier Islamic state or not), imposing their version of sharia, and then setting up "amirates," or Islamic states in these countries. Al Qaeda believes that they have achieved many of these goals already and are pressing forward to seize more territory and set up new shadow governments.
So how do we reconcile these very different versions of the war and determine where we are at in this conflict? I believe that the most important question we can ask ourselves is this: Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer "no." Unlike before 9-11, when al Qaeda and terrorists trained by the group were able to carry out devastating attacks against the U.S. and its interests in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, the period since 9-11 has been marked by one CT triumph after another. The planned follow-up attacks (the so-called "second wave") were foiled or failed to materialize and other serious plots have been stopped on a regular basis. The only large-scale attacks that succeeded were abroad (Bali (2002), Spain (2004), London (2005) -- no other major attempts since 2005 have made it past the CT nets of the U.S. and our allies.
We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda's global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda's version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved -- sometimes weakly, at other times in strength -- in every Muslim-majority country in the world.
Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history. And if, as al Qaeda itself has always argued, attacking the U.S. was just one means toward the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory, then they have made real progress toward achieving their strategic goals. This judgment is not just an esoteric statement about theory, but also has important policy implications: If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?
This piece was crossposted from the Afpak Channel.
In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015. There is little prospect that either election will be adequately funded or competently administered. But even if, by some miracle, they come off without a hitch, they will only serve to entrench the corrupt, over-centralized administration in Kabul, and do little to improve governance in the localities. Holding elections in Afghanistan in the midst of its long-running political crisis is a lose-lose situation.
The United States and United Nations should work with the Afghans instead to push for a grand political bargain that could actually make a difference in the counterinsurgency against the Taliban: a new Loya Jirga to amend the constitution, devolve power, adjust the electoral calendar, change the voting system, and invite the Taliban to form a political party. Neither Kabul nor the international community stands to gain from holding another round of elections, but a new political bargain can break the paralysis in Kabul and break the logjam in talks with the Taliban.
I. Devolve Power
Afghanistan's slow-burning political crisis began in 2003, when a Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in December to ratify a new constitution. The new document was modeled closely on the 1964 constitution, itself following closely in the footsteps of constitutions in 1923 and the 1890s. That a new democratic constitution was modeled on the older constitutional monarchy is telling: The new system simply replaced the hereditary Afghan monarch with an elected President and retained on paper many of the centralized powers that the Afghan kings had claimed (though not always exercised) since the late 19th Century. The new constitution was unanimously ratified by acclamation in January 2004.
The United States and the U.N. are often blamed for creating or forcing a centralized system onto the Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The accusation is wrong -- the centralized system came from the Afghans themselves, stemming from the century-old practice of Afghan rulers, and readily accepted by the Loya Jirga. But the point remains true that Afghanistan has one of the most highly centralized systems of government in the world. Provincial governments are not independent governments, like U.S. states, but implementing agencies of Kabul. Provincial councils are advisory, not legislative, bodies. Provincial governors and district chiefs are appointed by the president, not elected by the people. Provincial and district police chiefs are also appointed by the president, not by governors. That makes the president personally responsible for hiring and firing every governor and police chief in 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts nation-wide.
The centralization is almost completely unsuitable to Afghanistan's culture, economy, and society. According to Thomas Barfield's magisterial book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (arguably the most intelligent thing written on Afghanistan in a decade), the Afghan government has always claimed centralized powers, but has been most successful when it exercises those powers sparingly, or in cooperation with local elites like tribal elders and landowners. Efforts to use centralized government to compel social change tended to provoke resistance, as it did under the reign of the modernizing king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who was overthrown by a coalition of rural tribes and conservative mullahs; the communizing efforts of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1989); and the Islamizing efforts to the Taliban (1994-2001), the two most recent of which sparked civil war.
Despite the potential lessons of that history, the ten-year reign of Hamid Karzai looks more like Amanullah in his efforts to centralize power and push social reform, than that of Zahir Shah (1933-73), who took a more relaxed approach to the provinces and whose rule was marked by relative stability. Devolving power, for example by making governors elected and giving them the power of appointments in their province, giving provincial councils legislative power, and enabling provinces to levy their own taxes would bring the formal government into closer alignment with the informal practices that worked in the past.
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The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week the main outlines of the Pentagon's 2013 budget that will implement the $487 billion reduction in spending eventuated by spending limits in the law passed by Congress last summer. Secretary Panetta's budget represents a sensible set of choices in an environment of budget constraint likely to be of extended duration. Unfortunately, the budget does not constitute a program that carries out the law: DOD has produced a budget that cannot be implemented should any reductions beyond the 2013 topline occur. As Secretary Panetta himself has said, not only the budget choices, but the entire strategy collapses with any further cuts.
Panetta essentially flipped his predecessor's priorities, accepting risk in the near-term to preserve procurement of systems considered central to long-term risk management (i.e., preserving our technological and innovation edge as China rises). The programmatic choices consist of three main elements: decreasing the size of the force, improving long-range strike capabilities and relying on them to carry the burden of combat, and shifting to special operations the mission of training friendly forces.
However, DOD's plans contain several elements unlikely to survive contact with reality. First, as the Pentagon not only admits but trumpets, this strategic guidance is unexecutable if further defense cuts occur. On what possible basis does Secretary Panetta believe the law outlining sequestration cuts of an additional $600-800 billion to national security will not be enacted? Congress passed the Budget Control Act by large margins (269-161 in the House, 74-26 in the Senate). The Select Committee proved incapable of reaching a deal that would prevent sequestration. The president has threatened to veto any changes to the distribution of sequestration cuts in the existing law. Secretary Panetta himself has supported the president's veto threat. Where is the basis for believing the law will not come into effect?
Yet Secretary Panetta produced a budget willfully ignorant of the continuum of reductions, a budget that will be irrelevant before it even becomes law. It is irresponsible for DOD to plan on this basis. At a minimum, during the authorization and appropriations process, Congress should require the Pentagon to incorporate excursions into the Future Years Defense Program that indicate how DOD will adapt this budget to the additional cuts in current law. If this budget cannot accommodate spending levels Congress has established, the Pentagon ought to have to explain how it plans to bring itself into compliance.
Moreover, Congress should seriously question the math of Panetta's budget submission in two areas: the $60 billion it relies on from cutting waste, and the reductions in personnel expenses. Secretary Panetta's budget balances only with $60 billion additionally wrung out of DOD by "cutting waste." In a budget of roughly $535 billion a year, this is little more than 1 percent a year, which doesn't sound like much. But if the Pentagon hasn't already eliminated waste in the $400 billion in cuts undertaken by Secretary Gates, the inclusion of a sloppy category suggests there is a greater margin for reductions that belies the Secretary's hyperbole about any further cuts.
Personnel costs account for 30 percent of the defense budget. That is unexceptional: we have the world's finest military largely because we have the world's most adaptive soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They deserve to be well-compensated not only because they put themselves in harm's way for us all, but also because we need to keep innovative people in the force.
But military pay has climbed significantly in the past decade as the wars revealed our Army and Marine Corps were too small for the demands of counter-insurgency. The need to recruit an additional 80,000 combatants in wartime understandably put upward pressure on salaries and benefits. Reducing the force ought to generate possibilities for reductions, and the Panetta budget evidently plans to include modest changes in these areas. Any such cuts will be bruisingly difficult to enact, requiring a major effort by both the White House and the Pentagon to build a political coalition that protects lawmakers from pressure by military retirees' and veterans groups. Yet how will a president who advocates caregiver leave for deploying service members stake out this territory in an election year?
The Obama administration's reluctance to undertake the defense planning and political lifting that will make Secretary Panetta's budget a blueprint for enacting legislation means the Pentagon will be scrambling next summer to produce a wholly new strategy and a wholly new budget that conform to spending limits the Congress has already passed.
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The LA Times is carrying an interesting and important story about the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the war in Afghanistan. The NIE is classified, but has been briefed to Congress (Congressional sources seem to have formed the basis for the article). The article states that the intelligence community has concluded that while the military has made significant gains against the Taliban, the war has ground to a stalemate. It cites three causes for the stalemate: (1) pervasive corruption and incompetence by the Afghan government; (2) sanctuary for Taliban in Pakistan; and (3) reductions in U.S. forces.
The commentariat will have a feeding frenzy on the Director of Central Intelligence supporting a set of conclusions he had objected to last year when he was commander of the war effort in Afghanistan. But Dave Petraeus' reaction is the least interesting part of this story.
If the LA Times is accurate (and they have the best reporting on the middle east of any American newspaper), the NIE is going to be very damaging to the war effort. It also sounds about right in its assessment: we are militarily winning the war, but badly hindered by the shoddy Afghan government and the willingness of Pakistan to assist the Taliban. The NIE itself is quoted to question the viability of the Karzai government, even before the U.S. withdraws its troops.
The NIE evidently earned a formal protest from the entire leadership fighting the war, including General Mattis, the CENTCOM commander (responsible for all the Middle East and South Asia); Admiral Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (it is a NATO mission); General Allen, the Afghan war commander; and Ambassador Crocker, the Ambassador in Afghanistan. Among their reported objections are that the NIE bases its analysis on the assumption that all U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan in 2014; the Afghan war team insist that decision has not been made.
I hope they're right. The central problem with President Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan has always been his deadline. The Taliban claim that we have the watches, but they have the time. And the President has already compromised our war effort(s) by setting deadlines for troop withdrawals that are unconnected to the end states his strategy seeks to achieve.
Our exit strategy for Afghanistan is to build an Afghan government, including security forces, that can do the work Americans are fighting and dying to succeed at now. That's both sensible and achievable, the only way to make our gains more than transitory. But nothing in the Administration's choices about either Iraq or Afghanistan suggests they will allow facts on the ground to determine the pace of their drawdown.
The Obama Administration scored a lot of cheap points against their predecessor by hailing the arrival of "smart power" -- using political, military, and economic means in seamless orchestration. If reports of the NIE are accurate, it would be a terrible condemnation of the Administration's efforts. For only the American military has proven able to achieve any effect in the complex task of nation building in Afghanistan, and it has done so without either the political or diplomatic support necessary to make their achievements durable.
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My colleagues have offered good criticisms of the defense budget and strategy unveiled by President Obama and Secretary Panetta last week. Let me add to the chorus with two more points.
First, the defense strategy is an explicit and unfortunate rejection of parts of the Quadrennial Defense Review completed less than two years ago by former Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy. The QDR rightly, repeatedly, and explicitly argued that the United States needs to retain a large-scale stability operations capability. "The United States must retain the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations" (emphasis added). "DoD will continue to place special emphasis on stability operations," because stability missions will be a permanent requirement of the 21st century environment. "Stability operations, large-scale counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges...Nor are these types of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape." That is why "U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations...Such operations include...conducting large-scale stability operations."
The new defense strategy, by contrast, openly admits that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."
The abandonment of a decade's worth of investment and grinding experience in stability operations is a dangerous risk that willfully ignores the realities of the contemporary security environment. Weak and failing states, and the rogue actors who operate within them, represent a real threat to regional and global stability. In response, the U.S. and UN have launched more than two dozen stabilization and reconstruction efforts between them since the Cold War -- averaging about one per year -- and there is no sign that demand for such operations is easing. We have gradually and painfully improved our ability to execute such missions, and they are a real contribution to U.S. national security. Cutting back on stability operations now will throw away our hard-fought gains and expose us to new risks from across the globalizing, fragile world.
My second criticism of the new defense strategy, and some responses to it, is that it is still captive to the decades-old debate about how many wars we need to fight simultaneously. Since World War II, U.S. military planners have argued that we need to fight two major theater wars at the same time. The two-war doctrine has become something like Holy Writ or an idée fixe. The idea was somewhat well-founded during the Cold War when we plausibly could have faced simultaneous crises in, for example, Germany and Korea, or Germany and Cuba.
However, holding onto this idea for the last twenty years has looked increasingly disconnected from reality. Obama's new strategy goes through contortions to claim that we will, sort of, maybe, continue to be able to almost fight and nearly win two wars at the same time. But it fails, like every defense strategy has for two decades, to explain why this precise formulation is worth defending.
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The United States today faces a growing gap between its commitments and capabilities. There are, in theory, three approaches to dealing with this mismatch. The first would be to ensure that the U.S. military is fully funded to protect American interests. According to the bipartisan 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, such an approach would require additional funds to modernize U.S. forces and increase force structure to counter anti-access challenges; strengthen homeland defense, including cyber threats; and conduct post-conflict stabilization missions. The panel called for an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy, the acquisition of a next-generation bomber, and new long-range strike systems.
A second approach, favored by neo-isolationists of various stripes in both parties, would be to scale back U.S. commitments and accept a narrower definition of America's role in the world than we have played for the better part of a century. Reducing commitments is, however, easier said than done. Protecting the United States against attack is one of our government's most fundamental responsibilities. Similarly, we would lose more than we would gain by abrogating any number of treaties that commit the United States to the defense of allies across the globe. A failure on the part of the United States to continue to command the commons would similarly incur great economic, political, and military costs.
The third approach would be to accept greater risk - that is, to seek to pursue a broad international role on the cheap.
The Obama administration's newly released defense strategy sits somewhere between the second and third approaches. That is, it envisions a scaled-back American presence and incurs greater risk without leveling with the American people as to the nature and magnitude of that risks.
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My colleague Kori Schake goes some way toward taking the administration to task for what it calls a new strategy. But she does not go far enough; her critique appears to postulate that the strategy is not new. On the contrary, in my view it is indeed a new strategy of sorts, and a very dangerous one at that.
This is, of course, a budget-driven strategy -- after all, the DoD's Strategic Guidance, which was released together with the president's announcement, specifically states that the strategy "supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending." Leaving aside for a moment the question of how a reduction of some $50 billion a year will enhance national security given an annual deficit that exceeds $1 trillion, such an assertion leaves little doubt regarding the reason for a new strategy.
It should be recalled that the administration's own Quadrennial Defense Review, written in the shadow of the president's pledge to depart from Iraq, was committed to "maintain ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors." Now, however, the administration proposes to plan for our forces to fight just one war, while being "capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region" (emphasis in original document). What changed since the QDR appeared, other than the explosive growth of the national debt? What exactly does denying the objectives mean? Would we necessarily know what those objectives are? Where would we find the forces to deny those objectives if they were enmeshed in a major conflict elsewhere?
This budget driven strategy is a throwback to the discredited "win-hold-win" strategy that the Clinton administration proposed early in its first term. At that time, it quickly became clear that the strategy could not work. There was no way of knowing whether forces engaged in one combat theater could be freed to fight in another theater, and, even if they could be freed, whether they could arrive in a timely fashion to defeat the enemy.
The Obama administration does not even offer the pretense of "holding" an enemy. The troops fighting elsewhere will somehow miraculously arrive in time to fight a second war. But our forces are not the cavalry in a 1940s Western. With the cuts that are being proposed, there is no way that they can arrive in time to fight a second war, assuming there are enough of them to do so. As for our enemies, it is a virtual certainty that they would do all they could to ensure that our forces do not arrive in time and, indeed, would exploit American preoccupation in another theater to realize long held objectives of their own. North Korea and Iran both come to mind in this regard.
The new strategy asserts that "everything is on the table," meaning perhaps, that everything is subject to cuts. Given the administration's concomitant commitment to preserve benefits and avoid a hollow military, it is clear that, in addition to force structure (which must mean the land forces, since naval and air forces have been cut significantly over the past decade), the acquisition accounts will be the bill payers.
There is nothing in the two regional contingency strategies that needs fixing. We have potential and real enemies in several theaters, and encountered difficulties conducting two wars in the same regional theater. What is needed is a focus on accounts that the administration shies away from: civilian personnel, staff augmentation contractors (which Robert Gates identified as a major budget concern) military retirement, and military entitlements. The latter have grown as much, if not more quickly, than civilian entitlements and both need to be ratcheted back.
The administration itself acknowledges that the world remains a dangerous place. It wants to maintain its commitments to Europe and NATO, and to the Middle East, and to our Asian allies and friends. It wants to do so with a strategy and budget priorities that belie its high flown pronouncements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs asserts that the new strategy accepts more risk. That is quite the understatement. This is not a strategy that merely invites risk, it is one that courts disaster.
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There is a lively debate among theorists of civil-military relations about the appropriate levels of political activity in which the military may engage. Some advocate fairly tight restrictions, even encouraging soldiers to emulate Gen. George C. Marshall who famously refused to vote so as to demonstrate his apolitical professionalism. Others allow for greater leeway, and encourage the military to speak out more regularly in policy debates, even when those debates have a partisan overlay.
I tend towards the restrictive end of the spectrum. I do not discourage the military from voting, for instance, but I do think it is a mistake for prominent retired senior generals and admirals to campaign actively for political candidates (I do not see a problem with veterans of whatever rank running as candidates in their own right. When they do that, they clearly cross over to the pure political side. The problem is trying to maintain the authority, even deference, that comes with professional distance while simultaneously politicking for a candidate).
For a good introduction into the complexities of this debate, I recommend reading Risa Brooks survey of the topic: her chapter on "Militaries and Political Activity in Democracies," an excellent chapter in a recent compendium. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter in that same book, which I co-authored with a brilliant graduate student. I got permission to present and publish that article while still on the NSC staff because, when my superiors reviewed it, they declared it so academic and abstruse that no one would read it, and thus it would neither constitute a conflict of interest nor expose the White House to any risk of embarrassment -- or words to that effect. Sometimes, there is utility in academic irrelevancy.)
It is also clear that there is a spectrum of opinion within the ranks. A first-rate Georgetown U. dissertation by Heidi Urben (more full disclosure: I was on her dissertation committee) documents that Army personnel have some difficulty in determining where to draw the line -- is it acceptable to encourage fellow military comrades to vote? How to vote? To demonstrate the same with bumper stickers in the barracks?
So I accept that there are gray zones in the area of military and politics and that it is especially difficult to draw clear lines for reservists who have feet planted firmly in both civilian and military worlds.
However, I am hard-pressed to think of a specialists who would tolerate this: an Army reservist, Corp. Jesse Thorsen, speaking to a campaign rally before the Iowa caucus while in uniform. Perhaps there are lawyers who will try to argue that because the corporal was not on active duty at the time he may avoid the harshest punishment. And most people will point out that a corporal is very close to the bottom of the totem pole so hardly on his own capable of destroying our democratic institutions. But this seems a pretty clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Department of Defense regulations.
Of equal importance, it is corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The corporal may believe he is speaking only for himself, but the reality is that if he is wearing his uniform, his audience seems him as speaking on behalf of the institution. For that matter, almost no one is interested in what civilian Jesse Thorsen has to say; the primary reason he was invited to speak was that the campaign knew that folks would be interested in what a corporal had to say. It was his military status, in other words, that gave his political views cachet. That makes it a matter for civil-military relations and a matter for public rebuke.
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Iran's bellicose rhetoric and Gulf wargames in recent days have given rise to the question of whether Tehran could close the Strait of Hormuz. As many analysts have observed, the answer is no -- not for a meaningful period of time. Less frequently addressed, however, is whether Iran would even try. The answer to that question is also "no" -- even the attempt would have devastating strategic consequences for Iran.
The presumable target of an Iranian effort to close the Strait would be the United States. However, while we would of course be affected by any resulting rise in global oil prices, the U.S. gets little of our petroleum from the Gulf. The U.S. imports only about 49 percent of the petroleum we consume, and over half of those imports come from the Western Hemisphere. Less than 25 percent of U.S. imports came from all the Gulf countries combined in October 2011 -- far less than is available in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, were Gulf supplies to be interrupted.
China, on the other hand, would find its oil supplies significantly threatened by an Iranian move against the Strait. China's most significant oil supplier is Saudi Arabia. China also happens, however, to be Iran's primary oil customer and perhaps its most important ally: Beijing provides Iran with its most sophisticated weaponry and with diplomatic cover at the United Nations. Thus a move to close the Strait would backfire strategically by harming the interests of -- and likely alienating -- Iran's most important patron and cutting off Iran's own economic lifeline, while doing little to imperil U.S. supplies of crude.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that China quickly dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to Tehran in the wake of Iran's bellicose statements. In typically opaque fashion, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said only that "China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the Strait;" this is essentially diplo-speak for "Cool it."
Even if Iran ignored these considerations and proceeded with an effort to close the Strait, the U.S. and others would move to keep it open, and would be unlikely to stop there. As Iran has crept closer to a nuclear weapons capability, the possibility of military action against Iran has also become more imminent. President Obama has been reluctant to threaten Iran militarily, and any U.S. president would think long and hard before engaging in another armed conflict in the Middle East.
An effort by Iran to shut down the oil trade in the Gulf, however, would make such a decision straightforward. The U.S. would react with force, and once engaged in hostilities with Iran, would likely take the opportunity to target Iran's nuclear facilities and other military targets. It is difficult to envision any scenario beginning with an Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz that does not end in a serious strategic setback for the Iranian regime.
Recognizing that Iran is neither able nor likely to try to close the Strait, the U.S. could simply sit back, confident in our superior firepower. This would be a mistake. The real danger in the Gulf is lower-level activity by Iran to harass shipping and confront the U.S. Navy. Iranian commanders in the area are increasingly brazen. If not deterred, Iran's sense of impunity -- rather than its nuclear progress -- may be the spark that ignites a conflict in the region.
Iran's navy -- especially the naval arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards -- has invested in vessels and armaments that are well-suited to asymmetric warfare, rather than the sort of ship-to-ship conflict which Iran would surely lose. Thus, they have purchased, with Chinese and Russian help, increasingly sophisticated mines, midget submarines, mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and a fleet of small, fast boats. In addition, they have reportedly sought to develop a naval special warfare, or frogman, capability.
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Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq - as I do often - and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this:
President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq. The departure this month of the last major military units marked a heroic turn in the war -- heroic not for the troops, perhaps, but for the policymakers who had the foresight to end U.S. involvement in a foolish war of choice. Well, not end U.S. involvement, since the largest State Department footprint in the world remains in Iraq, to be guarded by the largest private security force the State Department has ever attempted to manage. But still the war is ending and for this "campaign promise kept" President Obama has earned the admiration of his boosters.
If you point out the rapid unraveling in Iraq, and ask whether a slower withdrawal that left behind residual forces might have preserved more stability in Iraq, the Obama boosters rapidly shift their reasoning. Obama had no choice but to take out all U.S. troops, they will say. The Iraqis did not want U.S. troops to remain and the American people were adamant that the war should end (before the 2012 campaign really gets going, is the silent coda). This was not an exit of choice, this was an exit of necessity.
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Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see. The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University's Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of years, China's "underground great wall," a network of thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels constructed by the People's Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps - the same branch of the Chinese military that controls Beijing's nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. The students have amassed a lot of evidence, including some eye-catching pictures, of China's tunnel system.
The Georgetown project demonstrates the value of open-source basic research on the Chinese military. Unlike the Soviet Union, which closely guarded even the most mundane bits of information, China publishes quite a lot on its military, including voluminous information on its underground tunneling program. The problem is that, until the Georgetown students began to document the program, few in the United States paid much attention to the fact that China has poured massive amounts of resources into underground facilities over the course of decades. Indeed, it was not until this year's edition of the Pentagon's Congressionally mandated report on Chinese military power that China's tunneling program received official acknowledgement.
China's tunneling program is of more than academic interest, however. It raises legitimate questions about the ability of the United States to verify the scope of Chinese military modernization, including the size of China's missile force and its nuclear arsenal.
It is that inconvenient fact that has drawn the ire of the arms control community. Over the past month, arms controllers, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the blog Arms Control Wonk have launched a series of vitriolic attacks on the Georgetown students; their professor, Phillip Karber; and that staunch member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the Washington Post, which had the temerity to report on the students' efforts. The Post's Ombudsman summarized the attacks - and stood by the paper's original story - yesterday.
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I agree with many of the responses from other members of the
Shadow Government community to my friend Kori Schake's assertion that "we
have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal
debt," and her contention that defense cuts need to be part of the
solution to our fiscal woes. I will thus strive to avoid repeating many of the
same arguments here.
My concern about Kori's approach to the defense budget is that it ignores the fact that the Pentagon has already taken significant cuts during the Obama administration. While President Obama submitted budgets to Congress which allowed for growth barely at the rate of inflation, the appropriators consistently cut the top-line amounts allocated for defense, leaving the Defense Department with less than what Secretary Gates had stated was required to fulfill the missions that the military had been tasked to complete.
Critics often go so far as to allege that, even with these reduced funding levels year after year, the Pentagon has escaped "real cuts." Most recently, the Associated Press did this in a story on Governor Mitt Romney's statement that, if elected, he would reverse President Obama's defense cuts. Yet the Associated Press overlooked an inconvenient fact in its "fact check": in the months prior to the passage of the August 2011 deal to raise the debt limit deal, Obama not only bragged in a major policy speech that defense spending had been cut by $400 billion on his watch, but also said he wanted to repeat the cuts. The follow-up round of $400 billion or more in military cuts will now be enacted as part of the immediate reductions required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
So, the reality is, despite what many of us defense hawks would like, defense has indeed been put on the table for both Republicans and Democrats -- and cut very deeply.
This is concerning for two reasons.
I wish I could agree with Kori that we can afford to cut the defense budget in years ahead. However, she premises her argument on this:
The world is much more conducive to American interests than it was when Defense spending as a proportion of GDP was much higher: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy.
If that were true, then I would agree with Kori's case to cut defense spending. However, with respect, I don't think it is true at all.
The threats to us are more numerous, not less. There are two major families of threats to U.S. national security today. First, at one end of the state spectrum, are the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers: Russia, China, soon Iran, North Korea as a junior partner, and Pakistan if it falls to jihadists. The latter three are (or will be) new to the nuclear club since the Cold War, and China is vastly more powerful today than it was in 1989. Second, at the other end, is the aggregate global consequences of state failure and anarchy across much of the world -- such as the rise of terrorist groups, organized crime, drug cartels, human traffickers, nuclear smugglers, pandemic disease, and piracy -- that will collectively erode global stability and raise the cost of U.S. leadership. State failure, with its effects magnified by globalization, is also a vastly greater threat that during the Cold War. These two families are the threats we face in the 21st Century. By contrast, we faced fewer threats and a simpler world at almost every point in our history before 1989.
The threats are equally apocalyptic. Nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the gravest danger we ever faced, and we came perilously close to it in 1962. Nuclear war with Iran or North Korea would be almost equally dangerous, especially after they have acquired longer-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. allies and even the U.S. homeland. (Yes, the Soviet Union had thousands of warheads, but you only need a few nukes to cause more damage to us than all the wars we have fought in history, combined, and only a few dozen to effectively wipe out the United States. And if I were a new nuclear power, I wouldn't announce my capability until I already had a few dozen to make sure I could withstand an attack on my arsenal. Which means that North Korea and Iran (when it announces) will almost certainly be existential threats). The difference is that war with them or their proxies may be more likely to actually happen. The latter two countries may be less deterrable, less predictable, and more prone to transfer nuclear technology to proxies and non-state groups, given their history of erratic behavior, sponsoring terrorism, and proliferation. All told, the chances of a nuclear detonation in New York City are higher, not lower, today than twenty years ago. Unfortunately, we do not have a team of patriotic mutant superheroes to avert disaster this time.
Our allies are less capable, not more. Militarily, the Allies have underinvested in defense for decades-nothing new there. But the situation is actually getting worse, not better. The European allies spent 1.7 percent of GDP on defense in 2010 compared to 3.7 percent in 1985, according to NATO figures, a huge decline. As a result, the allies' performance in Libya and Afghanistan has not covered them with glory. And the alliance -- including us -- is still using mostly the same weapons systems and platforms that were developed in the late Cold War, just with a layer of IT, often glitchy and unreliable, grafted on in recent years (I agree with Tom's new post in this respect). Politically, the alliance has suffered tremendous strain from the double hammer-blows of disagreement over Iraq followed by unequal burden-sharing and nearly losing the war in Afghanistan. I am less confident in the alliance now than during the Cold War.
Our enemies and competitors are more capable, not less. Again, several states have acquired nuclear weapons since 1989. China has engaged in a massive conventional military buildup. Russia, after initially suffering a crippling loss of manpower, resources, and morale, has undertaken a long process of professionalizing and modernizing its military. Non-state actors have harnessed the tools of globalization and exploited the weakness of failed states to give them a global operating scope and comfortable safe haven.
Our values are not ascendant. The global financial crisis has (unfairly, I think) cast disrepute on the west in the eyes of many developing nations. China's rise has made state-managed and autocratic development attractive to many an aspiring power. Illiberal political Islam, with its hostility to women's rights and religious freedom, is at least competing aggressively with democracy and human rights across the Islamic world. Hindutva, largely content to compete peacefully through the Indian democratic system so far, may not always be so. Marxism of a sort is still alive, fashionable, and even resurgent in a few quarters like Venezuela and Bolivia. Democracy has indeed spread farther since 1989 than ever before in human history, but that is different from "ascendancy." Democratic gains since 1989, for example in Africa and Latin America, are new and might easily be reversed, especially given the competition.
What worries me is that I am increasingly convinced that we do not have the capabilities to meet the various threats we face today. We don't need to be omnipotent, but we do need to be able to protect ourselves. Can we stave off state failure in Pakistan? Can we prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, or contain it afterwards? Could we prevent Russia from doing to Ukraine what it did to Georgia in 2008? Can we defeat the drug cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico and Columbia? Is al-Qaida really nearing "strategic defeat," as Panetta claims? Are we prepared to handle a collapse in North Korea -- possibly having to fight a sudden war with a desperate regime, contribute to a multilateral occupation and reconstruction afterwards, and handle the delicate diplomacy with the Chinese?
Until we can, this is no time to cut defense.
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We hope that more writers of Traub's caliber will be similarly startled by China's growing menace. The truth is that like every rising power in history (including the United States) China wants to change rules, territorial delineations, and laws written while it was weak.
Traub notes that China is "famously patient and slow-gestating" and thus it "seems odd" that it "would have so radically, and so quickly changed its posture to the world." But he is intellectually honest enough to allow for the possibility that its famous "patience" may have been "an elaborate show, or a transitional phase."
But maybe that patience was always overstated. Throughout its history, China has lumbered into disaster after disaster, costing untold sums in lives and treasure (e.g. the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Beijing's war with Vietnam). Certainly as China re-emerged as a power it had its chance to "bide its time and hide its capabilities" as Deng Xiaoping instructed. But instead, it decided to build a highly destabilizing military (see the last decade of Department of Defense reports on China's military power, the latest of which is here) and has proceeded to rattle its saber against Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and, most troublingly, the United States. It has now created the conditions for the encirclement is so fears.
It is not only former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg who, as Traub writes, "noted that China's "enhanced capabilities" and "overbroad assertion of its rights" in the South China Sea had caused Washington and its allies to "question China's intentions." America's diplomatic and military leaders have expressed similar unease. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a very sober man, noted his concern about China's military to the Washington Post. The Chinese military, he said, "clearly has the potential to put our capabilities at risk... We have to respond appropriately in our programs."
And speaking on China's military buildup last June, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated, "I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also spoken on the matter. Responding to years of Chinese harassment of U.S., Japanese, Vietnamese, and Philippine ships, last year Clinton broke new ground by declaring at a summit in Hanoi that "The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea." This is a diplomatic way of telling China that we will continue to exercise our forces inside its exclusive economic zone, consistent with international custom, and we will ensure that our partners in Asia are able to resist Chinese bullying.
Amidst the many uncertainties about Libya's future post-Qaddafi, at least two things can be said. First, the Middle East and the world will be better off with the Qaddafi regime out of power. And second, virtually everyone was wrong in some way and at some point about the Libya operation. This includes the early naysayers who warned that Qaddafi would not be defeated, or that the war would result in a stalemate and divided Libya, or would be a folly of prohibitive costs. Yet also wrong were President Barack Obama's promises that the war would take "weeks, not months," or that it was merely a limited humanitarian intervention to protect civilians and not a regime change operation, or that it was not even a "war" at all.
Part of the problem besetting the early Libya debates, as I wrote earlier in this article for the German Marshall Fund, came from a facile use of history in which various analogies -- whether Rwanda and Bosnia, or Iraq and Somalia -- were wielded as polemics in dire warnings that Libya would be the "next [fill in the blank]." In fact, Libya was none of those, but rather its own unique circumstance that soon enough will become an analogy of its own for future foreign policy debates.
This in turn points to the problem with some of the early, breathless pronouncements in the wake of Qaddafi's defeat that Libya amounts to a "new way to wage war" or a vindication of "leading from behind." As my Foreign Policy colleagues such as Dan Drezner, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake have pointed out from various angles, this amounts to sound-bite triumphalism and overlooks the unique aspects of the Libya operation as well the remaining hard tasks.
The Obama administration still deserves commendation for the role it played in helping topple Qaddafi. Even if dilatory, President Obama made the right call in deciding to intervene, and his team showed fortitude in seeing the operation through to the Qaddafi regime's demise, while managing the complexities of coalition warfare. The administration knows well the challenges that lie ahead in finishing the war, winning the peace, and helping reconstruct a stable and free Libya.
Three challenges in particular stand out:
1. NATO's inadequacies. While the operation eventually succeeded, it does not speak well of NATO's political and operational health. NATO's largest member state not named "America" (Germany), didn't even participate, and the leading members who did -- France and Britain -- found themselves exhausting their munitions and stretching their militaries thin in trying to topple a two-bit North African dictator whose own people were in open revolt. All while announcing even further reductions in their defense budgets. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker points out, the operation should prompt hard introspection more than champagne toasts at NATO headquarters.
2. Post-conflict reconstruction. Countless gallons of pundit ink have already been spilled recounting the "lessons" of recent and ongoing episodes such as Iraq and Afghanistan for post-conflict reconstruction. No doubt the Obama administration has taken these into account, and one silver lining to the prolonged Libya conflict may have been the additional time to do post-conflict planning, which I trust the administration has availed itself of. More interesting is the larger strategic question, which is: Does the United States have a national interest in helping build a stable, peaceful, and free Libya? As my Strauss Center colleague Jeremi Suri describes in his excellent new book on the history of American nation-building interventions, the United States has long been committed to maintaining an international system comprised of functioning nation-states. The competence and consequences of our various interventions form a mixed record, but the fact remains that promoting a stable international order of nation-states is a core American interest. Libya offers an opportunity to put the lessons of past efforts into practice.
3. A new regional strategy. Libya's significance lies not only in the removal of a vile dictator and the prospects of a better future for the Libyan people, but also for its regional ramifications, especially the uncertain trajectory of the Arab Spring. A Qaddafi victory would almost certainly have forestalled the Arab Spring; whether a post-Qaddafi Libya heralds enduring region-wide consequences is hopeful but not foreordained. And as I have written previously, the administration still faces challenging questions in its efforts to develop a new American strategy for the region. Such as: What type of regional order will best constrain Iran's hegemonic intentions? How can a free Syria be created, and play a positive regional role? What place will the strategic-yet-neglected Iraq have in the emerging Middle East? How can Saudi Arabia be encouraged to reform while remaining a key American partner? How can the regional tumult induce Turkey to re-align itself with American interests? Will the emerging assertiveness by Gulf states such as Qatar and UAE be channeled in positive directions?
The Arab Spring further hastened the erosion of the old regional order; it will take shrewd, principled, and creative diplomacy to help craft a new one.
With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.
The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."
The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.
The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration's planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.
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The debt ceiling bill making its way through Congress will cut broad defense spending by $350 billion across ten years. The broad definition encompasses homeland security, veterans affairs, and nuclear programs, in addition to straight DOD spending. Those accounts totalled $881 billion in fiscal year 2012. Defense Department spending on its own was roughly $670 billion (that includes both the baseline budget and war operations). Even if DOD can offload some of the cuts onto other national security departments, it is likely to face a reduction of roughly four percent in its total spending.
Scoring of the spending cuts counts as savings a significant amount not spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. This financial windfall is the result of the president's policies to curtail our military operations in the wars -- going to zero military personnel in Iraq by the end of 2011, and refusing commanders in Afghanistan the troops they asked for to achieve the president's objectives. With these figures folded in, DOD will probably be faced with a real reduction in spending of between two and three percent -- in a budget that has more than doubled in the past decade. DOD will need to husband its resources carefully, but the roof won't fall in.
In fact, the deal Republicans in Congress were able to make reduces DOD less than the president proposed in his April budget speech. The president's proposal would have made no dent in the deficit, yet still would have cut defense by more than the legislation in its first phase.
But it is the second phase of debt reduction that has the potential to be extraordinarily damaging to defense. If the bipartisan commission cannot reach agreement, it will trigger automatic across the board cuts of $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013. It would appear likely the bipartisan commission will, in fact, deadlock, in which case a 50-50 domestic and defense split would require DOD to cut spending an additional $600 billion. It would mean a 14 percent cut overall to defense spending. This DOD could not do without a major reconfiguration of forces and capabilities, and a major reduction in our actual fighting power.
And the structure of the bargain gives Democrats more in defense cuts (and therefore protection of domestic programs) if they refuse to compromise on the second tranche of cuts. As President Obama himself said, "The nice thing about the defense budget is it's so big, it's so huge, that, you know, a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget … it's so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that."
The date of the automatic spending cuts is crucial, however: a new president will have the latitude to submit a budget that makes executive choices about spending rather than accepting a system-wide legislated reduction. President Obama has led from behind in the budget crisis; the president in 2013 could make more responsible choices.
President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the defense budget as a major contributor to however many trillions in program cuts that a debt ceiling deal will require. It was only months ago that he announced that he would seek $400 billion in cuts over twelve years. It now appears that his target is, at a minimum, twice that amount, and it could reach a trillion -- and that over a decade.
The military simply cannot sustain cuts of that magnitude and preserve a strategy that, in its fundamentals, has not changed since the end of the Second World War. That strategy called for U.S. forces to deploy "forward", whether in Europe, the Middle East or Asia, so as to fight far away from the United States' shores. With cuts the size of those being discussed, the United States will no longer be able to maintain its presence overseas, other than in a "virtual" sense, and, as one wag has put it, "virtual presence is actual absence."
It is difficult to see how cuts approaching $100 billion in each of the next ten years will not eviscerate the U.S. defense posture. Defense "entitlements" -- military pay and retirement, as well as military health care -- absorb a substantial portion of the budget and seem virtually immune to reductions. It has taken years to move Congress just to contemplate enacting a minor increase in co-pays for the Tricare health program, while any change to the military retirement system, which penalizes anyone who serves less than twenty years but over-rewards those who serve longer, has been strictly verboten. Civilian personnel are immune to reductions -- cuts in any office simply have led civilians to migrate to other offices. Operations and maintenance, which account for about a third of all defense spending, include payments to a huge cadre of "staff augmentation" contractors whose number the department has never been able to calculate.
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I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis.…Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military. Isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a little and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and doing more good things for the world -- wouldn't that be a better scenario?"
This was the Chinese People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde's suggestion to Americans during the visit of his counterpart Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. Well, we are obliging the Chinese general -- at least in part. We are cutting defense. General Chen would be especially happy to know that in particular we are foregoing investment in the types of systems that help keep us "present" in Asia -- though Admiral Mullen assured Asian audiences that we will be there for the long haul. Whether we are cutting defense in order to improve the livelihood of the American people is a separate, hotly debated question. Color me skeptical.
But on the first part of General Chen's suggestion, here is how we are heeding his advice. We are not properly resourcing: a) the submarines the Navy says it needs, or, for that matter, the number of ships in its own shipbuilding plan; b) stealthy tactical aircraft (by the Air Force's own account, they will face an 800-fighter shortfall later this decade); and c) a long-range bomber, now called "the long-range strike family of systems," particularly by those who think this system is silver bullet for our Asia posture. We were supposed to be deploying new bombers by 2018. Not a chance. The program is estimated to cost $40-50 billion in total, and respected aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia predicts that we will not see a new bomber until well into the next decade. Yes, that's right, a new bomber somewhere in the 2020s.
So General Chen, no need to worry about our defense spending -- we will not have enough submarines or tactical aircraft, and there is no new bomber on the horizon. All are supposed to play a role in the much vaunted AirSea Battle strategy that is our answer to China's growing military power.
But Mullen insists, as did Secretary Gates and other top U.S. leaders, we will still be there for our friends and our allies. Given the numbers, the next time a leading U.S. official insists that we are going to be "present" in Asia, journalists have a duty to ask, "With what?"
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Did the Obama administration replicate the Vietnam-era mistake of Johnson and McNamara: making it seem like the military endorsed an option that they actually opposed? I raised that question in an earlier post and hoped that the answer was no. After discussing the matter extensively with people who have thought about civil-military relations even more than I have, I am now inclined to say that the answer is probably no. I reach this conclusion, however, by giving the administration what they chose not to give their senior commander: the benefit of the doubt.
If my new thinking on this matter is correct, this little drama is a classic inside-the-Beltway story, and I hope the reader will indulge a long post.
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Today marks Robert Gates' last day as secretary of defense. On a day that will feature its share of testimonials from others, let me offer my own. My view is no doubt colored by the fact that I served him for more than two years, but, then again, the experience of witnessing his leadership and decision-making up close and often behind closed doors clarified more than it distorted.
Gates came to the Pentagon with a mandate to focus on Iraq. Many at the time, aware of his involvement in the Iraq Study Group, feared that he had been hired to liquidate the United States' investment in Iraq. We soon realized that Gates did indeed want to end the war in Iraq, but in victory rather than defeat. Turning the war around is likely to be seen as the signal achievement of his tenure as secretary of defense. If victory in Iraq is to be squandered, it will be left to his successors to do so.
Gates also deserves great credit for enforcing high standards of accountability within the Defense Department, rewarding those whose performance warranted it, and removing those whose actions demanded it. He also strengthened civilian leadership of the department, often in ways that were subtle and out of the limelight. In 2008, for example, he signed the National Defense Strategy over the objections of the civilian and military leaders of the services. Gates believed the Defense Department needed to make tradeoffs and accept additional risk; the service chiefs and secretaries were unwilling to do so. Similarly, Gates took an important step to build up much-needed expertise for national security by inaugurating the Minerva Initiative, which provides grants to universities to build much-needed intellectual capital in the social sciences to help national defense. It is an initiative that deserves to be supported and expanded.
In other areas, his legacy is at best uncertain. How he will be judged on Afghanistan is very much bound up with the outcome of the war. However, to the extent that the Obama administration has made poor choices in Afghanistan, history will likely judge that things would have been worse without Gates' advocacy and advice. The same is true on the areas of missile defense and nuclear arms control: Things likely would have been worse without Gates' moderating influence.
Gates leaves other tasks incomplete. For years, but particularly over the last year and a half, he has spoken at length about the need to reform the Defense Department's institutions and structure, but much action needs to accompany those words. Leon Panetta would be well advised to follow through with the transformation agenda.
It is hazardous to predict the verdict of history. In time, the cheers of adulation fade, and the jeers give way to empathy, understanding, and sometimes respect. It is a safe bet, however, that Robert Gates will be judged among the nation's best secretaries of defense. The nation owes him a debt of gratitude, for it is better off for his service.
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President Obama's speech was a jumble of internal contradictions. On the one hand, the president rightly said that there would be no safe haven "from which al Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." But he also said that after the initial reduction of 33,000 troops, "our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace ... [and] by 2014, this process of transition will be complete." He gave no indication that a significant force, or indeed any U.S. force, would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The president asserted that "so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us." To this end he promised to work with the government of Pakistan, and to hold Islamabad to its "commitments." Ronald Reagan wisely counseled that "presidents should never say never." Obama evidently is prepared to ignore that advice. Has Pakistan in fact promised to make its territory available for drone strikes for the indefinite future? How exactly will the president keep his pledge if Pakistan refuses to let us operate drones against safe havens on its territory?
The president stated unequivocally that "those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution." Yet he also said that "America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban." Does that mean that the Taliban need not meet the president's conditions before the United States was prepared to include the Taliban? And if not, why is the United States talking to the Taliban today?
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.