The United States and its allies have at least three distinguishable interests with regard to Syria's WMD arsenal, particularly the chemical weapons the Assad regime has apparently used on its own people. Arranged from least to most important, they are:
The signs are now clearly pointing in the direction of some kind of military escalation involving the U.S. military and, probably, some NATO allies. A senior Obama administration official, anonymously but in writing, burned one of President Obama's retreat bridges by confirming to the New York Times there was "very little doubt" within the administration that the Assad regime had blatantly violated Obama's redline. And the conventional wisdom has shifted noticeably, too. Richard Haass, who criticized President Bush for launching a "war of choice" against Iraq's WMD programs, now argues that it is "essential" that the United States choose to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria lest U.S. credibility be lost.
The kinds of military options Obama administration officials floated over the weekend -- limited air or cruise-missile strikes against Syrian military targets -- at best may help with the first of these goals. They are not likely to do much on the second. And they may worsen the third.
A limited strike against Syrian military targets would punish the Assad regime for its defiance of the red line, which might affect Assad's calculations on the margins when contemplating using such weapons again. If there are such strikes, it would send a very clear message to Assad: The international community will not get decisively involved if you keep your battle with the rebels at a conventional level, but if you escalate to chemical weapons in a dramatic way, we will bomb you. Such punitive strikes could "do the trick," in the sense of redirecting Assad back to the conventional level.
It is more debatable whether limited strikes would have much of an effect in bolstering the taboo globally. Other rogue actors would probably see the limited strike as, well, limited and set it against the months of public foot-dragging in response to earlier reports of taboo-breaking. Probably, it reinforces the taboo more than abject non-response does, but not by much.
However, it is hard to see how limited military action would do anything to address the third, and most important, U.S. interest related to Syria's chemical weapons: ensuring that the arsenals do not end up in the hands of terrorists. And it is quite easy to see how they might exacerbate that problem. If the punitive strikes are heavy enough to tilt the balance of power in favor of the rebels, they hasten the day when the crumbling Assad regime loses control over the arsenal. If the punitive strikes are light enough not to hurt the Assad regime, they intensify the incentive of the rebels to gain control of the arsenal so as to inflict more proportional revenge on the regime. Already, the more radical rebel factions have claimed that Assad's use of chemical weapons gives them the right to launch reprisal attacks in kind. Given the makeup of the rebel coalition, the United States probably would prefer that the Assad regime retain control over the arsenal, which is why it is likely any limited strikes would try to punish without crippling Assad.
The leakage problem should not be exaggerated. The portion of the Syrian chemical arsenal that consists of binary weapons -- where the weapon is inert because the chemical agents are stored separately and only combined immediately prior to use -- offers significant protection against unauthorized use. But no U.S. president could trust those technical measures indefinitely, and so a breach in the custody of the Syrian chemical arsenal, particularly one that resulted in the radical Islamist groups gaining custody of the weapons -- whether the AQ-linked rebel groups or the Assad-supporting Hezbollah terrorist group -- would rightly be deemed a grave threat to U.S. national security.
Only the options that the Obama administration has appeared to rule off the table -- massive aerial bombardment of the depots themselves or boots on the ground to secure the depots -- stand much chance of delivering on this third and more important interest.
It would be ironic if the chemical issue catalyzed U.S. intervention in Syria, but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about concerning the chemical arsenal.
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The finest national security advisor you've never heard of died Saturday, Aug. 10. Judge Bill Clark served as President Ronald Reagan's national security advisor for just under two years, from January 1982 to October 1983. These crucial years marked the foundational period in Reagan's Cold War policy. During this window, Reagan began to implement his strategy for confronting the Soviet Union and bringing it to a point of negotiations and collapse. Reagan's strategy, highly controversial at the time but now more appreciated in hindsight, depended on Clark to channel the president's vision and translate it into doctrines and specific policies.
Why is Clark so little remembered today? The position of the assistant to the president for national security affairs (NSA for short) has been defined in the popular mind by luminous giants such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, who wielded tremendous influence while at the White House and have continued to have a prominent public voice in the decades since. Not so the self-effacing Clark, who never wrote a memoir, gave few interviews, and otherwise seldom spoke out after leaving office, content instead to repair to his beloved California ranch. Clark's historical reputation was also diminished by a few of the memoirs written by some of his former Reagan administration colleagues that unfortunately tried to settle old policy scores at Clark's expense (and to which the devout former seminarian generally turned the other cheek). For example, former Secretary of State George Shultz's otherwise superb memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, is, to my mind, unduly critical of Clark.
In a regrettably revealing display of the stale conventional wisdom that ignores Clark's legacy, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post even saw fit to write a dedicated obituary of him. Instead both merely ran this minimalist treatment by the Associated Press that devotes but two sentences to his tenure as national security advisor. Clark's legacy, as well as the history of the Cold War, deserves better. (Some conservative outlets have shown a greater appreciation for Clark; see especially this thoughtful remembrance by Steven Hayward over at Power Line, or this one by K-Lo at National Review. For an affectionate tribute from the journalist who knew Reagan and Clark best, see this from the indispensable Lou Cannon).
Part of the reason for the prevailing underestimation of Clark, then and now, was his relative lack of foreign-policy experience -- a deficiency he readily admitted. His résumé was indeed thin; before becoming national advisor he served only one year as deputy secretary of state, which in turn only came after an embarrassing Senate confirmation hearing that highlighted his callowness in the field. Yet Clark also possessed several attributes that proved essential to his successful tenure as NSA. These included a close personal relationship with Reagan, a shared set of convictions about the nature of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, organizational acumen, and the loyalty and affection of his staff.
Clark was Reagan's alter ego. Rejecting the prevailing conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union was stable and destined to coexist with the United States as a perpetual rival, Reagan and Clark instead saw the USSR as vulnerable and sought to exacerbate its internal contradictions. The pillars of this strategy included launching a massive arms buildup that would stress the fragile Soviet economy in a failed effort to keep pace, highlighting the Soviet Union's illegitimacy through ideological and economic warfare and active support for political and religious dissidents, and transforming the perverse nuclear trap of mutually assured destruction. At the National Security Council, Clark developed these insights through an ambitious series of national security decision directives and implemented the strategy through new measures as varied as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Now that the Reagan administration archives are beginning to be opened and declassified, the process of historical scholarship should hopefully begin to restore Clark's reputation as an essential architect of American Cold War policy. For scholars, I hope this will serve as yet another caution against relying excessively on conventional wisdom and personal memoirs. For policy practitioners, Clark's role as NSA serves as a reminder that while foreign- policy knowledge is important, ultimately it is secondary to wisdom, integrity, the unreserved trust of the president, and the right set of policy convictions.
Not long ago I had dinner with a former Reagan NSC staff member who had served under several of Reagan's NSAs. I asked his assessment of Clark. Without hesitation came his firm response: "Bill Clark won the Cold War."
An exaggeration, perhaps, but not as much as the prevailing neglect of Clark's legacy would have you believe. With his death the nation has lost a great and a good man. May he rest in peace.
Photo from 1985: Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the essence (though not the contents) of the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), it marked the first time that the administration acknowledged the possibility, and only the possibility, that the sequester might continue into the next fiscal year. The fact that virtually everyone in Washington considers the sequester's survival a certainty, and that many analysts predict that it could last several years, appears to be lost on the administration. The White House and, because it is under orders, the Defense Department continue to press ahead with a fiscal year 2014 defense budget proposal that the White House acknowledges to be $52 billion above the $498 billion level that the sequester would mandate.
It is arguable that the White House has quite deliberately ignored reality precisely in order to blame Congress, as well as the fiscal year 2011 Budget Control Act that created the sequester, for prompting what are increasingly being viewed as catastrophic spending cuts. After all, the sequester was originally inspired in the White House itself -- so Bob Woodward has informed us -- but its consequences have enabled the administration to slash defense expenditures, whose utility it has always doubted, while claiming that its budgetary hands are clean. The White House deserves credit for its politically brilliant sleight of hand. Unfortunately, there are other consequences to the defense cuts, and these are not so brilliant.
As Hagel made clear in his SCMR briefings, the brunt of the sequester will be borne by the operations and acquisition accounts, as well as by reductions in all the active forces, notably the Army. There will be other nominal reductions, of course. There will be some reductions in civilian personnel, and there will be requests to Congress, certain to be rejected, for reductions in various military compensation programs, as well as for a new round of base closures. As America cuts back on its operations, including exercises with allies, port visits, and other manifestations of American presence, credibility, deterrence of adversaries, and reassurance to friends worldwide, the international community will take notice.
Indeed, policymakers on three continents indicate in private that notice has already been taken. In the Middle East, Arab allies witnessing the impact of budget cuts on regional presence are concerned about the "pivot" to Asia. In East Asia, allies are worried that the U.S. budget reductions, coupled with the secretary of state's preoccupation with a variety of crises and negotiations in the Middle East, have rendered the "pivot" meaningless. Europeans worry that the United States is withdrawing its forces too quickly and reducing them too deeply, whether in order to pivot to Asia or bring them home and discharge them.
The fact that the SCMR has "strategic" in its title is also a source of confusion. It appears to be another manifestation of the administration's penchant for budget-driven strategies, a trend that has been discernible since the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Budget-driven strategies are in fact not strategies at all, and it is this reality that is such a great cause for concern overseas.
Hagel and his deputy, Ash Carter, have both rightly pointed out that significant funds could be saved through a variety of management efficiencies. They note, again correctly, that the savings from most of these management actions will not be realized in the short term. More troubling, however, is the fact that many of these efficiencies have long been rejected by Congress, and it would take a concerted effort not merely by the Pentagon's E Ring, but by the West Wing, to bring them about. Thus far, there has been no indication that the White House is prepared to invest any of its political capital on behalf of the Defense Department.
There are other short-term solutions, however. In particular, the defense budget needn't be subjected to the full torment of the sequester if the administration were to request that the Congress rejigger the system for contributing to debt reduction. The current formula, prescribed by the Budget Control Act, calls for defense to bear 50 percent of reductions mandated by the sequester, while all other discretionary spending is reduced by about 36 percent. (Savings on mandatory expenditures account for the remainder.) The formula could be altered simply by redistributing the budget reduction load so that it is equally shared by defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Doing so would reduce the mandated cut in defense by about $8 billion, a sum that could then be applied to critical operations, training, and exercises.
Unfortunately, the White House seems no less interested in realigning the sequester than it is in supporting Pentagon efficiencies. Indeed, the president has made clear on numerous occasions that the Defense Department needs to bear an equal share in the burden of budget reductions, as if the country's security is equivalent to the output of some middling agency of uncertain efficiency and questionable effectiveness.
Until the administration changes its attitude to bearing the true cost of national security, that security will remain at serious risk. Past significant reductions in U.S. military capability have been followed by costly wars: notably Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1990 and 1991. One can hope that this pattern will not repeat itself in the not-too-distant future, but it will take much more than hope to ensure that America retains its military might and provides not only for its own security but that of its allies and friends, well into this relatively new century.
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A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama's speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.
Second, Obama's call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow's only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces. Similarly, Obama's call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.
So what if Putin's Russia doesn't reciprocate Obama's overtures? Previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with modernization to make a smaller arsenal more reliable and effective. Obama's approach, by contrast, has been reduction without modernization. Although the administration has pledged additional funding for U.S. nuclear infrastructure, there is skepticism as to whether it will ever materialize. And opponents of the U.S. nuclear enterprise increasingly frame their arguments in budgetary terms, stressing the "savings" that could be achieved if the United States slashes its nuclear stockpile. In a period of declining defense budgets, nuclear programs represent juicy targets.
Largely lost in such discussions is the real reason the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal: to protect the United States and its allies against aggression and coercion. It is a purpose that John F. Kennedy and the Germans who greeted him in Berlin half a century ago understood all too well, but one that seems to make the current president uncomfortable.
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Because of the sensitive material covered in the NSA leaks, it is hard for Shadow Government contributors to talk much about the topic du jour. The obvious is obvious, however: This is one of the most damaging national security leaks the United States has suffered in a while. This is qualitatively different from other leaks -- for instance, those about the drone-strike program that seemed calculated to generate favorable headlines for Barack Obama's administration. On the contrary, as with the earlier WikiLeaks fiasco, and as the leaker has explicitly claimed, these were designed to hobble the U.S. government in general, and the Obama administration in particular.
Coming on the heels of multiple headlines about abuses of government power, especially the efforts of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to target political opponents of the Obama administration, it may be tempting for Republicans to pile on to criticize the administration for the intelligence programs revealed in the leaks. Some Republicans, notably Sen. Rand Paul, are already doing so.
This is a mistake, however, as Bill Kristol explains. It is important to distinguish between the IRS scandal, which is indefensible, and intelligence collection programs aimed at tracking terrorist networks, which serve legitimate public interests.
If Paul's reaction is any guide, the Republican Party's libertarian wing seems disinclined to draw that distinction. Perhaps some of the collateral damage from all these leaks will end up being a further splintering of the Republican Party on national security.
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Now, I'm no Medea Benjamin, but I had several strong reactions to President Obama's speech at the National Defense University Thursday.
First, as expected, Obama used the platform to criticize the Bush administration. Quite frankly, however, I've gotten so used to that trope that I almost don't pay attention to it anymore. But in criticizing America's conduct of its conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the president was also critiquing his own performance over the last four plus years. Listening to Obama's speech, one cannot help but ask, "What were you doing over the past four years? Wasn't it you who greatly expanded the scope and intensity of drone strikes during your first term?" Obama has hardly been a passive bystander as this drama has unfolded. The drone strike program was inaugurated by the Bush administration, but it has reached its zenith under Obama.
Which leads to my second observation: Obama's speech was almost entirely about tactics. Indeed, Obama has presided over what my late friend and colleague Michael Handel termed the "tacticization of strategy." Obama and his team have used a tactic -- strikes on terrorists launched from unmanned air vehicles -- as a substitute for the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy. The same is true of the administration's attitude toward interrogation and detention.
Third, in seeking to define the conflict more tightly, he actually muddied the waters. Obama's call for limiting the use of force to al Qaeda and its affiliates is sensible. Indeed, I don't know of anyone from the previous administration who would argue with that notion. The difficulty has always involved determining the criteria for affiliation with al Qaeda. Is it individuals or groups who have sworn an oath of fealty of al Qaeda central? Is it groups that share al Qaeda's vision of violent jihad? Is it individuals who are inspired by al Qaeda's preaching?
Obama appears to have difficulty with this himself. Consider the following paragraph from his speech:
And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States. Whether it's a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history. Deranged or alienated individuals -- often U.S. citizens or legal residents -- can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
So Timothy McVeigh was a "violent extremist", whereas violent extremism "appears to have led to" Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage? The use of the passive voice in the latter case is telling.
We can -- and should -- debate how strong and how centralized al Qaeda is. Such a debate is crucial to understanding the nature of our adversary and the kind of war upon which we are embarked and thus to developing an effective strategy. Furthermore, scholars would be aided in this debate if they had access to more of the documents seized from Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan. Only seventeen have so far been released, and the president quoted from another yesterday. Would the thousands of documents that remain classified corroborate the president's view of how we are doing? One wonders.
Fourth, and most importantly, just as President Bush was criticized for declaring a premature end to the 2003 Iraq War, Obama may very well be criticized for declaring an end to the war on terror.
It takes two to end a war. Indeed, it is the defeated party that determines when a war is over, because he holds the power to continue it. In the present instance, it is less than clear that al Qaeda's leadership believes that it is defeated. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are if anything gaining new footholds in North Africa, West Africa, and Syria.
Obama's NDU speech may thus prove to be his own "mission accomplished" moment. I hope that I am wrong but fear that I am right.
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Yesterday's speech is one that President Obama has evidently wanted to give for some time. For several years now, there appears to have been an internal debate over whether and how to reframe the war on terror. One camp, call them the optimists, have wanted to declare the equivalent of "mission accomplished," with al Qaeda strategically defeated and the remaining terror threats relegated to a second or third-tier concern. The other camp, call them the pessimists, have warned that such a declaration would be premature because operational successes against some aspects of the terror network (e.g. the killing of bin Laden and numerous al Qaeda operational commanders) have been undermined by strategic setbacks in other areas (e.g. the emergence of new safe havens in North Africa, the unraveling of security in Iraq, the spiraling chaos in Syria that has re-energized both Sunni and Shia terrorist groups, and so on).
Politically, declaring mission accomplished is a tantalizing risk. On the one hand, it is clear that Obama partisans are keen to wring maximum political benefit from the good fortune of killing bin Laden on their watch. The boast that they have "won" the "good" war that Bush started (the war on terror) and "ended" the "bad" war (Iraq) would, if true, cement Obama's national security legacy. On the other hand, just as Bush paid a huge price for standing in front of a "mission accomplished" banner when the conflict in Iraq was anything but over, Obama would be at great risk if terrorists successfully struck after he had made the boast.
Shortly after the bin Laden raid, the Obama administration floated some "mission accomplished" trial balloons, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggesting that al Qaeda was near strategic defeat. As the presidential election campaign heated up in the summer of 2012, it looked as if the administration was considering a bolder declaration. If that is right, I bet they are glad they resisted the temptation because the Benghazi terror attacks were hard enough for the administration to spin as it was. It would have been a much more daunting task if the attacks came on the heels of a "mission accomplished" speech.
Perhaps that is why, when he finally gave it after the Benghazi terror attack and after the Boston terror attack, the president's speech was so rhetorically unsatisfying. It sounded as if the president was personally and publicly wrestling with the tantalizing risk and never fully resolving where he came down. It seemed to be a compromise forged from two separate speeches, one drafted by the optimists and the other by the pessimists. Perhaps it was a sufficiently artful compromise to win one 24-hour news cycle, but that is probably its high water mark. The administration got some of the headlines it wanted -- the Washington Post highlighted the notion of the United States at "a ‘crossroads'" in the war on terror, and the New York Times called the speech a "pivot," perhaps enough to give the impression that there is a fundamental shift underway. But, in fact, as the president was at pains to admit in the speech, the threat remains and requires on-going extraordinary efforts, including efforts associated with war and not mere law enforcement.
And so it does. As Max Boot notes, the details laid out in Obama's speech mostly take us back to the de facto policy he inherited from President George W. Bush -- policies which have stood him in pretty good stead and made possible even having an internal debate about whether to declare the war on terror, or some crucial phase of it, over.
In news terms, the most important change appears to be a reduction in drone strikes from Obama-era levels back to Bush-era levels. Slowing down the pace of drone strikes is not a trivial change. For one thing, the drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world, even -- and perhaps especially -- with our allies. They have become for Obama what "torture" was for the Bush administration and foreign discomfort with drone strikes is one important reason that the "soft power asset bubble" that Obama generated in his first few months in office has largely popped. So the evolution in drone policy is significant, but equally significant is that the president promised to continue to do drone strikes, as he deems necessary. The drone war has not ended.
The other "changes" are mostly hortatory appeals for Congress to change, coupled with rejections of the proposals coming from Congress on the subject.
The current phase in the war will indeed end when Gitmo is closed and when U.S. forces operate under a newly drafted authorization for the use of military force, two things the president called for without explaining how he could achieve it. Even then, however, the war will not be over, just entering a new phase. And if events on the ground in the Middle East continue to unfold along their current trajectory, that new phase may be every bit as daunting as the pessimists fear.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
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The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.
There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.
However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.
First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.
When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.
This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.
Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.
Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.
Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.
Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline.
Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.
The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks.
But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.
None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.
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While America's attention has been drawn to last week's terrorist attack upon Boston, events in North Korea continue to be cause for concern. The revelation last month that North Korea has taken "initial steps" to deploy a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, and the disclosure earlier this month that at least part of the U.S. intelligence community believes "with moderate confidence" (in intel-speak) that it possesses the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead atop the missile highlight the threat that Pyongyang poses to the United States.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea possesses, or will soon possess, the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. After all, U.S. government commissions, U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, and defense analysts have been warning of this eventuality for more than a decade. Pyongyang has been working on nuclear warheads for two decades and has conducted three nuclear tests. Both Israel and South Africa, by contrast, developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without conducting any nuclear tests. Moreover, as Peter Pry noted last week, the United States has possessed for more than fifty years nuclear missile warheads smaller and lighter than the satellite that North Korea lofted in December.
Skeptics will argue that North Korea has yet to demonstrate it has the ability to deploy nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. Fair enough. But policy makers should not have to wait for Pyongyang to test a nuclear-armed ICBM to respond -- particularly when countermeasures are likely to take years to come to fruition.
The very real threat posed by North Korea has thrown into sharp relief the Obama administration's zig-zagging on missile defense. After coming to office, Obama's team scrapped the Bush administration's missile defense plan, putting in place the Phased Adaptive Approach that promised to deliver more effective missile defense based upon yet-to-be developed interceptors such as the Standard Missile 3 IIB.
Some analysts suspected at the time that the Obama administration was engaging in a game of bait-and-switch, junking a missile defense system based upon proven technologies in favor of a supposedly better one down the line that it would then fail to fund. It thus came as something less than a surprise when, in a move largely missed by the major news outlets, last month Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the cancellation of the final phase of the missile defense plan while promising to beef up the Bush-era missile defense site at Fort Greely, Alaska. These interceptors will not be deployed until 2017, however.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's nuclear missile program would appear to be warranted, but it alone is likely to prove insufficient. The United States should consider enhancing its ability to strike North Korea, including its leadership and its ballistic missile launch infrastructure. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote on June 22, 2006:
"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
Perry and Carter went on to argue in favor of a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean test missile on the launch pad. It would be worth asking Carter whether he continues to hold this view.
Finally, the United States should explore ways to enhance its extended nuclear deterrent of its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan. The Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review scrapped the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk missile, which Tokyo looked to as the embodiment of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and yet is years away from fielding the variant of the F-35 strike aircraft that will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Reassuring U.S. allies in the face of North Korean nuclear threats is likely to be both vital to stability in the region and an increasingly challenging task.
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One of the many caricatures that has arisen in the years since 9/11 is the charge that President Bush's primary exhortation to the American people in the aftermath of the tragedy was simply to "go shopping." I have heard this charge countless times, usually offered as a laugh line, in the manner of a snarky late-night comedian's monologue about "how dumb can someone be to think that shopping is a response to terrorism?"
In some of his early remarks after 9/11, President Bush did urge not to be afraid to "go shopping for their families," as part of a general appeal not to be intimidated from an ordinary daily routine. And he even encouraged Americans to "go to Disneyworld," as part of broader appeal to renew confidence in the safety of air travel.
Of course, he also made it clear that the struggle against terrorists would involve many other sacrifices and, over the years, much more was asked of the American people. But President Bush also made it clear that the terrorists would like to intimidate us out of normal living and that if we give into that fear we can compound the damage inflicted by the terrorists. So part of a comprehensive response that mobilized all elements of national power -- military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and psychological -- would involve ordinary Americans refusing to surrender to fear of terrorists.
I am reminded of this when I hear President Obama praise the way Bostonians have refused to be cowed or when I see Thomas Friedman suggest that a rational response to the Boston terror attack is to "schedule another Boston Marathon as soon as possible." Friedman is not alone in responding this way, and some even argue that embracing resilience in the face of terror is as important as trying to prevent or avenge the terror.
I think resilience -- including the psychological resilience with which a society refuses to give into terrorist intimidation -- is indeed an important response. For most Americans it may be their most tangible and practical way to connect their own daily lives to the broader societal challenge.
I do wonder, however, whether the current reasonable response will get caricatured as did Bush's reasonable response.
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In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist bombing in Boston, I've been surprised to hear many commentators warn against "speculating" who may be responsible. That's nonsense. Of course we should speculate: That's the first step in formulating a hypothesis to guide an investigation that will lead to facts. The facts may disprove our speculation, but we simply can't skip the first step. So here are some initial hypotheses, in descending order of plausibility. Most of these will later be proven wrong.
1. Al Qaeda, or a copycat jihadist group, did it.
2. North Korea did it.
3. Several groups cooperated in the attack.
4. Domestic right-wing terrorists did it.
5. Domestic left-wing terrorists did it.
6. Anarchist/lone nut.
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As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.
The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade's worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.
The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President's formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.
The president may have been skittish about calling it an act of terror in part because of uncertainties about who was responsible and perhaps also because of the unfortunate timing of the attack, which coincided with a rise in speculation, some of it fueled by still more SAO's, about a belief that AQ has been strategically defeated. Ironically, I learned about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks while I was reading a spirited debate among academic security specialists over the putative "end of AQ."
Of course, if the Boston Marathon attack does turn out to be the work of domestic anti-government terrorists, then the coincidence with the debate about AQ will seem prophetic. If, on the other hand, yesterday's attack gets traced back to an AQ-inspired or AQ-linked source, then the debate takes on a somewhat different cast.
Regardless of source, the attack fit the profile of a certain kind of threat that those of us in the business have worried about for over a decade. From the beginning of the global war on terror, it was recognized that some attacks held the potential for greater political impact than others.
In the coming days and weeks, we may play out this third scenario and, in so doing, learn a lot more about the threats we face and about the strength of our society.
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Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.
Let me say up front that Mead's Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.
So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don't just take my or Mead's word for it -- former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much.
As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America's national interests, Mead's words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.
So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years' damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush's overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right -- especially in the first drafts of history now being written.
My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy.
Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration's mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons.
But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration's foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan's presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending -- but then somehow fails to mention Reagan's leadership in the Cold War's dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb -- but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.
No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.
Turning to Bush's freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush's fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush's Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.
In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).
Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn't resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia.
There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya's relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South Sudan's independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today.
What does all of this mean for Mead's main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration's legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more -- and the cause of constructive debate overall -- is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead's "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.
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Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has published a new report that I did with Jim Golby and Kyle Dropp on the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to the use of force.
This is the second installment in a larger project -- last fall CNAS published another Golby-Dropp-Feaver product looking at the influence of military opinion on public opinion when it comes to choosing presidents. (I blogged about that one too.)
The basic intuition undergirding the project is the recognition that the military has a distinctive role in American politics. On the one hand, by tradition, norms, and law, military institutions are supposed to be apolitical -- not involved in partisan politics and fulfilling an advisory role in the policymaking process. On the other hand, by virtue of the prominence of military tools in American foreign policy, the military's greater professional expertise, and the enormous trust the public has in the military (especially in comparison with civilian political institutions), the military may in fact play a larger role than theoreticians of normative civil-military relations would like to see.
Our approach is empirical. We are trying to answer what is the effect, which is a necessary part of any normative evaluation of what ought to be the effect or role. So far as we have been able to determine, there is not a lot of good systematic data available on these questions beyond the ones we collected for this project. Our data are pretty extensive: YouGov administered the survey via the Internet and conducted interviews with 5,500 Americans between May 31, 2012, and July 28, 2012. The 5,500 interviews in our database are a sample matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest to be representative of the general population, as determined by the 2007 American Community Survey. But we don't pretend this report offers the final word on the subject.
Our bottom line:
The results of our recent national survey show that military opposition reduces public support for the use of force abroad by 7 percentage points, whereas military support increases overall public support by 3 percentage points. These military cues are most influential among Republican respondents. Furthermore, military influence on public opinion is greatest when it opposes (rather than supports) interventions abroad.
Read it and tell me what you think we got right or wrong.
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Saturday's New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama's most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration's presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak's exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes' policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House's negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration's posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House's denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon's deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss's policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation's paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House's failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes' public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Here on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how long it will be before we can discuss the war free from the contamination of myths. It may be sooner than many myth-purveyors expect. Just listen to this lecture by Mel Leffler, one of the leading historians of American diplomacy. He has been a harsh critic of Bush-era diplomacy and his speech does accept some of the conventional critique (specifically about the "hubris" of the Bush administration), but his analysis is far more balanced than the conventional wisdom on the topic. All in all, Leffler's analysis is a promising example of myth-busting.
For my part, the myths that get thrown at me most often have to do with why the war happened in the first place. Here are five of the most pervasive myths:
1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration did explore the possibility that Hussein might have collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney (along with some officials in the secretary of defense's office) in particular believed this hypothesis had some merit, and in the early months gave considerable weight to some tantalizing evidence that seemed to support it. However, by the fall of 2002 when the administration was in fact selling the policy of confronting Hussein, the question of a specific link to 9/11 was abandoned and Cheney instead emphasized the larger possibility of collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. We now know that those fears were reasonable and supported by the evidence captured in Iraq after the invasion. This has been documented extensively through the work of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which examined the captured files of the Hussein regime. A 2012 International Studies Association panel sponsored by the CRRC on "Saddam and Terrorism" was devoted to this topic and spent quite a bit of time demonstrating how those who insist that there were no links whatsoever simply rely on a poorly worded sentence referencing "no smoking gun" of a "direct connection" in the executive summary of the 2007 "Iraqi Perspectives Project - Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Documents" report and ignore the evidence of links and attempted connections uncovered in the report itself as well as subsequent work by the project.
2. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it wanted to forcibly democratize Iraq. The administration was, in the end, committed to using force to defend the democratization project in Iraq but this myth has the logical sequence out of order. The correct sequence, as Leffler and myriad memoirs and contemporaneous reporting demonstrate, is this: (1) Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD); (2) Bush was also committed not to making the mistake of Desert Storm, namely stopping the war with Hussein still in power and concluded that confronting Hussein must end with either full capitulation by Hussein or regime change through war; (3) given regime change, the best option for the new Iraq was one based on pluralism and representative government rather than a "man on horseback" new dictator to take Hussein's place. To be sure, the Bush administration greatly underestimated the difficulty of the democratization path, but democratization was not the prime motivation -- confronting the WMD threat was. Democratization was the consequence of that prime motivation.
3. The "real" motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush. These conspiracy theories are ubiquitous on the far left (and right) fringes, and some of them were endorsed by mainstream figures such as President Obama himself. All of them seem impervious to argument, evidence, and reason. The absence of evidence is taken as proof of the strength of the conspiracy. Contrary evidence -- eg., that Israel was more concerned about the threat from Iran than the threat from Iraq -- is dismissed. Mel Leffler's lecture on Iraq is a bracing tonic of reason that rebuts many of these nutty charges, but I suppose true believers will never be convinced.
4. What Frank Harvey calls the "neoconism" myth -- that the Iraq war was forced upon the country by a cabal of neoconservatives, who by virtue of their political skill and ruthless disregard for truth were able to "manipulate the preferences, perceptions and priorities of so many other intelligent people..." who otherwise would never have supported the Iraq war. Frank Harvey painstakingly reconstructs the decision process in 2002 and documents all of the ways that the Bush administration took steps contrary to the "neoconism" thesis -- eg., working through the United Nations and seeking Congressional authorization rather than adopting the unilateralist/executive-only approach many Iraq hawks were urging. (Leffler makes similar points in his lecture). Harvey goes on to make an intriguing case that had Al Gore won the election in 2000, he would have likely authorized the Iraq war just as Bush did. Harvey has not fully convinced me of the latter, but he usefully rebuts much sloppy mythologizing about Gore's foreign policy views, documenting how Gore was, in fact, the most hawkish of officials on Iraq in the Clinton administration. At a minimum, Harvey proves that the Iraq war owed more to the Clinton perspective than it did to then-candidate George W. Bush's worldview as expressed during the 2000 campaign. The neoconism myth serves a politically useful function of fixing all blame on a specific group of Republicans, but, as Harvey shows, the truth is not quite so simplistic.
5. Bush "lied" in making the case for war. I have addressed this myth before. It is a staple of the anti-Iraq/anti-Bush commentary -- and not just of the pseudonymous trolls in blog comment sections. John Mearsheimer, one of the most influential security studies academics, has written a book built around the claim that leaders regularly lie and that Bush in particular lied about Iraq. Mearsheimer claims "four key lies," each one carefully rebutted by Mel Leffler.
When one examines the historical record more fairly, as Leffler does, the "lying" myth collapses. This doesn't absolve the Bush administration of blame, but it does mean that those who allege "lying" are themselves as mistaken as are the targets of their critique.
All of these myths add up to the uber-myth: That the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were all wrong and the arguments made against the Iraq war were all right. Sometimes this is recast as "those who supported the Iraq war were always wrong and those who opposed the Iraq war were always right." Of course, many of the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were wrong. Hussein had not yet made by 2002 the progress in reviving his WMD programs that most intelligence services thought he had made. Many specific claims about specific WMD programs turned out to be not true.
On the other hand, many of the arguments made by those who opposed the Iraq war turned out not to be correct, either. For instance, Steve Walt cites favorably a New York Times advertisement paid for by a group of academics (virtually all of whom I consider to be friends, by the way). Some of their arguments were prescient, more prescient than the contrary claims by war supporters -- the warning about the need to occupy Iraq for many years, for example -- but others not so much. It turns out, for instance, that there is considerable evidence of Iraq-al Qaeda overtures and attempted coordination, precisely what the Bush administration worried about. Likewise, contrary to what the war critics warned, neither Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons nor their skill at urban warfare posed much of an obstacle to the invasion -- of course, insurgency tactics such as urban warfare did pose serious obstacles to the occupation and reconstruction phase of the conflict.
Moreover, Walt and the others he cites favorably almost to a person opposed the surge in 2007, and while some of them now admit that they were wrong about this others still cling to the thoroughly rebutted view that the surge was irrelevant to the change in Iraq's security trajectory. (Ironically, the debate over the surge may be where the grip of mythology lingers the longest. See how Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in an otherwise sensible piece of myth-busting, makes the error of claiming that it is a myth to believe that the surge worked. I have already answered the argument put forward by Chandrasekaran and others and so won't take the time to do it again.)
The point is not that Walt and others were fools or crazy to doubt that the surge would work -- on the contrary, they were squarely within the mainstream of conventional wisdom at the time. Rather, the point is that neither side in the Iraq debate has had a monopoly on wisdom.
I know I haven't had a monopoly on wisdom either and, indeed, my own personal views on Iraq have evolved over time. I opposed putting the Iraq issue on the front-burner in the 2001-2002 time frame and refused to sign a petition arguing for that because I thought the higher priority involved chasing AQ out of ungoverned areas. When the Bush administration did put the Iraq issue on the front-burner over the summer of 2002, I found the arguments of Bush opponents to be over-drawn and unconvincing -- in particular, the anti-Bush position seemed not to take seriously enough the fact that the U.N. inspections regime had collapsed nor that the sanctions regime was in the process of collapsing -- and so I found myself often critiquing the critics. I found the Bush argument that Hussein was gaming the sanctions and poised to redouble his WMD efforts when the sanctions finally collapsed to be a more plausible account of where things were heading absent a confrontation (and as we now know from the interviews with Hussein after his capture that was exactly what he was planning to do).
However, as the march to war accelerated in February 2003, I was one of those who recommended to the administration that the deadline be extended in the hopes of getting yet another UNSC resolution, one that would provide a united international front at the outset of the war. The administration rejected that course, and, in retrospect, I doubt whether what I was calling for was achievable.
Since the war started, I have had my fair share of criticisms for how the war has been handled, but I have always supported the position that having invaded, we now had to succeed. I supported the surge, and I opposed the Obama administration's decision to walk away from the commitment for a small stay-behind force that would be a makeweight in internal and regional balances of power.
I feel more confident about the positions I took on Iraq later in the war than the ones at the outset. But more importantly, I am increasingly confident that the judgment of history will be more nuanced and less simplistic than the judgment of contemporary critics of the war. And, hopefully, less contaminated by myth.
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The quarter-century-old debate about America's grand strategy grinds on. Will and Dan both commented favorably on a report by the Project for a United and Strong America called "Setting Priorities for American Leadership," which styles itself a sort of Shadow National Security Strategy. The report is a restatement of a sort of muscular liberal internationalism, a half-way point between Robert Kagan and G. John Ikenberry. As such, I generally agree with it.
Which makes it a useful case for criticism. If "Setting Priorities" is the most recent attempt to argue for a more coherent internationalist grand strategy -- a worthy endeavor -- then whatever weaknesses it has might throw into relief some broader problems of U.S. foreign policy. So, with great respect for, and in broad agreement with, the authors of that report, here's everything they got wrong:
1. The missing link between ideals and interests. The report rightly claims that American security and global democracy are linked. However, the report simply asserts this claim with little reasoning or evidence and implies the connection is straightforward and obvious. But I sense American voters are wary of sweeping claims about the goodness of democracy because it reminds them of what they feel was the oversell on democracy promotion by the Bush administration. It would be helpful to spell out the logic tying American security to global democracy -- namely, the democratic peace and related ideas. Constitutional, liberal democracies tend not to fight one another, sponsor terrorism, export refugees, or have famines. They do tend to trade together, cooperate in international efforts, work for a rules-based international order, and be sources of innovation and prosperity. America should foster democracy abroad not because we are a missionary nation out to convert the world to our theory of justice, but out of a stone-cold calculation that democracy is the cheapest way to keep the peace. Making this case is crucial to persuading Americans weary of the burdens of international leadership that it is worth the cost.
2. A weak threat analysis. The report rightly claims that we face a "full spectrum of security threats," but its list of threats is almost entirely limited to unconventional threats, like terrorists, drug trafficking, and cyber threats. The missing end of the spectrum is rival great powers and nuclear states, all of whom have been underestimated since the end of the Cold War. The report follows the bad example of much of the field of security studies in overemphasizing the new, trendy, fashionable topics -- partly, I sense, because that is where the research money has gone for two decades. The report mentions the rise of China and North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons not under its threat analysis but as examples of "the rise of Asia," that is "transform[ing] the geopolitical landscape." That's either the triumph of tact over clarity or the result of committee writing gone awry. Later the report says more directly that we need a military to "deter any potential military rival and defeat any potential adversary," but, thanks to the apparent absence of major rivals and adversaries in the threat analysis, the report paradoxically implies that we really don't need much of a military -- at least for conventional purposes -- after all.
3. The self-licking Leadership ice-cream cone. Praising American strength and leadership is something of a mantra -- not to say mania -- for a certain corner of foreign policy wonks. I count about three dozen uses of the words "strong," "strength," or "leadership" in the report (not counting the title, which emphasizes the need for a "Strong America"). Sometimes it seems like we demand that American be a strong leader in order to protect America's role as a strong leader, so that American can go on being strong and exercising leadership in the service of our strength and our leadership...and so on. It's circular reasoning, a self-justifying policy of infinite regress. I fear I may be labeled a heretic for asking what we need to be a leader for? Where are we leading people to? The report says the United States "must play an active, day-to-day role in shaping events" to "shape common action on a global agenda." I agree that global cooperation happens more effectively with American involvement, but the report treats "the global agenda" as an intrinsic good. The only intrinsic good of American foreign policy is American security. I'd like to see "the global agenda" and America's burden of leadership justified by how it contributes to American interests, not vice versa. We lead to secure interests; we don't have interests to secure our leadership. (The British occasionally tried a policy of "masterly inactivity," and they didn't have a bad run of hegemony). I broadly agree with pretty much all the specific examples the report gives of where American leadership is needed; rather, I am taking issue with the principle of the matter more than its application. I'm not arguing that we should "lead from behind" or retrench or anything of the sort. I am pleading that we treat strength and leadership as a means, not an end, of foreign policy.
4. Just a List of Stuff. The report gets most specific in its penultimate section on "Challenges and Opportunities." But because of the lack of prior conceptual clarity, these challenges and opportunities are presented as just a list of things to worry about with little explicit connection to the threats or interests spelled out earlier in the report. That makes the list vulnerable to an easy critique by those who would downplay the threats to American security. I agree with the list of challenges, but it reads like the agenda of a chaotic NSC meeting rather than a strategic tour d'horizon.
5. Not a strategy. Finally, the report-like all "national security strategies" published by every administration since Congress mandated the document in 1987-is less a "strategy" document than a list of aspirations and goals. A strategy would go further and specify the resources, tools, and instruments of national power to be employed to achieve each specific goal. That may be too much to ask of a 20-page report (but then again NSC-68 was only 25,000 words).
Notably, many of these weaknesses are common to almost all attempts at articulating a grand strategy from across the ideological spectrum. There are some other, more specific faults (the section on Pakistan) and some exceptionally good parts (the language on foreign aid and the paragraphs on Afghanistan and India). But lest I be misunderstood, I mean this critique to be a compliment -- the report is good enough to merit close attention. I always scribble more comments on my best students' papers because they have the most potential. The papers with no ink on them are too hopeless to bother with. (Having said that, I still plan to ink up the Obama administration's next national security strategy, no matter how good or bad it is). And I am painfully aware that it is far easier to criticize than to create. My own humble attempt to articulate an American grand strategy for the 21st century came in a pair of articles for Survival last year (here and here). Critiques welcome.
The Obama administration's minimalist foreign policy, animated by domestic political expediency and a cramped view of America's responsibilities to uphold the liberal international order from which it has benefited so richly, can lead observers to forget what a more traditionally engaged foreign policy even looks like. The new national security strategy developed by a bipartisan group under the aegis of the Project for a United and Strong America fills that gap. It maps out a robust vision of a foreign policy guided by the belief that the United States is not "the dispensable nation" but in fact has a singular role to play in sustaining a world safe for the values and interests of free peoples.
As attested by the bipartisan constitution of the group that produced the report -- chaired by Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute and Jim Goldgeier of American University and drafted by Ash Jain of the German Marshall Fund -- this is not a Republican or Democratic vision. It is an American internationalist ambition that pays tribute to the legacies of Truman and Reagan. It is also a potent antidote to the policies of retrenchment and buck-passing that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2009.
As the report argues, America's power, reach, network, and example are, in fact, exceptional:
The United States remains the single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world. It has a unique ability to mobilize actions by allies and friends and to project force and influence on a global scale. Through its own commitment to democratic values, its protection of human rights, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice, and its capacity for adaptation and renewal, the United States continues to inspire efforts to realize these values in societies around the world. For years to come, no other nation can play this role.
Nor can the United States simply retreat from the world's trouble spots and assume that its position and interests will be unaffected:
The world is not a passive and neutral playing field, but one in which competing views and interests are constantly being pressed. U.S. interests are continually being challenged.... In this environment, a lack of active U.S. leadership can lead to a steady erosion of U.S. interests. The United States not only has the unique ability to lead, but an imperative to do so -- for the protection of its own national interests and values, as well as for the advancement of democratic values, human development, and security around the world. The protection of these values in turn reinforces the long-term security and well-being of the United States.
What is wrong with a foreign policy that brings American forces home from hot spots like Afghanistan, stays out of messy civil wars like that in Syria, largely leaves allies like Israel and Japan to their own devices, and engages vital parts of the Islamic world mainly through long-distance drone strikes?
[T]he distinguishing feature of America's global role since its founding has been its broad-based conception of national security -- the belief that the advancement of an open, rules-based international order that promotes universal values of liberty, democracy, human dignity, and economic freedom is essential to the security and economic vitality of the United States.
To put American foreign policy back on a more traditional footing of values-based engagement with the world, the report recommends a strategy guided by:
Acknowledging limited resources in an age of debt and deficits, it calls for cost-effective investments in our core capacities of economic vitality, preeminent military power, and foreign assistance, while pursuing smarter public diplomacy and more effectively leveraging the capabilities America's many allies and partners offer in support of our joint objectives.
Beyond managing near-term challenges posed by Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, global terrorism, and economic weakness in the Eurozone, the report wisely calls for a set of longer-term, strategic investments to reinforce American security and prosperity for coming generations. These include:
As the report concludes:
What is essential is that facing limited resources, the United States must make choices and engage strategically. The issues identified above represent either those crisis areas where the United States has no choice but to engage, or alternatively, where it can make strategic investments to help shape the global playing field long into the future. A national security strategy that focuses on these critical challenges and investments -- while based on the core principles of advancing a liberal democratic order and a proactive American global leadership role -- offers the best opportunity to assure the long-term security and prosperity of the United States, its citizens, and the global democratic community.
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In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became known as a "more for more" approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.
It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a "more for less" strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to reports -- the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny), but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment facility at Fordow.
Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be negotiating with itself -- Iran did not respond to the P5+1's last offer and by all accounts made no formal response to the new offer -- the group's approach to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see this article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).
Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) -- in other words, a range of possible outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of $200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is between those two figures -- $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does not guarantee that a deal will be made -- there are still plenty of obstacles to reaching agreement -- but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to broker a deal.
In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks' failure to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present -- the least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S. and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.
Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same -- they raise the cost of failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating position.
The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open a ZOPA that much more.
The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons capability -- and the prestige and security that it could bring -- far more than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have previously characterized as a pittance.
There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in negotiations -- to change one's own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one's interests. This appears to have been the P5+1's approach in the Almaty round -- faced with Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as "a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime."
Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may now be the case with the P5+1.
There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes in one's bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true regarding the P5+1's previous insistence that Fordow be dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran's nuclear program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to maintain centrifuge cascades there -- even under IAEA seal -- means that they retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.
Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your "true" bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international pressure the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap enrichment at 20 percent, may fall by the wayside just as the demands for shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from operating centrifuges have in the past.
Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect, this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the P5+1's own flexibility and bottom line.
Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or "resistance" toward which was a guiding principle of the regime's founding ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October 2009 "TRR deal" lent legitimacy to Iran's low-level uranium enrichment activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but tolerable under the right conditions.
STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images
The Congress has consented, allowing Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense, but not without badly bruising him along the way. It must also be said, however, that he bruised himself during the confirmation process. The odds now are slim that he will become a strong and capable secretary. In order to boost the odds of his success, he quickly needs to send signals throughout the organization that he can command respect. Here are some suggestions:
Learn to salute. If the picture accompanying Dov's post is indicative, Hagel's lost the knack since the days when he owed salutes. A crisp salute is a small but totemic thing. It conveys that you understand the culture and the institution. Despite his prior service, there are grave doubts about whether Hagel actually gets it. Because people are watching carefully and taking measure of the new boss, small gestures early on set the tone for a secretary. Les Aspin famously dismissed the ceremonial guard outside his office (which was about respect, not protection), kept people waiting, and his transition team told the military that "there's a new sheriff in town," instead of co-opting Colin Powell's Joint Staff. The first day of Bill Perry's tenure he ran meetings on time that concluded with decisions and applicable guidance that helped people predict the secretary's future judgments, and you could feel the building relax after the erratic and undisciplined tenure of Les Aspin. After Hagel's bungling performance during confirmation, little gestures of competence would send a valuable message to the institution.
Treat it like a business. DOD is a $600 billion a year operation with a highly-valued brand, a platform on which other businesses rely, and a deadly serious purpose. The administration did Hagel no favors installing him as secretary just before its budget is submitted. After alienating so much of the Congress, he will have to defend a budget he didn't put together. Even someone much more substantive than he would have a difficult time quickly mastering that brief and disciplining the building to keep a common front as significant cuts are imposed. If he cannot do so, the damage will be irreparable. The administration has given the impression it cares more about social issues in the military than it does about the core business of winning the country's wars, and that makes it harder to manage the military on other issues. Putting the nuts and bolts of effective management at the center of his early efforts would send a calming signal and buy him the benefit of the doubt for later.
Repair relations with members of Congress. It is an often overlooked fact that Congress really runs American defense policy. The Senate has abrogated its responsibilities to authorize and appropriate money for the past three years, and 41 members of the Senate did not consent to his appointment; those are strong headwinds. He needs to win them over, otherwise he cannot make a success of his tenure. He needs them to give him money, latitude to reprogram, to enact policies, to side with him over the chiefs when they make end-runs to the Hill. All the time-honored tactics should be employed: breakfast every week with the Big Four appropriators and authorizers, travel with him to their districts and to places that give them campaign fodder, phone calls to share news before it breaks, jobs for members of their staffs, naming anything that needs naming after them. As the secretary with the greatest Senate opposition to his appointment in the history of his position, he needs to do it more, better, and faster than other secretaries have.
Get the chiefs out of the budget fight. One of the most interesting things about this round of budget squabbles is that the active involvement of the chiefs does not appear to have changed a single vote in Congress. They are impotent to affect attitudes on a major national security issue. The chiefs loudly telling Congress that the cuts will be destructive has been seen not as our protectors sounding the alarm, but as shameless pandering by an over-fed bureaucracy that is exposing itself for the president's benefit. It goes without saying that this is terrible for the military's standing in society. President Obama is importantly to blame for this. During the election he ridiculed Mitt Romney for wanting to increase defense spending, repeatedly insisting that his opponent "would throw money at the chiefs they don't even want!" That created a sense in the broader public that our defense is well-funded. As a result, the chiefs arguments now that the saying the sky is falling seem politicized. If the chiefs credibility is that low, the secretary should disengage them from the fight. He should instead become the lead advocate, making their arguments and shielding them from direct involvement while they engage privately with legislators.
Get out of Washington. Visiting the war zones, visiting bases, visiting troops engaged in training other militaries is part of the secretary's job -- outreach to his constituents and being close to their concerns. The importance of fights in Washington will seem paramount (as they always do), but Hagel is unlikely to be the difference between a policy being adopted or not. First, because he clearly shares the President's views. Second, because the administration has already made its major policy decisions. And third, because he's hardly the towering presence of a Hillary Clinton on Bob Gates that must be taken into account. That frees him up to get out of Washington and see how the rest of the country and the rest of the world view our choices -- two elements the discussion in Washington too often lacks. Plus, it will remind him of the everyday goodness of the young men and women who choose to put themselves in harm's way for our country. That cannot help but strengthen any secretary.
Chad J. McNeeley/DoD via Getty Images
Chuck Hagel may have survived his confirmation ordeal in the Senate, but his troubles may be just beginning. Sequestration is upon us, and his department will have to find a way to minimize the impact on military operations and systems acquisition of that rightly much-maligned budget cutting vehicle.
Hagel is fortunate to have Bob Hale as comptroller. Hale is a veteran budget expert who never loses his cool. But even Hale's expertise will not be enough to prevent the kind of wholesale damage to DOD's force posture, both today and in the future, that Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, outlined in detail many months ago.
Hagel must also reassure allies that the United States, and its military, are not in complete disarray. That will be hard to do as long as the sequester is in force. Nor does it help that the United States already has but one aircraft carrier deployed overseas. Not only does that signal America's inability to maintain 24-hour sea-based aircraft operations from the onset of a crisis, it also feeds the worst fears of allies and friends that the United States is slowly, but inexorably, turning inward.
If friends will be worried, as they already are, enemies will exult. The conclusion that Iranians, North Koreans, Venezuelans, and an array of Islamic terrorist groups, not least of which is Hezbollah, will reach is that Washington does not have the clout it once did and that the door to further mischief is wide open. Rivals such as China and Russia will likewise conclude that they can pursue their interests far more aggressively, without any credible American pushback. And fence-sitters like India will be even more reluctant to welcome an American embrace.
What can Hagel do to stop the rot? In the short term, he could voice his support for a Republican proposal to exempt DOD from sustaining its cuts across-the-board and empower Hale and his team of budget managers to allocate those cuts in a way least harmful to operations and acquisition. For the longer term, Hagel should articulate a clear message about not only the impact of further cuts to defense, but also his determination to ensure that long-standing barriers to efficient defense spending, such as the depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, or the Jones Act, which for decades has undermined the efficiency of the shipbuilding industry and has resulted in driving up the costs of naval construction, should finally be shoved aside.
Hagel could also call for raising the ceilings on reprogramming requests, which limit the comptroller's ability to manage DOD's cash efficiently; for funding an internal DOD audit capability to ensure that funds are not held in "reserve" by bureaucrats who then spend that money wastefully at the close of the fiscal year; and for real caps on spiraling defense health care costs.
If ever there was an opportunity to remove the barnacles that have hung onto the DOD budget for so long, it is now. An efficiently managed DOD budget would at least to some degree soften the impact on force readiness and modernization of further massive cuts that the Obama administration, driven more by ideology than economics, erroneously concludes are central to the budget deficit. It might also help mitigate the damage that has already been done to America's credibility as a reliable ally for the long term and as a force that its enemies must reckon with in the short-term as well.
Hagel has forcefully asserted that the department spends its money inefficiently. He is now secretary of defense. He can do something about it and should do so now. He has no time to spare.
Rep. Barbara Lee and her allies have proposed a new department of peace-building, complete with a new cabinet secretary and a mission to build peace and stop violence form the schoolyards of the United States to war-torn lands around the globe. This idea is born of the naiveté and nonsensical bent of some on the left to try to wish away realities they find unpleasant. Congress-watchers rightly might wonder how serious she and her allies are or how they find enough staff to help craft such ideas.
But more interesting is to ponder how people who make it to Congress and into academia can be so confused about fundamental issues like human nature, historical reality, and common sense as they relate to the international system. (Since I can't begin to imagine what Lee's Democrats have in mind for pacifying the entire domestic scene by means of her new initiative, I'll focus mainly on the global context.) I think they make two mistakes: One, they don't understand human nature, and two, they misdiagnose what peace is.
Generally speaking, people divide into two camps regarding the question of why human beings suffer conflict. On one side, some ground their understanding of the nature of conflict in either the Augustinian doctrine of original sin or a Hobbesian theory of scarcity. These folks tend to be pessimists when it comes to human nature and society. We (I'm in this camp) don't think you can eliminate conflict or make peace the norm, but you can work to protect the law-abiding from the law-breaker and punish the latter when he succeeds. On the other side, a view grounded in French enlightenment thinking, some believe that with the right amount of education and wise government effort, you can eliminate the impulse for violence and make violence and conflict the exception rather than the rule. So you have the age-old dichotomy between the realist and the idealist.
Suffice to say history has born out whose theory is the more valid, and the public in almost any country and over time generally adopts the more pessimistic view and elects leaders accordingly.
But the other confusion perpetuated by Rep. Lee and her friends is how they misunderstand what peace is. Peace is not the absence of conflict. There was considerable peace behind the Iron Curtain, and there is now considerable peace in North Korea and Cuba, but only the most cynical would refer to that circumstance as a desirable peace equal to the peace of a constitutional democracy or a peace shared by a group of states bound by a treaty like NATO. There is "peace" in North Korea and Cuba and there was peace behind the Iron Curtain because a brutal communist dictatorship has or had its boot on the neck of the populace. I don't think that is what the congresswoman is after.
Peace between nation-states goes beyond the absence of conflict because peace is about agreement over shared principles and norms. When people in a community, a state, or the world find themselves at peace, it is because they have built peace on the foundation of values they mutually believe to be good and right and worth adhering to. Culture is key, and while a shared democratic culture is not absolutely necessary to establish peace, it is arguably the surest means and most stable foundation for it. The Concert of Europe ultimately failed for several reasons, but one reason was the danger of the ever-present risk of foolish or evil autocrats fouling up the mutual understanding and goals. Democratic culture works better if for no other reason than that there are usually more pressures to remain at peace so that the commerce, comforts, and progress of the daily lives of the sovereign voters can continue.
And when the peace of a community of democracies like NATO or a sovereign democratic state is threatened by those who demonstrate - unchecked -- the proclivity to do violence that is rooted in human nature, the democracies look to their departments of state and defense and other agencies to protect, prevent, and punish.
Rep. Lee's proposal is unwieldy, unworkable and unnecessary. We have numerous "departments of peace-building" already: We have families, religious institutions, and voluntary associations that teach peace; we have institutions of law and order and justice to aid that teaching but also to do the protecting and preventing and punishing domestically; and we have cabinet officers with departments to deal with the disturbers globally. Let's not spin out new laws and bureaucracies when we have what we need in place already. And let's not seek utopia and thereby make the perfect the enemy of the good.
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Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
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It is customary for beltway types to snicker when a senior official in the government indicates that he or she is stepping away from power in order to "spend more time with my family." I think that attitude is unfortunate and regret having done my fair share of snickering in the past. The truth is that service at the highest-most levels of government can be exceptionally demanding, and it is usually the family that pays the biggest price. So I now have a rule of thumb that presumes any such claim is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
That is how I reacted to the news that will General Allen turn down a possible assignment to be SACEUR. General Allen's explanation -- that after multiple combat tours he needs to spend more time with an ailing wife -- rings true to me. And after checking with some people who are in a better position to know, I am even more confident of this judgment.
Some critics have charged that General Allen was forced to step away, raising questions about a growing politicization of the military engendered by a hyper-partisan White House. The White House did do something like that with respect to General James Mattis, so the allegation was not wildly implausible. But in Allen's case, I do not think it was correct.
The Obama Administration has enough real civil-military challenges to manage. It does not need to be distracted by fake ones. General Allen's departure should not become such a distraction.
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For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
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No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.
For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'" Har har.
Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.
That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.
Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies.
No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.
Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.
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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.