As the Twain-attributed cliché goes, history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. The parallels between Obama and Bush's policies are a staple (some might say a tiresome obsession) of my posts. Well, here I go again...
The eerie parallels between the way the politics of President Obama's first year of his second term played out and the political dynamics of President Bush's first year of his second term are what prompted me to make the Katrina analogy in a recent discussion with a New York Times reporter (which I gather produced "an email and Twitter explosion" -- my apologies to the intrepid reporter at the center of the explosion).
Of course, I am hardly the only or the first to see the Katrina-Obamacare parallels (see another careful discussion here), but it is one that is particularly vivid for me because I lived through that crucial period in the Bush administration.
The parallel just got a bit more apt: According to the most recent CBS poll, Obama's approval rating at this point in his tenure is right where Bush's rating (in the separate Gallup poll) was at the same point. Of course, the mix of issues that brought each president to this political point is not an exact repeat, but the mixes sure rhyme: questions of competence, questions of candor, questions of how a White House could take its eye off the ball on an issue it had identified as central, etc. This last parallel points to the Iraq comparative, which I think is an even more apt one than Katrina.
I wonder if there are additional insights to be gleaned from the parallel. President Bush's approval rating recovered a bit a few weeks after it hit this low, following on a major communications push the White House undertook. The push included the release of the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq and a series of major speeches outlining the president's strategy in Iraq. (Full disclosure: At the time, I got more credit than I deserved for this initiative.)
This initiative worked (as I and my co-authors explain here on pp. 232-233) when the Bush administration was able to couple the communications push with some real progress on the ground in the form of the peaceful Iraqi parliamentary election in December 2005. But it only worked temporarily, because the problems ran much deeper than the election could fix. A few months later, President Bush's approval rating lost all of the ground it had regained in in the winter. There are several reasons for this, but one I would highlight here: During the Fall 2005 decline, the White House, myself included, thought that we had the right policy in Iraq and primarily had a communications problem. We were wrong. We had a policy problem. A year later we realized that and changed the policy, but by then it was too late to undo the political damage.
Right now, the Obama White House believes it has a communications problem, not a policy problem. Yes, the White House acknowledges that the website is a problem, but mainly because it is making it hard for people to get the full benefit of the policy. So while the president tinkers around the edges of the policy, his effort has mainly been in the area of communications: selling harder the original policy. And if the administration couples the communications push with some improvement in the form of getting the website up and running -- or if intense spinning designed to make the Iranian nuclear deal seem better than it really is gives the administration a tactical success that offers a respite from the drumbeat of criticism -- it could reverse the public approval slide much the way President Bush's big push on Iraq reversed his slide in late 2005.
But if the critics are right and the real problem with Obamacare is the policy, specifically the internal contradictions of the policy and the intrinsic unpopularity of a massively complex redistributionist policy, then Obama might experience only a short-lived respite on the political front.
One further lesson: As the Iraq surge proved, even a politically strapped president still can do some very consequential things, particularly on foreign policy. So it is too soon to write Obama's obituary. It is entirely possible that one or more of his most important policy decisions will be made in the months and years to come. In other words, perhaps President Obama has in him another "surge," defined as the pursuit of a controversial but consequential foreign policy gambit. We may even be seeing the outlines of that now with the Iran nuclear issue -- whether it yields a lasting diplomatic solution, failed negotiations leading to war, or failed negotiations leading to an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
I wonder if the Obama White House realizes all of this right now. I don't think we did when we were in their shoes.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The six-month interim deal is simply a standstill agreement, generally providing that neither party will be further disadvantaged while a broader settlement is negotiated. Whether or not such an accord can be completed and enforced remains in doubt. Already the two sides are sparring over what the interim deal means.
The White House case for the agreement notes that it: halts production of uranium enriched above 5 percent and requires that existing stocks be diluted or turned to oxide form; halts installation of new centrifuge capabilities; freezes stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (unless converted to oxide); freezes construction of the Arak heavy water reactor; and affords the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better access and more information. These provisions generally slow progress on declared civil nuclear activities, and in the case of the uranium enriched to near 20 percent, impose a modest rollback.
In return, the U.S. administration claims that Iran will receive only "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, amounting to about $7 billion, while broader sanctions will remain in place, with over $100 billion in funds frozen, and restrictions on oil sales continuing to cost Tehran $4 billion per month.
Why, then, has the deal evoked such opposition in the United States, with even influential Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer criticizing it?
ARASH KHAMOOSHI/AFP/Getty Images
An American president tries to pursue an ambitious gambit to deal with a Middle Eastern country's suspected WMD program, only to be stymied in a multilateral forum by French intransigence. Does this describe the George W. Bush administration's feud with Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin over Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Yes, but this is also what happened over the weekend to the Obama administration's effort to cut a deal in Geneva with Iran over its nuclear program, until blocked by Francois Hollande's French government. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius derided the provisional agreement with Iran as a "fool's game" because it reportedly conceded too much to Tehran, particularly allowing construction to continue of the Arak plutonium reprocessing plant, and permitting Iran to keep its current stocks of enriched uranium and even continue some enrichment efforts up to 3.5 percent.
American surprise at France's posture towards Iran is probably colored by lingering memories of former president Jacques Chirac's vocal opposition to the Bush administration's Middle East policies. The tragi-comic nadir of U.S.-France relations during those years came when the Congressional cafeteria renamed “French Fries” as “Freedom Fries.” But diplo-culinary spats notwithstanding, Chirac was an aberration. As a former senior British national security official (and otherwise critic of the Bush administration) recently commented to me, Chirac was probably the most anti-American French leader since the days of Vichy.
It is not just Hollande who is a hawkish internationalist; his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was as well. Nor is this just a 21st century phenomenon. Shortly after becoming president, Ronald Reagan was famously surprised to discover that the socialist French President Francois Mitterand was also a fierce anticommunist. While Reagan had initially adopted a common stereotype of French socialists as timorous and unreliable in international politics, he soon realized that France under Mitterand would be a bold and valued American ally in the conflict with the Soviet Union.
So perhaps Americans today should not be surprised that another French socialist, the current president Hollande, has also embraced an assertive foreign policy. This provides the backdrop for France's role this past weekend in holding the line against what appears to have been an effort by the US to push a dubious deal with Iran.
The Obama administration's actions this past week also helped clarify a lingering question hanging over the negotiations: which side holds the strongest leverage? Was Tehran motivated to come to the bargaining table by the acute pain it is suffering from economic sanctions and a genuine willingness to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program? Or was Tehran motivated instead by its perception that the Obama administration is irresolute and desperate for a deal in the wake of its embarrassing volte-face on Syria? Judging by the terms of the failed deal, where the US would trade concrete sanctions relief in exchange for abstract Iranian promises, it was unfortunately the latter.
Meanwhile, France has quietly emerged as the leading member of the transatlantic community and the most assertive in responding to - and shaping -- the many dislocations of the Arab Awakening. It began with Libya, where France under Sarkozy catalyzed (and even jumped the starter gun) the NATO intervention. Then France took the lead on sending forces to restore order in Mali as it fractured amidst a military coup and Islamist takeover of the north. On Syria, France has consistently advocated more support for the moderate rebel elements and more pressure on the Assad regime. And now France is the leading voice against a nuclear Iran.
At first glance these policies may seem a far cry from a traditional raison d'etat foreign policy, but in France's case they seem to result from a combination of values and interests, the latter including France's commercial interests with nations like Saudi Arabia. Yet overall France has assessed, properly, that Western powers should not be neutral on the several fault lines dividing the broader Middle East, and that principled diplomacy and targeted interventions can help support moderates and reformers while tilting the balance against extremists enamored of terrorism, WMD, and other destabilizing factors.
One of the several unfortunate consequences of the Obama administration's failed Middle East policy thus far is how it has alienated many American allies and partners. This list of frustration includes Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, United Kingdom, and France. Recalibrating America's policies and standing in the region begins with being more attentive to the concerns of our allies; Paris would be a good place to start.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
America's foreign relations appear to have hit a perfect storm. The ongoing Snowden-NSA scandal, which has resulted in the near-alienation of Europe's most powerful leader, the hitherto staunchly pro-American Angela Merkel, as well as anger in Brazil, Mexico, and several other countries, has overlapped with the Tea Party-inspired partial government shutdown and the angst generated in the run-up to the vote on the national debt. Just as everyone thought Washington's credibility could not get much lower after the series of administration about-faces in responding to Assad's use of chemical weapons, it has managed to sink further still.
President Obama and his administration are no innocents in this matter. They have completely mishandled the NSA eavesdropping affair, refusing to acknowledge reality in the face of overwhelming Snowden-leaked evidence, and thereby compounded European and Latin American anger. Moreover, the President's stubborn refusal to negotiate with Capitol Hill Republicans, despite his constant refrain about the need for comity in Washington, certainly contributed to the government closure.
That said, the Tea Party's Congressional adherents have even more to answer for. By pressing their quixotic attempt to force the President's hand on Obamacare, they conveyed an image of an America that cannot get its house in order, and that has little concern about the international ramifications of its absurd proclivity to lurch from crisis to crisis every few months.
American reliability was already questionable in the aftermath of its support for the Morsy government in Egypt in the face of increasing popular hostility (supposedly on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood's election victory needed to be respected) in contrast to its desertion of Hosni Mubarak (who also held office by virtue of an election) when the people turned against him. Its treatment of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who, after all, had reached a solemn agreement with the United States to terminate his nuclear weapons program, and appears to have adhered to that agreement, likewise projected an image of perfide Americana. And Obama's tortured reaction to Assad's use of chemical weapons obliterated the credibility of his "red lines" that were meant to deter the Syrian leader.
The Congressional supporters of the Tea Party have compounded the damage to the image of American reliability, however. Foreign observers think the United States has lost its collective mind; allies are looking elsewhere for security support; friends are reconsidering how tightly they wish to be aligned with America; adversaries are convincing themselves that Washington is withdrawing from the world, allowing them to wreak havoc on the international scene. The Tea Party's adherents simply are ignorant of the ramifications of their behavior. They do not realize that America's economic security, indeed its secure way of life, is intimately linked to a stable international order, which itself requires that Washington maintain and enhance its partnerships with like-minded governments. They are dragging America to a new international low, from which recovery may be very long in coming.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Back in the fall of 2007, I was asked to speak at a joint academic-intelligence community conference looking at long-range trends, specifically ones that might come to fruition by 2025. I don't remember all my predictions, but I remember my last one: that there was a reasonable chance that the two-party system in the United States would not be dominated in 2025 by both the Democratic and Republican parties. I thought of that prediction when the political dysfunction in Washington culminated in the current government shutdown (with a looming debt-ceiling crisis in the wings).
There are good structural reasons the U.S. electoral system tends to only have two national parties, so it is unlikely that the United States would evolve toward an enduring multiparty system like those prevalent in Europe. But dominance by these particular two parties is not structurally determined. Both of these parties emerged out of the failures of previously dominant ones, and we may be witnessing the painful death of one or both of the existing parties.
Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that the Republicans are the ones dying and that the Tea Party revolt from within the Republican ranks is hastening the demise. That seems to be the calculation of President Barack Obama and his political advisors, who clearly think they will emerge from the shutdown crisis with a less-damaged brand than Republicans. I have even heard some Tea Partiers talk like that themselves, in a "we may have to destroy the Republican Party to save it" kind of way.
But the Democrats have their own deep divisions. If the shutdown were not dominating the news, the headlines might focus on unions' concerns about the impact of Obamacare on their core interests. And nowhere are those divisions more evident than in foreign policy. Obama's efforts on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, drone strikes, and so on all divide Democrats at least as much as they divide Republicans.
Right now Republicans look to be more fragile, but the Democrats only look strong by comparison. Combined, the prospects that both of these parties will be around to dominate the political scene in 2025 look dimmer today than they did in 2007 when I speculated one of them would pass.
This has obvious implications for domestic policy, but I think it matters greatly for foreign policy too. In fact, it is hard to identify a single, plausible, domestic political development that would have greater unpredictable impact on America's global role. It is striking that for the past century -- i.e., for the entirety of the "American century" in which the U.S. role has been pivotal for global affairs -- American politics has been dominated by Republicans and Democrats. We don't know what a credible third party might look like in the superpower era or what that new party might advance as its requisite foreign-policy platform.
It seems clear, however, that the necessary catalyst for the emergence of such a third party is manifest failure by one or both of the existing parties. It is premature to publish the obit for the existing parties, but the political crisis in Washington sure seems to be hastening that day.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
This is a move borne out of weakness.
Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don't want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."
Given the predicament the administration's own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.
It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.
But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama's and his advisor's own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.
On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president's abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.
Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president's biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.
And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.
It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.
The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.
But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:
* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama's strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.
* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.
* a negative vote that Obama defies -- a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).
And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.
This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national interest. Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there. We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.
Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images
It's official: President Barack Obama showed President Vladimir Putin his tough side by canceling out of the bilateral summit in Moscow. In yet another of those carefully calibrated messages the "realists" in the White House commend themselves for sending, the leader of the Free World will not give Russia's leader the benefit of His Grace one-on-one (oh, but he'll still participate in the St. Petersburg G-20 summit).
What a bold move. Except for the fact that Putin has little to gain from a bilateral summit with the United States just now. What are the deliverables Russia could expect from a face to face? There are no policy issues ripe for agreement. Putin could expect to be harangued by Obama about Edward Snowden (we extradite criminals to you without a treaty), Syria (end your lucrative defense supplies and use your influence with Assad to create an outcome you don't want and set a precedent you may suffer from), visa liberalization (not after Boston), gay rights ("I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them"), and nuclear reductions (a safer world is in all our interests even if it takes away your only military leverage). Who wouldn't want to skip out on that meeting?
Putin may well benefit from discomfiting the American president, but he achieved that only weeks ago at their bilateral meeting in Ireland, where news stories carried pictures of tense, dissatisfied expressions and stories of stalemate, and in the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. No need to stoke those embers again so soon, especially if Obama might step on Putin's preferred story line that by granting asylum he's preventing Snowden from revealing damaging information about the United States. Putin might like to play up supposed American hypocrisy, but you can't fault his understanding of realism: the man has an unapologetic insistence that goals come before morals.
There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia's authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest -- the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies -- in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy). Realists would never make that trade. In classic liberal fashion, Obama is constraining American power by rules and norms to which all states could be subjected.
The reason President Obama's Russia policy is on the rocks is that the White House pretends to be realist but acts like a liberal. It hesitates to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests, perseveres in policies that are not achieving results, and refrains from using power to deter or punish actions contrary to U.S. interests. All the while it earnestly explains why what it wants is what Russia should do, when Moscow clearly believes that preventing Washington from achieving its aims is a central goal.
Why has Russia policy gone so wrong? Not for lack of effort or desire for a fresh start. The Obama administration rightly set out in 2008 to refashion U.S.-Russian relations, which were in a dismal state after years of mutual disappointment and creeping authoritarianism in Moscow. One of the benefits of changes in government is a routine reevaluation of policies and the sense of a new beginning. President Bill Clinton tried to build a solid partnership with President Boris Yeltsin. President George W. Bush, too, took his chance, saying after his first early meeting with Russia's leader that he had looked into Putin's eyes and could see his soul.
The Obama administration put talent on the team for this problem: Mike McFaul is both a serious scholar of Russia and an ardent advocate of democratization who, before joining the Obama campaign, had run an important study of the opportunity cost to the Russian economy of Putin's governance. In showing quantitatively the ways authoritarian policies inhibited economic growth, the study up-ended Putin's argument that his policies were responsible for increased Russian prosperity.
But, of course, McFaul is a poor choice of advisor to the president and plenipotentiary to Moscow if getting along with Putin's Russia is the administration's aim. If realists were actually in control of Obama policies, he wouldn't have been nominated. Belief that our values are universal -- that all people deserve and yearn for freedom -- and can take root even in the Russian tundra would have been disqualifying. No amount of private correspondence and Tom Donilon's shuttle diplomacy makes up for it.
Liberals are ignoring an important reality about Putin's Russia, which is that he has the consent of the majority of Russian people. According to a Pew poll, 56 percent of Russians report themselves satisfied with the outcome of the presidential election that swapped Medvedev and Putin. Seventy-two percent of Russians support Putin and his policies, a level of public endorsement Obama can only dream of. Fifty-seven percent of Russians consider a strong leader more important than democracy; a 25 percent margin over those who believe democracy is essential. And by a margin of 75 percent to 19 percent, Russians consider a strong economy more important than democracy.
Much as we might hope Russian reformers force progress, American policies need to acknowledge that Russians are mostly satisfied with the governance they have (and thus get the one they deserve). The Pew polling indicates that economic growth and social mobility are the bases of Putin's public support. And unless Washington can craft policies that affect those variables, it ought not expect the Putin government to be responsive to our appeals.
The Obama White House likes to think of itself as full of foreign policy realists. But realism, as it exists in international relations theory, has three main tenets: 1) power calculations as the metric of importance in understanding state behavior; 2) willingness to discard policies that are not advancing one's interests; and 3) the willingness to use one's advantages to threaten and enforce preferences on other states. For all their pretensions to realism, the Obama administration does none of these three things well.
The White House has been willing to sacrifice some U.S. interests and allies for the cause of U.S.-Russia comity. It refuses to intervene in Syria or anywhere else without a United Nations Security Council resolution. It cancelled the anti-ballistic missile deployments to Europe that NATO had agreed to. And it has prioritized issues to some extent, placing cooperation on Iran sanctions above European missile defenses and continuing to pull Georgia westward. But the administration has allowed lesser events like Libya, where we were duplicitous in gaining Russian consent for U.N. action, and half-hearted endorsement of congressional activism on the Magnitsky Act to foster Russian resentment.
Moreover, the compromises the Obama White House has made are consistent with the administration's overall policy preferences: avoiding foreign interventions wherever possible, and putting "diplomacy" before security on missile defense. But a better test of realism is when it requires compromising core tenets of either principle or policy. Handing over Syria's rebel leadership so Assad can consolidate his grip and "end the human suffering" of that civil war would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side, agreeing to write off Georgia's western aspirations for Moscow allowing a U.N. intervention in Syria would be a realist move. Or, on the flip side of the flip side, arming Caucasian separatists to aggravate Russia's security problems would be a realist move.
Putin has an economy seemingly incapable of diversification, dependent on high oil prices and current demand levels. And, like China, it has a public that's politically quiescent as long as standards of living are rising fast. But these are major weaknesses that Washington either doesn't want to seize upon, or doesn't have the ingenuity to figure out how to affect. Add to these the debilitating brain drain of technologists and creative types, business practices that are unlawful and predatory, and a foreign policy that's seen -- not just by the United States -- as bad guys keeping bad guys in power, and you have a choice of levers.
Instead of a Nixonian ruthlessness that presses our advantages or identifies common interests and sells off issues (and allies) of lesser importance to achieve them, the Obama administration has become a continuation of the Bush administration in Russia policy: a bossy liberal, condescendingly explaining to Moscow that if only they understood their true interests as we understand their true interests, they would adopt our policies.
But Putin has already made his own pivot, disavowing the values on which "Western" (by which is meant free) societies are based, and the Russia people are willing to permit it. President Obama may think he's sent a tough message to Putin that actions have consequences, and that keeping Snowden means a cold shoulder -- but when it comes to playing the realist chess game, he's got a lot to learn from grandmaster in Moscow.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
The president's speech at the National Defense University was most unsatisfying for anyone hoping that at long last Obama would articulate what his purpose is in being commander-in-chief while terrorists continue their efforts to kill and maim Americans and our allies.
Both Peter Feaver (here) and Tom Mahnken (here) have offered incisive comments and I don't intend to belabor their excellent points other than to note that I think this speech is a defining moment in a way for which the administration was not hoping. Rather than turn a page and finally say what he believes and what he will pursue about the greatest challenge we face today, the president muddied the waters so much that clarity in his final term now seems impossible. The speech -- long-planned and expected by supporters and critics alike -- demonstrates that the administration's policy is incoherent because it sends two different messages.
On the one hand, after largely keeping in place the Bush policies designed to prosecute a global war on terror, Obama now says we cannot pursue terrorists everywhere in an unlimited fashion -- implying that that is what George W. Bush did -- and so he is also implying that the global war on terror is over because it was never a realistic approach. But on the other hand, he acknowledges that terrorists are still hatching their plots and working their will all over the world, and so we must combat them and he will do so. He can't have it both ways. If terrorists still operate, and they do, and he said so (even if he suggests inaccurately that al Qaeda is on the wane), and if they still operate all over the world and here at home, and they do, and he said so, then we are in a global war on terror. He should say so. To say otherwise is absurd.
Adding to the confusion is the president's announcement at NDU of policy changes he will seek: reducing the incidence of drone strikes and closing Guantanamo. It is hard to believe that suddenly the drone strikes are no longer useful when they have essentially been this administration's signature policy in fighting terror. And it is hard to believe that trying to close a secure prison that allows for interrogations when you still have no detailed plan that can pass muster with Congress is a serious policy. But maybe these new policies are motivated more by a desire to improve on his and the U.S. popularity ratings around the world that are currently lower than in the Bush era.
I do not say the administration is incompetent; I have worked with a number of them over the years in government, and so have we all at Shadow Government. But being smart and well-credentialed does not necessarily mean one will produce rational and coherent foreign policy. To do that, the head policymaker must eschew politics and have clear and precise goals; he must have a well-thought-out vision and mission of what is to be achieved. And he must formulate and articulate a strategy that puts money and other resources into the effort. The president has never done these things seriously and much less as a package. He's only made it worse with a speech that sends a confused message: The global war on terror is over but we will keep fighting terrorists who are active all over the globe.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead's advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP's foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice -- usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger -- I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party's capacity for strategic thought.
The fundamental flaw in President Obama's grand strategy lies in its origins -- a view of America's role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton's time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc.
As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.
In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton's Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment's basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine ... so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history.
The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq.
All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.
Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.
Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."
Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:
First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication.
Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?
What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case.
I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.
Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all.
Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq.
None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.
Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.
Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap.
A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that.
Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
[Update: Last night, Venezuelan electoral authorities agreed to a partial audit of Sunday's vote, although not the full recount demanded by challenger Henrique Capriles.]
After an ill-advised overture to Hugo Chávez's government last November, the Obama administration has regained its footing with a strong, principled stance on Venezuela's contested election. Based on the razor-thin margin and opposition protests of irregularities, the administration has yet to recognize as the winner Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, and has instead supported a review of the vote count.
In appearances before both the House and Senate in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed that position "so that the people of Venezuela who participated in such a closely divided and important election can have the confidence that they have the legitimacy that is necessary in the government going forward."
He said, "I don't know whether it's going to happen. ... [But] obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."
Kerry's statements brought the predictable howls of protest from Venezuela. "It's obscene, the U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Mr. Maduro said. "Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here! Enough interventionism!"
But no one should be intimidated by such false bravado.
Maduro is in a panic. He knows he cannot handle declining socio-economic conditions in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, dissension in his own ranks, and an engaged U.S. government standing firm on principle regarding the legitimacy of his election.
Of course, the administration will face a vociferous public campaign by chavista sympathizers pressuring it to accept Sunday's disputed result. Already, the feckless Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has backtracked from the organization's initial strong statement on behalf of a recount and now has accepted the result.
Recognition proponents will tell us the United States faces "isolation" in the region if the administration doesn't recognize Maduro (only Panama and Paraguay have joined the call for a recount) and that its supposed intransigence plays right into Maduro's hands, allowing him to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Nonsense. Those proposing such arguments fail to recognize that governments are pursuing interests. Certain countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and even Russia and China, have benefited greatly from economic ties with Venezuela under Chávez and their short-sighted view is to try and keep that spigot open.
Most citizens throughout the region, however, tend to be more appreciative of principles, such as the security and integrity of one's vote. One can be sure that, in case of a disputed election in their own country, they would hope to count on external support for an honest accounting in their own electoral processes.
Secondly, as the election just demonstrated, Maduro is not Chávez, and his capacity to whip up anything but official violence against Venezuelans protesting in the streets is extremely doubtful (Warning: graphic photos here). In short, no one should be misled by the noisemakers.
A continued firm stand on behalf of a clean election will resonate positively throughout the region, sending a strong signal to all democrats that the United States does indeed care and that intimidation and violence have no place in any democracy. It is not likely that such sentiments will sway Maduro and his Cuban advisors to accept any sort of recount, but it will certainly place the United States on the right side of the debates and confrontations to come.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
This Saturday, Iraqis head to the polls to vote for provincial councils -- the country's first elections since U.S. troops withdrew sixteen months ago. The balloting comes at a time of growing peril for Iraq. Violence is escalating, as are tensions pitting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities -- all exacerbated by the raging civil war in neighboring Syria. While posing a stern test to the viability of Iraq's democratic system, the elections will also serve as an important indicator of the relative strength of Iraq's competing coalitions -- especially Maliki's -- in advance of national elections scheduled for 2014.
At stake are nearly 450 seats on local governing bodies. More than 8100 candidates from some 265 political entities are competing. The elections cover 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government will vote later this year, while elections in oil-rich and ethnically disputed Kirkuk have (by tacit agreement among the competing communities) not been held since 2005.
But in a highly controversial move, Maliki's cabinet decreed in March that balloting would be delayed by up to six months in Iraq's two most influential Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Nineveh -- both of which border Syria and have for months been the locus of large-scale (but mostly peaceful) anti-Maliki protests. Maliki claimed -- not entirely without justification, especially in Anbar -- that he was simply responding to the petition of local leaders worried that voters could not be adequately protected from growing collaboration between al Qaeda affiliates on either sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
His opponents charge that the prime minister's real agenda is avoiding a massive anti-Maliki turnout that would further escalate opposition to his government. They correctly note that previous elections were conducted under far more threatening conditions. Both the U.S. and U.N. urged Maliki to reverse course, worried about the appearance of disenfranchising millions of Sunnis already agitated by claims that Maliki has been systematically moving to marginalize their community in the interests of establishing an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship. Maliki turned aside these criticisms, while suggesting the delayed elections might occur as early as May.
The reality is that violence threatens voting throughout Iraq. A series of more than 20 terror attacks on Monday hit targets across the country, including prospective polling places, killing Sunnis and Shiites alike. These were but the latest in a string of al Qaeda-linked assaults that have occurred at increasingly regular intervals. The campaign has also been marred by at least 15 candidate assassinations, all of them Sunnis and many believed to have been killed not by Al Qaeda but by political rivals within their own community.
Whether Iraqi security forces can successfully protect the elections without the support previously provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a major question mark. The fact that close to 700,000 army and police officers went to the polls in early voting last Saturday without incident was encouraging. Also of concern, however, is the possibility that the mere threat of violence could significantly depress turnout, stoking doubts about the legitimacy and future of Iraq's shaky democracy. An especially important indicator could be the participation of Sunnis -- a potential barometer of that disgruntled community's continued commitment to the post-2003 political order or, alternatively, a troubling sign that, perhaps inspired by co-religionists in neighboring Syria, they are looking to more confrontational methods to redress their grievances.
Beyond violence, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process has to be a real worry. There is no doubt that America's heavy involvement during past elections helped deter fraud to a minimum. Absence that involvement, the risk of widespread wrongdoing -- or simply the perception of wrongdoing -- increases dramatically, even with the presence of a few hundred international observers and several thousand domestic monitors. The danger that significant swaths of the public may simply reject the legitimacy of the results cannot be discounted.
Assuming a relatively free and fair vote, the outcome of Saturday's elections is hard to predict. No reliable polling is publicly available. Maliki has confidently claimed that his coalition will win big. In recent weeks, he has shrewdly sought to divide his Sunni opposition (including through a surprising set of proposals to ease de-Baathifcation laws), successfully co-opting stalwart nationalists like Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq. The Iraqiya bloc of his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite), has splintered, with the current speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, and the former finance minister, Rafi Issawi, forming their own Sunni-based coalition.
Nevertheless, surprises remain possible. In local elections, a voter's familiarity with a hometown candidate can often trump allegiance to a national party. In provincial balloting four years ago, Iraqis voted to punish incumbents -- an inclination that if repeated on Saturday could well work against Maliki and to the benefit of his major Shiite rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council and Sadrist camp -- both of which are fielding their own candidates. For all his troubles, Allawi's bloc is the only one competing in all Iraq's provinces, both Sunni and Shiite, a nationalist vocation that could well accrue to his benefit. And even if Maliki's State of Law emerges as the top vote getter, post-election coalitions among his opponents could emerge that deny him the degree of local domination that he seeks.
Should Maliki nevertheless secure an overwhelming victory, it will likely fuel fears that his most worrisome authoritarian tendencies will be emboldened: more consolidation of control over key state institutions, particularly the means of coercion and the courts; more targeting and exclusion of political opponents; an intensified effort to resolve disputes with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities through confrontation; and increased dependence on Iran. Maliki's chances of winning next year's national elections, another four years in office, and increasingly unconstrained powers would increase significantly. Should such fears be realized, the results for Iraqi stability and unity could be dire indeed -- especially in a regional context of dramatically heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions, perhaps leading to all-out state collapse in next-door Syria.
From that standpoint, Iraq's future may be best served if Saturday's elections see not only minimal violence, maximum participation, and limited irregularities, but also no clear winners and losers -- a triumph not only of the democratic process, but a therapeutic re-balancing of Iraq's political landscape that reminds all parties of the continued imperative of negotiation, compromise, and political partnership.
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday the IMF chided the United States and the United Kingdom for their recent pursuit of austerity. The organization released its latest World Economic Outlook in anticipation of the annual World Bank-IMF spring meetings in Washington, when global financial dignitaries gather.
The IMF put forth top officials to discuss the organization's forecast -- which I'll take up in another post -- and also to critique the state of fiscal affairs in major countries. Carlo Cottarelli, the director of the IMF's fiscal affairs division, described 10 economies with serious fiscal problems -- debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP and rising. These 10 -- the United States, Japan, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal -- account for 40 percent of world GDP (for all the headlines they draw, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal account for very little of that global GDP).
Cottarelli warned that there were numerous studies indicating that when debt hit 80 to 90 percent of GDP, growth would suffer. This seemed an oblique reference to the bubbling controversy over the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. Count the IMF in the camp that think Rogoff and Reinhart are basically right. Cottarelli's conclusion, given his reading of the broader evidence, was that a country should not seek to stabilize debt/GDP at the 90 percent level, but rather should aim for significantly lower levels of debt.
While that might seem to support a call for austerity, the IMF's short-term policy conclusions were just the opposite. As the Wall Street Journal reported it:
"...the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday called on countries that can afford it -- including the U.S. and Britain -- to slow the pace of their austerity measures ... it warned euro-area policy makers against focusing too much on hitting tough deficit targets, saying they risked further deepening their downturn. ‘Fiscal adjustment needs to proceed gradually, building on measures that limit damage to demand in the short term,' the IMF said."
There were two interesting caveats to this call, however:
1. This recommendation to back off austerity only applied to countries that are not currently subject to market pressures.
2. Short-term easing needs to be paired with credible medium-term restraint. (Borrow more today; pay it back tomorrow).
Those caveats are critical and raise all sorts of questions. Fortunately, I was at Cottarelli's press conference and got to ask.
Take the "market pressures" exception. You know a country is experiencing "market pressures" when that country's bondholders are panicking, a debt sell-off is underway, and interest rates on sovereign debt are soaring. When no one wants to buy or hold your debt, it is an awkward time to try issuing more. On this, there is broad agreement.
But how do you know when investors are about to lose faith in your debt? Is there any reason to expect advance warning? When should preparations begin?
Cottarelli's response was that we do not really know in advance. We have to guess. There are some indications of vulnerabilities -- a country whose debt is held more by international investors is more vulnerable -- but it's an art, not a science.
An honest but unsatisfactory reply. It does little good to say that we know market pressures when we see them. Once the market has turned on your debt, it's too late. Budget processes are slow, with long lags from initial discussion to actual spending. If interest rates were to spike on U.S. debt in September 2014, borrowing for that time period is covered by the budgets currently under discussion in Congress. And, for the record, Federal Reserve data show that in 2011 roughly 46 percent of U.S. debt was held by international investors.
On the question of repaying additional short-term borrowing with medium-term frugality, I asked about judging the credibility of fiscal plans. The U.S. fiscal stimulus of 2009 was supposed to be a temporary measure, but worked itself into spending baselines. Congress regularly adopts measures that ‘balance' 10-year budgets, only to repeal those measures when the time comes. A classic example is the attempt to cut payments to Medicare providers, requiring a regular "doc fix" when it turns out there is a limit to the pro bono services doctors will provide. So how do we know that medium-term promises are credible?
Cottarelli suggested that a first step was to look at whether a plan contained sufficient detail. Beyond that, though, he acknowledged it was a much more difficult issue. His recommendation was to look at a country's past record of implementing fiscal adjustment.
Other than the recent austerity, to which they object, it was unclear which episodes in recent British or U.S. fiscal history offer reassurance on this count.
The rationale for the IMF's call to set aside austerity is pretty clear -- large parts of the world are slumping, central banks are doing all they can on the monetary side, so the IMF would like to see a boost to demand through looser fiscal policy (lower taxes or higher spending). The Reinhart-Rogoff controversy is a sideshow here. The IMF is not embracing ever-rising debt levels; it is pushing select countries to adopt a temporary slump-busting burst.
Yet if one runs through the IMF's own check-list of pre-requisites for short-term relaxation -- current debt at sustainable levels; freedom from worry about a market panic; credible medium-run plans for cuts -- none of them seem to apply. The IMF prescription appears less a careful calculation than a double gamble. It is a bet that further short-term measures are appropriate to address a slow-down that has now dragged on for five years, and also a bet that those who adopt the prescription will not have to pay a hefty price down the line.
Stephen Jaffe/IMF via Getty Images
A surprising thing happened on the way to the coronation of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the designated heir to chavismo, the movement created by the obstreperous former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer last month. Evidently, a good number of the Venezuelan people decided that bread-and-butter issues like inflation, shortages of basic goods, electricity blackouts, and soaring street crime were more important to them than the circuses Chávez regularly supplied.
Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez last October by some 11 percentage points, narrowly missed an epic upset, losing this time to Chávez's chosen successor by a count of 50.7 to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. "We are not going to recognize the result," he said, "until every vote is counted, one by one." He has also called for peaceful street demonstrations outside the electoral council offices. In welcome developments, both the Obama administration and the Organization of American States have backed the call for an audit of the election results.
Maduro's reaction was predictable, rejecting any recount and accusing Capriles of "coup-mongering." He has no doubt calculated that a recount is more dangerous to the continuation of chavismo than trying to tackle Venezuela's myriad post-Chávez challenges while dogged with questions about his legitimacy. Not only must he address declining socio-economic conditions -- including soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- he must also deal with a reinvigorated opposition while attempting to manage a movement that is splintering under the weight of corruption and competing interests.
Already, Maduro has been put on notice that he is under scrutiny from his own side. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long-seen as a Maduro rival within chavismo, said of the election: "These results require deep self-criticism ... Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chávez] in danger."
What is clear is that Venezuela's contested election likely presages a period of political turmoil not seen in the country since 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted from power. But it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to actively defend its regional interests. No one is advocating that the Obama administration engage in mud-slinging contests with Hugo Chávez wannabes, but neither should we remain silent on matters of principle and U.S. security.
For example, the Iranian presence in Venezuela, including the existence of a number of suspicious industrial facilities, and the prodigious use of Venezuelan territory for drug shipments to the United States and Europe have been tolerated for too long without any effective U.S. response. (Several high-ranking associates of the late President Chávez have been designated as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Maduro's shaky standing today within Venezuela means there is increased leverage for the United States to hold the government accountable for its threats to regional stability. It is not likely Maduro will be able to withstand the pressure coming not only from the opposition and his own coalition, but from the United States as well. That can come in the form of more designations and indictments of Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and violating sanctions against Iran, but also repeated public calls to disassociate his government from these criminal activities.
The administration must also continue to stand behind the Venezuelan opposition on matters of principle. Voters deserve a clear accounting of what transpired last Sunday. The future of their country hangs in the balance.
GERALDO CASO/AFP/Getty Images
It's hard not to despair about the irresponsibility of politicians in Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon (suited and uniformed) watching the FY2014 budget process unfold. The good news is that for the first time in four years, the Senate passed a budget; the bad news is that budget never brings our deficit spending under control, much less develops a plan for reducing our national debt. The president's budget likewise elides the major national security threat to our country, which is our own inability to bring spending into line with revenue. And the Pentagon continues to operate as though their preferred outcome is all that requires planning for, to enormous detriment for our military strength.
The president's budget contains only $174 billion in deficit reduction, and would actually increase our debt ratio to a dangerous 79 percent of GDP. Under the president's proposed budget, federal debt wouldn't return to its current level until 2023, and that is contingent on the timeless budget mirage of spending now and discipline later. Even Steven Rattner, the President's "czar" for the auto industry bail out, concludes that "we will need to make more tough choices - tougher choices than we are inclined to make today -- if we are to avoid burdening future generations with massive unfunded obligations."
There's simply no way that Republicans will vote for a budget that so fundamentally ignores the problem of our national debt. Which means sequestration will effectively be our federal budget until either Republicans lose the house or Democrats lose the Senate.
The Department of Defense has likewise abrogated budget responsibility, turning in a budget that wholly ignores the reality of sequestration. DoD's $527 billion baseline budget doesn't even contain an excursion considering sequestration's effects, either repairing those from current sequestration or anticipating continued sequestration in FY2014. But it does contain a White House mandated $150 billion reduction across ten years (weighted heavily to the out-years, like all other cuts in spending from the president's budget).
Secretary Hagel is on the spot to defend a budget he didn't develop. His position will be made even more unenviable since the process of revising the strategy will lag by at least several months, and more likely a year. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated repeatedly that the strategy would be unexecutable if further cuts were made, and the budget Hagel submitted contains further cuts. Leading administration figures are insisting the pivot to the pacific continues and cuts have no effect on our ability to defend against North Korean provocation. Congress rightly wants to know what gives.
Hagel testified in contravention to his own budget, affirming to the Congress that sequestration will be taken into account. General Dempsey tried to square the circle, testifying yesterday that any further cuts would be Armageddon, but that the president's budget postpones any cuts for at least five years, so we can currently execute the strategy. Which might be true, if only sequestration hadn't already occurred and remains the likeliest budget outcome for FY2014, as well.
DoD will probably be given latitude to reprogram FY2013 money within the topline; if reports of a massive $41 billion reprogramming request are true, it will mean DoD is effectively operating without a budget. Congress will have allowed DoD to spend as it sees fit, provided it does not breach the sequestration topline. And that may be the best answer we can expect for the coming period of austerity.
But the Pentagon is held in higher esteem than other departments of government because of its reputation for planning responsibly. It has damaged that reputation with its last two budgets. The Pentagon ought to be much more worried than it appears to be about the self-inflicted damage to its credibility for not managing this time of austerity well.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.
My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):
1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.
2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.
3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.
4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.
And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:
5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.
Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.
I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.
Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:
1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?
2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.
3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?
4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?
5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?
The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.
LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The Beltway fascination of the past week has been President Obama's efforts to reach across the aisle. It is probable that his collapsing approval ratings are behind some of the efforts, and the president has taken some heat for it, from both Democrats and Republicans.
This does seem to be something of a dramatic departure from the swagger that characterized the initial weeks of Obama's second term. But since I called for more outreach, I think Republicans should welcome the presidential outreach.
Indeed, the outreach should be expanded. The media has focused on the photo-opy and gimmicky aspects. That is understandable and perhaps unavoidable. The Bush administration had a similar experience, as when we brought all of the living secretaries of state and defense in for briefings on Iraq and Iran. However, those high-profile efforts were matched by more extensive outreach at the principal and especially the sub-principal level. Perhaps the Obama White House is expanding beyond the top-level, photo-op outreach, too.
If so, it is not coming too soon. I was at the FP-RAND discussion on Iraq that FP has started to tease. More will come later, but my takeaway, especially from the sidebars that did not make it onto the official transcript (one hopes) was just how pessimistic everyone was about the Obama administration's various foreign policy trajectories. The room was probably evenly divided in terms of votes on Election Day, but there were precious few defenses of Obama foreign policy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Elliott Abrams' new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration's efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider's account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else -- it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors' motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy's sake.
Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams' work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort. Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn't help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being.
Abrams' treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration -- and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State -- with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before -- unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat's widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone's agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats -- as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans -- decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter.
What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats' to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy's sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that.
In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams' very good recounting.
PAUL J.RICHARDS/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
In an interview on MSNBC with George Weigel, an expert on the Catholic Church and the author of a biography of John Paul II, on Feb. 28, the day that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect, Chris Matthews asked Weigel about the possibility that New York's Timothy Cardinal Dolan might be summoned to the Chair of St Peter. Matthews remarked that Dolan is an attractive candidate, "very American," "a guy's guy."
Weigel's response was interesting from a strategic perspective. He explained that in years past, there has always been an unwritten proscription on an American pope. The reasoning went, essentially, that because the United States is so powerful in the world, it should not have one of its sons rule the Church. In many ways, this is the obverse of American fears that John F. Kennedy would collude with the Vatican to bring the U.S. under the sway of the Holy See (interestingly, Obama-supporting Catholics attacked Paul Ryan in last year's campaign by arguing that he was insufficiently attentive to Catholic social doctrine, a charge Ryan's bishop helped refute).
Behind that power calculation against an American pope, there is the long-standing suspicion as well that Americans were prone to, well, "Americanism" as it was known in Church circles in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is, Americans are given to individualism, private conscience, and a general lack of docility. No telling what might happen if a Yank put on that ring.
But Weigel continued that this "superpower veto" is now inoperative. The United States is no longer seen as so dominant in world affairs that the Church should fear an American pope. Dolan will be looked at seriously as a candidate, Weigel believes, as will Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, whose proximity to the U.S. might have placed him under the penumbra of the superpower veto in the past. Both would offer the Church a leader capable of the kind of evangelical Catholicism that Weigel and many others see as essential and timely.
New developments are not lightly picked up by the Catholic Church. So it would be ironic if the strategic withdrawal under President Obama, so dangerously obvious to both our enemies and friends, were also seen as so dispositive of the end of American global leadership as to convince the Cardinals that an American pope might not be a bad idea.
I'm not betting that when the white smoke goes up, Dolan or Ouellet or anybody else in particular will emerge from the coming conclave as Benedict's successor. But the consequences of American strategic decisions reverberate in all sorts of unexpected ways.
John Moore/Getty Images
I have been ruminating on the closing lines in Peter Feaver's post below, suggesting that "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda." I worry that Peter is correct.
The similarities are striking. A president dogmatically focused on his domestic agenda who willfully disregards systemic and appalling bloodshed in a faraway land. A president haunted by the disappointments of recent U.S. interventions (in Clinton's case, Somalia; in Obama's case, Iraq and Afghanistan) who misapplies the "lessons" of this history into paralysis and inaction. A situation where the costs of action initially appear daunting -- until they are weighed against the costs of inaction, which turn out to be even more damaging.
In several ways, however, Obama's passivity on Syria is even worse than Clinton's passivity on Rwanda. First, the Assad regime in Syria also embodies a number of strategic equities that Rwanda did not, including possessing a large stock of chemical weapons, being the main regional ally for Iran, being a state sponsor of terrorism, and now being a breeding ground for jihadists, many of whom harbor hostile intentions toward the United States. Bringing this regime to an end is a fundamental American interest and should be seen as such even by those not moved to moral outrage at the over 70,000 Syrians (and perhaps many more) murdered by their own government. Second, the Rwandan genocide took place over three months -- time enough for the U.S. to have acted, to be sure, but still a relatively narrow window. But the bloodshed in Syria has been occurring for almost two years now. Third, many foreign policy experts in the Democratic party (including many currently serving in the Obama Administration) realize that the president's policy is a failure -- and those not in government are saying so publicly. Or in the case of courageous voices like Anne Marie Slaughter have been saying so for a long time now.
Yet at this point all we get are carefully crafted leaks from the administration on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with skeptical Syrian rebel leaders that consideration is being given to supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, such as body armor. This would have been helpful two years ago when the first peaceful protests began. But it is pathetically insufficient in the face of Assad's Scud missile attacks on civilian populations.
As I and many others have pointed out before, one perverse irony of the Obama administration's neglect of Syria is that now, two years into the war, the costs of action are much higher and the options much fewer. Many of the downside risks that purportedly deterred greater American support for the rebels 18 months ago -- such as sectarian strife, radicalization, regional instability, and resentment towards the United States -- have now come to pass anyway, in part because of American inaction. Yet this does not mean that even at this point nothing can or should be done.
In the crucible of policymaking, officials should ask themselves more often how they will look back on the decisions they made while in power. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in Rwanda. As Obama and the senior members of his national security team consider the memoirs they will inevitably write and the speeches they will invariably give after leaving office, they might reflect now on what they will later say about their greatest regrets. At or near the top of that list will likely be "Syria." So why not do something about it now, before Syria becomes permanently mentioned in historical ignominy alongside Rwanda?
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In 2007, I published a review essay in Foreign Affairs explaining how then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was compensating for Japan's relative economic decline by reducing anachronistic constraints on the Japanese self-defense forces and aligning more closely with other maritime democracies, beginning with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Unfortunately for Japan -- and the shelf life of my piece -- Abe abruptly resigned a few months later after a sudden wave of missteps, political bad luck, and failing health. Over the next five years Japan suffered through multiple leadership transitions, with two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers and three Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prime ministers all stumbling at the starting line because they were unable to make any headway with Japan's stagnant economy. Abe, meanwhile, kept a low profile.
But as China upped the pressure on Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands, the LDP turned to the hawkish former prime minister last year to help them retake the government and restore Japan's self-confidence. Learning from his past errors, Abe has focused his early months on jump-starting the economy through "Abenomics" -- a combination of quantitative easing, stimulus spending, and promises of structural reform to increase productivity. Thus far it has worked: The markets and business confidence are up and Abe is the first prime minister in memory to see his personal support rate actually rise in office (now at 75% in some polls). In an energetic speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, he declared to the audience that "Japan is back."
Abe's return seemed initially to confuse the Obama administration. His values-based, balance of power approach resonated much more with George W. Bush's second inaugural than the minimalist and risk-averse foreign policy vision President Obama has put forth for his second term. The administration also appeared spooked by Abe's intemperate campaign comments about the need to revisit Japan's previous official apologies to China and Korea. Numerous stories emerged before his visit to Washington citing unnamed senior U.S. officials promising to publicly shame Japan if the Abe administration went too far with historical revisionism. The pattern looked eerily reminiscent of what happened between the Obama administration and Bibi Netanyahu in the first term. For its part, the Japanese side was equally uncertain about seeming wobbliness in U.S. declaratory policy on the Senkaku issue since Hillary Clinton's departure and by John Kerry's promise in his confirmation hearings to "grow the rebalance towards Beijing" (it did not help that Chinese official editorials praised Kerry for having the wisdom not to "meddle" in Far Eastern affairs the way his predecessor had).
In the end, though, the Abe-Obama summit on Feb. 22 was a success for both sides. Since coming to office, Abe has moderated his stance on history issues and was firm but gracious towards China and especially South Korea in his CSIS speech. In the Oval Office press availability, President Obama reaffirmed that Japan is the "central foundation" of U.S. security policy toward the Pacific (though he sounded like he was searching for a teleprompter when he said it). The two leaders echoed each other on the need for a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution to deal with North Korea's recent nuclear test and there was little outward sign of frustration over the usual irritants on Okinawa base realignment. Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye. In a skillfully worded joint statement on Japan's possible participation in TPP, the U.S. side reaffirmed its position that all sectors had to be on the table and Abe restated the LDP campaign pledge that Japan would not commit to opening all sectors. That little piece of kabuki now allows Abe to state that he will seek to protect the rice market in negotiations and the administration to claim that all sectors will indeed be subject to negotiation. The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks, slowing down mainly to accommodate the administration's need to line up support on its side (though Abe will have his own challenges within the LDP, to be sure). While the U.S. press was generally confused by the language on TPP, Congressional opponents of free trade knew what the joint statement meant right away, expressing their alarm within hours of the bilateral summit.
Abe has a lot to deliver still, and he knows it. "Abenomics" will run out of steam without real deregulation and reform (hence the Japanese business community and bureaucracy's enthusiasm for TPP as an action-forcing agreement). He also has to win the Upper House election scheduled for July, since failure to control both houses of the Diet has done in every prime minister since Koizumi. But Abe has begun to build up a head of steam. I have sat across the table from the last six Japanese prime ministers, and I always watch the faces of the political aides and senior bureaucrats behind them. I haven't seen such confident expressions since Koizumi was in the job.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Floating policy trial balloons is longstanding Washington custom. Not so common is when that balloon gets blasted out of the sky by the "senior official" leaker's own administration. That's what happened last week when the Boston Globe reported that, "High-level U.S. diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism."
Yet the ink was barely dry on that report before both the White House and State Department utterly repudiated (here and here) any notion that Cuba would soon be de-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
As I have written in this space before, de-listing Cuba has been a long-sought goal of a die-hard cadre of critics of the United States' Cuba policy. Why? Well, it seems that the Castro regime, which was born in terrorist violence, aided and abetted it across four continents over three decades, and whose training camps produced such international luminaries as Carlos the Jackal, is upset that it continues to be listed as a state-sponsor of terrorism. And, what's more, Washington policymakers ought to be vexed by that, because it is an "obstacle" to normalized relations.
It turns out that the Globe report was simple mischief-making by some apparently inconsequential U.S. official, clearly meant to provide succor to the de-listing campaign. As was noted deeper in the story, "U.S. officials emphasized that there has not been a formal assessment concluding that Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list and said serious obstacles remain to a better relationship, especially the imprisonment of [development worker Alan] Gross."
Still, since the subject has been raised, it's worthwhile to examine just what it has taken for other countries to be removed from the state sponsors list. In 2007, Libya was de-listed after Muammar al-Qaddafi terminated his WMD program and renounced terrorism by severing ties with radical groups, closing training camps, and extraditing terrorism suspects. He also accepted responsibility for the Pan Am 103 bombing and paid compensation to the victims.
In 2008, in a controversial decision, the Bush administration de-listed North Korea for progress that was being made on ending the country's nuclear program.
Clearly, removal from the list usually follows some pro-active, game-changing actions by a country. What pro-active measures has Cuba ever adopted? The answer is none. Just being too broke to support terrorism anymore hardly merits any action on the U.S. part.
Moreover, according to the law, before de-listing, an administration must not only certify to Congress that a country has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period, but that it has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
In Cuba's case, even if relevant U.S. agencies can conclude that the Castro regime has not provided material support for a terrorist act in the last six months -- that is, apart from its terrorizing of its own people, which continues apace -- where is the regime's public renouncement of its past support for international terrorism and assurance that it will not support any acts in the future?
Is even that too much to demand? Of course, it is. The Castro regime will not issue any such statement because it doesn't believe it has done anything wrong since 1959. They maintain that they are the victims of U.S. policy and are deserving of all the concessions, without any quid pro quo. The regime can no more renounce terrorism than renounce their totalitarian state -- and that is why they belong on the terrorism list until they give the U.S. government a real reason to be taken off.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms:
"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."
That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:
Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.
All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.
Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.
I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.
Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.